For this most recent installment of my WONK Blog, I wanted to pivot to my current work. While I can’t share any definitive findings from the present project as I am still in the early phases of data collection, I will be using this post to describe the theories and orientation I am utilizing, the reasons I am using this angle, and the importance of the work. The structure of this post will go as such: the discussion and conceptualization of a strengths based perspective, the utility of this perspective in examining my research population, and finally, the potential positive outcomes.
Discussion and Conceptualization
A strengths based perspective does exactly what it says, by taking research subjects not to be passive, but to have agency in their lives. Originating in the social work field and often discussed by psychologists, the fields in which I dabble (primarily political science and sociology), have yet to fully embrace and utilize this approach. In that sense, using this approach forces us to not only consider the ways that the individual (in this case the female domestic worker [FDW]) is systematically victimized, but also the strengths and resources that they maintain despite their position in society.
The first concept that must be addressed is resilience. Smith (2006) is quoted in Wong and Song (2008, 132) as stating that resilience occurs “when an individual shows competence in response to significant risk exposure.” As stated above, resilience presupposes that each individual has external and internal assets, which they may or may not be using to their full potential. What do these external and internal assets look like?
External assets include “family, extended family, neighborhood, and institutions (churches, schools, and informal associations)” (Saleebey 2000, 134). In other words, these external resources refer to any source outside of the self from which the individual could receive any type of support. In the case I am observing, I initially see that the main source of support includes the nuclear family, extended family, and co-worker networks made up of people involved in similar employment. Of note is the conspicuous absence of any formal institutions such as schools or non-profit organizations. Instead, informal groups formed through WeChat (a multifunctional Chinese app with group messaging capacity) are the primary mode of organizing.
On the other hand, internal assets are the personal resources unique to an individual. Van der Ham et al. (2014, 547) defines personal resources from a psychiatry perspective as being “characteristics of an individual such as coping strategies.” These coping strategies are personal habits that individuals develop which ameliorate stress and help the individual more successfully deal with life’s hardships. For example, Van der Ham et al. (2014) examined the Filipina FDW population of Hong Kong, and found that to cope with stress, women often prayed, read the bible, cried, rested or slept, and talked to others. While some habits are more successful than others, they are all useful methods and a show of resilience.
With a basic understanding of resilience under our belt, I hope to convince the reader of the relevance and necessity of this approach in research focusing on women and those involved in informal employment, especially in the formation of policy affecting “vulnerable populations.” Using a quote from Saleebey (2000, 127), I believe that if research seeks to understand the “qualities, traits, virtues, and resources that people develop, acquire, and accumulate as they confront and struggle with the challenges in their lives,” we will not only come away with a more realistic and complete understanding of the population, but also be able to formulate better strategies for providing support for such groups. Finally, I think the most exciting part about this research is the idea that coping strategies used by one isolated community can be used to inform and improve the experiences of people facing similar issues across around the world.
Why does a strength-based approach lead to a more holistic view of the subject? While always vital, it becomes especially important when studying at-risk populations. This is because the researcher often has the power to frame the subject for the reader, stripping the individual of the basic right of defining oneself. To bring forth a specific and relevant example, we come to the literature on domestic workers. As stated in Awumbila, Teye, and Yaro (2016, 958), the majority of work studying this group (domestic workers) continues to “portray migrant domestic workers as passive agents, powerless and as victims of exploitations.” For example, many studies frame migration choices as being made out of desperation, or exploitation rather than as a savvy choice. This is not to say that forced migration does not happen, only that by overlooking agency in choices we miss the whole story.
As shown above, ignoring the autonomous capacities that workers possess leads us to overlook fascinating coping mechanisms employed by workers to combat systematic oppression. By employing a strengths-based perspective, I am hoping to acknowledge the agency that workers exercise, and analyze factors influencing women’s resilience. As stated by (Saleebey 2000, 135), a strengths perspective obligates us “to understand that however downtrodden, beaten up, sick or disheartened and demoralized, individuals have survived and in some cases flourished.”
Something that frustrated me as a political science major was this sense of guilt that I couldn’t shake, driven by the interrogative question, who was I to tell the stories of the people I studied? Also, what tangible good would they gain from me publishing a paper with a relatively mundane finding? With that in mind for my year of somewhat inter-disciplinary study, I have been trying to allow more space for self-determination in my research approach. I hope that by taking the individual seriously, I am able to accomplish this.
Saleebey, Dennis. 2000. “Power in the people: strengths and hope.” Advances in social work 1 (2):127-136.
Smith, Elsie J. 2006. “The strength-based counseling model.” The counseling psychologist 34 (13-79).
Van der Ham, Alida Joanna , Maria Theresa Ujano-Batangan, Raquel Ignacio, and Ivan Wolffers. 2014. “Toward healthy migration: an exploratory study on the resilience of migrant domestic workers from the Philippines.” Transcultural psychiatry 51 (4):545-568.
Wong, Daniel Fu Keung, and He Xue Song. 2008. “The resilience of migrant workers in Shanghai China: the roles of migration stress and meaning of migration.” International Journal of Social Psychiatry 54 (2):131-143.