Unique Pathways to Resilience across Cultures

By Ungar, Michael; Brown, Marion et al. | Adolescence, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Unique Pathways to Resilience across Cultures


Ungar, Michael, Brown, Marion, Liebenberg, Linda, Othman, Rasha, Kwong, Wai Man, Armstrong, Mary, Gilgun, Jane, Adolescence


Early conceptualizations of resilience identified mostly individual, or individually mediated factors, that were associated with positive outcomes (Anthony, 1987; Kaplan, 1999). A healthful temperament, psychological well-being, and a safe and nurturing family environment were all found to predict individual success following exposure to acute and chronic adversity such as abuse, violence, parental mental illness, poverty or war (Garmezy, 1983; Quinton, Rutter, & Gulliver, 1990; Werner & Smith, 1982). A second "wave" of resilience research focused on protective factors and processes, emphasizing the temporal and relational aspects of positive development under stress (Rutter, 1987; Zimmerman, Ramirez-Valles & Maton, 1999). More recently, work by Lerner and Benson (2003), Luthar (2003), Rutter (2005), and Author (2001, 2004) has introduced a more ecological interpretation of resilience. Resilience is both an outcome of interactions between individuals and their environments, and the processes which contribute to these outcomes. Outcomes and processes are both influenced by children's context (the well-being of their community as well as the capacity of social institutions such as schools and the police to meet children's needs) and culture (the values, beliefs, and everyday practices associated with coping) (Boyden & Mann, 2005; McCubbin, Thompson, Thompson, & Fromer, 1998; Sonn & Fisher, 1998; Wolkow & Ferguson, 2001). Thus, we say the young boy growing up in an inner-city slum who stays in school and avoids the perils of drug addiction and delinquency is resilient giyen the risks he faces. Positive outcomes such as these that reflect the values held by those in his community indicate resilience. So, too, do the processes that contribute to that success: engagement with adult role models at school; association with nondelinquent peers; and parents who monitor the boy closely. Resilience is, therefore, both a characteristic of the individual child and a quality of that child's environment which provides the resources necessary for positive development despite adverse circumstances.

A shift in focus from individual characteristics to protective factors, and finally to health resources and assets in a child's community, has taken place in mostly western contexts. Culture has been treated as either a confounding variable or the focus of detailed study in order to understand how cultural minorities vary in their functioning from more mainstream groups (Boyden & Mann, 2005). Researchers have contrasted positive outcomes for ethnic and racial minorities with those of "healthy" white middle-class heterosexual, able-bodied populations growing up in western societies. This has resulted in a narrow set of indicators being associated with resilience such as: self-esteem, school performance, attachment to family, marriage, and civic engagement. As Boyden and Mann (2005) and Ungar and his colleagues (2005a) have argued, we have not adequately understood people's own culturally determined indicators of resilience.

In this paper we report on the qualitative findings of a 14-site, 11-country study of resilience among youth ages 12-23. Results support a fourth wave of resilience research, one that is sensitive to culturally embedded definitions of positive development found in both western and non-western countries and among indigenous and nonindigenous peoples. We hypothesize that resilience is not only an individual's capacity to overcome adversity, but the capacity of the individual's environment to provide access to health-enhancing resources in culturally relevant ways.

Specifically, we seek to answer the following questions:

1. How is resilience defined by different culture groups or disadvantaged communities?

2. Are there global and/or culturally specific aspects of resilience?

3. What unique outcomes are associated with resilience in specific cultures and contexts? …

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