By Katie Thurber
Achieving social justice by overcoming social inequality is a burning complex problem. In research which aims to contribute to achieving social justice, what does it mean to move from a deficit discourse to a strengths-based approach? How does such a change impact on the understanding of social inequality, as well as on actions taken to overcome it?
I am part of a group researching Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and we have been grappling with these questions. The issues are also more broadly relevant.
What is a deficit discourse?
A deficit discourse focuses on problems. A common example is the comparison of the group of interest to another social group that has better outcomes. The focus may be on the size of the gap between the groups.
A consequence of deficit discourse is constant negative portrayal of the group of interest. These negative stories, and the focus on problems, can reinforce negative stereotypes, which can then contribute to racist attitudes and behaviours.
Those in the group of interest who constantly hear these negative stories may internalise negative beliefs about their identity, which can contribute to low self-esteem and psychological distress. Deficit discourse can also decrease people’s willingness to participate in health-promoting behaviours. Thus, constant deficit discourse can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The act of continually talking about gaps and problems may actually serve to make things worse.
What is a strengths-based approach?
A strengths-based approach focuses on the community of interest and looks at how things are going within that population. It considers who is doing well, who is doing less well, what is working, and what is not working.
This provides a more accurate story of what is going on, and it gives the community real data to work with. It looks at what’s helping, not just what’s harming.
A strengths-based approach also moves the focus from risk factors to protective factors. For example, it moves the focus from things that cause disease to those that promote health and wellbeing.
The intention of strengths-based approaches is not to pretend problems don’t exist (‘problem deflate’), twist results, or ignore the inequalities that exist. Rather, the intention is to refocus research and policy on identifying assets and strengths within individuals and communities, and ways to build on these existing strengths to promote positive outcomes, such as good health.
What does the shift from a deficit discourse to a strengths-based approach mean for understanding complex problems?
It is often the case that we have a reasonably good idea of factors that increase risk, but not of factors that reduce risk (protective factors). For example, in health research we know the types of things that cause disease — such as smoking, high body mass index, and alcohol use — but we don’t have as good of a grasp on what promotes wellbeing.
Further, protective factors are holistic and often hard to measure. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples report that their culture, their family, and their environment are important to their wellbeing. Such concepts can be difficult to operationalise and quantify.
While this may seem challenging, we can learn from and build on experience. If we avoid tackling these complexities, our research can never improve. For example, our research group has recently published what we think is the first paper to outline and compare pragmatic analytic approaches to implementing a strengths-based stance in quantitative research (Thurber et al., 2020).
What does the shift mean for action for social justice?
An important consequence of the dominant deficit discourse is that services, communities, and individuals are not getting an accurate reflection of progress that is occurring. Further, they are missing out on a potential virtuous cycle wherein seeing this progress could reinforce improvement.
Identifying protective factors allows for the design of programs and policies that build on existing strengths.
It is well established that disparities and negative outcomes are considered more ‘newsworthy’ and ‘attention grabbing’ than positive stories. Educating the media may be an important component of supporting a positive cycle of change through strengths-based research.
While we argue for increased use of strengths-based approaches broadly, we acknowledge that there are circumstances in which it may be beneficial to adopt a deficit frame. For example, a deficit frame may be employed to attract policy or public attention to a problem, where required. Policy is generally designed to address problems; therefore, a deficit frame may be required to define the policy problem. But even then, a strengths-based approach can be used for monitoring and evaluation.
What is your experience?
If you have experience in using a strengths-based approach, or have run into any barriers to using these approaches, I’d love to hear about it.
Thurber, K. A., Thandrayen, J., Banks, E., Doery, K., Sedgwick, M. and Lovett, R. (2020). Strengths-based approaches for quantitative data analysis: A case study using the Australian Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children. SSM – Population Health, 12: 100637.
Biography: Katie Thurber PhD is a research fellow in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Program in the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University in Canberra. She conducts research across community- and policy-identified priority areas, including racism, tobacco control, and family and community safety. She employs community-engaged, mixed-methods, and strength-based research approaches.
Katie Thurber is a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange, which is in the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University.