Universal Values — Ideas

Resilience, Social Action and Inclusion:
The Philia Perspective
Contributed by Dominique Collin collind@inac.gc.ca 

Kratatau,1883: a tropical island lost in the Pacific burns to ashes when the most powerful volcano in modern times erupts.  Not a trace of life is left; and yet, within decades, the island is green again and animal life is back. This is resilience at work:  the source of inner strength and stamina that enables living systems to weather shocks, survive continued periods of stress and bounce back to health with little or no outside help. What can resilience tell us about social action, citizenship and inclusion from a Philia perspective?

The term resilience was first used in physics to describe the property of materials to bounce back to their original shape or position after being exposed to external pressures.  It has since been used to refer to the ability of complex mechanical and living systems to maintain or rebuild their balance after shocks or continued periods of stress.  In recent years, it has increasingly come to mean the resistance of individuals, economies, cultures and communities to physical, psychological or social trauma. 

In each case, the term “resilience” was introduced by practitioners to emphasize the complexity of the inner and environmental forces working to maintain the integrity of living systems. The choice of the word “resilience”, and its migration from physics to ecology, then to biology, psychology and social studies, is not accidental.  It is very much a part of a widespread reaction against the preferred methodology of experimental science, which consists in taking complex systems apart and examining their basic constituent parts in artificial but controlled laboratory conditions. The term “resilience” suggests that complex systems, ecosystems, persons or communities are active life forms rather than passive bits of matter that react to external forces in a mechanical way.  Complex machines and computer programs are active in that they modify their own architecture through self-correcting feedback mechanisms.  Physical and animal life forms transform themselves, as well as their environment, through trial and error action and random genetic mutations, to survive as individuals and as species.  Persons and communities are different in that, in addition, they are able to reflect and make conscious choices to guide their adaptation.

The way these living systems maintain their integrity varies, but in each case the same basic principles are at work. There is a balance between external forces and internal structures and limits beyond which the system loses its capacity to maintain itself. Within those limits, the system generates internal and external changes to adapt.  In living systems this is achieved through a number of strategies that include movement, proliferation of genetic variety, balance specialization and flexibility, functional and structural redundancy, internal diversity, etc. Migrations, changes in birth rates dictated by environmental factors and natural selection resulting in the evolution of species are examples of the forces that make for the resilience of plant and animal life. 

Human life follows the same patterns, with powerful physical as well as symbolic tools to change both its own structure and its environment.  However this powerful capacity to change the environment can result in over-specialization - a major risk to resilience.   Low resilience life forms disappear with minor changes in the environment; high resilience life forms withstand all but the most dramatic catastrophes.

Observing resilience at work in nature and in communities invites us to re-examine some of the assumptions we hold about how persons and communities grow, mature and heal, with far-reaching implications for social action and inclusion policies.

One such assumption is that individuals are like machines - they react to stimuli provided by their environment and circumstances in pre-determined and predictable ways, an idea that has done much to de-emphasizes personal responsibility in the western world over the last half-century. 

A variant of this is that humans are rational animals - reacting to situations in ways that are predictable in terms of their self-interest.

Another such assumption is that external support is capable - and may even be required - to build, support or repair communities, an idea that de-emphasizes collective responsibility. 

Yet another is the idea that it is the role of the state to take charge of people and communities with the assistance of professional services, institutions and programs.

All of these assumptions rest on a mechanical view of the world that takes for granted, as Hobbes did, that individuals are ‘wolves’ to each other and that communities are more or less functional groups of individualists brought together under duress or out of self-interest, but against their very nature. In contrast to this, is Aristotle’s view of man as a social being, and of living communities as the natural environment for humans.

The prevailing view of society as an artificial creation underlies much of current social engineering and social planning thinking.  Communities are viewed much like mechanical systems that can be built, adjusted, repaired and improved by experts; persons, like interchangeable parts that need to be refitted, readapted or discarded.  Social as well as individual problems tend to be addressed through programs and institutions designed to manage problems, not to assist persons to heal themselves; they focus on weaknesses, not on strengths, on behavior and situations, not on persons. 

Social action as a resilience-enhancing strategy requires a reversal of this logic, with the emphasis on personal and collective responsibility, citizenship and participation.  This does not remove the need for institutions and programs, but it changes the focus of their mission.  Institutions need to move from a strategy of removing dysfunctional individuals from society and from a focus on their problems, to one of ensuring participation by focusing on their strengths.  This requires flexibility and resources to develop individualized solutions.

This will not happen without major changes on the part of the receivers as well as the givers of social care; or without adequate levels of resources.  Generations of exclusion, dependency and helplessness has created a culture (and an economy) of victimization, with its reliance on rights and entitlements, that will not transform overnight into a culture of responsibility, participation and contribution. Institutions have built internal cultures based on problem management that will need to adapt to new ways of doing things. And making the right level of resources available to assist excluded persons and groups participate actively in society will only happen if society is persuaded of the value of their contribution.

One can of course make the case that there is a moral duty to provide this assistance.  A closer look at how resilience works suggest that there is also a case for enlightened self-interest.

Biological resilience in such diverse areas as the adaptation and evolution of species or the functioning of the immune system, is the result of the creative energy of nature that breeds a sufficient degree of internal diversity to successfully resist external attacks. It is also believed that psychological resilience similarly results from symbolic and affective creativity that provides some persons with the capacity to give meaning to stressful situations and to imagine better alternatives. All living systems - natural environments, individuals or communities - are thus made stronger and more resilient by their internal diversity.  Honoring difference, reaching out and integrating as full, valued and contributing citizens persons and groups from different horizons does not just benefit them.  It benefits all of society which is made richer, more balanced, and more capable of reacting to changing circumstances. 

We live in what is rapidly becoming a two-track society, dominated by a global achiever elite with no clear cultural identity in the fast lane and a growing contingent of restless onlookers whose contribution is not wanted.  With the rapid loss of the last pockets of local culture, community life and what, for lack of a better word, is called social capital, we can ill afford to continue to ignore the untapped creative potential of large segments of the world’s population. Resilience teaches us that inclusion is a survival strategy.  

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