Theory Bites

The Risk and Resilience of Risk and Resilience

This weekend, I read several papers by Ann Masten and colleagues (see references below) on the topic of Risk and Resilience. Risk is defined as anything which endangers positive and healthy development–trauma, war, violence, abuse, and so forth. Resilience is the “ordinary magic” that helps “people overcome risk or adversity to succeed in life” (Masten, 2009). What’s great about a framework of risk and resilience is that it believes resilience is everywhere, that it is positive, and that it comes from relationships. I especially love the way that it offers actions everyone can take to promote resiliency. It has a wealth of research behind it that also offers a broad range of possible interventions to those who care about fostering resilience.

However, as I tweeted last night, I’m worried about the frame of risk and resilience:

I come from a different worldview than the risk and resilience folks. I tend to believe in the project of Deleuze and Guattari, as well as that of narrative therapy and practice: there are no broken people, there are only broken frames. What I mean by that is that we create ways of viewing people as broken. The entire medical system of psychological diagnosis does this with the so-called field of mental health. I view this more as a field of psychological dis-orders. If you break the word down, dis-order has a pretty clear meaning: it isn’t ordered, but the negative phrasing implies that there is in fact an “order” that is to be had. I think frames that view people as broken can also alternatively be viewed as saying: people who are mentally ill do not fit into the grand societal narratives of how people are supposed to think and behave.

Don’t get me wrong. Human beings endure a great deal of suffering and some of it is preventable, or the course of it can be transformed and changed. I think we owe each other everything we’ve got when it comes to easing each other’s suffering and making joyful presence to the world and each other possible. I think some therapeutic models offer this. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have spaces where we make space for and support each other in our well-being. I just don’t believe that these framings end up offering healthy new narratives by which to live.

The risk of a risk and resilience framework in my mind is that we end up with a single frame to work from. Especially because the science is so “rigorous” and so developed that it is difficult to challenge. Risk and resilience is supported from every direction: psychology, sociology, neuroscience, etc. And it’s the kind of science that has an easy credibility in our society. But despite saying it thinks about strengths and positivity and what can be good in people, the framework still starts its name with “Risk.” And the conversation is all about preventing things that can be wrong with people. And because the science is “so good,” the stories told by a risk and resilience framework are very powerful and seductive and difficult to resist. Our children, our clients, and even we do not fully process the partial and limited nature of any one framework for intervention.

What does it really mean to believe in strengths? In my opinion, it means that much of the way we’ve organized white, Western, powerful ontologies (ways of being in the world) and epistemologies (ways of knowing what we know) is dependent upon the belief that we have weaknesses that we ought to improve. If we improve them, we’ll be better, faster, stronger, more productive. I think that’s part of a societal current that is fueling our desire for constant improvement. I think believing in a framework of strengths means recognizing a framework of weaknesses as contingent and historical. “Weakness” is a frame, not a reality. It is constructed. Weaknesses exist because we choose to make sense of our world through a lens that believes they are reality. We don’t need to use that lens. In my mind, really believing in a strengths framework doesn’t see that there are things that are wrong with people. It isn’t that we turn a blind eye to them, or even that we focus on positives. It means that weakness doesn’t exist. And that means there aren’t things that are wrong with people. Or that go wrong with people. But, I digress.

I think that risk and resilience frameworks are risky because, like a framework of weaknesses, they fail to acknowledge themselves as a contingent idea and frame. In other words, we become over time less and less able to see kids as anything but “at risk.” And then they either succeed by being “resilient” and living up to social norms or they fail because they lack the right protective factors (and the failure is still ultimately on them and their families in this framing). This story itself is deeply resilient because it matches and supports our belief in mental illness, sickness, dis-ease, dis-order, and brokenness. It is resilient because it still places the primary onus for change on individuals and families–they need to enable protective factors in a world out to “break” their child–and this is a comfortable story for us because it doesn’t mean we have to think about how we organize our institutions or society.

I’ve worked with young people in a number of different settings. Almost all of them would have been considered “at risk” in some way or another. Yet, this lens was almost never useful for how I viewed or interacted with them. And when I used it as a lens, I tended to find what I was looking for: ways to diagnose them, things that were wrong with them, things I needed to change in their lives to make them “better.” When instead I could find ways to hang out with them, to understand how they made sense of the world, and to invite them (or take up their invitation) to work on the world in ways that mattered to them, we started to really make changes in their lives. And those changes have nothing to do with what is wrong with them–instead, they involve changing the systems around them that are unsupportive of the lives they want to live. And yes, we really did ask what kind of lives they want to live.


Masten, Ann S. “Ordinary Magic: Lessons From Research on Resilience in Human Development.” Education Canada 49.3 (2009): 28-32.

Masten, Ann S, and Angela J Narayan. “Child Development in the Context of Disaster, War, and Terrorism: Pathways of Risk and Resilience.” Annu Rev Psychol 63 (2012): 227-57.

Sapienza, Julianna K, and Ann S Masten. “Understanding and Promoting Resilience in Children and Youth.” Curr Opin Psychiatry 24.4 (July, 2011): 267-73.

One reply on “The Risk and Resilience of Risk and Resilience”

Leave a Reply