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Nurturing hidden resilience in troubled youth

Michael Ungar

In regard to high-risk youth (and other marginalized populations), we have tended to lack sufficient knowledge of the 'other' to ask if what we hope to accomplish through our interventions and research actually meets the needs of those whose lives we encounter. This, of course, strikes at the heart of a debate within the helping professions, as they struggle with postmodernism in its many forms (Gergen, 2001; Gergen et al., 1996). How do we help if there are no predetermined goals, no meta-theories to guide our work, and all truth is relative (see Brotman & Pollack, 1997; Howe, 1994; Leonard, 1997; Ristock & Pennell, 1996; Sands & Nuccio, 1992)?

This is problematic. However, one can take a positive orientation towards the challenges posed by postmodernist thought. Jane Gorman has noted, in reference to social workers, that helping professionals can position themselves as 'affirmative postmodernists (who) acknowledge the value of the consensual reading of a text or the shared understanding of a human experience and thus avoid the extreme nihilistic relativism characteristic of skeptical postmodernists' (1993: 250). Once we accept that our understanding of resilience (and our performing what we understand to be health-enhancing acts) is dependent on our participation in a collective social discourse that says that what we are doing is a sign of resilience, we come face to face with the thorny problem of relativism (Chambon & Irving, 1994; Gergen, 2001; Gorman, 1993; Leonard, 1997). If resilience can be anything that any group says it is, what then, in truth, is it?

How do we determine if a child is resilient if not by objective measures? Peter Leonard (1997), addressing this postmodern dilemma for human service workers, has proposed a useful compromise to balance the demands of theory with the expediency of practice. Leonard explains that each society, bound by its social and historical context, holds to truths that are 'universal by consent.' These consensual positions allow groups with unique knowledges to unify, issue by issue, for a common purpose without falling prey to essentialism. The idea is a powerful one. What we accept as truth is not 'the truth,' but a widely trusted social construction reflecting the time and place in which it occurs. These truths are not immutable. Each constituent in social discourse decides if it is in his or her best interest to participate in a particular construction of reality. Although we might find it difficult to believe, our allegiance to our beliefs changes over time.

The practicality of the counsellor's material day-to-day occupation confronts the potentially disembodied theory of postmodernism and the unsettling feelings it brings with it. In practice, there is no need to accept a radical relativism that argues each person's reality is uniquely her or his own. Humans are by nature social creatures and, as such, construct meaning through shared language structures. Intersubjectivity in our discourse means individual understandings of the world must necessarily share social meanings between people. The problem of relativism, however, remains ever present. Nevertheless, as Ronald Labonte notes, 'Many persons with disease, disability or unhealthy lifestyles experience themselves as being very healthy' (1993: 17).

This problem is further compounded because the practices that we employ to control problem individuals are enacted from within sociohistorical contexts (Foucault, 1976/1954, 1994/1978; Margolin, 1997). Take, for example, research that has investigated the needs of women street workers and exotic dancers, many of whom would have grown up as high-risk youth (Egan, 2000; Hancock, 1999; Schissel & Fedec, 2001/1999). Addressing in policy what the women themselves identify as needs (e.g., safer working conditions, health care, and political power) pits their interests against the values of groups that seek to solve the problem of street workers and exotic dancers in other ways. Helping is made more difficult when the 'clients' or 'patients' oppose the well-intentioned efforts of service providers to solve what they perceive as problems (e.g., getting women off the streets). Accounting for these different social agendas is part of the process of inclusion that contributes to the empowerment of those whose voices are silenced in our political discourse.


Brotman, S., & Pollack, S. (1997). Loss of context: The problem of merging postmodernism with feminist social work. Canadian Social Work Review, 14(1),9-21.

Chambon, A.S., & Irving, A. (Eds.). (1994). Essays on postmodernism and social work. Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press.

Egan, R.D. (2000, May). 'I'll be his fantasy girl if he's my money man'; Negotiations of fantasy, desire, and power among exotic dancers and their regular customers. Paper presented at the 17th Qualitative Analysis Conference, Fredericton.

Foucault, M. (1976). Mental illness and psychology (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Harper Colophon Books. (Original work published 1954.)

Foucault, M. (1994). About the concept of the 'dangerous individual' in nineteenth-century legal psychiatry. In J.D. Fabian (Ed. and Trans.), Michel Foucault: Power (pp. 176-200). New York: New Press. (Original work published 1978.)

Gergen, K.J. (1996). Beyond life narratives in the therapeutic encounter. In J.E. Birren, G.M. Kenyon, J. Ruth, J.J.F. Schroots, & T. Svensson (Eds.), Aging and biography: Explorations in adult development (pp. 205-223). New York: Springer.

Gergen, K. J. (2001). Psychological science in a postmodern context. American Psychologist, 56(10), 803-13.

Gergen, K. J., Hoffman, L., & Anderson, H. (1996). Is diagnosis a disaster? A constructionist trialogue. In F. W. Kaslow (Ed.), Handbook of relational diagnosis and dysfunctional family patterns (pp. 102-118). New York: Wiley.

Gorman, Jane (1993). Postmodernism and the conduct of inquiry in social work. Affilia, 8(3), 247-264.

Hancock, Karen. (1999, May). London's sex trade industry: The politics of the 'problem.' Paper presented at the 16th Annual Qualitative Analysis Conference, Fredericton.

Howe, David. (1994). Modernity, postmodernity and social work. British Journal of Social Work, 24(5), 513-532.

Labonte, R. (1993). Health promotion and empowerment: Practice frameworks. Toronto: Centre for Health Promotion and ParticipACTION.

Margolin, L. (1997). Under the cover of kindness: The invention of social work. London: University Press of Virginia.

Ristock, J. L., & Pennell, J. (1996). Community research as empowerment: Feminist links, postmodern interruptions. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Sands, R. G., & Nuccio, K. (1992). Postmodern feminist theory and social work. Social Work, 37(6), 489-494.

Schissel, B., & Fedec, K. (2001). The selling of innocence: The gestalt of danger in the lives of youth prostitutes. In R. C. Smandych (Ed.), Youth crime: Varieties, theories, and prevention (pp. 182-99). Toronto: Harcourt. (Reprinted from Canadian Journal of Criminology, Jan. 1999, pp. 33-56.)

Ungar, M. (2004). Nurturing hidden resilience in troubled youth. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. pp 83-84

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