This episode kicks off AnthroPod’s newest series, What Concepts Do, which contextualizes national and international conversations in anthropological discourse. The aim of the series is to examine, from an anthropological perspective, how different concepts are mobilized by policymakers, media outlets, and in everyday discourse, and understand what these concepts "do" in the world. Each episode features several anthropologists, or anthropologically-oriented scholars and practitioners, whose insights help explain a particular concept.
In this episode, Contributing Editors Joyce Rivera-González and Michelle Hak Hepburn unpack the concept of resilience, alongside anthropologists Roberto Barrios, Elizabeth F.S. Roberts, Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, Andrew Wooyoung Kim, and Jason Cons. Where did the concept of resilience originate from, and how is it so widespread? What are the benefits and shortcomings of the concept? Lastly, how do anthropologists engage ethnographically with resilience, and how do we contribute to a holistic understanding of it?
Andrew Wooyoung Kim is an Assistant Professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley and an Honorary Researcher at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. He studies intergenerational mental health consequences of political violence, especially in the context of South African apartheid.
Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux is a member of Chippewa of Georgina Island First Nation in Southern Central Ontario, Lake Simcoe. She is the Chair for Truth and Reconciliation at Lakehead University Orillia and Thunder Bay and the Chair of the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba-Winnipeg. She has written extensively about overcoming Indigenous trauma, healing, and community development. Her work and influence go beyond academia, as she continues to dedicate time and effort to building and facilitating pathways towards truth and reconciliation in Canada.
Elizabeth Roberts is a medical anthropologist and Professor at the University of Michigan. Her most recent work explores the connection between environmental exposures and health inequity in working-class neighborhoods in Mexico City.
Jason Cons is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. His current research is focusing, in part, on climate security and resource politics in the Southwest Delta region of Bangladesh.
Roberto Barrios is a Professor of Anthropology and the Doris Zemurray Stone Chair for Latin American Studies at the University of New Orleans. He researches disaster risk reduction and recovery across Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and the United States.
The series What Concepts Do was conceptualized by Joyce Rivera-González. This episode was created and produced by Contributing Editors Joyce Rivera-González and Michelle Hak Hepburn. Both Joyce Rivera-González and Michelle Hak Hepburn transcribed and edited this episode, and Sharon Jacobs provided production assistance. Special thanks to this episode's contributors Roberto Barrios, Elizabeth Roberts, Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, Andrew Kim, and Jason Cons.
Theme Song: All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear
Transition Music: Dancing Dreams B and Last Night by Lobo Loco; Spring Field, Trickling Up, and Landing by Godmode; Let's make this a song by Balkan Jingles; Sunny Days by Another Brick; Dulce Reggaeton by An Jone; Away by Patrick Patrikios; Water Surface by Eric Van der Westen
Sound Effects: Reel to reel rewind, Mixkit License
Barrios, Roberto. 2016. “Resilience: A Commentary from the Vantage Point of Anthropology.” Annals of Anthropological Practice 40, no. 1: 28–38.
Barrios, Roberto. 2017. Governing Affect: Neoliberalism and Disaster Reconstruction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Cons, Jason. 2018. "Staging Climate Security: Resilience and Heterodystopia in the Bangladesh Borderlands." Cultural Anthropology 33, no. 2: 266–94.
———. 2019. Sensitive Space: Fragmented Territory at the India-Bangladesh Border. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Fortun, Kim. 2001. Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kim, Andrew Wooyoung, Bonnie Kaiser, Edna Bosire, Katelyn Shahbazian, and Emily Mendenhall. 2019. “Idioms of Resilience among Cancer Patients in Urban South Africa: An Anthropological Heuristic for the Study of Culture and Resilience.” Transcultural Psychiatry 56, no. 4: 720–47.
Maslow, Abraham H. 1943. “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Psychological Review 50, no. 4: 370–96.
Roberts, Elizabeth F. S. 2012. God's Laboratory: Assisted Reproduction in the Andes. Berkeley: University of California Press.
———. 2017. "What Gets Inside: Violent Entanglements and Toxic Boundaries in Mexico City." Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 4: 592–619.
Vizenor, Gerald. 1999. Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Wesley-Esquimaux, Cynthia. 2007. “The Intergenerational Transmission of Historic Trauma and Grief.” Indigenous Affairs 4, no. 7: 6–11.
———. 2009. “Trauma to Resilience: Notes on Decolonization.” In Restoring the Balance: First Nations Women, Community, and Culture, edited by Gail Guthrie Valaskakis, Madeleine Dion Stout, and Eric Guimond, 13–34. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.
Whyte, Kyle Powys. 2018. “Food Sovereignty, Justice, and Indigenous Peoples: An Essay on Settler Colonialism and Collective Continuance.” In The Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics, edited by Anne Barnhill, Mark Budolfson, and Tyler Doggett, 345–66. New York: Oxford University Press.
Young, Allan. 1975. “Some Implications of Medical Beliefs and Practices for Social Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 78, no. 1: 5–24.
Joyce Rivera-González (JRG) [00:00] From the Society for Cultural Anthropology, this is AnthroPod.
[00:06] [Dancing Dreams B by Lobo Loco plays in the background]
Roberto Barrios (RB) [00:09] Resilience is first and foremost a word. And people do really interesting things with words, right? Words are containers; we can put different things within them, and then sometimes the contents shift over time and with usage. They’re kind of unwieldy things. So that’s how I start.
[00:28] [the sound of a rewinding tape]
[00:33] [AnthroPod theme music, All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear, plays]
JRG [00:40] Thank you so much for tuning in to AnthroPod.
Michelle Hak Hepburn (MHH) [00:43] I am Michelle Hak Hepburn, and I am a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia.
JRG [00:48] And I am Joyce Rivera-González. I am a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame, and we are Contributing Editors at AnthroPod.
MHH [00:59] This is the first episode of What Concepts Do, a series in which we explore the effects that concepts have in the world, and how anthropology can help us understand where these concepts come from, how they are used, and what they achieve in the world. For our first episode, we are exploring the concept of resilience.
JRG [01:17] So, in times of adversity, resilience seems to be everywhere. Individuals, households, businesses, communities, and nations are urged to become resilient, as we have seen time and time again in the midst of a global pandemic. So, we hear about resilient environments. Resilient buildings. Resilient communities in the face of natural disasters. Resilience in the context of climate change, in the context of trauma and mental health…
MHH [01:46] But when did the concept of resilience become so prevalent? And, more importantly, in a quote-unquote resilient world, who bears the responsibility of mitigating strife?
[01:57] [Spring Field by Godmode plays]
JRG [02:04] To help us answer these questions, we had the opportunity to chat with five anthropologists that, in some way or another, they’ve encountered the concept of resilience in their ethnographic work or throughout their lives.
MHH [02:18] In the intro to this episode, you heard the first of our speakers. Roberto Barrios is a Professor of Anthropology and the Doris Zemurray Chair of Latin American Studies at the University of New Orleans. Dr. Barrios is joined by…
Jason Cons (JC) [02:32] My name is Jason Cons. I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.
Andrew Wooyoung Kim (AWK) [02:41] My name is Dr. Andrew Wooyoung Kim. I am a biological and medical anthropologist. I'm a research fellow at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and an Honorary Lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Elizabeth Roberts (ER) [02:55] Hi, there! My name is Elizabeth Roberts. I'm a medical anthropologist at the University of Michigan.
Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux (CWE) [03:02] So, my name is Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux. I’m from the Chippewa of Georgina Island First Nation in Southern Central Ontario, Lake Simcoe. I am the Chair for Truth and Reconciliation at Lakehead University Orillia and Thunder Bay. I’m also the Chair of the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba-Winnipeg.
[03:29] [music fades]
JRG [03:30] So how are our speakers defining resilience? Who uses the term and in which contexts have they encountered it?
MHH [03:39] First, Dr. Elizabeth Roberts is approaching the concept from the context of environmental and public health. Her most recent work is exploring the connection between environmental exposures and health inequity in working-class neighborhoods in Mexico City. She is the author of God’s Laboratory: Assisted Reproduction in the Andes, and this was published by the University of California Press in 2012. She is currently finishing a book manuscript on addiction called In Praise of Addiction: Devotion and Deviance in Nacolandia.
ER [04:07] I think we can come up with lots of ways to define resilience. But one way that I think about it now, it's a concept that social scientists, policy and public health experts are currently deploying to describe the capacity of individuals and communities to recover from various kinds of adversity. And another way that I would say that I define it, it's a concept that describes how, to these policymakers, some people in groups seem to not let what's happened to them from the outside, get inside them. And then they're trying to kind of turn that into something that can be enumerated, or worked on, or intervened upon, in various ways.
MHH [04:48] Dr. Cons deﬁnes resilience from explorations of development and environmental NGOs in Bangladesh, where he has conducted the majority of his anthropological ﬁeldwork. His current research is focusing, in part, on climate security and resource politics in the Southwest Delta region of Bangladesh. This work is part of a book project, currently titled Delta Futures: Time, Territory, and Capture on a Climate Frontier. He is also the author of Sensitive Space: Anxious Territory at the India-Bangladesh Border, and this was published in 2016 by the University of Washington Press.
JC [05:19] A lot of the conversation around resilience is about questions around urban resilience and building back better. The term sort of emerges in a lot of post-disaster contexts, often. How do we build back after Sandy in a way that will not just replace what was there, but make New York City more able to sustain future storms? I've seen it deployed quite frequently in the context of education and self-help contexts, right? How do we build more resilient populations who are more willing and able to respond to the challenges of things like increasing heat waves or regular flooding, or even something like COVID-19, without allowing those challenges to utterly defeat them emotionally? But what I think it ends up looking like on the ground, at least in the context that I’m familiar with, is more or less the capacity to thrive in a world where prediction and prevention are more or less things of the past, and chaos is the norm, or at least unpredictability is the norm, and outside help is not something that can be relied on. Alright, so it's the capacity for systems to thrive in those kinds of emerging futures, where we don't know what's going to happen, but we think it's going to be bad.
JRG [06:35] Likewise, Dr. Roberto Barrios approaches the concept of resilience from the field of disaster risk reduction, a context in which he has conducted anthropological fieldwork since 1999. He has conducted research in Central America, in Mexico, in the Caribbean, and the U.S. Midwest and Gulf Coast, where he explores how disaster survivors define what successful or what good recoveries look like. He is the author of Governing Affect: Neoliberalism and Disaster Reconstruction, which was published by University of Nebraska Press in 2017.
RB [07:09] In its most basic sense, it's used to refer to a community's ability to recover in the aftermath of a shock, and even bounce back better—which is an extremely problematic term for anthropologists, right? Because again, it becomes a matter of who defines what ‘the better’ is. Even in the definition—there's a lot at stake in this definition, right? Because I said, a community. Some United Nations agencies would rather use the term system. It is the capacity of a system to receive a shock, and recover, and perhaps recover even better. One of the problems is, when we are talking about community, then we have to think about who are the social actors who are defining where a community begins and ends. The work of people like Kim Fortun have shown that, what we call a community might emerge over a disaster process. In some fields, like community psychology, sometimes people attempt to talk about resilience as the qualities and capacities of a community prior to the shock, that then this community sustains a shock, and then this community recovers. And those particular perspectives of community resilience are not anthropologically informed because they don’t understand how dynamic communities are, and they are actually always in the process of coming into being, right? So, in its most basic sense, I understand, rather than how I define it—I understand that it's a word that people use in an attempt to capture the qualities and capacities of a community, or a system, that allow it to recover from shock, and maybe even thrive in its aftermath.
[08:35] [Balkan Jingles’ Let’s make this a song plays]
JRG [08:42] So, before we dig in, we should remind our listeners that resilience, like many other words, like many other concepts, is not only mobilized by federal agencies, or pundits, or NGOs. For some of our speakers, resilience is quite personal, and it has shaped, not only their research, but really their lives.
MHH [09:01] Dr. Kim is concerned with intergenerational effects of trauma in the context of South African apartheid, and his work has been published in Scientific Reports, Psychological Medicine, and the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
MHH [09:15] Okay, so why don’t you tell me when was the first time you came across the concept of resilience.
AWK [09:20] Sure.
MHH [09:20] When was the first time you came across it?
AWY [09:22] Yeah, so I guess the study of resilience eventually also became something very personal, you know? And I came to this research question because I was really interested in understanding my own personal experience with intergenerational trauma, as a grandchild of people who survived Japanese colonialism, and as a child of parents who left a very politically tumultuous situation in South Korea, emigrated to the United States, acculturated into a very different context, and grew up in the suburban South, and had me. [laughs] You know.
MHH [09:52] Dr. Wesley-Esquimaux has written extensively about overcoming Indigenous trauma, healing, and community development. Her work and influence go beyond academia, as she continues to dedicate time and effort to building and facilitating pathways towards truth and reconciliation in Canada. She has done this not only by being an active member of her community, but she also creates opportunities for dialogues and exchange. She is the co-founder of the Canadian Roots Exchange, a youth-led charity with Indigenous-based leadership, which not only provides educational and training opportunities for Indigenous youth in Canada, but also brings them together with non-Indigenous youth to facilitate dialogue and envision together what reconciliation in the context of colonized Canada should be.
CWE [10:33] Well, for me, I define resilience as the capacity to continue, even in the face of various trauma and, and unfortunate circumstances. So when I think of my own life—both my parents went to residential school for 20 years between them. And I grew up in a household that had a lot of domestic violence, and alcohol, and sexual violence; you know, all those things. So, coming out of that, and leaving home at 16 because of it, and just discovered, huh! It’s not about me, it’s about the environment in which I’m living. So resilience comes out of the fact that we can survive one thing, move into another thing, and put the two together and realize, ah! I can do this.
[11:12] [Balkan Jingles’ Let’s make this a song replays and continues in the background]
MHH [11:19] I want to thank our speakers for sharing their personal stories with us, because it reminds us that when we are talking about resilience, there is necessarily some shock or trauma that needs to be overcome. We can’t forget that these shocks are experienced by people and have profound effects on their lives, which we’ll get into a little bit later in this episode.
JRG [11:42] Before we continue, let’s go back a little bit. Let’s try to, kind of, historicize the word. Where did it come from? And how did it become so pervasive? So we know that resilience, in the sense that our speakers have been talking about, emerged from systems ecology, and it is still widely used when we think about biodiversity, for example. So it allows ecological systems to be flexible and adaptable in the face of change. From there, this notion of flexibility started being adopted by other disciplines, and this began with the field of developmental psychology.
AWK [12:25] Within psychology, the first individual to study the concept of resilience was this developmental psychologist named Norman Garmezy in the 1970s, and he was conducting a study to understand differences between children who had mental illness born to women with severe psychopathologies. We see that resilience, you know, succumbs to a biomedicalized process. Or, in other words, the understanding and interpretation of overcoming adversity through the lens of modern-day science and medicine. So that's limited to, you know, understanding people's behaviors and health outcomes as a result of discrete, individual characteristics, largely related to biology and the individual, and limited perspectives on the social environment, that usually get reduced to, you know, very simple variables, like social, ethnic group, or race, or rural versus urban. And it's not really attuned to larger social, political or historical dynamics that structure health inequalities, or structure the distribution of violence, and the dispossession of land, for example, that all contribute to producing poor health. Over time came these further studies on these discrete, quote, cultural values, or reduced ideas of what psychologists considered to be culture, that promote resilience among individuals. Especially, as anthropologists, of course, we completely reject this idea of these processes of overcoming adversities as completely limited to the individual—especially completely limited to individual characteristics, traits, or states, you know. But unfortunately we still see this individualization of resilience, and the victim-blaming that comes with that, as well as these moral judgements put on individuals who aren’t seen as resilient—i.e., Black and brown individuals, low-income individuals, queer individuals… as basically not being good enough to overcome the circumstances they’re put into.
MHH [14:22] This idea, about individual versus collective resilience, and about limiting resilience to the individual rather than recognizing surrounding social structures, is related to something Dr. Wesley-Esquimaux shared with us about another mid-20th century psychologist. Abraham Maslow published his influential “A Theory of Human Motivation” in 1943 in Psychological Reviews, where he categorized human needs in an attempt to understand what drives human action and behavior. His infamous “hierarchy of needs” is a pyramid, where basic bodily needs like eating and breathing are at the base, and at the top is self-actualization. The idea is that all humans are trying to meet their physical, social, and psychological needs, striving to reach the top of that pyramid. But Dr. Wesley-Esquimaux reminds us that it’s more complicated than that…
CWE [15:09] Abraham Maslow took the Blackfoot concept—his hierarchy of needs, he took that from the Blackfoot Nation. What he did was he individualized it, right? So you’re born, and you need these basic things, and you move to the pinnacle of self-actualization. But that’s not what the Blackfoot meant, and that’s not what I’m, you know, talking about. The Blackfoot said, you’re already born actualized. You come in with everything you need. And the goal you have is to continue, to build, and protect, and perpetuate, your culture and your community. But, you know, you move up that pinnacle to actually be able to reconstitute and to really perpetuate your tribe, your culture, your language, your spiritual practices. Whereas Maslow, well, he didn’t quite get it—thought, oh, it was about, you know, actually getting to this place where you self-actualize on your own. You can’t self-actualize on your own. Indigenous peoples self-actualize together. If somebody’s suffering, we all suffer. There’s a very different kind of an approach. It’s the same thing with power, right? The Indigenous community sees power as, you may be at the top of the heap, but it’s because you have your language, your culture, your [laughs] And your family, you know? That’s what’s really important. So the resiliency comes from, not from stepping on people to get to the top, but actually bringing them along with you.
[16:27] [Another Brick’s Sunny Days plays]
JC [16:49] One of the more notable things about the concept of resilience is that it can really often feel like an empty vessel that can get filled up with whatever meaning is expedient for the moment, or is applicable to the current situation. So it can be hard to sort out what are all the different resiliences that are out there. And that may be a better way to think about the concept, as more in the plural than in the singular.
ER [17:15] The word ‘resilience’ has been popping up for a while now. It's all over the place. It's like self-care, and all these words that circulate that, especially at the beginning, seem like potentially, this is a useful word, and then the more you see how it's applied or taken up by policy folks, the less political and the more watered down it seems as any kind of approach to doing anything. But I mean, it seems like there could be great and productive work that I'm sure is happening among social workers, or various kinds of public policy people, about how really they feel like they're deploying the word, and what kind of work it could be doing. I suspect a lot of their answers would be, well, it's kind of the best we got. It is intending not to blame people for the situation they find themselves in, and to find a certain kind of hope in people who have managed to adapt or become resilient to various kinds of adversity. And even when it seems like policy experts, or the public health folks, are trying to do a very careful job about not putting resilience on individuals or making it up to us, there kind of just isn't any other way to go with a concept like resilience. Because there aren't really structures in place to deal with the kind of adversity that people are experiencing, because that adversity is caused by the lack of collective structures in the first place.
AWK [18:41] I think it's also important to think about resilience in comparison with related words that I think get thrown around synonymously. There’s, of course, resilience; there's coping, there's acquiescence, there's resistance. All of these are somewhat interrelated, but all have very different meanings. And there's a lot of potential political consequences as a result of this conceptual slippage.
[19:07] [Godmode’s Trickling Up plays]
JC [19:21] When I started on work on the project that I’m currently working on, on climate change in the Delta region in around 2015, resilience was maybe at its, sort of, peak popularity in development, and then it was sort of the new concept that was going to get used, and paired with adaptation. And what it really looked like was very much about securing individual families against futures of unpredictable chaos, right? So the idea behind it wasn't necessarily that we could address the effects of climate change in the Delta systemically in a way that would allow, say, communities to continue living and doing the kinds of things that they're currently doing, but rather that we can provide a set of tools that would be helpful for individual families to essentially hang on, you know, with their bare teeth, essentially, while climate chaos was unfolding around them, right? So it was very much about what is the, sort of, small-scale basket of tools that might help people to survive a storm and not have to migrate across the border with India. And oftentimes, that kind of thinking led to projects that look not only really strange in the context of everyday life in the Delta, but also sort of manifestly spoke to this imagination, that the future is—the future is all individuals, and that communities have no role to play.
[20:46] [Godmode’s Trickling Up continues]
JRG [20:54] I think we can say that the danger is really about normalizing, or naturalizing, systems of precarity by using resilience as a benchmark. As the thing to be changed. As the thing to be improved and intervened on, rather than the unequal distribution of adversity in and of itself.
JC [21:17] You see that, on the ground, it looks very much like coping, right? How do you cope with the fact that your soil is more saline every year, that the sea levels may be rising around you, that the embankments that are meant to protect you from cyclones are weakened, and so on and so forth, right? So it ends up, in my experience, looking not like a systemic attempt to address the ways that people who have been made vulnerable to particular kinds of problems, but rather just ways to kind of shore up the boundary and help people survive through them as they unfold.
[21:47] [An Jone’s Dulce Reggaeton plays]
AWK [21:57] From a resilience framework, I think we could say that, yes, these people utilize their cognitive and psychological ability to accept the situation. But at the same time, are these individuals truly resilient to this context, or are they just acquiescing to a very negative situation? That they might not necessarily have control over because of the deep limitations of the public health care system in South Africa.
MHH [22:22] So it can be very difficult to ascribe or label a person’s or a community’s reaction to a negative situation, whether in the context of climate change in the Bengal Delta, or with cancer patients receiving their diagnoses in South Africa.
AWK [22:37] When we study mental health, we see a lot of researchers coming from this deficit-based model, this damage-centered approach, where we're thinking about the negative impacts of adverse situations, or trauma, or, or social oppression. But of course that reduces people's experiences to suffering, and really doesn't do justice or do a good job of recognizing people's more comprehensive, or larger experience, in dealing with violence, trauma. and social oppression.
JRG [23:04] This resilience is also not just to current, present structures of violence, but it actually accrues over time. Temporality is vital in understanding the different ways that people face adversity, whether this adversity is a difficult diagnosis, or the violence of a racist, apartheid state, which are embodied and inherited for generations to come.
AWK [23:31] You know, when I think about resilience and context of my larger project in intergenerational trauma, where people are continuing to grapple with the apartheid transition, and the long-term impacts of white supremacy and colonialism in a very new, quote un-quote, democratic South Africa. We think about embodiment that is a continual process, that is potentially intergenerational and ancestral… and a lot of people for their entire lives they've had no choice but to be resilient, or really to acquiesce to these historical processes of political violence. For generations of Black South Africans, or Asian Americans, or communities of color that have continually resisted oppression, what does it mean for us to label someone as not resilient in a particular instance, when people have been, quote-unquote, “resilient subjects” for generations?
[24:22] [Godmode’s Landing plays]
JRG [24:33] To think about resilience is to also speak of trauma. Not only how an individual may respond to often-traumatic, adverse processes, but also how trauma is embodied. But, like many of our speakers have already mentioned, efforts in individual resilience-building do not necessarily contextualize trauma, either.
RB [24:57] When I think about trauma, I think about, you know, the work of a psychological anthropologist like Allan Young, who talks about how trauma is not universal, that the trauma is quite subjective, right? And it is a fact that what is traumatic to me might not be traumatic to you, and that experience shapes the subject. You might have a person whose life history makes it so that this particular event is highly traumatic, but if they’re in an economic position to simply buy a new house and move elsewhere, who makes an assessment of their resilience in that particular moment? When you think about people who hitchhike, experience violence, walk across deserts, run the risk of dying, see friends be subjected to all kinds of violence, sometimes die, and still manage to go on, right? And they might not have the economic ability to easily purchase a flight or purchase another home, but someone might say, well, that person’s highly resilient.
ER [25:44] I think, for me, one of the things that I'm the most interested in is, does resilience come along with an assumption of a body that can have boundaries and keep things out, or is it assuming a permeability, that then people that are resilient can adjust to, in some way? The time I really started noticing it, I documented in this article, “What Gets Inside,” where one of the scientists I was collaborating with in Mexico City, who's originally from Mexico, but was a researcher now in the United States, she started talking about how—she wasn't necessarily talking about the kids in this, in the particular study we collaborated on, but just in general—how it seemed like certain kinds of kids are particularly resilient, and what she said in particular is, “it's like they don't somatize what they are living; they don't get it through their body.” That really linked up for me to these kinds of things I was trying to think through that are, sort of, long-term anthropological concerns, about the body, and boundaries, and what gets inside, and what stays outside, and what we're scared of, and what's fine to envelop ourselves in or be enveloped by…
AWK [26:56] There's potential for harm when we try to understand individuals’, or people’s, or communities’ resilience to individual events. Whether that's like a major disaster, or a traumatic experience, or, even, a few years of being in an adverse situation. But, you know, this exclusive focus on resilience to these momentary, short-term events really obscures, I’d say, the complex and lasting legacies of systemic marginalization, and these larger, daily acts of slow violence that we see in the broader context and larger history of these major disasters. So this is a point that I bring up in the “Idioms of Resilience” piece, among cancer patients, where, we're, to a certain degree, forced to talk about these patients as resilient subjects, because we did find these instances and processes of resilience that individuals harnered to overcome a very difficult diagnosis and, and illness experience.
[27:58] [Patrick Patrikios’ Away plays]
JRG [28:24] So consistently, one of the concerns that came up during our conversations is the vagueness of the concept. The fact that it is often used as an umbrella term, or in a very reductionistic way, which also obscures what the concept is actually meant to accomplish.
JC [28:46] I mean, it feels like the least emic concept of all time, in a lot of ways...
MHH [28:50] An emic perspective, as a reminder, is often what we think about as “the insiders’ perspective.” And this would be in opposition to a top-down, generalized view on any given matter. Of course, it’s not always that simple, in practice, but we’ll leave it there for now.
JC [29:07] I mean, I can't think of any context in which this word has particular meaning outside of these fairly technocratic fields in which it's currently being deployed.
MHH [29:16] Hm.
JC [29:17] You know, ecosystem management, or urban planning, or development, or what have you. But it's just flourished all over the place, and there's these vague-ish connections between the ways that people talk about them, that makes it seem like a cohesive system, but it clearly isn’t.
CWE [29:33] I think the concept was introduced to me through education. I mean, I don’t think, as an Indigenous person, you know, living in a community that has been traumatized over the course of the last 300 or 400 years. We didn’t actually talk about resilience, any more than when I was growing up we talked about Indian residential institutions. We didn’t talk about that, either. The fact that people came out of those places was not a part of the conversation. They were reacting to the circumstances that they had lived in, and their resilience came out of their capacity to keep going.
[30:04] [Eric Van der Westen’s Water Surface starts playing and continues in the background]
CWE [30:16] I think we should change the narrative. Gerald Vizenor calls it survivance. He calls it survivance. He doesn’t call it survivors, or survival. And I think that that’s true for a lot of Indigenous people, to have said, well, you know, in spite of all of that, I’m going to do my best to raise lovely children, and I’m going to do the best to ensure that we don’t only survive; we thrive.
AWK [30:41] You know, we need to, I think, work together to, really, reject these narratives, and reject these limiting perspectives on communities of color to assess their ability to overcome adversity. Rejecting these narratives that labeled people like my family and other communities of color as, you know, the suffering subject, and really trying to be more comprehensive, and ethnographically rigorous, and political about our lived experience, and really define success on our own terms.
JRG [31:22] So what kinds of words do people use when they talk about the way that they face adversity or overcome it?
MHH [31:32] So one way to think about it is what Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys-Whyte calls collective continuance—this idea that, despite hundreds of years of colonization and ongoing marginalization, Indigenous Peoples are still here.
CWE [31:44] This community is still standing, in spite of the impacts of this residential and institutionalized process that they had gone through.
MHH [31:56] But our speakers also have several examples from their ethnographic fieldwork.
RB [32:02] In 2019, I was approached with a colleague, Antoinette Jackson from the University of South Florida, to collaborate with engineers and biologists from the University of the Virgin Islands and help them draft the social side of the community disaster, hazard mitigation, and community resilience plan. And in a way, I’ve just been trying to understand, again, why, why do some people recover faster than others in a variety of ways, and try to trace these issues as such of structural power relations, and also, you know, historic marginalization, abandonment of Afro-diasporic peoples… You know, part of the premise of the work is that we were also going to try to have this conversation with Virgin Islanders of a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. First asking them, have you heard the word resilience being used in disaster context? And what do you think people who you have heard used that word meant? What did it mean to you? And it’s been really interesting. So, for example, in some instances, two of the groups that we have found that are most marginalized in the Virgin Islands, culturally, are Haitian transnational migrants, and Dominican transnational migrants. And it was really interesting that, for them, the word was completely novel. Whereas people who had a longer history of engagement with institutions and agencies had a greater familiarity with it. When I would ask Haitian interlocutors, well, what kind of words would you use? And they would say, well, we use words like brav, ‘to be brave.’ Or kouraj, ‘to be courageous.’ Which could be said to be somewhat individual categories.
ER [33:23] I think that there's all kinds of related things that working-class people in Mexico use to talk about themselves in really positive terms all the time. There isn't a term so much as people telling me, ‘we’re totally indestructible, we can live through anything.’ Another way that people talk about their capacity to endure and withstand adversity is often through zombies. Like, the zombies already exist, the world’s ended, and we’re figuring out how to live in it. But it’s not because they're engaged in a nihilism of like, it's all over. It's more like, we've been living this for a long time, and we know how to do it. So there’s a lot of pride, I would say, involved in it.
RB [34:10] And it is highly charged, right? Because there might be people who might say that we should not romanticize the ability of the subaltern to suffer, right? That we have to problematize it. That’s been the crux of the conversation that I’ve been having with these engineers. Because the engineers have been saying, when we talk about Virgin Islanders being individually resilient, because they have a history of not being served by their government and a history of marginalization, and they’re simply accustomed to this brutality, they’re like, we don’t want to call that resilience! Because then we’re going to be normalizing it.
ER [34:41] We're trying to have a discussion about how to interpret what people who live with intermittent water supplies tell us when they say—what are they saying when they say they have plenty of water? I mean, they have much less water than middle-class Americans do. And they’re really good at getting by with what they have. But what are the ethics of writing about that, as either enough water or not enough water? When they're telling us they have enough, but by all kinds of other standards, they don't. And I think the word adaptation and resilience kind of comes up and is bubbling under the surface all the time in those conversations, because, you know, the folks that we're talking to are—have really adapted. They're really resilient in the face of scarce and intermittent water supplies. And, we’re about to start working on a paper where we just tried to figure out the ethics of how to describe that. And I think resilience might be one of the words that we kind of have to really think through and take apart because I'm kind of loath to have people say, like, look at these great, resilient people. They're fine with not very much water. At the same time, they’re telling us they're fine.
RB [35:45] So, what do we make of it? Who makes the judgment? And maybe we should reserve positive or negative judgment. Better yet, problematize it, or present certain provocations. So in these particular subaltern vernaculars, they speak to, or they reflect, this history of violence and marginalization, which are nonetheless qualities that are celebrated by the subalterns themselves, in terms of the qualities that allow them to continue to survive in highly inhospitable environments.
[36:14] [Eric Van der Westen’s Water Surface fades out]
JRG [36:15] Dr. Jason Cons reminds us that humans have always existed in contexts of change, and have always found creative ways of navigating change and uncertainty. This is really part of what makes humans human. So what kinds of actions do we see people taking to be resilient, or to overcome adversity, even if they might not call it resilience?
MHH [36:38] So you just mentioned people are already pursuing different, or their own, options. So what, what kind of things are they doing?
JC [36:48] People, as we know as anthropologists, exist in contexts of change. Say, if you're talking about farmers, or peasants, or smallholders in a place like the Bengal Delta, no one lives in a fixed environment to start with. People are always pursuing adaptive and resilient strategies to try and manage risk of various different kinds. And a lot of the things that people are doing in those contexts look extraordinarily quotidian. They're not fancy multi-story houses that maybe speak in the name of resilience but don't necessarily situate themselves very well in the landscapes of everyday lives. But they're doing things like reimagining water storage possibilities so that you can continue to irrigate crops during the dry season. Reinforcing embankments to prevent them from crumbling in the context of storms. Intercropping various different varietals of rice to hedge against different sorts of events, right? I mean, they're things that, in some sense, look fairly boring from the standpoint of, say, a website. But I think we could also think of them as resilient practices that are much more significantly embedded in everyday life in ways that many development projects—not all, but many—often really aren't.
RB [38:03] Quite frankly, you know, when you begin to look at historically-marginalized communities that suffer more from disasters, it’s not because of a failing of their own. It’s not because they don’t have the proper qualities or capacities, or proper social networking abilities, you know? One of the things that I want to impress upon people when I enter conversations about resilience is to understand that inequity reduction is disaster risk reduction. That the populations that we begin to scratch our heads about their resilience, or ability to recover, are populations that have histories of being marginalized. That happened here in post-Katrina New Orleans. You know, Post-Katrina New Orleans was the result of, since the 1960s, of a racially-motivated exodus of people, of a systematic under-serving of working-class, working-poor African Americans, the underfunding of public housing, and of public education, of systematic racism. And that the answer to the recovery of the city has a strong component, or it should have been—not just a narrative, but a practice of racial justice, which was completely missing from the recovery plans in the city.
[39:02] [Trickling Up by Godmode fades in]
MHH [39:21] So, how can we make different knowledge? If resilience is deployed in such critical spaces, how can we make sure that we can address these matters in a more holistic way?
[39:37] [Trickling Up by Godmode begins to fade out]
AWK [39:38] I think we need to think about who's defining it. What are the aims and the ultimate outcomes? Is it just overcoming an isolated incident, or is it working towards liberation for a community, and overcoming social oppression, health equity, and so on? All that being said, I don't think a study of resilience is just something that should be thrown out. I think people do exhibit extreme resilience in really difficult circumstances, and I think we need to recognize that resilience is something that's multisystem, multi-scalar. We need to recognize that there are multiple streams of support, multiple streams of coping, that people do. And that resilience is something that's a lot more complex.
ER [40:19] So, while I think it's really easy to be suspicious of a word like resilience, and where it gets deployed. I think there's, as always, just lots of ethnographic work to do to see how it is being put to use, and how people are using it in creative ways, and if it allows people to gather different kinds of funds, or make new community forms of infrastructure that could help. But I think the more engaged you are in collaborations, the more it sort of behooves you to understand, and do the work, to figure out why certain concepts work and make sense.
AWK [40:58] When we create these forms of knowledge about successful ways of resilience, and use that as a way to judge people's abilities, or create these workshops, and monetize off of these workshops to teach people how to overcome these forms of violence, then, all these systems eventually just sort of work together to create a false sense of what it means to overcome structures of oppression.
JC [41:22] I kind of have the sense that maybe the concept of resilience is in flux. I kind of suspect that emerging out of the pandemic, we might be talking and thinking with a different set of contexts and concepts. I think resilience will remain part of the thinking there and, even if the term doesn't get used, the idea that the role of development is to help to secure people against unpredictable chaos, I think it's one that's very much here to stay. And I think we will, even if we stop using the term per se, I think we're going to be living with the concept, or at least the intent, for a long time.
[41:57] [Trickling Up by Godmode continues playing and fades]
JRG [42:10] So do you want to start, or do I start?
MHH [42:12] [laughs]
JRG [42:14] Okay, let’s see. So what do you think are the main takeaways?
MHH [42:19] So I think our speakers today gave us a lot to reflect upon when we think about resilience and what it does in the world. When we think about resilience, we’re talking about overcoming a shock. But what is that shock? What if a community is consistently overcoming shock, after shock, after shock, in those circumstances?
JRG [42:42] Yeah, I agree, and I think that’s one of the issues, or one of the ways that we can potentially push back whenever we see this concept being employed is, what are we normalizing, right? And something that we’ve learned is that using this concept in a way that doesn’t really consider what this is doing in the world, or how it is being employed, really runs the risk of normalizing adversity. So, instead of identifying a separate problem, and that problem being with the structures that are enabling inequity or oppression, the problem becomes that people don’t have resilience, or the solution becomes that people have to be resilient, or have to develop resilience.
MHH [43:23] I would agree. I think that comes up with a lot of our speakers, especially when Dr. Roberts mentioned that those collective structures are not in place.
JRG [43:30] Right.
MHH [43:31] Dr. Barrios also spoke about this problem that there is lacking a political will to address some of these inequalities that actually cause vulnerabilities to the shocks in the first place.
JRG [43:45] Right.
MHH [43:46] But I think what I can take out of this is, when we think through concepts and what they do in the world, aiming for resilient structures is in itself not a bad endeavor. But we do have to consider what we mean and how we’re using it, and whether, just like Dr. Roberts also reminded us, it may be the best that we have, for now.
JRG [44:10] It’s true in the sense of—it’s the best we got because this adversity emerges from issues that are structural, right? It addresses the fact that there aren’t any structures in place for people to be able to thrive in their own terms. But I think what it’s doing, is shifting the responsibility a bit. Rather than make governments or different agencies responsible for addressing these structures, it kind of becomes the responsibility of an individual or a community to develop that resilience.
MHH [44:43] Um-hm.
JRG [44:44] And then that goes to that issue of political will. There is no political will, there’s no political accountability, necessarily. And then it becomes more—at whatever scale, at whatever level it is, that we’re working on—it’s kind of up to you to develop that resilience to be able to cope and to be able to adapt to whatever adversity you’re facing. And if you don’t, then the lack of resilience was the issue. The issue was not the fact that there are structures in place that are constructing vulnerability. Enabling adversity…
MHH [45:13] So, when you’re talking about the lack of structures…
JRG [45:17] We’re talking about oppression. We’re talking about racial oppression. We’re talking about class oppression, right? And how they enable health inequity, unequal exposure to natural disasters, and how all map onto these inequalities. And eventually, it’s quite easy to then figure out who are the people that are expected to be resilient.
MHH [45:38] I also think it’s really important to think about who is using resilience, just as our speakers reminded us. Resilience seems to be more of a top-down concept. But people, in their daily lives, might not think about their coping strategies and their daily actions as resilience. But people find ways to survive, and even to find ways to thrive, given their limited resources. These concepts might not translate into the ways that people in their daily lives think about their own actions and coping strategies, but it doesn’t always mean we should throw the concept away. Because there is value in having a term to think through the ways that people do manage to survive extreme shocks. At the same time, we do need to recognize that universal concepts don’t map out exactly onto local meanings.
JRG [46:40] And I think, not only does it not translate, sometimes it might oppose, or it might even go against, other ways in which people think about their coping with adversity. And I’m thinking here specifically of the example that Dr. Barrios brought in the Virgin Islands. People—at least the ones that were familiar with the concept—actively not wanting to use it, because they didn’t want to normalize the kind of adversity they were facing. And I’m kind of thinking of another example from my ethnographic work in the context of Puerto Rico, and how, after Hurricane María, suddenly, resilience became such a buzzword. And it was being used by the former governor. It was being used by all the agencies, all the NGOs, sometimes, a lot of these were foreign NGOs. And people became fed up! Really. People were, stop saying I’m resilient! I don’t know where this word came from, but suddenly it’s everywhere, I am tired of it. We are not resilient. We’re fed up! We are resisting colonialism, and we are pissed. And there are many words for it, but that’s not necessarily something that we want to be celebrating. And resilience seems to almost be a celebration of it.
MHH [47:51] I think that you just brought some really excellent examples of how people resist some of these concepts that come from top-down. And it’s really important because the examples that our speakers shared, and the examples that we had previously in our episode were talking about some of these positive terms that people use to describe the ways that they can survive. But it’s just as equally important to recognize, people who are labeled as resilient are suffering. And they do resist usage of these terms that are being deployed by NGOs, and by the government. I’m really happy you brought that up.
JRG [48:26] Yeah. And I think it’s really important to think about how these concepts are ultimately not just academic words, or concepts that are being used by development agencies or by governments, but we need to acknowledge, if we want to produce knowledge that actually reflects people’s lived experience, instead of just borrowing concepts that might have either empty meanings or meanings that are resisted or challenged…
MHH [48:55] You just brought up an important point. And I think that our speakers actually have some very specific reflections on how anthropology helps us to think through words and concepts like resilience.
[49:08] [Godmode’s Spring Field plays]
AWK [49:13] Personally, I think the holistic nature of anthropology is really unique to our discipline, and provides a lot of different tools to understand a very comprehensive and complex topic. So, as someone who's trained in biological anthropology, this very comprehensive toolkit of social theory, of reflexivity, of ethnography, but also quantitative skills, allows me to have a stronger appreciation and understanding of these situated instances and processes of resilience, as well as the political and moral dimensions of it.
RB [49:45] Well, anthropology brings a lot, but that’s the difficulty of it. I think anthropology has had better days, in terms of how it’s valued. You know, in my own experience, sometimes people with engineering degrees, planning degrees, architecture degrees, seem to capture the imagination of policymakers much more. But one of the things that I insist, over the course of my own research experiences, is that people who get into researching disaster risk reduction, begin to realize that you can have all these ingredients in place. You can have the technological know-how, you can even have all the money in the world, you can have the resources. But ultimately, disaster has a very strong socio-political component. And flood risk in Houston is the perfect example. All the technology, the knowledge, and the money in the world is there. The political will to give up the revenue from, you know, unhinged development within the floodplain, that prioritizes the economic gain of construction companies over flood risk reduction, is the ultimate problem. In the Virgin Islands, it’s the same thing. Probably the most challenging dimension of disaster risk reduction and resilience building, between quotes, is a political dimension at various levels, from the federal to the territorial level. And those are human problems. Those are social problems.
JC [50:56] I think, as anthropologists, the thing that we can add to these conversations is to try and really recuperate some of those missing meanings, or some of the different ways that resilience is imagined, and lived, and practiced by the communities that we work with, and work in. I think that we play a role in trying to think of a way from the imagination of a tool to fix impending crisis or impending climate crisis from a top-down perspective, and instead ask more questions about how communities articulate their own concerns about risk, their own concerns about the future, and what they're actually doing and doing already to address those concerns. And really rethinking the concept from a bottom-up standpoint, which is kind of the domain that anthropology has classically thrived in, to start with, so. I think it's really important that we play a role in trying to rethink it from the diverse perspectives in which it's actually lived in the world.
[51:51] [Lobo Loco’s Last Night starts playing]
CWE [51:57] I think anthropology—I send a lot of students to Anthropology. I tell them, if you want to really understand people, if you really want to understand what’s behind, you know, what they’re presenting to you, then anthropology gives you the whole picture. You’re going to know, you know, a whole lot about people from a very holistic standpoint. It was my choice because I work in a community that has had a lot of things happen to it. And I really wanted to understand, and I really wanted to be able to help in a very positive way. So I think it’s been a very useful way of approaching the world. Highly recommended. [laughs]
MHH [52:40] Thank you for listening to AnthroPod, the podcast of the Society for Cultural Anthropology. Special thanks to Joyce Rivera-González, who conceived this series and this episode. This episode on resilience was co-produced and co-created by myself, Michelle Hak Hepburn, and by Joyce Rivera-González.
JRG [52:57] Our theme song was produced by Podington Bear. Music throughout this episode was produced by Lobo Loco, Godmode, Balkan Jingles, Another Brick, An Jone, Patrick Patrikios, and Eric Van der Westen. All independently-produced and available at the Free Music Archive, Youtube Studio, and Mixkit.
MHH [53:15] For our show-notes, including a list of the articles and books we referenced in this episode, please search for AnthroPod on www.culanth.org That’s c-u-l-a-n-t-h-dot-org. Until next time.