Centre for Research on Families and Relationships

Resilience – continuing the conversation

by Emma Davidson and Eric Carlin


Dr Emma Davidson is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in Sociology, based at the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships. Her ongoing research is exploring the social and community role of public libraries in Scotland.

Dr Eric Carlin is a Teaching Fellow in the Usher Institute of Population Health Sciences and Informatics and is the Director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) based at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.


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Emma Davidson and Eric Carlin reflect on their recent CRFR Informal Seminar

It’s not a surprise that our seminar, ‘The Troubling Concept of Resilience’, received such interest. In recent years, fostering resilience has become a central dimension not only of early years, education and youth policy, but wider social policy and practice. The concept has, arguably, come from a sensible place: research that has sought to understand why, and in what circumstances, some individuals respond positively to adversity, and others do not. Our wariness, possibly scepticism, is about how resilience has been endorsed and appropriated by the state, distorting the policy focus away from the need for structural changes to reduce entrenched long-term and complex inequalities across populations and instead focussing on ‘steeling’ young people to bounce back from adversities that are assumed to be unavoidable.

As we highlighted at the seminar, criticism of resilience projects has focused on their prioritisation of understanding and influencing individual behaviours, reducing risk factors for individuals and, in turn, neglecting social and structural explanations failure. Resilience based interventions are evolving, and a body of work is adopting a socio-ecological model which takes account of cultural contexts (see Hart et al 2016 or Ungar, M 2008). However, the psychoanalytical tradition from which resilience has developed dominates, with its focus on psychological dispositions and personality traits of individuals as ‘protective factors’. We are also troubled that our understandings of resilience are, to a great extent, being ‘imported’ from other social and cultural contexts, and we note the growth of a commercial industry of facilitators, consultants and trainers to support the policy drift towards resilience.

Of course, we are not suggesting that work on young people’s self-esteem, confidence and mental well-being is not important. However, we would argue that there is a need to stop and reflect – to think critically about how we are defining and operationalising resilience; to examine the evidence on resilience within our local contexts; to consider whether resilience is the outcome desired for your project; and to campaign for effective policies that can reduce unnecessary disadvantages.

Our final question is a bigger one – and that is whether the resilience framework is actually fit for purpose? Can a resilience framework transform fundamental inequalities marginalising young people, such as inequity in the education system, access to housing and welfare and precarious employment? Is this focus on ‘steeling’ young people – making them stronger and more resistant to adversity, and personally responsible for ‘success’ or ‘failure’ – socially just? This question is all the more potent in a climate of austerity, where many adversities facing young people cannot be considered a consequence of their own deficits.

These are questions, and conversations, we would like to continue. Follow this blog for ongoing debate and an announcement about a future seminar to continue the discussions.


Hart, A. et al. (2016) ‘Uniting Resilience Research and Practice With an Inequalities Approach’ SAGE Open, 6(4): 1-13.

Ungar, M. (2008) ‘Resilience across Cultures’, The British Journal of Social Work, 38(2):218–235.