Bridging perspectives: Crafting Resilience Kickoff-Conference insights

Bridging perspectives: Crafting Resilience Kickoff-Conference insights

Lina Le Pelley

28 April 2023

Open dialogues and lively exchanges characterized the Crafting Resilience Kick-off conference, and there was tangible value in having researchers and practitioners from different disciplines and countries collectively explore the ideas at the core of the Crafting Resilience research project.

A Divided Society: Introducing the Conference

“We can notice a growing divide in Dutch society.” Maartje van der Woude, one of the Principal Investigators, opened the kick-off conference by describing how a widespread distrust in science, persistent inequality, and constitutional racism in the Netherlands have contributed to widening gaps between citizens in the government. She illustrated this with a collage of worrying Dutch news headlines: like “half of Dutch people have no trust in politics”. Responding to this, the Crafting Resilience research project wants to work on exploring programs that seek to bridge the gap between citizens and state and create more just, democratic and resilient approaches and practices.

“We are geared towards producing so much more than just academic outputs,” van der Woude stated, “but we have a lot of work to do, if we want to ensure that our research is actually usable and useful for communities.” The project’s “comparative perspectives” work package is dedicated to this purpose and to expanding the public nature of the project. Van der Woude concluded by emphasizing our need for more engagement: specifically, our need for policies that minimize inequalities and develop more just state-citizen relations.

Resilience, Culture, and Care: Roundtable about Dealing with Inequality

To start off, Femke Kaulingfreks (Inholland), Judi Mesman (Leiden University), Shivant Jhagroe (Leiden University), and Sarah Bracke (University of Amsterdam) talked about how we approach social inequality in the Netherlands. Using examples from their own research and experiences, they reflected on political resistance, being an activist in academia, and the gendered, classed and raced idea of the “ideal citizen”.

Bracke underlined that inequality is never one dimensional, saying, “we do not live single-issue lives” and expressing her preference for using the term “interlocking oppressions” coined by Patricia Hill Collins, rather than intersectionality to describe and investigate this. Jhagroe gave an example from his research in the energy resource management sector, where the normative figure of the experienced, white “resource man” is a kind of “ideal citizen” whose privilege and educational background mean he can participate in ways others cannot. Policymakers and social professionals often struggle to unpack the combination of privileges and relations of dominance at stake in their work.

Resilience and Countering Hegemony

The speakers also discussed the problematic nature of the term “resilience”, and how it has been alternately depoliticized and weaponized to fit a neoliberal agenda – like in the Structural Adjustment Programmes implemented by the IMF and the World Bank in the Global South in the 80s, and the US government response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (Bracke showed a poster that declared: “I am not resilient”). Mesman questioned the implications of the word “resilience”, which insinuates that people have to defend themselves against some kind of attack – but against what? Against an unequal and unjust system, perhaps?

Jhagroe countered with the more positive notion of “ethical” resilience (an activist form of political resistance in the wake of socioeconomic and environmental disaster), which differs from “ideological” resilience (the withdrawal of the welfare state). Kaulingfreks raised the idea of a “politics of care” as a strategy for addressing the inequality of state care absence, emphasizing that approaches like new care networks should be collective. In a discussion about the role of research, Mesman said that social scientists should not be afraid of being “unmasked” as activists who care about the issues they research – they should be honest about their positionality rather than trying to fake neutrality and put on a mask of objectivity. Given certain power relations that value research over citizens’ knowledge, Mesman emphasized that researchers need to make space for other knowledges, give value to other voices, and put their resources and epistemic tools to use: “Don’t bemoan your privilege, use it to be of service!”

The researchers agreed that we have to be honest about who is producing knowledge. Bracke warned of romanticizing co-production, given that care can also be violent, and “we might realize how these relations are white and racist.” Jhagroe added that we should be reflexive about the power relations embedded in the much-celebrated co-production of knowledge. Kaulingfreks pointed out how implicit ideas about how to build the “right” communities are shaped by one’s education and positionality.

Warm and Cold, Close and Distant: Approaches to Crafting the Social

In a discussion about “crafting the social”, Mariël van Pelt (Movisie), Rudi Roose (Ghent University) and Nicolas Duvoux (Paris 8 University) reflected on their national contexts – specifically, the place of social work and the “social domain” in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. How the social is perceived and governed in these national contexts differs considerably. It soon became clear that each country has its own logic and jargon, which means that the Dutch term “the social domain” does not translate well across national borders.

Van Pelt highlighted the paradoxical idea of “proximity”: social work and welfare is seen as ideally being as “close” to people in need as possible, but that there is a discrepancy between what is expected and the resources that are provided to make it work. In the context of decentralization, local governments nearby are perceived as more capable of handling problems, but this bigger responsibility paradoxically comes with less money to actually do so. Duvoux offered that in France, social work is often only perceived as useful at a close proximity to the people it endeavours to reach – but successful, constructive social work involves more than just proximity. Roose pointed out an unfortunate trend in the “deintellectualization” of social work, stating that “an uncritical approach to social work is a match made in heaven for neoliberalism.” Relational social work is vital in connecting to people, but so is building critical capacity.

“Warm” solidarity (grassroots, bottom up, communal) is often contrasted with “cold” solidarity (state-related, top down, bureaucratic), but Roose stated that we should not see governance and public service as the enemy while praising people “on the ground” (the practitioners/social workers) – given that a lack of training can also lead social workers to reproduce problematic and hegemonic relations. Duvoux agreed, arguing that the warmest forms of solidarity may sometimes be found in the most bureaucratic contexts, and vice versa. “There are not just nasty politicians and. kind social workers,” he stated, mentioning how in strict welfare arrangements for North African migrants in the south of France, “sometimes social workers will be flexible, but sometimes they will push harder than is required by law.”

Imagining Utopia in the Now: Keynote on Prefigurative Research Methods

In her keynote, Davina Cooper (King’s College London) introduced the idea of prefigurative politics, which involves “acting as if the world we inhabit was otherwise”. Acts of prefiguration treat the means of change as ends. They help to “rehearse in advance the world that is sought”, and they refuse to postpone better ways of living indefinitely. Here, the means give meaning to, and eventually become, the ends. This suggests opposite approach to addressing societal issues, which works backwards by starting with the solutions rather than the problems.

Cooper initiated a project which introduced an imaginary law reform proposal. The imaginary law reform Cooper worked on was the idea of decertification, getting rid of legal categories of gender. This experiment asks why are sex and gender relevant categories for law? What would happen if you were not legally registered a certain sex at birth? By “rehearsing” what decertification would entail for various people affected, the project provided fresh insights into the relation between gender and the law, and brought a radical idea close to everyday practice.

Change, like bringing a radical idea closer to the law (even if it is imaginary), is change, no matter how slow. Cooper noted that this is a risky way to introduce a radical idea – giving it a semblance of legitimacy can produce pushback, like sensationalist media reports about the extreme policy aims of the left, or conspiratorial ideas about the true intentions of other gender proposals in the UK, which happened in the research project’s after life. But despite the backlash, one thing was clear – they had taken the leap to imagine the unimaginable.

In their responses, Nicolas Duvoux and Mette-Louise Johansen (VIVE, Denmark) pointed out the unique, radical potential of this approach. Duvoux showed appreciation for how this method gives a sense of credibility to utopian critical thinking, and Johansen highlighted the advantages of this approach for transforming practices, given that prefiguration avoids the pitfalls of working towards an “end” which may never materialize. She also pointed out how exploring the present from a speculative future could lead to the “defrosting” of culturally predominant concepts.