Measuring 'subjective resilience': using peoples' perceptions to quantify household resilience

Working and discussion papers
July 2015

How should we measure a household’s resilience? As resilience gathers momentum on the international stage, interest in this question continues to grow. So far, efforts to measure resilience have largely focused on the use of ‘objective’ frameworks and methods of indicator selection. These typically depend on a range of observable socio-economic variables, such as levels of income, the extent of a household’s social capital or its access to social safety nets. Yet, while objective methods have their uses, they suffer from well-documented weaknesses. Biases, such as the choice of indicators, the context-specific nature of resilience and the difficulties of capturing the less tangible processes that contribute to a person’s resilience, all make the task of measurement difficult. Alternative approaches are therefore sought.

This paper advocates for the use of one such alternative: the measurement of ‘subjective’ resilience at the household level. The concept of subjective resilience stems from the premise that people have a good understanding of the factors that contribute to their ability to anticipate, buffer and adapt to disturbance and change. Subjective household resilience, therefore, relates to an individual’s cognitive and affective self-evaluation of their household’s capabilities and capacities in responding to risk.

In this paper, we discuss the advantages of measuring subjective household resilience. First, we put forward different options for the design and delivery of survey questions on subjective resilience at the household level. We then outline some of the key limitations and methodological challenges of asking subjective questions and explore possible ways of overcoming various biases. Finally, we highlight how subjective household resilience can be used to improve policy and decision-making, through the evaluation and targeting of resilience-building activities, national and international resilience measurement, and the inclusion of bottom-up perspectives in decision-making processes at various levels of governance.