Are you resilient enough for COVID-19?

Picture of Richard SandersWith the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot seem to escape messages about building resilience, which have been developing for some time now. In this first blog post from Richard Sanders, discourses of resilience are critically considered and questioned. Given that these discourses can be underpinned by an alignment to genetics and pseudoscientific knowledge, do we need to be careful that action does not cause further problems for education and wider society? If you would like to discuss the contents of this post with Richard, please feel free to contact him by email.

Picture of people bouncing in Zorb balls
Picture from Hana Tichá‎’s Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Over recent years, you’ve probably seen or heard the word resilience many times within education and wider society. This has further intensified with COVID-19, with a number of articles highlighting the importance of the behavioural and psychological ‘science of resilience’ to help individuals ‘bounce back’ from exposure to risk (for example: Denworth, 2020; Theron, 2020; and Bellizzi, 2020); and with the re-opening of schools, this can be coupled with recent government guidance emphasising the role of building resilience for trainee teachers and pupils to cope with difficulties (, 2020). Within the HE institutions I am connected to, searching through the most recent development initiatives uncovers workshops and programs to help individuals cope with current educational challenges; and I am sure that you will be able to find similar within the institutions you are familiar with.

My personal interest in resilience and what could be considered as a hegemonic (Gramsci, 2005) – or common sense – discursive construction, stems from my own doctoral research and the inclusion of resilience in recent policy formulations for addressing technological risk (, 2017; Livingstone et al, 2017;, 2018;, 2019). My concern and motivation for writing this blog post is a belief that the pervasive discursive alignment to resilience by policy makers, practitioners and academics (McAslan, 2010, p.1) may dangerously narrow societal response to a range of problems including COVID-19. Do we need to look at how this is invoked with a greater level of criticality?

The Origins of Resilience

Completed construction of the Titanic - ready for launch
Picture from Wikipedia (Public Domain)

To help draw out critical perspectives – it’s useful to consider the origin of its conceptualisation, which has its roots in the ideologically prioritised hierarchical knowledge language structures (Bernstein, 1999) of materials science. Robert Mallet who developed the modulus of resilience – a specific measure for comparing the resilient strength of materials in the navy ship construction industry (Mallet, 1856, p.44 cited in McAslan, 2010, p.2) – can be considered as the starting point for defining resilience, as the natural properties of a material to withstand impact within its natural elastic limits. The subsequent addition of Young’s Modulus (UoB, 2018) highlights that environmental factors may alter these limits, but the primary defining metrics are the natural properties of the material, which limit (or mediate) effects from the environment.

More recently, the concept of resilience has unproblematically shifted to the politically preferred horizontal strong grammar discourse (Bernstein, 1999) within Psychology, in terms of individual resilience. Rutter (1979) initially developed ideas of individual resilience when considering protective factors in children’s responses to stress & disadvantage, and this has been developed in alignment to materials science, where environmental factors are seen as impacting on genetically mediated resilience; coupled with higher cognitive functioning to help individuals cope with risk (Rutter, 1999, p.125). A surface consideration of Rutter’s inclusion of cognitive factors may conclude that a balance between nature (genetic component) and nurture (cognitive development) is being reached for here, but with Rutter unproblematically emphasising the role of IQ (ibid), this suggests that cognitive function is also mediated by perceived genetic factors.

This etymological basis for individual resilience and the connection to IQ helps to draw out initial critique for current formulations of knowledge. As work has already established, the belief in a pseudoscientific and over-simplified genetic basis for IQ has been firmly brought into question (Blum, 1978); with a de-emphasis on the role of structures, experience and nurturing critical capacity. Given that resilience invokes IQ and is primarily aligned to genetic perspectives – similar questions can be raised regarding naturally limiting factors, which mediate our capacity to be resilient. As a recent BBC podcast on The Science of Resilience demonstrates (Williams, 2016), this conceptualisation is alive and kicking within contemporary notions of resilience, with the belief that it will be possible to identify limiting genetic vulnerabilities for individuals from environmental factors imposed on them.

Returning to Bernstein, this formulation of individual resilience is neatly defined in an instrumentally rational quasi pseudoscientific genetic framing; rather than a more suited weaker grammar knowledge formulation; which is more likely to deal with the complexities of how resilience is contextually configured for an individual. However, with this form of knowledge not being bound by a well-defined paradigm and not lending itself to neatly measuring impact; it is of little surprise that dominant groups ‘function to silence and exclude the voice’ (1999, p.158) of these ‘dominated’ areas of knowledge that may advocate for differing conceptualisations.

The Contemporary Problem

Picture of a Sign for COVID-19 in Washington DC
picture from dmbosstone’s Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

With these silenced voices and the focus on hierarchical knowledge to interpret what is needed for individualised resilience, it would seem to me that society is sleepwalking into action as a result of adversity that at best will be ineffectual, and at worst damaging for individual’s mental health. The scientific basis for conceptualisations misrecognises the problem and is more likely to lead to generic, universal truths on what works for building resilience. The dominated weaker grammar subject areas should help to provide conceptualisations that are more suited to individual complexity and real-world problem solving, but given that these forms of knowledge are not suited to measuring impact, will they ever be prioritised?

I think this misrecognition (Grenfell & James, 1998, p.23) of how to conceptualise (purposeful or otherwise) and the direction that the discourse is taking us in can be extended out into a number of areas of concern, three of which I start to flesh out below. I hope these points will act as a provocation for further discussion, whether you agree with them or not, and we would welcome communication (perhaps further blog contributions) regarding the role of resilience in the difficult times that we face. I must say that I do tend to sit on the pessimistic side of things, and I would probably benefit from some more optimistic points of view on building resilience for individuals within society!

Want to buy a new neuromythology that is unlikely to work? – As with previous neuromyths within education, such as: VAK learning styles; only using 10% of your brain; and multiple intelligences, individual resilience has a basis in the scientific understanding of genetic factors. However, these ‘extrapolations go well beyond the data’ (Howard-Jones, 2007 cited in Geake, 2008, p.124), especially in this instance when the transfer has gone from materials to humans, and then into education. As Geake suggests, political performativity pressure can drive ‘teachers to adopt a one-size-fits-all, brain-based life raft’ when faced with a classroom ‘replete’ with individual difference (2008, p.124). I worry whether we may see a new focus in education on the purchase of washed out industry-based solutions to address individual resilience that will satisfy a broad-brush impact assessment; but will do little to address the complex problems that individuals are currently facing in a global pandemic.

We don’t want you to be critical – This particular point comes out the back of my own research work on digital technology, which has shifted into a broader educational concern regarding the political configuration of individual resilience within education. When discursively considering the end to the recent green paper consultation for digital risk (, 2018), digital literacy and notions of critical empowerment that can be associated to addressing this are discursively marginalised for future action, in favour of building resilience. The more generalised concern for education directly relates to this – are we at risk of further hollowing out of more general critical literacies development within education, if political policy and industry-based generic solutions for addressing individual resilience become pervasive?

Picture of a not very resilient egg with a COVID mask
picture from Ivan Radic’s Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

It’s all your fault – While we are living in supercomplex times and psychological well-being being is seen as key to addressing problems (Trotman & Tucker, 2018, p.26-27), we have the conditions for individualised resilience to firmly cement within societal action. While I do not disagree that solutions can be found that adequately deal with the complexities of individual experience (and there are organisations that are aiming to meaningfully build resilience), my concern here is that we may enter into a blame game that puts the problem back on those that are struggling to cope. Generic, primarily pseudoscientific based solutions and the implementation of these are unlikely to address the complexities of individual experience, and if solutions do not work then it is likely to be seen as the problem of the individual, rather than the responsibility of the structures that surround them. This concern is eloquently expressed within a recent BBC podcast from Jarral (2018), and if education hollows out critical literacies previously mentioned that can question structures, then we are unlikely to find effective ways forward. A concern here with recent action in society as a result of COVID-19 is the recognised lack of transparency from our political elite (Guardian, 2020); and arguably this means the development of critical capacities in more important than ever, so the inevitable blame game can find an appropriate balance. A final question can be asked here – do we have a political elite that see individualised resilience as a convenient way of distracting from structural difficulties with COVID-19, by portioning responsibility onto individuals to be resilient?

As Bernstein suggests (1999, p.170), I think further discussion and further ‘interactional research’ is needed around the concept of individual resilience, which will require a ‘…repositioning of the role of specialised languages’ away from the hierarchical knowledge structures of science to be of real benefit in the challenging times we face.


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