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Writer's Profile
Jo Harris

Specialised Subjects

Education, English Language, International Development, Literature, Psychology, Social Work, Sociology

I have recently completed my Masters in Psychology and Education from Cambridge, specialising in creative interventions in social psychology. Before this I worked among underprivileged children and young people at a prominent non-profit organisation. I have also spent a lot of time volunteering with such organisations and have worked cheifly in training teachers with a focus on risk management and working with children with special needs. I am currently considering continuing with my research before setting up my own centre for vulnerable groups. Subjects that especially interest me include education, psychology, well-being, child and youth care, creativity, resilience, sociology and literature.

“Is Resilience in Adverse Circumstances More Than ‘Ordinary Magic’ (Masten, 2001)?”

1.                 Introduction

 1.1 An intriguing phenomenon

Every week in the Indian slums, approximately 50,000 children are born into lives of poverty, neglect, abuse, violence, poor sanitation and overall deprivation (Union Government, 2011). Most people expect them to fail and crumble under the pressure of these adverse circumstances. Yet, every year a handful of these very children defy expectations by sticking with their education, refusing to join violent gangs and work hard to move beyond their life in the slums. If you walk through the narrow alleys there, you can hear snippets about those few who “made it out”. Every child raised here grows up listening to these stories, with a dream that, they will follow suit. The unfortunate reality is that continued neglect and deprivation take their toll and most of them spend their whole lives in the slums they despise. Research through the years has shown that exposure to threats like bereavement, mentally ill parents and poverty make people more vulnerable to poor adjustments with consequences like depression, delinquency and drug abuse (Luthar, 2003). However, research also shows that despite exposure to the biggest threats, some individuals manage to develop well (Garmezy 1974; Masten & Tellegen, 2012). What makes those select few so different from the others who grow up with them? Why do they persevere while others give up? What really captures our attention in findings like those, and raises questions like these, is the ‘resilience’ some people show by developing well even in the face of difficulties, and the hope it gives us.

1.2 Significance of psychological engagement with resilience

Psychologists, in their quest to understand the workings of the human mind, have taken this surface intrigue further, trying to delve deeper into the reason for these occurrences. What makes one person more likely to survive the direst of circumstances over another? Is it because they possess a specific gene, is it evidence of something different in their environment, or is there a system that explains it? Such questions have resulted in interesting debates about the nature and causes of resilience. However, the true significance of research in resilience lies in the implications for practitioners across domains like social policy, health and well-being, to help people who are deprived to adjust well (Schoon, 2006; Windle, 2011). In education for instance, understanding resilience can make educators more sensitive to the needs of children who are exposed to environmental threats like abuse, violence and poverty.

1.3. Overview of the essay

In this essay, I aim to look at some prominent understandings of resilience, with an on-going focus on Masten’s (2001) ideas. Before we can critically engage with these ideas, we need to look at other analyses of the concept and its complexities. We will continue to examine how this feeds into research practice with a focus on either variables or people, and insight different approaches offer. Against this background, we will be better equipped to critically appreciate Masten’s take on resilience. Having identified some gaps in her overview, we examine how developmental approaches and neuroscience contributions can be seen in relation with Masten’s ideas. Finally, we will review some researches to understand the practical implications of these theoretical frameworks.

2.                 Masten’s (2001) notion of resilience as ‘ordinary magic’

 2.1. Responding to notions of resilience as an extraordinary trait

Masten’s (2001) views come from a response to initial studies that associated resilient individuals with tags like ‘invincible’, ‘invulnerable’ and even ‘super kids’ (Masten, 2001). The underlying assumptions here were that resilient children had something extraordinary which enabled them to rise above circumstances that ordinary children would crumble under. One of the researches in that context was Werner and Smith’s (1992) longitudinal study of Hawaiian children, born in 1955 on the island of Kauai. They identified environmental factors including small families, large age difference among siblings, availability of caregivers (other than the mother) and the employment status of the mother, as determinants of resilience. More importantly, they looked at specific qualities which the individuals showed, like good health, relative autonomy, good sensorimotor-language development and pro-social behaviour (Bronfenbrenner, 2005; Werner & Smith, 1982). What is interesting is that Werner and Smith referred to these resilient children as ‘Vulnerable but Invincible’; and this label reveals the assumptions that Masten (2001) stands against.

 2.2. Resilience as basic human adaptation

Masten (2001) strongly advocates that resilience is a result of human adaptive systems which everyone possesses. According to her, accepting claims that resilience is extraordinary implies that normal human adaptation lacks the capacity to help us cope with difficult circumstances. Resilience to her is not something rare to marvel at, but rather something ordinary to expect. If an individual’s adaptive systems are functioning well, that person will be resilient in the face of risk. The real threat is when these systems are damaged by adversity. Masten does agree that there may be exceptional factors like individual talents and favourable circumstances that influence a person’s resilience, but sticks to the belief that it is primarily a result of these inbuilt adaptive systems. As we proceed in examining the complexities in resilience, we will refer to Masten’s ideas in greater detail. 

3.                 Resilience: an analysis of the concept 

Looking at the very nature of resilience, it is easy to see why psychologists have been very interested in understanding the various processes, traits and interactions that it involves. Though there have been various definitions of the term, resilience is generally understood as “patterns of positive adaptation in the context of significant risk or adversity” (Luthar, 2003, p. 4). Windle (2011) defines it as, “the process of effectively negotiating, adapting to, or managing significant sources of stress or trauma” (p.152). Rutter (2012) emphasises the ‘interactive’ nature of resilience, defining it as “reduced vulnerability to environmental risk experiences, the overcoming of a stress or adversity, or a relatively good outcome despite risk experiences” (Rutter, 2012, p. 336). Though there are variations in definitions, there are two aspects of resilience that most agree on. The first is an exposure to risk and the second is good outcomes or adaptation despite the threats posed by these adverse circumstances. Though there is general consensus on these factors, research indicates that resilience is far from being a simple construct; and as we proceed, we will explore some of the complexities involved in understanding this concept.

4.                 Understanding the complexities in the concept

4.1. Positive outcomes

First, is the aspect of positive outcomes, good adjustment to expected norms or, what Masten and Powell (2003) call ‘positive adaptation’ (Luthar, 2003, p. 4). The issue lies in defining these outcomes, which occur over a number of domains including emotional, psychological, behavioural and academic realms (Schoon, 2006); and are also subject to cultural and contextual norms. Bronfenbrenner (2005) speaks of competence as the ‘mastery of culturally defined, familiar activities in everyday life’ (Bronfenbrenner, 2005, p. 123). He refers to Vygotsky’s (1929) idea that every individual’s level of cognitive competence is influenced by cultural experiences and expectations. While there are aspects of development bound by biological determinants, equally important are culture-defined ways of thought and behaviour (Bronfenbrenner, 2005). For instance, in the case of the Indian slums, getting a college degree and a job which supports a life outside the slum is considered a definite positive outcome. However, for someone growing up in relative economic stability, but exposed to domestic violence, emotional well-being alone might be crucial. Hence, while analysing resilience, it is important to account for such contextual differences rather than assuming a universal definition for these good outcomes.

4.2. Exposure to Adversity

Most definitions of resilience specify that, to be considered ‘resilient’ an individual should show adjustment in the face of adversity. Here we have the second aspect of the term – exposure to risk factors that challenge a person’s normal, positive functioning. These could include war, poverty, violence, abuse and even mental illness (Masten, 2001). In reality, exposure to such threats cannot be considered in isolation, but must be examined in confluence with other determinants like the level of exposure and the subjective meanings attached while reporting risk (Schoon, 2006).

Masten (2001) speaks of the need to look at these risk factors as existing on one end of a spectrum, where the opposite end represents assets and consequently, both ends have contrasting effects. For instance, at one end is good parenting which results in better adjustment while on the other extremity lies poor parenting which brings with it psychological damage caused by abuse, lack of support, neglect and even domestic violence. She talks about risks and assets as being interrelated, where poor parenting means living in a rough neighbourhood, getting a bad education and lacking basic necessities, which produce cumulative negative outcomes.

Masten (2001) seems to classify all risk factors as threatening and damaging to adaptive systems. However, recent studies have shown that all exposure to risk is not negative. Rutter (2012), refers to tests done by Lyons et al. (2010) on rats and squirrel monkeys that showed how exposure to limited stress produced beneficial effects, and only prolonged exposure to stressful events caused harmful effects. Though there is a lack of strong evidence linking similar effects in building human resilience, Rutter (2012) mentions a longitudinal study done by Elder (1974) among children of the great depression, to assess the influence of economic crisis across two generations. Elder found that adolescents were able to adjust better to the changes than children, and suggested that this was because the former had been exposed to more risks  before and hence knew how to cope better (Elder, 1999). Here, Rutter speaks of how risk can either; strengthen a person’s response to future exposure, or increase one’s vulnerability to the harmful effects of risk. Masten doesn’t seem to account for risk exposure as having such adaptive functions in her initial papers, but in recent ones she speaks of prior experiences of risk as having an ‘innoculation’ or ‘sensitization’ effect (Masten & Narayan, 2012, p. 242). The idea here is that exposure to limited doses of stress helps people adapt better if they are exposed to bigger threats in the future- thus inoculating or, protecting their adaptive systems. Rutter (2012) describes these possibilities as ‘steeling’ or ‘strengthening’ (p.337). There is also the possibility that initial exposure makes a person weaker and more sensitive to other future threats. The main question here is how and when stress serves either purpose; and what determines the effect prior exposure has on later development?

5.     Approaches in resilience research: Variables and persons

With the rising body of research in resilience, there has been a need to categorise the approaches used in various analyses. It is interesting how the methods adopted to understand a concept often influence what the results highlight.

5.1. Variable focused

Variable focused approaches, like the term suggests, focus on multivariate relations and connections between, protective factors and the consequent outcomes (Windle, 2011). Studies have found that conditions like effective parenting, high intellectual abilities and cognitive skills can moderate the negative effects of risk factors. A good example is Laub, Nagin, & Sampson’s (1998) analyses of longitudinal data collected by the Gluecks, of institutionalised delinquent boys. They examined the effects of variables like marriage and military service in determining positive outcomes. Along with revealing positive correlations between the examined variables; the study also showed the importance of examining other aspects of the context which we will discuss further in later sections.

Windle (2011) categorises variable focused approaches into three buckets-

  1. Compensatory models focus on the effects that specific risk factors and resources have on developmental outcomes.
  2. Protective models look at variables that stabilise or moderate the effects of risks.
  3. Challenge models examine how differing levels of exposure to risk result in different outcomes. For instance, high exposure causes negative outcomes and moderate exposure results in better outcomes.

Such approaches yield valuable information about specific factors that protect and promote the functioning of the human adaptive systems despite challenging circumstances. They can isolate indicators of resilience, to yield measures like the cross-cultural Child and Youth Resilience Measure (CYRM-28) (Ungar & Liebenberg, 2011).

5.2. Person focused

Person focused approaches look at individuals as a whole, in their natural setting; yielding the most accurate account of how patterns exist. They look at reality as it is, without isolating variables. The difficulty here is in generalising findings, since each case has unique contexts. Also, it is difficult in such studies to isolate the causes of specific outcomes (Masten, 2001).

Person focused approaches began with identifying a sample exposed to similar levels of risk and then within this group, distinguishing two sub-groups, one showing resilient responses and another displaying maladaptive trends. However, with the urge to understand resilient trends better, four groups were identified, based on level of risk exposure and adaptive traits. At one end were two groups who had experienced significant stress while the other two had not. Within each category, was one group that adapted well while the other did not. Though theoretically this grouping seemed ideal; in practice, the group with maladaptive trends, despite low risk exposure, lacked sufficient representation and was abandoned. This left researchers with the other three groups (Masten, 2001). In Project Competence, the researchers identified three similar groups; those who were competent but had not experienced significant risk, those who were resilient despite exposure to adversity and those with maladaptive patterns after adversity. Despite individual differences, the groups with positive outcomes showed common advantages like good cognitive and social skills, high levels of self-worth, socio-economic resources and the presence of supportive adults in their environment. In contrast, the third group displayed high levels of neuroticism as children, low IQ scores and conflicts in social interactions. They also found changes in individuals’ levels of resilience with time, with some in the cohort shifting from the maladaptive group into the competent one as they transitioned to adulthood (Masten & Tellegen, 2012).

5.3. Supporting the ordinariness of resilience

Masten (2001) observes that similar to these findings, often studies showed that there was not much difference between the two well adapted groups. Connecting this to her ideas of resilience she notes that this is where the ordinariness of the phenomenon exists, since resilience is not something that only individuals exposed to extreme adversity display. Rather, it is simple adaptation which all humans show when certain adaptive systems are unharmed. Masten (2001) views commonalities between both competent groups like good parenting, high self-esteem, and high IQ scores, as resources that protect and promote the functioning of basic adaptive systems, and ensure that the individuals display competence irrespective of exposure to adversity.

5.4. Overview of the two approaches

Variable focused approaches tend to start with a specific hypothesis, aiming to find correlations between specific risks, resources and outcomes. However, person focused approaches look at people in their contexts and then explore what makes some more resilient than others. The variables that are uncovered are not pre-determined and the research tends to be more exploratory. Clearly, both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses and reveal different aspects of resilience. Often, researchers use combinational methods to get a holistic understanding from the data collected. In Project Competence for instance, Garmezy, Masten and Tellegen (1984) used variable focused models to analyse the effects of specific factors alongside person focused case studies that researched individuals that displayed similarities in levels of competence or maladaptation (Masten & Tellegen, 2012). Similarly, Schoon’s (2006) longitudinal study focuses on the variable of academic achievement but also considers behavioural, psychological and physical adjustments placing individuals in changing socio-historical contexts.