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Rewriting resilience: a critical discourse analysis of childhood resilience and the politics of teaching resilience to "kids at risk" Martineau, Sheila

Abstract

This study is a critical analysis of the discourse on childhood resilience and the politics of teaching resilience to "kids at risk" in inner-city schools. Resiliency research is rooted in the early psychology studies of children's coping and competence. By the 1970s, researchers were observing children who appeared invulnerable to traumatic events. These children were later described as resilient, and resilience was defined as bouncing back from adversity. Today, resilience has become an ideological code for social conformity and academic achievement. My analysis problematizes "childhood resilience" and "teaching resilience" and examines two dangerous shifts in the mainstream resiliency research over the past several decades. In one shift, resilience slipped from an anomaly in the context of complex trauma to being claimed as the social norm of the dominant society. In another shift, the context of resiliency research slipped from traumatized to disadvantaged populations. Consequently, teaching resilience in inner-city schools is a popular topic among professional child and youth advocates in BC. But these two shifts manifest as teaching socioeconomically disadvantaged children to conform to the social norms of the dominant society and as rationalizing social and educational programs that help children and youth at risk overcome obstacles. Such programs do not work to challenge systemic inequalities. I undertook a discourse analysis and an interpretive inquiry in identifying three resiliency discourses: the first is a dominant expert discourse based on quantitative studies; the second is a subordinate experiential discourse based on qualitative stories; and the third is a professional advocacy discourse that includes expert and experiential knowledge. The expert discourse derives from psychometric studies of resilient-identified children, and the experiential discourse emanates from the psychotherapeutic narratives of resilient-identified adults. The advocacy discourse emerges from educators, psychologists, and social workers who advocate on behalf of children and youth at risk. The data include resiliency texts, focused interviews, and relevant fieldnotes. I developed criteria for critiquing and recognizing resilience, explored potential intersections between the expert and experiential discourses, and interpreted risk and resiliency themes in the advocacy discourse. In challenging the dominant discourse, I argue that resilience is not a fixed set of traits that can be reified and replicated. Moreover, I argue that complex trauma and trauma recovery are essential to any construct of resilience and that resilience is pluralistic, contingent, and always in process. My study recommends collaborative resiliency research that focuses on trauma and that values experiential knowledge and attends to class and cultural diversity. It also recommends that the professional advocacy community re-focus on risk and work toward developing social programs and critical pedagogies that challenge structural oppression and systemic discrimination.

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