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Negotiating Resilience Project (2007-2010)

Negotiating Resilience is a qualitative exploration of how youth from five different countries cope with daily challenges using video technology.

Most of us have felt out of place at one time or another. So how do youth who experience adversity cope with this feeling; a youth with a physical disability being educated among able-bodied youth, or an Aboriginal youth living off-reserve in an urban environment, or a child refugee displaced from his/her home community. Using visual methods this research seeks to understand how youth coped with these challenges and how resilience is understood and experienced across cultures from the perspective of youth themselves.

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Negotiating Resilience investigates the highly intricate and interactive nature of the processes that protect youth whose lives are in transition and who feel 'out of place' in some way, against adversity.  While the team explored the tensions between homogeneity and heterogeneity of wellbeing among youth in transition, the emphasis was on capturing the variability of young people's experiences as case-studies, rather than focusing on comparing data across the sites.  To access the experiences of young people, the NRP uses an innovative combination of visual methods – including videotaping a day in the life of youth and photo-elicitation – as well as observation, qualitative interviews and reciprocity between researchers and youth.

The purpose of the project is to understand the interactive processes associated with positive development among children and youth who are in transition between two (and possibly more) culturally distinct worlds. We are interested in learning both what resilience means, as well as the pathways to resilience, from the perspectives of youth who are “out-of-place” in some way and coping well with their displacement (for example, a youth with a physical disability being educated among able-bodied youth; an Aboriginal youth living off-reserve in an urban environment; a multi-ethnic youth whose identity must be negotiated in an ethnically diverse community; and a child refugee displaced from her/his home community).  

The Negotiating Resilience Project is a three-year, multi-site, visual methods study funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and administered through the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University.

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The project has several goals. Specifically, the Negotiating Resilience project aims to:

  • Document a plurality of protective processes in the lives of youth exposed to significant amounts of risk as defined by different communities, from the perspectives of youth themselves.
  • Further our understanding of children as social actors, interacting with their environments in ways that shape, and are shaped by, their social ecologies.
  • Explore gender-based differences in youths’ interactions with their social ecologies and the protective processes they engage in.
  • Develop a set of qualitative protocols for gathering visual methods data useful to the study of resilience across diverse cultures and contexts.

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Sixteen 13 to 16 year old youth, one boy and one girl from eight research sites (Nova Scotia, Quebec, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, China, India, South Africa and Thailand) where youth are facing more than one 'tension' or 'adversity' in their communities, participated in the study. We chose to document the lives of 13 to 16-year-olds specifically because of the developmental crossroads they have reached in their interactions with their wider communities.

Youth were nominated to the project by youth advocates in their communities. The youth were suggested to the project because they were seen as being resilient despite the multiple adversities they face, including migration, poverty, racism, and other social and economic risks. In other words, were seen as "growing up well under adversity." Each research site in Canada was matched with an international research site, based on the nature of the transitions faced by the participant pairs.

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The Negotiating Resilience project is using an innovative combination of visual methods, observation, qualitative interviews and reciprocity between researchers and youth to deepen our understandings of resilience from children and youth’s own cultural and contextual viewpoints.

The methodology is based largely on Cameron et al.’s (Cameron, Tapanya, & Gillen’s 2006) ongoing Day in the Life (DITL) studies of 30-month olds in different cultures (so far children in Peru, Italy, Canada, Thailand, the UK, the US, and Turkey have participated). Prior to working with the youth participants, the Negotiating Resilience Research Project team first developed the research methodologies and received local comment on the interview questions and methods to ensure that they would make sense to youth at each site. The research documents were then translated into each site’s local language. Data collection and analysis proceeded as follows:  

  1. Preliminary interview: Youth participants took part in a confidential, semi-structured interview focused on the youth’s understandings of their risks and experiences of their own resilience.
  2. Photo-elicitation (Harper, 2002): The youth were provided with a disposable camera so that they could take photographs of the places, people and things that were important to them. Images were later developed and used as prompts for in-depth interviews and as research data to understand from the youths’ perspectives what helped them overcome challenges and cope in their transitional environments.
  3. Day in the life video recording: A day in the life (Gillen et al., 2006) was recorded for each youth via video, consisting of 8-12 hours of the youth’s day. Two researchers were present during the filming. One researcher filmed the day using a digital camcorder. Another researcher already familiar with the young person’s context took detailed observation notes of interactions, places, and people that the youth encountered.
  1. Creation of the compilation day in the life DVD: At least four researchers (both familiar and unfamiliar with the youth’s context) independently viewed the full video footage for each youth, and made selections of the day’s events and scenes that seemed to exhibit aspects of resilience. Through deliberations, the researchers reached consensus on 5-6 segments (for a total of 30 minutes) that they felt demonstrated aspects of positive development for each youth, or selections they were interested in hearing more about from the youth. 
  2. Second iterative stage: The local researcher returned to the youth with the youth’s developed photographs and the 30 minute compilation DVD of his or her day. The youth were asked to reflect on each segment in the compilation as well as their photographs. The compilation video of a youth from the paired research site was also shown to each youth for comment and reflection.
  3. Reflection periods: Integral to this methodology was the involvement of the members of the international team in all aspects of the research initiative. Periods of active, dialogical reflection between our team members and between the researchers and participants ensured our analyses accounted for specific contexts and cultures, and were essential in helping us to understand the youth’s interpretations of their images.
  4. Data analysis: The data analysis is ongoing. The methodological approach taken in the Negotiating Resilience Project encourages youth to work with the researchers in creating and reflecting on their data in ways that are meaningful to them. The analysis of data involves extensive dialogue between researchers at each site and between sites. We are drawing on a combination of analysis methods, including grounded theory, postmodern discourse analysis, thematic analysis, and narrative analysis.

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The emerging themes presented below are recognized as concepts independent of one another, and are preliminary as data analysis is ongoing at each site. The themes include: individual strengths, identity development, nurturing relationships, contributions to the community, resilience-promoting communities, social justice, respect for the environment, and cultural roots. These protective resources emerged as important to youths’ perceptions of their own healthy psychosocial development across each of the research sites. However, the ways in which each of these factors functioned in the lives of the participants were nuanced and bounded by each youth’s local developmental, economic, geographical, historical, socio-cultural and temporal situation.

Individual Strengths

Youth participants spoke of the importance of believing in one’s self, of having a positive outlook, of maintaining a sense of humour even in challenging situations (E.L. Cameron, et al., in press), and setting high aspirations for themselves. They commented on their ability to solve problems, to be innovative and to persevere despite their challenges.

Identity Development

In earlier work, team members found that across diverse contexts, nurturing a positive identity - however that may look or be theorized across cultures–is one of seven key “tensions” or “resolutions” critical to fostering youths’ positive psychosocial development (Ungar et al., 2007). In our current work, youth participants expressed that they were trying to come to an understanding of their place in the world as a way to make sense of their experiences of transition.

Nurturing Relationships

Participants reported that their relationships with other people, including family members, teachers, community mentors, and peers, played an important role in offering positive guidance and helping them deal with their problems.

Contributions to the Community

Youths’ relationships with others also provided them the opportunity to “give back” to their families and communities. For example, it was found that many of the youth were often required, or felt compelled during times of financial and psychological stress, to function as caregivers, financial contributors, and cultural brokers within their families. It may be that these instances of powerful contribution to their family’s welfare allow youth to access the emotional and physical resources they need to thrive in high risk environments. A caveat here is that the youth who seem to do particularly well with intensified responsibilities and expectations are those who perceive their contributions as helpful and valued by their families. It was also observed that when the participants were recipients of warm, nurturing and secure interchanges with their families and teachers, these young people responded by reproducing kind and encouraging encounters with their siblings, family friends, community members, and within their schools (see Cameron et al., 2009).

Resilience - Promoting Communities: Community Spaces, Structures and Material Resources

In addition to our conversations with youth, the use of visual methods allowed us to capture the health-promoting community structures and resources available to youth in different contexts. Basic instrumental needs, such as food, housing, clothing, and medical care were discussed by youth as vital to their resilience and well-being.

Youth also commented on aspects of their communities that they felt were negative, such as exposure to violence, gangs, poverty, drug addiction and alcoholism. They talked about aspects and amenities of their communities they felt could contribute to their resilience if only they were available, such as opportunities for age-appropriate work, meaningful rites of passage, perceived social equality, and recreation opportunities and structures.

Youth spoke of the importance of access to educational opportunities and learning resources, and noted that it was often the people in these systems, such as community mentors and teachers, who helped young people feel valued in their communities.

Social Justice

Many of the youth participants told us of their experiences of prejudice due to their race, social status, ethnicity, illness, gender, or because of preconceptions about the places where they live. The youth were very well spoken concerning their feelings of disenfranchisement. They told us powerful stories of how they planned to overcome these challenges, as well as how they had previously stood up for their rights, both individually and collectively. Youths’ stories of social justice point to the importance of power, control and self-efficacy in fostering their resilience.

Respect for the Environment

Many of the youth showed respect for nature, and expressed recognition of the intertwining of their well-being with a resilient and healthy environment. Some of the youth spoke of being most at peace when they were outside in nature. Others told of how they are actively working to protect the environment, and yet questioned whether their hard work would even have an impact.

Cultural Roots

The combined use of visual methods, reciprocity between youth and researchers, and reflective interviews brought to light a number of “hidden” or previously unrecognized protective resources related to youth’s cultural traditions and beliefs. Youth spoke of the many supportive things they received from their cultures, including a sense of belonging, a shared history, a set of values, spiritual identification, an ideology, and the opportunity to participate in meaningful activities. Work done thus far on the relationship between cultural adherence and resilience suggests that resilience-promoting cultural practices rely on adults to function as custodians of protective practices and values, and on youth to accept their roles as active co-custodians (Theron et al., 2009).

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Research Sites:

The research sites involved in the Negotiating Resilience study have been selected based on findings from the International Resilience Project (IRP).

Canadian Sites

  • Halifax, Nova Scotia
      Halifax, the capital of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, is a port city located on the east coast of the country. We are working with youth from two areas in the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM). Our Halifax site brings us access to youth who are living in government-supported housing or with families who are struggling to make ends meet.
  • Montreal, Quebec
    • The city of Montréal lies between the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers. Our research site in Montreal allows us to work with youth with visual impairments in integrated education programs who confront a number of challenges. 
  • Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
      Saskatoon is centrally located in the prairie province of Saskatchewan, Canada. Our research site in Saskatoon allows us to connect with aboriginal youth living off-reserve.
  • Vancouver, British Colombia
      Vancouver, British Columbia's largest city and the third largest metropolitan area in Canada, is situated on the Pacific coast. Our research site in Vancouver provides us access to Mexican immigrant and refugee youth.

International Sites

  • Jinan, China
      Jinan, the capital city of Shandong province is located along the bank of the Yellow River. The main risks that youth face in China include the greater gap between rich and poor; the negative impact of internet and TV; divorce; and left-home children and migrant children.
  • Guwahati, India
      Guwahati, the largest city in the North-East region (NER) of India, is one of the most rapidly growing cities in India. North-East India has experienced political uncertainty and violent unrest in recent years.
  • Vaal Triangle, South Africa
      The Vaal Triangle is a major industrial region approximately one hour South of Johannesburg that straddles the Vaal River. The site provides us access to youth affected in a myriad of ways by poverty and the struggle to make ends meet in a location experiencing both increasing gentrification and increasing poverty.
  • Chiang Mai, Thailand
      Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand, and is the capital of Chiang Mai Province.  In this research site we connect with youth who have been displaced from their homes.  


Tensions/ Transitions Canadian Sites International Sites
Urban youth living in, or next to, rapidly gentrifying communities.

Halifax Regional Municipality, Nova Scotia, Canada:

Urban youth living in and next to rapidly gentrifying communities.

Zamdela, South Africa:

Urban youth living in a township in the Vaal Triangle, a rapidly gentrifying industrial area about an hour from Johannesburg.

Youth with disabilities.

Montreal, Quebec, Canada:

Youth with visual impairments in integrated education programs.

Meghalaya, Northern India:

Youth with hearing and speech impairments participating in a church-based education program.

Displaced/ refugee youth.

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: 

Mexican youth seeking refugee status in Canada.

Chiang Mai, Thailand:

Youth displaced from their homes and now living in Chiang Mai.

Displaced/ refugee youth.

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada:

Urban Aboriginal youth living off-reserve.

Jinan, China: 

Rural peasants who relocated to rapidly industrializing city in China.

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Each site includes a small advisory committee of two to three local individuals who can help to identify appropriate ways to access youth, help to define the construct of resilience, and oversee the ethical application of the research in their community.  These individuals are also influential in their community of service providers and act as aids for dissemination of results to practitioners and policy makers.

Principal Investigator

  • Dr. Michael Ungar - School of Social Work, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada (Principal Investigator)


  • Dr. Ann Cameron - Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada (Co-Applicant)
  • Dr. Linda Liebenberg - Resilience Research Centre, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada (Co-Applicant)


  • Dr. Les Samuelson - Department of Sociology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
  • Dr. Nancy Heath - Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada
  • Dr. Nathalie Trépanier - Département de psychopédagogie et andragogie, University of Montreal, QC, Canada

Site Researchers

  • Nora Didkowsky - School of Social Work, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada
  • Dr. Carolyn Brooks - Department of Sociology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
  • Cindy Lau - University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada 
  • Elise Milot - University of Montreal, QC, Canada
  • Masai Mabitsela - Department of Education, North-West University, South Africa

Overseas Partners

  • Dr. Jerry Thomas - Don Brosco Provincial Office, Guwahati, Assam, India
  • Chun Li - Faculty of Education, Shandong Teacher’s University, Jinan, Shandong, China
  • Sister Sini Anthony - Ferrando Speech and Hearing Centre, Meghalaya, India
  • Dr. Wenxin Zhang - Faculty of Education, Shandong Teacher’s University, Jinan, China
  • Dr. Linda Theron - School for Educational Sciences, North-West University, Vaal Triangle, South Africa
  • Dr. Sombat Tapanya - Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai, Thailand

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Cameron, C.A., Theron, L., Tapanya, S., Li, C., Lau, C., Liebenberg, L, & Ungar, M. (2013). Visual perspectives on majority world adolescent thriving. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 23(1), 149-161. 

Liebenberg, L., Ungar, M., & Theron, L. (2013). Using video observation and photo elicitation interviews to understand obscured processes in the lives of resilient youth. Childhood. Available at:

Liebenberg, L., Didkowsky, N. & Ungar, M. (2012). Analysing visual data using grounded theory: An exemplar of the Negotiating Resilience Project. Visual Studies, 27(1), 59-74. 

Cameron, A., Theron, L., Ungar, M., & Liebenberg, L. (2011). Adapting visual methodologies to identify youth processes in negotiating resilience across cultures and contexts. Australian Community Psychologist, 23(2), 68-84.

Theron, l., Cameron, C., Didkowsky, N. Lau, C., Liebenberg, L., & Ungar, M. (2011). A ‘day in the lives’ of four resilient youths: Cultural roots of resilience. Youth and Society43(3)799–818

Ungar, M., Theron, L. & Didkowsky, N. (2011). Adolescents' precocious and developmentally appropriate contributions to their families' well-being and resilience in five countries. Family Relations60(2), 231-246.

Ungar, M., Theron, L., & Didkowsky, N. (2011). The relationship between adolescents’ contributions to their families’ well-being and resilience in five countries. Family Relations, 60(2), 231-246.

Didkowsky, N., & Ungar, M. (2010). Using a development-in-context approach to conceptualize the impact of sociopolitical restructuring on youth resilience in Russia. Youth and Society.

Didkowsky, N., Ungar, M. & Liebenberg, L. (2010). Using Visual Methods to Capture Embedded Processes of Resilience for Youth Across Cultures and Contexts. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 19(1), 12-18.

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Contact Us:

For further information on the study, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call (902) 494-3050.

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