What is Resilience? Definitions of Resilience

There are many different definitions of resilience used in research and practice. Some people think of resilience as:

  •  Bouncing Back, Bouncing Up or Bouncing Forward
  • Doing better than you’d think given the circumstances
  • Beating the odds

Google resilience and you’ll get 337 million hits. In 2010 when we started our website there were only 9 million hits, so it’s safe to say that use of the term resilience has become more popular and widespread over the years. From understanding how to improve the lot of kids going through tough times, to choosing tights that won’t ladder, resilience is in the frame. 

Resilience has been wheeled on to explain differences in how well individuals cope with adversity. It’s used in thinking on disaster relief, planning community development initiatives, advertising the latest wrinkle-diminishing face cream, and in school settings, improving children’s ability to bounce back.

But what exactly does the word mean? And, is it really that useful for anyone interested in helping people overcome serious systemic inequalities?

Definitions of resilience 

Of the many definitions, we like the one that was coined by developmental psychologist Ann Masten. She describes resilience as ‘Ordinary Magic’, meaning that in many cases, a resilient outcome doesn’t come about as a result of something particularly earth shattering happening, it’s just everyday stuff, like getting a teacher to give a bit more attention to a particularly disadvantaged child for example. Masten describes it as: 

‘Positive adaptation to adversity despite serious threats to adaptation or development’.

This is a useful basic definition but quite a few others have elaborated. Here is Angie’s favourite, because using it makes her look brainy. It was coined by Roisman, Padrón and colleagues in 2002:

‘Resilience is an emergent property of a hierarchically organized set of protective systems that cumulatively buffer the effects of adversity and can therefore rarely, if ever, be regarded as an intrinsic property of individuals.’  (Roisman et al., 2002, p. 1216)

There is frequent lively debate about the meaning of the term, particularly whether we can talk about resilience being something inside us (something we’re born with, if you like), or whether it is more complicated than that. 

Overly reductive and simplistic definitions risk ‘responsibilising’ the individual, and fail to acknowledge the important roles of family, school and the wider community in supporting people’s resilience. Over the years, we’ve steered more towards definitions that focus on external processes and mechanisms, and definitions that help us to think through what those of us in networks supporting disadvantaged people can do to make a difference. In one of our books, we talk about resilient moves being:

‘The kinds of things we need to make happen (e.g. events, parenting strategies, relationships, resources) to help children manage life when it’s tough. Plus ways of thinking and acting that we need ourselves if we want to make things better for children.’  (Aumann & Hart, 2009, p. 11)

In the last few years, definitions of resilient practice have merged so that they are starting to emphasise what people can actually do to improve the odds for those having a particularly tough time of it. These are the definitions we get excited about.

‘Adequate provision of health resources necessary to achieve good outcomes in spite of serious threats to adaptation or development.’  (Ungar, 2005, p. 429)

Some people have used the academic research to develop inequalities-focussed ways of working with people to help make resilient moves in their lives. Our work is part of this. Our Boingboing working definition of resilience (as of December 2013) that Angie and other Boingboingers have come up with is:

‘Overcoming adversity, whilst also potentially changing, or even dramatically transforming, (aspects of) that adversity.’ (Hart et al., 2016, p. 3)

In other words:

‘Beating the odds, whilst also changing the odds’.

Measuring resilience

How people define resilience is very closely related to how they might measure it, and like the definitions there is no consensus on how it should be measured. See our page on measuring resilience for more information.

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