Why we need strengths-based approaches to achieve social justice

By Katie Thurber

Katie Thurber (biography)

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.

5 thoughts on “Why we need strengths-based approaches to achieve social justice”

  1. Dear Katie,
    this is a wonderful post and I love your argument for a stength-based approach. I am also thinking that a lot of local and global sustainability problems are quite clear. The focus should shift at least a bit from only trying to more deeply understand the problems to better understanding the solutions. Of course this goes hand in hand but I read between your lines that the later is a bit neglected. I am coming from a transdisciplinary research background where the joint problem-framing with academic and non-academic actors is at the beginning of a project. The joint aim is often to co-produce actionable knowledge that can solve or at least mitigate a jointly defined problem (at least in theory). I wonder how a strength-based transdisciplinary research approach would be? How would we need to redefine the problem-framing step of transdisciplinary research? Have you had any thoughts on this? I would be very happy to discuss this more. Best, David

    • Dear David, Thank you, and great points raised. We have similarly thought about this from the perspective of policy, which tends to be problem-focused. As you say, strengths-based approaches can go hand-in-hand with problem identification, i.e. to use a strengths-based approach to identify solutions to the problem that may already exist within community/environmental resources. I agree that it is a bigger challenge to reframe how we think about these issues from the outset — how, or in what instances, could we shift our thinking to also look for strengths/assets that could be leveraged to promote wellbeing, in the absence of a “problem”? I certainly don’t have the answers here, and would be interested your ideas.

  2. Thank you for your input, Piotr. I agree – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities members have been calling for strengths-based approaches for a long time now. I also agree that there are related and unique concerns about the over-focus on “resilience”.

    Thanks for your question. Our assertion that communities can miss out on real progress that is occurring relates to the presentation of outcomes compared to a reference population (here, the total Australian population or the non-Indigenous population), rather than presenting data framed around the population of interest. We describe an example about smoking prevalence in the manuscript. There was a significant and substantial 9% drop in smoking prevalence among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults from 2004 to 2015 – which has contributed to thousands of early deaths avoided. However, when this trend is presented through a deficit lens, that is, in comparison to smoking prevalence trends in the non-Indigenous population, it is described as a “lack of progress” because the size of the “gap” hasn’t changed. This is an example of where a focus on the “gap” obscures real change that is happening.

    In terms of how the presentation of statistics can influence behaviour, we have provided some more detail and references in our full manuscript. One example is a study with African American adults in the United States, authored by Nicholson et al. (2008). This study found that participants were significantly more likely to seek cancer screening if they were presented cancer statistics through a progress frame (Blacks are improving over time), rather than through a deficit lens (Blacks are doing worse than Whites, or Blacks are improving, but less than Whites). We could benefit from more robust studies in this space.

  3. The first thing to note is that a change in approach is overdue, policies based on the ‘deficit discourse’ clearly aren’t working, even if from time to time a few numbers on ‘narrowing the gap’ happen to show improvements, e.g. education attendance or qualification attainment. This is particularly true when initiatives driving these changes happen to be tied to punitive measures imposed on the community, e.g. withholding financial support in case of noncompliance, which I think has been the case in context of improving truancy.

    While I’m not a fan of the tendency to adopt terms of the Positivity Movement and Wellbeing vocabulary, e.g. the current overuse of resilience, (this is yet another story), Katie Thurber’s approach could do a lot worse than a touch cliché baggage in ‘strength-based’ framing. However, what I would definitely question, is an assumption linking the ‘negative’ measures, with the notion that “individuals are not getting an accurate reflection of progress that is occurring” and that “they are missing out on a potential virtuous cycle”. Is there any concrete evidence indicating positive results beyond a brute force behavioural change I mentioned? I sense a positivity bias, which may prove to be a weak hypothesis.

    Editor: Two paragraphs describing the commenter’s views on the situation of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been removed, as they are not germane to the aims of the blog. Interested readers can find them on the commenter’s LinkedIn page (click on his name).


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