Theory Bites

The Risk and Resilience of Risk and Resilience – Part II

This is the second in a multipart, developing series titled The Risk and Resilience of Risk and Resilience. This series is examining the ways that Risk and Resilience has become embedded and assumed in the research and practice of Social Work. I trace the historical development of Risk and Resilience to develop an appreciation of what it is responding to and a sense of the limitations it builds for the field when it is assumed as the primary framework. The first article can be found here. This article focuses on tracing the evolution of the research on Risk and Resilience.

Risk and resilience scholar Ann Masten recognizes three distinct waves of research on the subject. The first wave, she asserts, emerged in the 70s and was primarily behavioral in focus. This first wave developed out of developmental psychopathology, and it is worth noting the developmental, psychological, and pathology-oriented context within which this framework emerged. Researchers in the field (Masten calls them “pioneers”) were behavioral scientists and were searching for explanations of why children in so-called “risky” environments appeared to “develop well.” I will return to this in a later post, but note here that these definitions are assumed in Masten and other’s work, and that the frameworks in which concepts like “development”, “psychology,” “pathology,” “success,” and “risk” emerge are generally assumed within the literature, but this does not, in my opinion, imply these are assumptions we should make.

Of this early work, Masten writes:

The initial work was largely descriptive, but ambitious in ultimate objective: to ascertain what makes a difference in the lives of such children, in order to guide efforts to improve the life chances of children at risk for problems due to hazardous experiences and vulnerabilities. (Masten, 2006, p. 14).

From this research began to emerge evidence of what came to be labeled as “assets” or protective factors—characteristics in young people that differentiated those that were “successful” from those that were less so. Again, I put these in quotes intentionally. I’m suspicious of the use of the word “assets”, as I think it falls easily within normative economic frameworks (do our children leverage their assets for some sort of profit? Is that the framework we are willing to use to describe the human beings in front of us?). I also wonder about “successful”, a phrase used over and over again in the Risk and Resilience literature (and developmental literature more broadly). What constitutes success, and how do we know? Who got to define that word? In other words, whose version of success are we looking at? According to Masten, the second wave of resiliency research emerged from this, focusing on the biological and cognitive processes that accounted for the list of protective factors.

The third wave, with the understandings developed by the first and second in mind, is articulating efforts to promote resilience through prevention, intervention, and policy. According to Masten, these efforts emerged out of a recognition that—though the research on protective factors and their functioning have yet to be fully formed—children in risky environments need our action as soon as possible. Here, I also connect research from other fields which has begun to use risk and resilience as a metaphor for practice at other levels and in other disciplines. One example of this is looking at “resilient cities” and urban planning (Pickett, Cadenasso, & Grove, 2004), another examines environmental resilience as an alternative paradigm to sustainability (Coaffee, 2008).

Masten’s image of waves seems to me useful for articulating this evolution of the research. While these waves are certainly distinct in their focus, the other waves are still continuing (though, like waves in the ocean, the waves that came earlier are perhaps smaller and receiving less attention). Research on the first and second waves continues actively in recent literature (e.g., Binder & Holsboer, 2012; Murrough, J. W., & Charney, 2011).

I’d like to extend Masten’s 2006 article and argue that there may also be a fourth wave of resiliency research worth recognizing, which is less apparent primarily because it does not obviously appear in research literature. This wave, still underway in agencies and classrooms of social work education, I would tentatively call the wave of embeddedness. In other words, while a theory is in early and active development, it is examined closely from every angle, explored thoroughly by both researchers and practitioners, and compared with other approaches in a way that does not assume its correctness. I argue that there is a fourth wave of risk and resilience now occurring because I believe that it is important to recognize the growing embeddedness of the framework into the everyday assumptions of researchers and practitioners within the field (and more broadly across disciplines). While my evidence for this is anecdotal and particular to my experiences within the field, I will push this point by asking: how many practitioners would say that risk and resilience is not integrated into their work? Or at least if it is not, that it ought to be?

One way that I am testing this is to examine uses of risk and resilience in other literature, and I will see whether they offer critiques of risk and resilience, or accept it completely as a framework. I am also pursuing practice manuals that use risk and resilience to see if I can uncover–albeit in a somewhat limited way–whether this fourth wave seems justifiable. How about you–what do you think?

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