Risk, Protection, and Resilience: Toward a Conceptual Framework for Social Work Practice

Article excerpt

In both the academic and popular press, the related concepts of risk, protection, and resilience have emerged as constructs for conceptualizing social and health problems. The idea of "risk" is ubiquitous in social work. In everyday use, the term conveys the notion that an individual, family, group, school, neighborhood, or organization is likely to experience a negative outcome. Although the ideas of protection and resilience conjure up images of extraordinary feats in overcoming adversity, they are elusive. In light of the growing salience of what some call the "risk-and-resilience" perspective, this special issue of Social Work Research highlights social work research that uses the concepts of risk, protection, and resilience. In this introductory article, the authors define key terms, discuss methodological issues, and explore implications for the profession.

Key words: resilience; risk factors; protective factors; social work practice

In both the academic and popular press, the related concepts of risk, protection, and resilience have emerged as constructs for conceptualizing social and health problems. The idea of "risk" is ubiquitous in social work. In everyday use, the term conveys the notion that an individual, family, group, school, neighborhood, or organization is likely to experience a negative outcome. Although the ideas of protection and resilience conjure up images of extraordinary feats in overcoming adversity, they are elusive. In light of the growing salience of what some call the "risk and resilience" perspective, the purpose of this issue is to highlight social work research that used the concepts of risk, protection, and resilience. This introductory article defines key terms, discusses methodological issues, and explores implications for the profession.

RISK FACTORS

Risk, technically, is a probability describing the likelihood of a future event, given a certain condition or set of conditions. If the prevalence of schizophrenia is 1 percent in the population but we know that somewhere between 10 percent and 15 percent of children with a parent who has schizophrenia are likely to develop schizophrenia, we can say that children of parents with schizophrenia are at higher risk than the rest of the population (Richters & Weintraub, 1990). We might even say that the risk of developing schizophrenia is 10 to 15 times higher than the rest of the population.

Risk factors are markers, correlates, and--in a best-case scenario--causes. For example, although other factors are related to serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, parental psychopathology is thought to influence the likelihood of developing the disorder. How it does that--whether through genetic or environmental influences--is not yet fully understood. But the word "risk" denotes the fact that a group of people with a similar characteristic is more likely than others in the population at large to develop a problem (in this case, schizophrenia).

Risk is a central concept in the field of public health, where it has been coupled with the concepts of covariation and prediction. That is, risk refers to the relative influence of a variable on some outcome such as a heart attack, stroke, or hip fracture. Risk factors may be individual characteristics (such as traits and dispositions), specific life experiences or events (such as the death of a parent), or contextual factors (such as neighborhood safety). Risk is defined probabilistically as any influence that increases the likelihood of the onset of a problem or maintains a problem state (Coie et al., 1993). It is applied also to influences that cause digression to a more serious state, as in relapse or the recurrence of symptoms after a period of remission (Kirby & Fraser, 1997).

Nonspecific Risk Factors

Some individual, familial, and extrafamilial factors appear to affect many disorders concomitantly and in that sense they are "nonspecific" risks. …