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date: 28 November 2021

Poverty and Resilience in Mexicofree

Poverty and Resilience in Mexicofree

  • Mercedes González de la RochaMercedes González de la RochaCenter for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology


Resilience has become the dominant conceptual framework through which the changing lives of the poor are understood. Across the disciplines, resilience is taken to be an analytic measure of the capacity to resist, adapt, and transform itself in the impact of a given disturbance or crisis. Critical engagement with the concept and associated literature, however, shows this framework to be neither original nor competent in providing the heuristic tools for a comprehensive and empirical understanding of poverty, vulnerability, and adaptability or responsiveness. Older, socio-anthropological approaches emerging out of Latin American research from the 1970s to the early 21st century mark an important if unacknowledged precedent of resilience scholarship, while demonstrating the potential weaknesses of a conceptual framework that privileges constant capacity and flexible stability at the expense of disadvantage, damage, and irreparable loss.


  • Sociocultural Anthropology


Numerous studies have addressed the issue of persistent poverty in Mexico. They range from studies published in the 1950s to the 1970s of rural poverty and indigenous and peasant social organization, to those in the 1970s to the 1990s that examined rural–urban migration and forms of survival in the city (Kemper 1970, 1971; Lomnitz 1977; Roberts 1979, 1995; Warman 1976, among many others). In the mid-20th century, Mexican society experienced tremendous demographic change involving an important rural–urban migration and runaway urbanization: in just three decades, the country went from being a predominately rural society to one that was mostly urban. Rural waves of migrants arrived in cities in search of better lives, but most joined the ranks of the urban poor. From the 1940s until the 1980s, there was a shift in emphasis in studies of migrants, the poor, and indigenous people in the city from a concern with how migrants brought their rural culture with them, or worse, lost it, seemingly becoming part of a mass subject to political manipulation and economic exploitation as passive objects of change (Redfield 1941; Wirth 1938) to detailed explorations of their creative survival through a combination of rural and urban economies, social survival networks, and conscious, if conflicted management of their limited resources (Arizpe 1975; Cornelius 1975; Eckstein 1982, Lomnitz 1977). This latter approach involved a notion of the poor migrant as rational, creative, organized, and capable, in spite of the difficulties they faced.1 Since the studies of Oscar Lewis (1961, 1968), scholars from different disciplines and perspectives have discussed the economy of the poor, their ways of life, their adjustments and conformities, and also the breakdowns, disputes, and risks the poor face on a daily basis. In the 1970s, there was a surge in studies of marginality and the adaptation processes of rural migrants in the city (see especially Lomnitz 1977; Roberts 1979). Both the “culture of poverty” (Lewis 1966) and the notion of “marginality” of rural–urban migrants residing in barriadas (poor slums and squats, usually in the peripheries of Latin American cities) found strong criticisms.2 Research conducted in different cities of the region shed light on the close integration of the urban poor in the economy, politics, and culture of larger Latin American societies (Chant 1991; Cornelius 1975; Leeds and Leeds 1970; Peattie 1974, 1979; Perlman 1981). The survival strategies approach was an ethnographic focus for several decades showing the central importance of the household as the unit of analysis and the main scenario of survival. Research conducted in Mexico and other Latin American countries paid attention to the amount of resources in the hands of the poor household, mainly labor force, the household division of labor, as well as the household structure, household composition, and the way these variables change along the domestic cycle. The key importance of women’s work (both waged and unwaged) and that of other “secondary” workers (children and other household members who are not the male head of the household) in the generation of income and the provision of care were amply studied (Benería and Roldán 1987; González de la Rocha 1986, 1994; Jelin and Feijoó 1980; Selby, Murphy, and Lorenzen 1990; Sheridan 1991). Using the notion of “the resources of poverty,” I carried out ethnographic research and provided interpretations of how poor families and urban households survived, mainly with the effort and participation of most able members of the household in income-generating activities, both before and during the economic crisis of the 1980s (González de la Rocha 1994).

However, people’s realities and our academic perspectives continued to evolve. The damage caused by the 1980s and early 1990s economic crises to the lives of the urban poor in Mexico gave rise to a third perspective that, instead of emphasizing the resources of poverty or the idea of the resourcefulness of the poor, turned its attention to the limits of such strategies, the processes through which resources vanish, and the consequences of their erosion or depletion. Analysis of the processes of cumulative disadvantages took the place once occupied by those of survival strategies and resourcefulness of the poor, even if it did not eliminate the previous approach (Bazán 1999; González de la Rocha 2018; Mora and Oliveira 2014; Saraví 2006). Those who spoke of the limits of the resourcefulness model had first studied the logic of poor people’s actions, given limited resources. Soon, however, they went on to question whether the creativity, organization, and use of those resources could counteract the specific challenges of structural neoliberal reforms and other social and economic misfortunes, either structural (such as adjustment economic policies implemented during the 1980s and 1990s) or derived from specific circumstances (such as violence and insecurity resulting from the uncontrolled action of organized crime). Structural transformations have come to produce a number of disadvantages and inequalities that cannot be neutralized or countered by the creativity, rationality, and organization of the poor. In other words, people’s cunning is not sufficient for them to bounce back from catastrophic events affecting their jobs, their cities, and their families, nor to necessarily return to a stability that satisfies their minimum needs. Four decades after Perlman’s depiction of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas as socially well organized and cohesive, culturally engaged, and economically involved, the author of The Myth of Marginality described the inhabitants of favelas as innocent victims of rising insecurity and social violence. In Perlman’s words, “. . .violence has made Rio’s most vulnerable population fearful of going about their daily lives, reduced their chances of getting jobs, lowered the value of their homes, weakened the trust and solidarity that has held their communities together. . .” (Perlman 2010, 166). This resounds with my own change of emphasis from the resources of poverty (or the resourcefulness of the poor) to the poverty of resources or the limits of creative and elastic adaptation of the poor to economic change and other calamities.

The concept of resilience is offered mainly by the World Bank and other international development agencies but also by policymakers within countries as the grand solution to the problems faced by people of different social and economic classes, particularly when facing environmental and ecological disasters and economic crises, but without taking into account the lessons learned from the three analytical approaches just described (World Bank 2019a, 2019b; PNUD 2011).3

Can we speak of “resilience” of the urban poor in Mexico in their adaptation to processes of economic transformation? If we understand resilience narrowly as “the ability of a system to bounce back or return to equilibrium following disturbance” (Béné et al. 2014, 600), the answer is, categorically, no. If, however, resilience is understood as the capacity of complex systems to adapt to circumstances in order to maintain their function and structure and at the same time to reorganize and deploy abilities to adapt and transform themselves (Béné et al., 2014), the answer is not as straightforward. On the one hand, the poor effectively mobilize their resources to deal with difficulties and adapt to changes in their life conditions. On the other hand, we cannot escape the fact that these processes involve losses, that adjustment comes with costs, and that these costs are usually cumulative and result in significant damage to people’s well-being. Poverty forces people to depend more on help from friends and relatives, but the accumulation of disadvantages in the impoverishment of an entire community leads to the breaking of social ties and the gradual erosion of reciprocity and trust (Bähre 2007; Bazán 1999; Devereux 1999; Estrada 1995, 1996; González de la Rocha, Moreno, and Escobar 2016; Rabell Romero 2009; Rabell Romero and D’Aubeterre 2009; Rivera González 2006; Rodgers 2007). Even if household members organize to increase their income and mobilize their resources through the intensification of work and creative changes in consumption, in the end the poor earn less, eat less well, and pay more for transportation or health. They not only get sick more often and die earlier than the more affluent, but they also got sick more often and died earlier than before these massive economic changes took place (Antentas and Vivas 2014; González de la Rocha 1991; Gracia_Arnaiz 2014).

Much has been said in Mexico about the impact of violence on life expectancy, but there has been limited analysis of how much life expectancy is affected by economic crises and structural transformation. These effects can be summarized in the word suffering. A study on the future of poor youth in Mexico, carried out in 2017, described the physical and emotional state of young people in poverty as an affliction. Cumulative deprivation, negative experiences, and lost battles (mainly but not only in the labor market) make it very difficult for young people to respond creatively or energetically when an opportunity arises (Escobar Latapí et al., forthcoming). The notion of resilience promotes analyses that fail to recognize that this suffering, this affliction, is a fundamental characteristic of the lives of the poor. In this way, the use of the concept of resilience turns a blind eye to the challenges in the lives of the poor: their miseries, their scant resources, and the meager conditions of their existence. As Shaikh and Kauppi (2010) note, the concept of resilience emphasizes the strengths of human beings and not their weaknesses or deficiencies and, for that reason, those who use it focus on understanding processes of overcoming difficulties. Here, I argue that the attention paid to resilience in the past twenty years is the result of a hegemonic perspective that does not take into account the economic structures that produce and maintain poverty. It is a perspective that fits with the optimistic development narrative of international banks and development agencies. It is a way of explaining survival and, where it exists, the relative well-being of some in terms of the virtues of individuals, families, and communities. It is a concept that responds to the very logic of the development agencies that are devoted to analyze and hopefully offer solutions to the processes that perpetuate poverty and vulnerability (PNUD 2011; Sánchez et al. 2013; World Bank 2019a).

Resilience: Genealogy of the Concept

The analysis of a subject’s responses to disruptive events has many elements in common across the disciplines. In the economic literature, particularly that based on the household assets approach, the analysis of responses focuses on the ability of households to mobilize a portfolio of resources, such as diversification of domestic resources, migration, the sale of productive assets, and the use of the available labor power of women and children (Kaztman 1999; Moser 1996). There is a strong emphasis on resilience, defined as a household’s ability to contend with risk by means of mobilizing resources and to recover from a shock. In the literature on livelihoods and in analyses inspired by the household assets approach, the responses to risk are well documented. Adaptive responses as well as coping responses are frequent objects of analysis.4 According to Alwang, Siegel, and Jogensen (2001), sociologists and anthropologists also emphasize the resilience of households, defined by the number and type of household and community assets, and recognize the importance of domestic and social assets in the management of risk. They attributed to sociologists and anthropologists like Putnam (1993) and Moser (1998) the extension of the term “asset” to refer to dimensions beyond the physical and financial, as in the concept of social capital. Dissatisfaction with measurement approaches (such as those of income and consumption) in understanding changes in people’s well-being led sociologists and anthropologists to consider vulnerability and resilience from more holistic perspectives, increasingly making use of a combination of ethnographic and qualitative methods (Alwang et al. 2001).

In its use to describe things, mechanisms, systems, living beings (plants, animals, human beings), families, communities, societies, ecosystems, and so forth, resilience alludes to the capacity for adaptation of objects and organisms in the face of adverse events or situations. According to Béné et al. (2014), the concept emerged in the ecological literature of the 1970s, with a narrow definition focused on the capacity of a system to return to its original state following a disturbance. In engineering and physics, resilience is used to describe a body’s process of recovery, by means of its elasticity, after a deformation or rupture: its ability to spring back into shape (Tarter and Vanyukov 1999). Its use was extended to biology, psychology, and the social sciences, especially in studies of development.5 The fragility of a body (be it a substance, a person, an animal, or a plant), as an individual or collective (an ecosystem, a family, a community), decreases as its resilience increases. Timmerman (1981) found the beginnings of its use among climate change researchers who pointed to the necessity for determining the characteristics of human societies at different levels of development, and in different natural environments, that make them especially vulnerable, or especially resilient, to climate variability. In this period, environmental researchers discussed the differences between societies characterized by accumulated reserves or resources and those that were poorer. Those with accumulated wealth were, in the view of those researchers, more able to combat or resist the impact of environmental change because the control of resources was an effective defense mechanism against this threat (Timmerman 1981). Schneider and Temkin (1978) questioned whether their present society could be deemed more or less vulnerable than in the past and which social sectors were more at risk. It is possible to see in these now classic analyses of climate change and its impact three of the most important factors running through late 20th and early 21st-century approaches to the processes of adaptation to difficulties: (a) resources (wealth, reserves); (b) resilience (the ability to respond to a risk or threat, avoiding negative results or damage, also termed “resourcefulness” by some authors [cf. Moser 1996]); and (c) the differential impact of threats and environmental change on different units or organisms. These three elements were analyzed extensively by Mexican anthropologists dealing with survival strategies and by other social scientists investigating the impact of economic crises. Resilience is associated with the efficient use and management of resources. Responses to threatening events involve the mobilization of such resources (Benería 1992; Chant 1991; Consumidor 1989; González de la Rocha 1991; Instituto Nacional del Consumidor 1989).6

In the field of development studies, according to the review of Béné et al., there are three central characteristics of resilience: (a) the capacity to absorb or cushion the impact of disruptive changes (which studies of survival strategies emphasize repeatedly); (b) the capacity to adapt to such changes through diverse adjustments and responses that come from learning and experience; and (c) the capacity for transformation (Béné et al. 2014, 600). Actually, these scholars argue, all three characteristics should be conceptualized as different intensities of resilience, according to the intensity of the disruptive event:

Understood in a linear way, the conceptualization of resilience . . . suggests that managing for resilience requires directing a system in a way that promotes resistance in a period of small disturbance, adaptation in a time of greater disturbance and transformability when conditions are becoming unviable or unsustainable.

(Béné et al. 2014, 602)

Each kind of response carries a specific transaction cost. Naturally, transformative changes carry the highest costs and absorptive responses the smallest one (Béné et al. 2014).7

The concept of resilience is also associated with the concept of vulnerability. The use of both concepts was expanded by international agencies such as the World Bank and the different United Nations organizations. The list of World Bank and UN publications and reports having resilience or vulnerability in their titles grew significantly during the last years of the 20th century and boomed during the first decade of the 21st century.8 The majority of authors who have contributed to the conceptual framework of vulnerability argue that, although distinct, poverty and vulnerability are interrelated. Individuals and households with fewer resources—the poorest among us—are more vulnerable to economic crises or other risks and have a more limited capacity to respond to or resolve these shocks, which makes them more susceptible to fundamental damage to their well-being (Devereux 1999; Gassmann, Berulava, and Tokmazishvili 2013; González de la Rocha 2000; Kaztman 1999; Moser 1996). The concept of vulnerability is relational: it is not a question of immutable essence, but a relation. One is vulnerable to something as specific as economic crises, unemployment, epidemics, and floods. Vulnerability is also differential, meaning that some groups are more vulnerable than others to specific risks or changes. The same can be said for resilience: it is not a question of being resilient in general, but about being resilient with respect to specific events or situations, and there are some individuals, families, and communities who are more resilient than others, again to specific events or situations. It is an undeniable fact, however, that poverty is a condition that weakens the capacities of those it affects, that is, it is a factor in the structuring of vulnerability, as it prevents the satisfaction of basic necessities, obstructs defensive actions and responses, violates people’s dignity, and limits their fundamental freedoms. For this reason, it has been argued that vulnerability, like resilience, is a function of social position (Coy 2010). The relationship between poverty and vulnerability is so intertwined that some have suggested poverty should be considered an indicator of vulnerability as well as the availability of resources an indicator of resilience (Alwang et al. 2001). Much has been written about vulnerability and poverty, but for the purposes of this article, I will concentrate on the scope and limits of the concept of resilience.

Since the publication in 1981 of Timmerman’s Vulnerability, Resilience, and the Collapse of Society, there has been a boom in research on the impact of economic, social, political, and environmental change in different social groups and societies. Almost all socio-scientific disciplines are represented in the current wide variety of research on vulnerability and resilience, but two broad groups of studies are identifiable. The first is psychological, where resilience is defined according to (a) personality characteristics; (b) positive results or ways of adapting in the face of risk; (c) factors associated with positive adaptations; (d) processes; (e) resistance to stress; and (f) recovery after a trauma or difficulty. The second stems from the perspective of sociology and social work, which conceptualize resilience as (a) human agency and resistance; and (b) survival. As Ungar (2008) notes, the diverse definitions in the literature are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, there is a notable, though not necessarily useful, overlap of characteristics and elements in the definitions of resilience different authors employ. Shaikh and Kauppi (2010) note that it is common to find the concept of resilience associated with the risks and adversities that present themselves in the relationship between individuals and the social, economic, and environmental aspects of their surroundings.

In their conceptual review of resilience, Shaikh and Kauppi (2010) suggest that a different way of understanding the concept is as survival, and that this type of resilience does not necessarily lead to positive adaptation, an idea consistent with my argument. Considering the struggles and defensive actions of the survival processes of the poor, the emphasis on resilience can lead to not taking into account the short- and long-term negative consequences that these struggles involve. This is, as I show, my central argument.

What has been won and lost with the adoption of the concept of resilience? Is it, perhaps, a more useful conceptual framework than the ones that preceded it, like the framework of survival strategies, to describe the lives of the poor in changing environments? What has resilience added to the amassed knowledge of the social sciences about the economic and social arrangements that poor individuals, their households, and their families put into practice in order to survive? Does this change of approach constitute an advancement in our understanding of social contexts and the lives of the poor?

One of the positive contributions of the concept of resilience, as noted by Béné et al. (2014), is the possibility of framing the problem within a systemic approach that helps to think of the issues at stake in a more comprehensive and holistic way. According to these authors, thinking in a systemic way is useful for recognizing that the impacts on individuals, households, and communities have become increasingly covariant. The comprehensive or holistic perspective is not new to anthropology, of course. Anthropologists—who, in Mexico, have carried out most of the research on the survival of the poor reviewed here—are trained to analyze phenomena comprehensively, relating general and particular issues that are directly or indirectly imbricated with the research problem. Accounting for the many inter-scalar relationships giving shape to a given problem or phenomenon is indistinguishable from how an anthropologist turns an observation into an explanation.

Another point in favor of the concept of resilience is that a common language has been attained, a type of interdisciplinary lingua franca which has made possible a mutual understanding between, for example, environmental scholars and anthropologists or sociologists concerned with the possibilities of recovery in units of analysis impacted by phenomena deemed detrimental. But this virtue easily becomes a problem. As has been pointed out, resilience as a concept may become “a mobilizing metaphor” (Béné et al. 2014) or, as Klepp and Chávez-Rodríguez (2018) argue in relation to the narrative of adaptation to climate change, a “traveling idea.” The mobility or trajectory they refer to begins in the Global North, home to the agencies and international banks that gave the concept life, and moves toward the Global South as a powerful discourse that is not necessarily faithful to the particularities of each country, region, or community. These authors are convincing in pointing out that the conceptual arguments about resilience in processes of adaptation to climate change which dominate international negotiations and global cooperation discourse have been shaped exclusively by Northern naturalist and technocratic viewpoints converted into global orthodoxy. “The idea of climate change is neutral, apolitical, a universal imaginary that natural science has projected in a way that is completely disconnected from local responses to the change” (Klepp and Chávez-Rodríguez 2018, 6). Or, as Ruiz de Oña Plaza argues in relation to these traveling ideas, the resilience projects constructed in the offices of the development agencies “dismiss local notions of the climate and historical specificities. . . They operate like a natural political device, unquestionable and universal, applied to a wide variety of socioecological scenarios without taking into account local particularities” (Ruiz de Oña Plaza 2018, 172).

However, what is most important is that the uncritical use of the concept of resilience does not allow for the observation of the damage, accumulated aftershocks, or difficulties. This conceptual framework leaves no room for taking into account whether the subjects of analysis cannot in fact return to their original state, even if they have mobilized all of their resources and have survived, because surviving does not mean emerging victorious and unharmed. For this reason, the adoption of the concept of resilience is tantamount to losing the ability to analyze the losses produced in the process of adaptation to disruptive changes, as well as the ability to understand the problem of poverty and the deterioration in well-being of the world’s great majority as one that is embedded in social structures characterized by income inequality and social injustice. As Béné et al. (2014) effectively argue, processes of adaptation entail secondary effects or implications. For instance, and as is well-known, successfully adapting to one aspect or level of a given problem can reduce one’s capacity for adaptation to another aspect or level of the same problem, not to mention other problems. Moreover, adaptation brings about changes or transformations that cannot always be labeled resilience—that is, change is not always for the better even if it is in response to a given event. This means that, when the sum of the impacts of a given shock or situation leads individuals and their households to alter their structures and functions, those alterations lead to changes in the nature of those individuals and households and the loss of their functions and constituent features. The authors cite the example of a household that adopts a different way of earning a living through completely new activities, or a region or community that radically changes its economic activity (Béné et al. 2014). My research has documented processes of radical change during continuous processes of adaptation to economic crises, processes that have resulted in the erosion of resources before a poor household manages to recover (González de la Rocha 2000, 2001). Indeed, to the extent that there is a first response of absorption of an impact followed by one of adaptation and resulting in one of transformation, the costs get higher (Béné et al. 2014; Devereux 1999).

The emphasis on resilience responds to a given preference shared by the authors, institutions, and international development agencies to adopt, promote, and disseminate the use of the concept. Like any preference, it is a legitimate one. However, when what is at stake is the accurate and faithful understanding of an observed reality, resilience is an insufficient conceptual and analytical tool that jeopardizes the understanding of what is observed, as it focuses on some dimensions of the problem and completely ignores others.

Resourcefulness of the Poor: A Dated Approach?

In the last three decades of the 20th century, studies in Mexico and other Latin American countries documented and analyzed the impact of economic crises on the well-being of poor individuals and households. They intended to understand domestic and family practices and actions in response to dwindling resources and employment options. The scholarly contributions of research on the participation of women and young people of both sexes in urban labor markets were particularly important to understanding domestic arrangements in contexts of scarce and diminishing resources (Bazán 1999; Geldstein 1994; González de la Rocha 1986, 1991, 1994, 2001; Jelin 1978, 1994, [1998] 2010; Jelin and Feijoó 1980). These studies provided keys to understanding the social organization of poor families and households, the diversity of their structures, their processes of adaptation and change in response to economic crises, and their possibilities for taking action when experiencing social and economic difficulties. Research in Latin America mapped the daily and structural lives of the poor and emphasized their agency against echoes of modernization theory: even if subaltern, the poor had the faculty of instrumental rationality (Lomnitz 1977; Roberts 1973). Individual action, the capacity for particular and reasoned reaction or response, is one of the crucial points of the survival strategy approach. An attention to individual agency, however, did not mean that structural constraints were put aside or ignored (see, e.g., Bilac 1978; Duque and Pastrana 1973; González de la Rocha 1986; Schmink 1979, 1984). Larissa Lomnitz’s works on the survival-driven arrangements of the urban poor in Mexico City became classics of the literature. With her contributions to the understanding of the lives of the poor came acceptance of the importance of social exchange—the driving force behind survival in contexts of poverty, according to Lomnitz—to the everyday support of individuals and their families (Lomnitz 1977).

Five elements turned out to be essential in the analysis of survival strategies. The first element is the existence and diversity of resources that are activated or mobilized in times of crisis, which can be material or tangible as well as nonmaterial or intangible. The second element is the understanding of the family or household as a social and economic unit within which resources are mobilized (labor power, time, social relations of support) for daily survival and to offer protection to its members during threatening events (such as illness of the main provider or unemployment). In these studies, the family and household appear as the most important social units for the implementation of survival strategies, and they are therefore seen as having capacities for protection (“cushioning”) against external shocks. The third element is that of trade-offs, or the costs of implementing actions that form part of survival strategies, such as child labor that contributes to the household in the form of present income but reduces the possibilities for education and future advancement of the working children.9 A fourth element is made up of the fundamental conflicts and inequalities that continue to exist and develop within households in the use of resources and in the decision-making process that comes to constitute a survival strategy (González de la Rocha 1994). Finally, the survival strategies approach cannot be understood without placing due attention on the different and contrasting domestic capacities for the generation of income and adaptation to change, which are themselves directly related to the structure and composition of a given household and the course of the domestic cycle.

Analyses on survival strategies emerged from a period marked by the necessity and desire to understand and explain how the poor coped in social contexts where the welfare state did not exist and where the lives of the poor were thus characterized by a combination of income poverty and deprivation across dimensions (education, nutrition, quality of housing, access to public services, and social security), contexts defined by wide social gaps resulting from a reigning lack of social protection. Such studies were interested in understanding the mechanisms the poor employed to put food on the table when there was no money or when the provider had recently died or was suddenly disabled. Authors like Bilac (1978), Duque and Pastrana (1973), González de la Rocha (1986, 1994), and Schmink (1979, 1984) used this approach to describe and demonstrate the importance of household and family social practices for the most important of economic ends: survival on a very low income.10 In a sense, the studies cited here, inspired as they were by classics of the social sciences like Mauss ([1966] 2011) and Polanyi (2017) provided the elements for the construction of a model of survival in which the economic was intimately imbricated with the social, and vice versa. Although Latin America was the setting for numerous and important studies on the topic, European and US historians and sociologists specializing in the study of the family and the impact of social change on family life made equally important contributions. Tilly (1987) made use of the concept of family strategies to emphasize that the poor, despite their lack of resources, were not passive in the face of economic and political change, but rather reacted to those changes. Anderson (1980) and Morgan (1989) recognized families’ active responses to structural pressures and changes, and Hareven (1975, 1982) analyzed family work strategies as a response to social changes brought about by industrialization.

Selby, Murphy, and Lorenzen (1990) questioned the applicability of the notion of strategy in Mexican households, which they saw as characterized by conflict and negotiation. The focus of their criticism was based on the rationality and the existence of options implicit in decision-making processes. They argued that poverty eliminates alternatives, and without alternatives there can be neither decisions nor strategies (see also Wolf 1992). The main criticism has been that of Wolf (1992), as she pointed out the error of conflating the individual with the household or assuming that the different members of the household are fully represented by the whole. In spite of these criticisms, however, research on survival strategies has continued to provide evidence and analysis of the ways in which poor people generate and use their resources. In my own studies of poverty and survival, I emphasized that the most important resource for the poor is labor power (González de la Rocha 1994; Moser 1996) and that survival strategies were based on the ability to work, as well as on the abilities to be part of social arrangements, enabling the mobilization of this and other resources. In emphasizing their agency, I did not lose sight of the conflicts and negotiations within households, their relationships of inequality, and the unequal access to resources based on two focal points of inequality: gender and age. Taken together, research on forms of subsistence and survival strategies in Mexico and Latin America has provided rich evidence for the diversity of mechanisms and social arrangements used by poor households to attain survival in spite and given their poverty.

My own model of the resources of poverty, based on analyses of survival strategies, placed emphasis on the diversity of income sources; that is, on the fact that poor households did not depend entirely on one job or type of activity for the satisfaction of their necessities. It acknowledged the importance of monetary income, but it also insisted that in order to understand the survival of the poor one had to necessarily consider non-monetary sources of income: favors and the flow of services and gifts, which pass back and forth between households. However, focusing on work as the most important resource of the poor, my research fully documented the intensive use of the labor power of all household members who were able to generate monetary income. This group included not only adult men, but also women of different ages, and children. Many girls in poor households cared for younger siblings to free the mother of that task while she performed wage work, which forced many of them to abandon school. Boys were also needed for various tasks and to generate income. As mentioned, these practices have costs, mainly in interrupted education: a well-known trade-off. Recognizing the importance of collaboration in these social arrangements does not necessarily imply leaving aside the questions of unequal relationships and differential access to household and family resources. My approach has always emphasized that the household is a highly contradictory social unit characterized by the coexistence of solidarity, confrontation, negotiation, harmony, and conflict.

The term “survival strategies” is no longer used: it is, in fact, part of a lexicon that is no longer fashionable. It has fallen out of use not because these social arrangements and household mechanisms to make ends meet have disappeared, but because, within the framework of studies of vulnerability and resilience, the terms have changed. What in the 1970s and 1980s was labeled “survival strategies” or “coping strategies”—understood as protective or defensive actions in the face of threatening situations or events (such as loss of employment, illness, or the death of a household provider)—is known, in the early 21st century, as responses or practices of resilience: the ability to implement a response or strategy through the use or mobilization of resources to avoid further damage. As can be seen, both approaches describe the same thing, and it is striking that the conceptual discussion of vulnerability and resilience does not acknowledge this scholarly background. The current discussion on vulnerability and resilience is built upon findings and ideas that were of vital importance to the survival strategy approach.

Final Remarks: Private Adjustments and Cumulative Disadvantages, the Missing Components in Resilience Analysis

Since the late 1980s, there has been worldwide documentation, corroboration, and debate about the processes of impoverishment and deterioration in the living conditions of urban and rural majorities, particularly in the Global South. People have come to increasingly suffer from a lack of resources, food insecurity, the breakdown of social ties, and growing economic and environmental threats, including droughts, floods, economic crises, and other natural and social disasters. In this period, development studies multiplied and university programs under the development umbrella proliferated in England, the United States, and other countries of the Global North. Scholars, policymakers, and institutions devoted themselves to understanding the forms of subsistence of the world’s poor in order to find better, more effective solutions. In what follows, I take up just a few examples.

In 1989, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) of the University of Sussex, England published an IDS Bulletin issue fully devoted to the analysis of poor people’s adaptive practices in the aftermath of events that had undermined their livelihoods (Chambers 2006). The authors of this issue adopted a novel perspective for their time: rather than continuing to insist on the near-infinite capacity of the poor to mobilize resources and survive in spite of growing economic difficulties, the issue focused on people’s vulnerability. Development was thus no longer a question of understanding the lives of the poor in terms of survival and adaptation strategies but had to do with the comprehension and eventual overcoming of vulnerability, a process of “defenselessness, insecurity and exposure to risk, shocks and stress” (Chambers [1989] 2006, 33). The previous decades’ emphasis on adaptation had been left behind despite the persistence of the semantics alluding to it, as can be seen in the very title of the IDS Bulletin issue here discussed: How the Poor Cope. The resourcefulness model seemed to be out of sync with the issue’s ethnographic descriptions and analyses, as these repeatedly demonstrated the enormous difficulties people faced in ever more threatening and precarious environments. The poor from different countries in which the authors of the Bulletin carried out fieldwork had even fewer resources than before; greater constraints structured their attempts to recover from one crisis to the next.11

In his study of the subsistence practices of farming households in Malawi, Devereux (1999, 2001) distinguished between coping strategies and survival strategies as separate if progressive stages within a sequence of response to drought and famine. The sequence Devereux identified was determined by a strategy’s effectiveness, its costs, and whether it was reversible or not (i.e., whether there was a recovery margin for the resources involved and the damage caused).12 Coping strategies, according to Devereux, had a relatively small long-term cost and were therefore the first to be implemented in the event of threat. An example of this would be the use of savings to buy food or medicine. Survival strategies were implemented after coping strategies, when the latter were no longer sufficient. Devereux argues that survival strategies have higher long-term costs and are not easily reversible, which explains people’s resistance to putting them into action first. An example of a survival strategy is the sale of productive assets like land, cattle, or tools. It is important to note that the same actions can be part of either type of strategy (e.g., a change in consumption) but that the two types are distinguished by the degree of change and sacrifice they represent. A reduction in food portions (a coping strategy) contrasts with severe rationing, which includes skipping meals (eating one or two meals a day instead of three, itself a typical survival strategy); borrowing money from a friend at low interest (coping) contrasts with taking a high-interest loan from a moneylender (survival); emigration for seasonal work (coping) contrasts with definitive migration as a result of destitution and desperation (Devereux 1999).

Similar responses were documented by Taal in his research in The Gambia (1989): people reduced their consumption, diversified their income sources, and overexploited their social ties in the face of drought and other changes to their surroundings. The essence of these studies found that these strategies have costs, some higher than others. One of these costs is the deterioration of social ties. For Devereux (1999), the recurrent intensive use of resources can lead to their exhaustion. His analysis of the impact of frequent droughts and flooding in Malawi also showed the weakening of social support networks. Droughts and floods made the poor poorer, and the intensification of poverty reduced people’s ability to respond to requests for help from those who were not close family.

The adoption of the survival strategy approach in research on and in Latin America was useful to describe and explain the agency and resourcefulness of the poor in situations of need, but it was criticized for its inability to make visible the limits of those strategies (see González de la Rocha 1994, 2001). In the process of describing these limits, I came to the conclusion that the private adjustments that people are forced to put into practice in response to crises and price reforms, international trade deals, and social programs (i.e., disruptive events) cannot be explained using this approach, no matter how much it has contributed to our understanding of poverty. Such a model had lost its usefulness given increasingly impoverished social contexts. In the process of developing this stance, I confronted the orthodoxy of academics and development professionals who insisted on focusing on the resistance of the poor, but I refused to hide empirical evidence to interpret my findings as successful adaptations to economic change (González de la Rocha 2007). Instead of giving in to the pressure, I published two articles describing the reformulation of my ideas: “Private Adjustments: Household Responses to the Erosion of Work” (2000), and “From the Resources of Poverty to the Poverty of Resources: The Erosion of a Survival Model” (2001). I observed and documented the belt-tightening practices that meant a decline in food consumption, social exchange, and health. Given that these responses were found in the context of recent implementation of economic policies of “structural adjustment,” I called them “private adjustments” to emphasize two points: first, that households are extremely sensitive to economic change; and, second, that these cannot be catalogued as responses of resilience or defense—rather, they are responses to growing constraints and restrictions that involve losses and therefore result in malnourished children, sickness, child labor (and failures in education), and women with unbearable burdens (as income providers and caregivers) who are exhausted, sickened, or victims of greater domestic violence, among other types of damage (see also Benería and Feldman 1992).

It is impossible to ignore the evidence demonstrating how recurrent crises damage the well-being of poor households and entail the accumulation of said damages (González de la Rocha 2006; Rodgers 2007; Saraví 2006). In the face of these processes of erosion of the resources of the poor, the notion of resourcefulness, implicit in my model (González de la Rocha 1994) and those of others, lost its heuristic appeal. The observed reality forced me to adopt a different approach, one that would be able to illuminate and explain the anomalies or increasing outliers within the previous model: the intensification of poverty and its consequences in all aspects of life, from health, as in not having the means to pay for medical treatment, to the deterioration of social exchange and the breaking of social ties.

The ample evidence amassed by research in Mexico and other Latin American countries on the lives of the poor in changing contexts, and family and household responses to economic crisis, reveals a pattern (Barrig 1993; Fiszbein, Giovagnoli, and Adúriz 2003; González de la Rocha 1994; Moser 1996). Households attempt to defend their well-being or standard of living through practices of labor intensification that have the purpose of protecting consumption and, when these fail or are only partially successful, they implement restrictive practices to modify the patterns of consumption.13 Social ties are eroded in processes in which individuals and households intensively seek the assistance and solidarity of their social networks to the point where individuals and families who have no resources to provide help, to reciprocate and return favors, are left out of these chains of support or flows of goods and services. The erosion in social ties as a result of the inability to reciprocate or form part of chains of social exchange, caused by a lack of resources, the atomization of households, and being cut off from support networks, has been well documented in Mexico (Bazán 1999; González de la Rocha et al. 2016). These studies clearly show that in the face of adversity, the poor must work harder for income that is barely sufficient for daily survival and that this often results in irreparable losses.

These responses are forced upon families by the deterioration of employment, the erosion of other means of subsistence, economic crises, and aggressive macroeconomic policies privileging fiscal responsibility as against social responsibility. Working more and consuming less in a context of greater social isolation has obvious consequences for people’s well-being. The costs and benefits that the implementation of these defensive and adaptive responses involve have been particularly well documented in the case of child and teenage wage work, for the generation of income also imperils their personal development and possibilities for the future. The erosion of social ties has also been systematically documented as an additional cost of the intensified use of resources that has been imposed by economic crises and policies of permanent adjustment. The empirical confirmation that one harm or disadvantage makes a household more likely to suffer from another (lack of income, difficulties to pay for health care, difficulties to reciprocate leading to social isolation) led me to argue that disruptive events produce clusters of disadvantages, turning poverty into a dead-end street. The damages at stake here must be seen in their full complexity: becoming physically weaker or ill, increasingly poor, socially dependent, or psychologically incapacitated is not equal to becoming resilient. Chambers (2006 [1989]), like Davies (1996), sees vulnerability not as a state, as something static, or a permanent condition, but as an ongoing process created by cumulative deprivations and disadvantages damaging poor households’ well-being. Responses implemented in the short term to face contingencies can give rise to later processes of vulnerability and processes of exhaustion of resources and assets (see also González de la Rocha 2000, 2001).

In spite of the abundance of evidence showing the limits of defensive responses, the literature is filled with texts insisting upon resilience. As we have seen, it is a concept that emphasizes—as the concept of survival strategies once did—adaptation and the ability to manage difficulties, but also one that sidesteps the question of loss or deterioration of the actual resources the poor need to actually survive (including their labor power, productive capacity, and social support networks). The conceptual framework of resilience evokes a real situation, that of defensive action and response in times of difficulty. And yet, such a framework is ultimately partial, as it fails to take into account what the poor invest in, commit to, and sacrifice in exchange for resisting and adapting to increasingly difficult conditions. Above all, the concept of resilience works as if its units of analysis operated in a structural vacuum and, in so doing, disconnects the increasingly compromised survival of the poor from the political economy that produces poverty and vulnerability for the great majority.

Further Reading

  • Alwang, Jeffrey, Paul B. Siegel, and Steen L. Jorgensen. 2001. “Vulnerability: A View from Different Disciplines.” Social Protection Discussion Paper Series 0115, Social Protection Unit, Human Development Network, World Bank.
  • Bähre, Erik. 2007. “Reluctant Solidarity. Death, Urban Poverty and Neighbourly Assistance in South Africa.” Ethnography 81 (1): 33–59.
  • Béné, Christophe, Andrew Newsham, Mark Davies, Martina Ulrichs, and Rachel Godfrey-Wood. 2014. “Resilience, Poverty and Development.” Journal of International Development 26: 598–623.
  • González de la Rocha, Mercedes. 2001. “From the Resources of Poverty to the Poverty of Resources: The Erosion of a Survival Model?” Latin American Perspectives 28 (4): 72–100.
  • Klepp, Silja, and Libertad Chávez-Rodríguez, eds. 2018. A Critical Approach to Climate Change Adaptation: Discourses, Policies, and Practices. Oxford: Routledge.
  • Moser, Caroline. 1996. Confronting Crisis: A Comparative Study of Household Responses to Poverty and Vulnerability in Four Poor Urban Communities. Washington, DC: World Bank.
  • Shaik, Archi, and Carol Kauppi. 2010. “Deconstructing Resilience: Myriad Conceptualizations and Interpretations.” International Journal of Arts and Sciences 3 (15): 155–176.
  • Timmerman, Peter. 1981. Vulnerability, Resilience and the Collapse of Society: A Review of Models and Possible Climatic Applications. Toronto: Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Toronto.


  • Alwang, Jeffrey, Paul B. Siegel, and Steen L. Jorgensen. 2001. “Vulnerability: A View from Different Disciplines.” Social Protection Discussion Paper Series 0115, Social Protection Unit, Human Development Network, World Bank.
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  • 1. Research showed that migration is indeed disruptive and can be associated with multiple problems (Escobar 2008). Ethnicity, however, has divided our societies and continues to be a marker of exclusion (Telles 2014). In contexts marked by intense rural–urban flows, poverty, and social and economic divisions, the poor do deploy their scarce resources in rational and organized ways. Vila Freyer, Fernández, and del Carpio (2016) attribute resilient characteristics to migrants.

  • 2. Perlman debunked the myth of marginality in the following terms: “My research showed the propositions to be empirically false, analytically misleading, and insidious in their policy implications” (Perlman 2010).

  • 3. A few examples from Mexico: a pilot project on resilience was created by the government of Mexico City, Programa de Barrios Resilientes (Resilient Neighbourhoods Program) within the Agencia de resiliencia en la Ciudad de Mexico (Agency of Resilience in Mexico City), agency which was created, among other goals, to foster hydric resilience, to plan urban and territorial resilience, and to develop adaptation abilities. Another program, called Programa de resiliencia ante inundaciones, has been in operation in the state of Tabasco for several years. Last, but the list of these examples could continue, UNDP launched a program aimed to reduce disaster risks, which works in four Mexican southern states, forty-three municipalities, and seventy-seven communities. None of these has the reduction of poverty as a goal. All of them, however, agree that greater vulnerability is found in contexts of poverty or lack of resources. The analysis of particular programs, however, lies beyond the scope of this article.

  • 4. Studies based on the household assets approach and on the study of livelihoods cannot really be considered subfields exclusively of economics. These are research fields in which the active presence of sociologists and anthropologists has been crucial.

  • 5. Brown also reviews the literature on resilience from different perspectives and disciplines. She understands resilience “. . .as a characteristic or property of complex dynamic social ecological systems that can support positive and proactive change” (Brown 2016, 30).

  • 6. The mentioned authors did not use the word “resilience” in any of their analyses.

  • 7. What research in Latin America and other regions of the world has shown is that, in addition to transaction costs, the succession of crises, structural adjustment, austerity, and dismantling of institutions that offered some protection produces long-term harm or the inability to perform at the level that used to be the norm before these events (Chambers 1989; Devereux 1999; Fiszbein, Giovagnoli, and Adúriz 2003; González de la Rocha 2001; Mora and de Oliveira 2014; Rodgers 2007).

  • 8. Such publications usually associate economic growth with resilience, what Katrina Brown calls “liberal resilience” (Brown 2016).

  • 9. Béné et al. (2014, 602) also point to the costs, which they call “transaction costs,” implicit in the processes of resilience (the absorption of the impact, the adaptation, and the transformation demanded by the most intense disruptive events). In their words: “The more you change, the higher the transactional cost.”

  • 10. These practices include intensification of family labor power, use of social support networks, the expansion of nonnuclear living arrangements, and other mechanisms of defense against changes and aggressions in their surroundings.

  • 11. These countries include, among others, The Gambia, West Bengal, India, Guinea, Bangladesh, Sudan, and Nepal. Perhaps it would be speculative to talk about the world’s poor (who face such difficulties), but the evidence from different regions of the world is not scarce or meaningless.

  • 12. In speaking of costs, Devereux did not refer to monetary costs but to trade-offs, or what people had to sacrifice (e.g., education) in order to carry out the strategy (the sale of children’s labor power).

  • 13. In a study of the impact of the Mexican crisis on the well-being of workers’ households in Guadalajara, I found that the principal measure for avoiding a decline in family income (in the face of reduced real income) was additional work on the part of women (who had previously been housewives or had income-producing activities that were temporary) and of young people from the ages of 13 to 14. With these measures, real family income fell by only 11 percent from 1982 to 1985, a significant success in light of the decrease of more than 30 percent in real individual income (González de la Rocha, 1988, 1991, 1994). Moser found that to the extent that households were impoverished as a result of the crisis, women, children, and young people entered the labor market (Moser 1996). A later analysis, with evidence from fifteen countries, confirmed that the intensification of family labor and the limitation of consumption were the most common results in households (in addition to some changes in their structure) (González de la Rocha 2000). Devereux (1999) also included in his analysis practices of labor intensification in rural households in Malawi, as well as the sale of domestic and productive assets.

    Workers’ families in Guadalajara significantly changed their patterns of consumption from 1982 to 1985. Consumption lessened in the majority of household studies: People ate twice instead of three times a day, went to bed without dinner, and ate more eggs and less beef or chicken. Some households stopped using gas to cook their food and returned to the use of firewood. They put off medical appointments (because many poor families preferred private doctors but had no money to pay them) and some children, those from the poorest homes, stopped going to school because their parents lacked the resources to buy them uniforms or shoes (González de la Rocha 1991, 1994). In Commonwealth, Moser found a reduction in consumption of seven basic goods, a decrease in the amount parents gave their children to buy candy at school in Cisne Dos (Guayaquil), and a reduction in the use of motorized transportation to go to work in Chawama and Commonwealth. Housewives in Angyalfold bought cheaper, lower-quality food to replace more expensive items. Devereux (1999), besides noting a reduction and diversification that parallels that found by Moser and González de la Rocha, described a reduction in the number of consumers mainly by sending children to live in other households, temporarily or permanently.