Resiliency: The New Paradigm

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By: Dr. Kumar Raka, Editor-ICN Group

VIJAYWADA: The power of words cannot be underestimated. They constitute the tools that frame the reality of the human life. In a certain way, the moment a thought emerges out of a person in the form of words, it becomes real. Today, scientists strive to explain reality by measuring, describing, analyzing, comparing, and defining. However, the fact that they do not define yet a phenomenon does not invalidate its existence. On the contrary, their work provides a systematic understanding of our world and – when used in the best interest – enables man to use that knowledge to improve our quality of life.

Such is the case with the concept of ‘Resilience’. Although finding its roots in Latin language and developing into a construct applied in a wide variety of sciences for the last four decades, the phenomenon has characterized populations since the beginning of the history of humankind itself. What we now articulate as resilience has been built up since ages in illiterate, traditional, tribal communities and societies and has been instrumental in the progressive development of societies in spite of every adversity, such as catastrophes, epidemics and wars. Even ‘lower’ forms of life attest to its existence long before the modern world coined the term.


Humanity has survived and thrived with the ‘capacity to recover quickly’, – as the Oxford dictionary defines ‘resilience’– in the face of misfortunes. There is a general recognition that resilience is not necessarily a new conceptualization. Rather, it is a recently-developed term that already existed as a learning process and passed on through generations. The concept has emerged as a new phenomenon in last four-five decades and has acquired a major attraction amongst scholars of various disciplines due to the inherent meaning, to “bounce back” (Southwick et al., 2014). Derived from Latin word resilio, it was primarily mentioned in Ecology. This ‘bounce back’ (Manyena, 2006; Norris et al, 2008; Paton& Johnston, 2006) gradually became ‘bounce back against all odds’ in psycho-social studies, a few steps ahead to mere survival, a major concern for humanity. Resilience is a positive, progressive, never loosing construct that rightly deserves its place in humanitarian and developmental studies most importantly in Emergency & Disaster Management.

Initially, mental health professionals endeavored to find the faults in children with developmental problems arising from traumatic experiences (Hawkridge & Kraus, 2012). Then research veered to comparing groups of individuals who fared well in the face of adversity against others who floundered. Their findings shifted the emphasis away from deficit-focused orientations toward models centered on positive aims, promotive and protective factors, and adaptive capacities. Under this framework flourished the description of processes that enable individuals to achieve positive developmental outcomes despite exposure to known threats to adaptation. Soon, it became increasingly evident the pivotal influence of the individual’s interaction with other people and the environment, until the definition included this ‘collectivity’ as necessary for a person to be considered resilient. Gradually, the horizon of resilience broadened to groups, communities, institutions, societies and nation at large. The moment it was applied to catastrophic events, there was a realization that the disequilibrium in the social structure reduces communities’ capacity to withstand shock sand stresses i.e., resilience.

Since the surge of this paradigm, the world has resolved to commit all resources and efforts to strengthen institutions, create new technologies and infrastructure, as well as improve current systems pursuing to develop societies who are equipped to successfully overcome any hazard and preserve its functionality and structure. However, the ambition to become a ‘resilient community’ is deriving in an over-emphasis on technology and material resources, neglecting the vitality of the so-called social capital, the very individuals who comprise the society intended to empower in the first place.


Alexander (2013) has widened the debate on the origins of resilience. He reasons that although many students involved in the study of the robustness of people, objects and systems believe that the term resilience was coined by Holling (1973) in his landmark paper on Systems Ecology in 1973, the concept of resilience is not new. Rather, it has had a long ‘etymological journey’ that dates back to at least the fourth century with its meaning strongly perpetuated in proverbs of St. Jerome (AD347– 420) (Alexander 2013). Yet, far too little attention has been given to examine the resilience of traditional institutions that could potentially increase our understanding of resilience to disasters.

Manyena (2006) provides a dozen definitions of resilience, Bahadur et al. (2013) outlines 16 conceptualizations of resilience and Brand and Jax (2007) outline 10. Using the Hyogo Framework for Action as a guide, Twigg (2007) outlines 167 characteristics of resilient communities. In an extensive survey of literature between the period 1998-2015, we have found 72 different definitions of resilience.

In the present paper, only a few best definitions have been selected and discussed to establish the importance of ‘Resiliency’ in context of ‘The New Paradigm’; as a central, increasingly & widely recognized construct specifically in terms of the mental health perspective shifting towards emergency, disaster and catastrophe management gaining international attention as a revolutionary tool to bounce back against all odds and lead a normal life.

Evolution of the Construct

In mental health, the concept of resilience was mentioned in groundbreaking research by psychologists in late 70s. From the outset, resilience research pioneers, such as Norman Garmezy, Lois Murphy, Michael Rutter, and Emmy Werner, sought to inform practice by understanding the processes by which individuals achieve positive developmental outcomes despite exposure to known threats to adaptation. Suzanne Kobasa (1979) developed the Hardiness Model, based on Three Cs (i) Commitment (ii) Challenge and (iii) Control; to explain a person’s ability to cope with severe stress (Kobasa et al. 1981, 1982a, 1982b). Aaron Antonovsky established Salutogenic Model, ‘Sense of Coherence’, in 1979 based on ideas of (i) Understanding (ii) Meaning and (iii) Amenability. The model was a success as was developed based on historical observations to correspond to psychological trauma and response to the stress (Antonovsky, 1979, 1987, 1990). Albert Bandura broadens our understanding of the human psyche and had a significant influence in positive psychology. In fact his theory of self-efficacy, part of social cognitive theory, is fundamental to positive psychology and continues to shape thinking in the field. Throughout his writing, Bandura critiques the predominantly negative, pathology-focused views in the discipline of psychology, contrasting it to positive psychology’s pro self-efficacy approach. He also addresses the “pathology of optimism”, as compared to realism when effectively approaching life events; very closely related to ‘factual resiliency’. Experiencing failure is important so that we can build resilience to it. This is done by treating every failure as a learning opportunity and a chance to reach competence with a different approach (Bandura, 1994 & 2008).

Today, the Resilience Research Centre has framed an accurate definition of the term, which says “In the context of exposure to significant adversity, resilience is both the capacity of individuals to navigate their way to the psychological, social, cultural, and physical resources that sustain their well-being, and their capacity individually and collectively to negotiate for these resources to be provided in culturally meaningful ways”. However, this is more individualistic oriented definition, wherein paradigm shift directs to move towards collectivity, the community, the society and the nation at large.

Resilience research initially focused only on the behavior of individuals, but contemporary models of resilience encompass multiple levels of function and acknowledge the interdependence of interacting systems, ranging from molecular to societal levels of analysis across individuals, families, peer groups, schools, communities, governments, and cultures. The concepts of resilience have been applied to different academic domains such as environmental science, social–ecological systems, engineering and disaster prevention, medical health and neuroscience, safety science, economic and organizational behavior, and water resources management. Resilience has been progressed as a scientific discipline supported by multidisciplinary knowledge.

Although Disaster and Emergency Management in itself is relatively a new discipline, its psycho-social aspect has considered, opted and adopted the factual significance of ‘resilience’ to be imbibed amongst individuals, communities and societies alike with a new meaning to ‘Bounce Forward’ (Manyena, 2011). After the adoption of the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) in 2005, which sought to enhance resilience to disasters, several competing notions and definitions of resilience have flourished. Of all the definitions of resilience, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) notion of resilience tends to be all-encompassing as it views resilience as “the capacity of a system, community or society potentially exposed to hazards to adapt through resistance or change to reach and maintain an acceptable level of functioning and structure” (UNISDR, 2005). The UNISDR definition of resilience assumes that resilient communities have the capacity to ‘bounce forward’ (Manyena, 1998, 2011) and move on following a disaster.

Significantly in HFA successor, Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) 2015, “the concept of resilience can be seen to have shifted from merely referring to the ability of individuals, communities and systems to be ‘resistant’ to shocks and stresses brought about by natural hazards towards a view of becoming ‘adaptive’ to such disturbances. The global sustainable development community in general has also placed added importance to resilience across many sectors as demonstrated by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2017. The SDG highlight development priorities over the next fifteen years, from 2015–2030 which have integrated the resilience concept across many of the seventeen goals. Throughout the goals and sub-indicators, the term ‘resilience’ or ‘resilient’ is referred ten times across seven goals.

Each year, new definitions are being proposed, and more elaborate explanations of the processes underlying resilience arise within very specialized domains. There is a trend to focus on the particular. However, there is an increasing call to be more general and strive to establish a universal concept and universal tools for resilience.

From Environmental Determinism to Social Constructionism

The ability of an individual, a community, a neighbourhood, an institution or a system to cope positively with rapid-onset shocks or significant and protracted sources of stress, generally externally imposed debilitating factors such as natural and human-made disasters, conflict, poverty, resource scarcity, environmental degradation, drought and disease (Norris et al., 2008; Holling, 1973; Aldrich, 2012; Adger, 2005). Thus, the resilience paradigm shifts disaster causation from environmental determinism to social constructionism as disasters are not solely caused by hazards but rather are a manifestation of the disequilibrium in the social structure, which reduces communities’ capacity to withstand shocks and stresses (Middleton & O’Keefe, 1998). Also, social capital is increasingly recognized as an important component in resilience building (Adger 2000; Adger et al. 2002; Pelling & High 2005; Wolf et al. 2010; Scheffran et al. 2012) that has started a proactive step in emergency mental health.

Individualistic towards Communal Approach

Historically, there has been less recognition or understanding the effects of disasters or catastrophe at the community levels. Less is known about appropriate interventions at collective levels. The need to go beyond the individual to the family, group, village, community and social levels is being increasingly recognized if we are to more fully understand what is going on in the individual, whether it be his/her development, behaviour, perceptions, consciousness, experiences or responses to stress and trauma as well as design effective interventions to help in the recovery and rehabilitation of not only the affected individuals but also their families and community (Harvey, 1996; Macy et al., 2004; Hoshmand, 2007; Landau & Saul, 2004).

Another step towards individual to communal approach vis-a-vis resiliency in terms of mental health is evident in the treatment of ASR, ASD & PTSD; wherein, treatment of ASR has been relatively successful in many of the cases; but there are differences in view of scholars with regards to rate of treatment success of ASD & PTSD (both are individualistic in nature). Although, PTSD has been one of the successful western construct but has been doubtful in non-western societies. The World Health Report 2001, while pointing out that there is considerable mental morbidity among those exposed to severe trauma, warns that there is controversy regarding the cross cultural validity of PTSD (WHO 2001). It has been argued that PTSD is a western construct and does not apply to non-western societies (Bracken et al. 1995). This is also one of the important reasons to shift focus on building resilient communities and societies by the UN organizations and international socio-psychological community because of in the case of large scale emergencies and disasters where number of causalities are overwhelming, it is very difficult to provide the required mental health and trauma support system.

A socio-cultural, economic construct

Apart from the leadership, Government and institutional mechanism there are many socio-cultural constructs that affect the degree of resiliency in any society. Social capital (various kinds of valued relations with significant others), religious orientations, economic capital (command over economic resources), cultural capital (personal dispositions and habits; knowledge and tradition stored in material forms and institutionalized) and symbolic capital (honour, recognition and prestige) are some of the important constructs. To analyze the influence of these constructs over resiliency, we can compare two societies after continuous disasters hit Haiti and Dominican Republic, two neighboring countries.

Violent tropical storms hit Haiti with scandalous frequency, ruining lives and forcing the country into repeated rebuilding efforts. In 2004, Hurricane Jeanne killed 3,000 people, mostly in Gonaives, while in 2008; four consecutive storms killed hundreds more across the country. Hurricane Matthew in late 2016 smashed through southern Haiti, killing hundreds and leaving 200,000 homeless. The 2010 earthquakes devastated the capital, Port-au-Prince, killing over 200,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands more without homes or jobs. Haiti have shown little resilience (Stang, 2017).

“While Haiti shares an island with the Dominican Republic, the same storms affect the two countries in very different ways. With a functioning government, growing economy, and relatively vibrant civil society, the Dominican Republic has been able to invest far more in the necessary capacities to protect against, and recover from, natural disasters and other crises. Haiti, on the other hand, has a weak government, a subsistence economy, and a national trust deficit that undermines efforts to improve the country’s economic and political prospects.” (Stang, 2017).

Resilience of Japanese society is also remarkable. Indeed, as the sea reared up to ravage the country’s coast on March 11, 2011, more than 90% of the population in the affected areas had already fled to safety. The civilian training that accompanied the systems was followed by most of the affected population. Citizens were prepared and acted quickly upon receiving notice of the quake. In the aftermath, When the dead were examined many were wearing numerous layers of clothing as is recommended when heading for higher elevations. They also had their emergency packs strapped to their bodies containing food and other essentials. The remarkable calm and coordinated response efforts in the aftermath were evident how deeply the resilience is rooted in Japanese people and society. Individuals, communities and at large the whole society shown order in the face of chaos; compassion in the face of devastation; generosity in the face of loss.

Top-down & Bottom-up Approaches

Israeli society is considered quite resilient, based mostly on its experience of disruption throughout the years of conflict with its neighbors, as well as the long history of persecution of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. Several studies have confirmed this impression, including a study of the rate of Israeli societal resilience in the period of the Second Intifada. Several specific programs have been carried out in many Israeli communities since the early 1980s. They are designed to enhance the capacity of the population to stand up to terrorist attacks and to keep up, as much as possible the functional continuity of community life. Many of the programs were centered around three main themes: empowerment of local leadership; enhancement of local services to the public; and upgrading the personal life skills of elementary school students to help them function as normally as possible in a crisis. Evaluations have shown the programs to have a mostly positive outcome of the communities’ resilience and conduct in ensuing emergencies. The societal resiliency in Israeli society is an example of top-down approach. (Elran, 2013)

The bottom-up approach of resiliency is evident in Bangladesh where the government in association with the World Food Programme and also community based organisations is implementing the Enhancing Resilience (ER) programme across 43 disaster and poverty-prone sub-districts amongst communities along the southern coastal belt and north western flood plains. In 2012 the programme provided 82,000 ultra-poor women and men with employment opportunities, benefiting 410,000 household members. The local planning process involves community members in a participatory bottom-up approach that identifies community needs and solutions. Bottom-up approaches that emphasise participation by the local community, including in goal setting and the means of achieving goals, creates community ownership and commitment and adds accountability to development initiatives. (Hunger, Nutrition, Climate Justice, 2013)

Resiliency can be learnt

Resiliency is a trait that is developed no one is born resilient. Each individual can build up their resiliency in their everyday lives over time. Resiliency can be learned, acquired, and honed through conscious decisions to observe and practice. It is all about learning how to arrest the attitudes, behaviors, and responses that lead to bounce back against all odds and succeed, even when it seems like it is too far off. In December 2015 the New York Time Magazine called “The Profound Emptiness of ‘Resilience.’ Wherein; it concluded that decades of research have revealed a lot about how it works. This research shows that resilience is, ultimately, a set of skills that can be taught.

Summary & Insights

The progressive evolution of the resilience concept also led to its incorporation into almost every academic domain. On one hand, it has become an important research theme and even a common ground for interdisciplinary collaboration. However, it has also lead to a great disparity of definitions and approaches between scientific domains. Additionally, of the more than 6000 articles published on the subject since the 80s, three-fourths of all research has been produced by five developed countries: USA, UK, Australia, Canada, and Germany (Xue, Wang, & Yang, 2018). As a result, resilience researchers have focused on outcomes that are western-based with an emphasis on individual and relational factors typical of mainstream populations, and their definitions of healthy functioning lack sensitivity to community and cultural factors that contextualize how resilience is defined by different populations and manifested in everyday life.

The contemporary trend on building resilient communities and societies by the government, international organizations and scientists creates the need to assess them in order to develop the necessary adjustments in the hope that the next traumatic event may render better outcomes for the affected population. However, most efforts of building resilient communities have been directed towards urban settings, and the main strategy aims to incorporate the best technology in infrastructure to minimize risks from threats. Accordingly, most of the assessment tools are tailored for urban settings and measure aspects inherent to the environment or institutions. Scientists are encouraging the production of a ‘universal’ tool for developing and measuring resilience. Unfortunately, none of these initiatives pursues to understand the psychological and behavioral traits and processes of communities that give rise to resilience. The evidence reveals that strong political and economic motives are the steering wheel of the investment of resources. The world might see a successful development of better infrastructure and government contingency plans, but at the cost of the individuals’ mental well-being decline. When research disregards the very ones who constitute the core of society, failure befalls sooner or later. In terms of what is happening globally to build resilience in disasters, there is an increasing recognition that most countries even lack the resources to provide the needed psychosocial services.

No two communities will ever experience a traumatic or catastrophic event in the same way because of the economic, social, cultural and psychological differences. Efforts should be focused on developing strategies tailored to the needs of each community, taking into account the community/ society specific contexts.

Culture comprises a set of values, beliefs, and everyday practices that are transmitted between individuals and reinforced through social discourse. Embedded in culture are expectations regarding appropriate ways to cope with adversity that influence environment –individual interactions (Ungar, 2013). Cultural variations tend to be most invisible when we make assumptions of homogeneity based on biased experimentation with populations that do not experience the same adversity as those upon which the theory of resilience is imposed. Very few studies exist of people with disabilities, native tribes, rural populations, nonwestern democracies, or illiterate people. Researchers seldom import the benchmarks of healthy development from those with a minority voice in the research literature even when they represent numerical majorities internationally. However, it must also be considered how much ethno-racial minorities are a part of the dominant culture in assessing the influence of cultural norms and practices.

It is interesting to examine the characteristics of communities who can be deemed as resilient. Most of them do not possess the best technology, or have very developed infrastructure, and some of them even are illiterate. They lack all the resources that developed countries are currently investing in upgrading their ‘resiliency’. None of them is conducting thorough research to understand the factors and processes that may enhance their ability to cope with adversity. Nevertheless, it is true that many of them suffer of many limitations, needs, and/or conflicts. Their quality of life is not the best in terms of material goods, public safety, or even health standards. However, they have managed to survive through hardships. Some of them–like the Sentinelese uncontacted tribes in India, – have survived after catastrophic events that devastated other communities with better infrastructure and more resources. Pondering over this reality prompts to question the relevance of current research tendencies and prospective initiatives. Could it be that the majority of resources and efforts are being allocated in the wrong place?

Resilience as a process is not the same as the suppression of symptoms associated with mental disorder that follow exposure to trauma. Mental Health professionals would experience a breakthrough in their practice if they conducted a thorough research on the mechanisms that protect against the impact of trauma showing contextual and cultural specificity. Traumatic events take place around the globe, shattering all kinds of groups and societies, rich and poor, white or black, modern or tribal, educated or illiterate. In conjunction with the increasing rate of man-made disasters, the world is demanding more effective approaches to psychological assistance. The overly greater proportion of mental health casualties over physical injuries stands in need for a greater understanding of the processes and mechanisms that enable communities to adequately cope with adversities in order to deliver higher-quality services that prevent entire societies of suffering permanent psychological consequences and turning this earth into a grimmer habitation for mankind.


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