Resiliency and responsibilisation

The case of international PhD candidates-in-waiting

2020 was full of potholes and distractions. As celebrations for the Year of the Rat wound down in China and Australia oriented to a new academic year, COVID started to go rampant across the globe. Right before the pandemic, Harry, Lili and Tina (pseudonyms) – like many other Chinese international students – had their visa to Australia granted, their flight booked. They got itchy feet and could not wait to travel to Australia for their forthcoming PhD studies. Yet, as many parts of the world lost control of the pandemic, borders slammed shut, and the PhD journey of Harry, Lili and Tina was precipitously in the balance. Disappointment and predicament, anxiety and uncertainty, and frustration and depression started to erode their routine life. A complex coexisting sense of connection and isolation, of inclusion and marginalisation, of fragility and flexibility, and of hope and despair has taken hold of them. Since then, every day has become a contrasting image of darkness and light. However, by no means can these multi-layered and inter-nested disturbances and interruptions shatter their dream of pursuing a PhD in Australia. While the forces that uphold their dream abound, in this article, I share with the reader their agentic and reflexive thinking and doing, by dint of which they cope and negotiate with the dysphoric and fluid COVID-related situations.

It will soon become clear how Harry, Lili and Tina reforge their psychological resiliency for self-righting into a sociological process of resilience for change. I use resiliency to denote a personal merit that enables individual well-being in problematic situations. I use resilience as a sociological tool to deconstruct the root causes of problematic situations and stimulate system-level change that questions, buffers, or redresses structural problems. While I focus on the cases of Harry, Lili and Tina, I trust that their cases are not rare. Alongside them are a massive population of international students who are unable to pursue or continue their overseas study as planned. While I spotlight the stories of these three young people in this column article, I believe that their engagement with resilience has far-reaching implications for international student communities, for powerful organisations like universities, for meta-institution of the state and for reframing resilience through a critical sociological perspective. In the ensuing exposition, I draw insights particularly from Pierre Bourdieu as an extension to my previous column article on sociologising resilience for social change. Before I recount the stories of Harry, Lili and Tina, I pause a moment to critique resilience as a seemingly omnipotent instrument for problems of all kinds.

Resilience as a panacea to every problem?

Resilience has been used as a powerful construct to recast trauma and vulnerability into adaptation and strength. The first two decades of this new millennium have seen resilience repeatedly employed as an antidote to victimhood during disasters such as the 9/11 attacks of the New York Twin Towers in the United States (2001), the 7/7 suicide bombing of the London Underground in the United Kingdom (2005), the 3/11 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami (2011) and the mysterious disappearance of MH370 on March 8th2014. Despite these destructive events, impacted individuals, families, communities and societies have bounced back from dysfunction and panic through persistence and consistency, solidarity and mutuality. Their resilience was displayed in forms of psychological grit in the face of calamities, emotional and moral support to self and others, collective wisdom in problem-solving, and social unity during emergencies.

Yet resilience is not created in modern times; rather, it is a human construct, anthropologically and scientifically. In Genesis, Noah and his family built the Ark and spared a remnant of creatures from the catastrophic flood. Five thousand years ago, when the Yellow River broke its bank in ancient China, Legend Dayu led his villagers to subdue the devastating floods. Zionist Jews of Germany, through their initiative and organised planning, sustained high morale in the face of Hitler’s dictatorship. Throughout human history, lashings of cultural narratives like the above have been documented and recognised. In this vein, forms of resilience shown in modern times are nothing new but intergenerationally reproduced through upbringing, education and socialisation. Interestingly, molecular and behavioural genetic research has shown burgeoning scientific evidence on the genetics of resilience. Resilience thus constructed is a project of human inheritance – biologically and socially – in time of crisis and challenge.

The third decade of this millennium has encountered crises and challenges like no other. With the entire global community plagued by COVID, consequences endure and intensify in forms such as the burden of social welfare, the strained public health system, the sustained downturn of the economy, the withering of globalisation and its attendant racism and xenophobia, the large-scale festinate digitalisation of learning and teaching during school closures, the readjustment to normal educational modes during the gradual resumption of campus life, and the edu-business-as-usual ceased for higher education, to just name a few. Once again, resilience was assumed as a key to these problems. Supranational and national agencies urged to build resilient institutions for an effective response to COVID through transparency, accountability and participation; to ensure socioeconomic recovery from COVID for the sake of Sustainable Development Goals; to reflect and reset the urban world that is bearing the brunt of the COVID crisis; to recognise the extraordinary resilience of indigenous peoples despite their structural disadvantages exacerbated by COVID; to develop skills for resilient young people in the COVID era and beyond; and to enable rapid and effective adaption of higher educationthrough prevention, preparedness and planning. During and post COVID, resilience seems to be astutely crafted as a ubiquitous epistemological tool.

In a time of crisis, supranational and national guidelines, as well as public and media discourses, are inundated with the epistemology of resilience. Such epistemology also ripples through children’s education, often from an early stage through everyday pedagogical actions. I have seen resilience communicated as a core value across all my partner research schools and the very value has been inculcated at school assemblies, in school bulletins, and through routine teaching and learning. See what some of the students told me:

There was a paper that showed there was the first, second and third people and the crowd only saw the people but underneath they showed all the stuff they went through to get up there and to the top. (Male, South African heritage, Grade Six, Private School)

At our school, at assembly, the headmaster talks about it (resilience). The teacher gave out awards to people who, for example, struggled in maths, and kept on working on it and working on it and working on it, doing extra homework and just trying to improve it, and they got really good in that area. The teacher will probably give them an award, a merit certificate. (Female, Chinese heritage, Grade Eight, Community School)

Clearly, what has become a hidden curriculum and a celebrated core in the resilience building of many school programs is the logic of individual accountability. The underlying logic is to enculturate young people into a responsible habitus through a heroism narrative of successful others who are determined to achieve the set goal, regardless of how challenging obstacles and situations encountered become. Such heroism narrative attributes achievement wholly to self-effort and nimbly directs attention away from the root causes culpable for the structural barriers over which the achievers have to leap, and the sociological factors contributing to the odds of success of the achievers. Heroism romanticises the lives of ‘model achievers’ who make do and mend or make ends meet in harsh conditions, and reduces social success to effort-led success. When ‘statistical outliers’ are mistakenly amplified as normality, individuals fettered by precarious conditions are blamed for their own failure and hence scapegoated for structural problems.

In his widely cited article ‘Governing the Enterprising Self,’ Nikolas Rose criticises resilience for its overdependence on ‘responsibilisation of the self’ (p. 149) in uncertain, risky times. While I fundamentally agree with his critical perspective, it is by no means my intention to ignore individuals’ indomitable spirit of resilience. Rather, active responsibility and resilient response in the face of a challenge are doubtlessly laudable. Neither do I view resilience as a construct doomed to be colonised by responsibilisation. Instead, resilience as a biosocial project of human inheritance long predates the phenomenon of responsibilisation – a capitalist politics and practice largely associated with neoliberalism. My purpose is to problematise the ontological complicity between resiliency (an individualistic framework) and responsibilisation (a capitalist political agenda). To this end, I have recourse to Harry, Lili and Tina’s agentic and reflexive engagement with resilience in the era of COVID when transborder higher education is disrupted dramatically.

The risk of psychological resiliency and the rise of sociological resilience

Harry, Lili and Tina are academic achievers and secured a full scholarship offer from an Australian university right before the global pandemic. Their intelligence, diligence and scholastic excellence made them stand out from the crowd of applicants through a highly competitive, meticulously rigorous evaluation process. They were fortunate and privileged winners in a fair game of meritocracy. But their sense of pleasure and pride was soon brutally stamped out by the unprecedented, unpredicted precipitation of COVID. With the Australian border closure, their journey to Australia is disrupted, but their dream is not. Since then, they have demonstrated extraordinary determination and waited for the border to reopen with extreme patience. They have followed through and pulled through:

I have to do several part-time jobs simultaneously to pay for my own and my family’s living expenses, but also I have to set aside a certain time to read literature and do research in preparation for future doctoral research. (Harry)

My original plan was upset, and I have to rearrange my life during this period, such as where to live, what work to do to earn my own living, how to make good communication with my family about the current situation to reduce their worry and pressure… But we remain trapped in this embarrassing situation when many people around can live a nearly normal life again. (Lily)

All three came from a modest background, but they all made it to higher education and successfully completed their degree at elite Chinese universities. Sociology of education has long-established evidence that for students like Harry, Lili and Tina, their educational achievement is unusual. Pierre Bourdieu’s work comes to mind. The famed sociologist writes about ‘the sons of petit-bourgeois workers’ and ‘the wonder boys,’ respectively in The Inheritors and Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, who achieve educational success against all the odds. In The Inheritors (pp. 25-26), Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron commend the ‘impossible ambition’ of these young achievers who ‘avoid the common fate of their class’:

although subjects from the most disadvantaged classes are those more likely to be crushed by the weight of their social destiny, they can also, exceptionally, turn their excessive handicap into the stimulus they need to overcome it.

Much psychological literature draws on the concept of resiliency to explain the exceptional performance in the face of excessive handicap. Without psychological resiliency, Harry, Lili and Tina could have already given up or collapsed. I acknowledge the tenacity of the three resilient young people in difficult COVID times, but I also accentuate the danger of overreliance on psychological resiliency. They have put up with much more plight than we would believe:

The whole year of waiting has not only consumed my enthusiasm, but also caused my anxiety. I neither had a job to improve my vocational skills, nor did I gain academic progress. I waited and waited, hoping the border would reopen soon…. I also worry about my age. At Chinese universities, all programs for early-career academics favour those younger than 35. As I wait, I get older and won’t be qualified for those programs when I graduate. All the job opportunities I have missed and will miss made me feel abandoned by the society. (Tina)

I have suffered from the doubts of my friends, the incomprehension of my family, and the self-doubt that followed…. Frankly speaking, this year has made me exhausted, both mentally and physically. (Harry)

As shown in the excerpts, psychological resiliency is accompanied by suffering and exhaustion. This reifies what Brad Evans and Julian Reid argue in their article ‘Exhausted by Resilience‘ (p. 154). Overemphasis on individual accountability in challenging times shrouds the logic of self-organisation, self-governance, self-regulation and self-discipline – all in a form that Pierre Bourdieu would call ‘responsibilisation tending to secure self-exploitation’ in Acts of Resistance (p. 97). Beneath the self-exploiting journey ‘lurks a dark and dehumanising political agenda,’ as Brad Evans and Julian Reid poignantly criticise in another article, ‘Dangerously Exposed: The Life and Death of the Resilient Subject‘ (p. 95). The authors, therefore, summon resilience to death for ‘the hidden depth of its nihilism’ and ‘the lack of imagination the resiliently minded possess in terms of transforming the world for the better’ (p. 154). Elsewhere, I acknowledge this line of criticism, while I also argue that resilience is not dead but has a potential for change when reframed sociologically. Here I hark back to the stories of Harry, Lili and Tina and show the dysfunction of psychological resiliency and the power of sociological resilience.

Over the entire year of 2020, psychological resiliency did navigate the three young people through multitudes of difficulties. Nevertheless, their resiliency became paralysed with the advent of 2021. When they let bygones be bygones and started afresh after a festive season, they received a disappointing letter from their prospective Australian university: Their scholarship will lapse if they do not arrive in Australia by early May 2021 – an impossible date for the border to reopen. Harry, Lili and Tina immediately realised that their resiliency during their waiting time did not make them invincible but would be a deceitful emancipatory exercise for them to accept every loss. When push came to shove, they rejected taking their fate lying down and took measures to make a change. They wrote heartfelt letters to their prospective Australian university, and this action demonstrates their engagement with a sociological process of resilience in many ways.

First, they did not turn their disappointment into cynical complaint or extreme action. In stark contrast, they appreciated the university for having deferred their scholarship offer several times and understood the university’s decision for not granting any further deferral. They trusted that the university had supported them by all means possible in such a tumultuous situation. In this respect, they are analogous to the reflexive sociological knowledge workers described by Pierre Bourdieu in The Weight of the World (pp. 625-626):

they can objectify themselves that they are able, even as they remain in the place inexorably assigned to each of us in the social world, to imagine themselves in the place occupied by their objects (who are, at least to a certain degree, an alter ego) and thus to take their point of view, that is, to understand that if they were in their shoes they would doubtless be and think just like them.

Second, they raised awareness of the dynamics and complexities that the university may not know. For the university, the final deferral of scholarships until early May 2021 is a fair decision for everyone impacted, irrespective of students’ socioeconomic, cultural and demographic backgrounds and regardless of their motivations and research potential for their prospective PhD study. At face value, the decision does appear fair. However, without understanding students’ backgrounds and trajectories, the university risks de-historicising and de-socialising decision-making. The university may not know that students like Harry, Lili and Tina are not afforded any alternative due to their modest background. They are desperate and dedicated to their prospective PhD study not merely for the sake of knowledge pursuit and horizon broadening, but also for the sake of their belief in meritocracy, for the honour and symbolic value that a PhD will bring to their family, and for grasping one of the very few chances for social mobility. The university may not know that its seemingly fair decision will only shut the door to these and other real academic disciples. Its decision barely has any impact on students from privileged backgrounds who are afforded abundant alternative options, but for students like Harry, Lili and Tina, it can have a lifelong impact.

Next, they also raised awareness of the tensions around responsibilisation. In their letters to the university, they asked: ‘The university does have difficulties, but is it really reasonable for such risks and responsibilities to be transferred to foreign students?’ In the article ‘Making Us Resilient: Responsible Citizens for Uncertain Times’ (p. 34), Nikolas Rose and Filippa Lentzos write: ‘responsibility is deployed against those who are not responsible for their condition by those wishing to escape or deny their own responsibilities.’ They argue against burdening citizens with building their own resilience in the face of adversity and scold such demands without infrastructural powers to realise resilience as disingenuous at best, toxic at worst. This aligns with the critique of Loïc Wacquant in his book Punishing the Poor. When analysing neoliberal government of social insecurity, Loïc Wacquant reveals the ‘obligations of citizenship’ (p. 290) and ‘the cultural trope of individual responsibility’ (p. 307) with priorities given to ‘duties over rights, sanction over support’ (p. 290).

The language of the three young people pinpoints the same problem, but also urges us to pore over responsibilisation at a different level: ‘The university does have difficulties.’ As transnational higher educational businesses of all types were postponed and cancelled, university income plummeted, but the higher education sector was excluded from the financial lifelines cast out into the economy by the Australian government. Of all the ordeals that universities encounter in COVID times, one is austerity, for which neoliberalism is largely culpable. With the encroachment of neoliberalism, responsibilisation is not solely imposed on individuals; instead, the imposition cascades through all levels of the hierarchy, from the state, through the university, to the students. While the criticism of neoliberalised universities is strident, the language of the three young people raised significant issues about how questions of imposed accountability could be asked of those doing the imposing.

A sociological reframing of resilience

In a time of crisis, when the only certainty is uncertainty, Harry, Lili and Tina knew that uncertainty does not necessarily lead to loss but may give rise to opportunities. For the three young people, resilience is not solely about achieving desirable outcomes in precarious situations; it is also about struggling tooth and nail to maximise however slim a sign of opportunity, to ignite reflexivity of self and powerful others, and to make a change through agency work. Engagement with a sociological process of resilience did not successfully defer their scholarship offer beyond early May 2021, but it did make a difference. Considering their exceptional circumstances, the university has agreed to hold their scholarship should they commence their PhD before early May 2021 through an external mode; and approved a part-time mode should they need to take paid work in China to maintain their living. Over the period of their external part-time study, the university will have their tuition fee covered. They will receive payment of living expense once they arrive in Australia and shift to the internal full-time mode of study.

The stories of Harry, Lili and Tina prompt me to problematise the ontological complicity between resiliency and responsibilisation. Over the entire course of 2020, the three young people used resiliency as a spiritual mainstay and a powerful inspiration to remain tough in hard times. Yet, they broke with the psychological mantra of resiliency and woke up from the epistemic slumber in responsibilisation at the brink of losing their scholarships. In this vein, responsibilisation is resilience-limiting as much as resilience-liberating. With responsibilisation, psychological resiliency risks dehumanising the self, but it also opens up the space for change. Responsibilisation and resiliency – though persuasive and pervasive, insidious and insinuating – paradoxically reveal their own limitations. Such limitations construct margins of freedom for the three young people to repudiate the accountability imposed on them, for those higher in the hierarchy to think about doing the right thing versus doing things right, for the university to redefine institutionalised doxic norms and practices, for the state to pronounce and promote risk-sharing and de-neoliberalisation, and for the academic community to think resilience sociologically.

To engage with sociological analysis, I share with the reader a lengthy quote from Homo Academicus (pp. 4-5) written by Pierre Bourdieu, who bequeathed us a relational and reflexive sociology to unveil symbolic domination, to facilitate social change, and to promote social justice:

Against those who would use the formulation of social laws, converted into destiny, as an alibi for fatalistic of cynical resignation, we must remember that scientific explanation, which gives us the means to understand and even to exonerate, is also what may allow us to make changes.… [I]t should teach him [sic] to place his responsibilities where his liberties are really situated and resolutely to refuse the infinitesimal acts of cowardice and laxness which leave the power of social necessity intact, to fight in himself and in others the opportunist indifference or conformist ennui which allows the social milieu to impose the slippery slope of resigned compliance and submissive complicity.

Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological thinking is profound. To not further complicate the already complex ideas, I conclude the article with some ‘simple tips’ for sociologising resilience: In fuel-poor houses, we have to learn to wrap ourselves up with whatever stuff is at our disposal and keep warm while also mulling over what has gone wrong with the house; when a rock is shooting straight towards us, we need to learn to avoid being hit by it while also pondering over who throws that rock and why. To sociologise resilience is not to demonise resiliency altogether; rather, it is to unveil the structural problems camouflaged by that psychological project and to explore pathways to social change. In a nutshell, thinking and doing resilience sociologically is to first struggle to survive and thrive in a constraining system resiliently, then to take issue with it and dismantle its arbitrary power by the power obtained through it!

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Full Citation Information:
Mu, G. M. (2021). Resiliency and responsibilisation: The case of international PhD candidates-in-waiting. PESA Agora.

Guanglun Michael Mu

Dr Guanglun Michael Mu is Senior Research Fellow in Queensland University of Technology. He is developing a sociology of resilience through his work with Chinese floating children and left-behind children in migration context; Chinese teachers in inclusive education context; and diverse student populations in Australia’s multicultural context. Michael’s work has been published into five books and numerous papers.

Article Feature Image Acknowledgement: Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash