Resilience: a multidimensional, socially constructed concept

While the concept of resilience elaborated in the discipline of psychology helps clarify the internal factors and personal characteristics of trait-resilient people, the notion of resilience which takes into account the social and cultural contexts of individuals’ work and lives advances a perspective that views resilience as multidimensional and is best understood as a dynamic within a social system of interrelationships (Walsh 1998; also Richardson et al. 1990; Benard 1991, 1995; Gordon 1995; Luthar et al. 2000; Henderson and Milstein 2003).

Thus, we may all be born with a biological or early life experience basis for resilient capacity, ‘by which we are able to develop social competence, problem-solving skills, a critical consciousness, autonomy, and a sense of purpose’ (Benard 1995: 1). However, the capacity to be resilient in different negative circumstances, whether or not these are connected to personal or professional factors, can be enhanced or inhibited by the nature of the settings in which we work, the people with whom we work and the strength of our beliefs or aspirations (Bernard

1991; Luthar 1996; Henderson and Milstein 2003; Oswald et al. 2003, Day et al. 2006).

Luthar (1996) distinguishes between ego-resiliency and resilience, which also calls attention to the dynamic and multi-dimensional nature of resilient qualities. She argues that the former is a personality characteristic of the individual and does not presuppose exposure to substantial adversity whereas the latter is a dynamic developmental process and does presuppose exposure to significantly negative conditions (see also Luthar et al. 2000). This distinction implies that resilient qualities can be learned or acquired (Higgins 1994) and achieved through providing relevant and practical protective factors, such as caring and attentive educational settings, positive and high expectations, positive learning environments, a strong supportive social community, and supportive peer relationships (Glasser 1965; Rutter et al. 1979; Werner and Smith 1988; Bernard 1991, 1995; Wang 1997; Johnson et al. 1999; Oswald et al. 2003). In accordance with this distinction, Masten (1994) cautions against the use of “resiliency” which carries the misleading connotation of a discrete personality trait, recommending that “resilience” be used “exclusively when referring to the maintenance of positive adjustment under challenging life conditions” (Cited in Luthar et al. 2000: 546).

Thus, there is a considerable body of research in which resilience is acknowledged to be a relative, multidimensional and developmental construct (Rutter 1990; Howard et al. 1999; Luthar et al. 2000). It is a phenomenon which is influenced by individual circumstance, situation and environment and thus involves far more complex components than specific personal accounts of internal traits or assets alone claim. It is not a static state because ‘there is no question that all individuals— resilient or otherwise—show fluctuations over time within particular adjustment domains’ (Luthar et al. 2000: 551). The nature and extent of resilience is best understood, then, as a dynamic within a social system of interrelationships (Benard 1995; Luthar et al. 2000). This is particularly relevant to understandings of resilience among adults over their work and life span.

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