Adversity Capital: a Concept for Our Times (Ideas in Progress)

By Adele Pavlidis, PhD, Adjunct Research Fellow, Griffith Centre for Cultural Research, Griffith University. QLD.


Where risk and uncertainty are the norm, there is an urgent need to change the way adversity is valued in our society, and to incorporate power and affect into our analysis. Through research into young people’s perceptions of risk I conceptualized ‘adversity capital’ as a cultural resource vital to our times. Adversity capital can support a revaluing of diversity and an opening up of sometimes-rigid definitions of ‘success’. In this post I begin expanding this concept, in line with contemporary debates in sociology and cogent disciplines.

As Coffey and Farrugia note, agency is ‘about the relationship between subjectivities and other parts of the social life, such as social structures, institutions or discourses’ (2014, p. 462). Accounting for subjectivities in sociological research is complex and requires nuanced concepts and theoretical approaches. The concept of adversity capital supports Coffey and Farrugia’s hope of arriving at a ‘more powerful analysis of the way that young people’s biographies, identities and decisions are shaped by, and contribute to, the on-going production of their social environments’ (2014, p. 472).

The concept of adversity capital is an inherently political one, as it questions the sometimes-moralistic positions of policy and education interventions. It is an opening up of a broader range of ways of becoming in contemporary life. It is a way of accounting for the material and affective dimensions of experience for young people living today.

First attempts

Adversity capital was first formulated in 2009 in response to the tensions between Beck’s theories of risk and individualization (1992), and Bourdieu’s ‘structuring structures’ (1990). I was interested in notions of ‘risk’ and uncertainty in the lives of young people, particularly those who were already deemed by society to be ‘at-risk’. To investigate young people’s perceptions of risk I conducted focus groups with two groups of young people: homeless young people and a group who were members of a youth advisory board for a community health service.

These two groups had vastly different perceptions of risk – the advisory group talked of technology and ‘disconnection’, while the homeless young people talked of HIV, violence and cleanliness. This clear difference in risk perception by these two cohorts of young people highlighted the ways material inequalities created very particular affects – namely fear and shame relating to bodily health (violence, HIV, STDs, cleanliness). (Pavlidis and Baker, 2010).

In attempting to synthesize the work of Beck (1992) and Bourdieu I developed the concept of ‘adversity capital’, arguing:

…where young people who have experienced adversity use these experiences and understandings of the world to effectively deploy themselves in an increasingly risky and fluid society. Rather than dismiss young people’s experience of adversity as only of negative consequence, the concept of adversity capital can be used to empower young people to value their own experiences and life courses as valuable and meaningful, in this way developing the reflexivity needed to negotiate and mediate risk (Pavlidis, 2009, p. 10)

Lucas Walsh (2016) has taken up my 2009 concept of adversity capital in the field of education. He proposes adversity capital as a way to develop the ‘soft skills’ some say are needed to navigate uncertainty and change (pp. 79-99). This usage certainly has potential, however, there must be a way of engaging with issues of embodiment, power and affect.  As Bourdieu (1990) wrote, ‘practical belief is not a “state of the mind”, still less a kind of arbitrary adherence to a set of instituted dogmas and doctrines, but rather a state of the body’ (p. 68).

New Materialisms, Youth Studies and Adversity Capital

Through both discourse and action, the affects of adversity are such that one is changed as a result of its presence in one’s life. Adversity is defined in this post as any event, situation or circumstance known to be associated with poorer social outcomes (health, education, economics, housing). These adversities can be social, or individual – they can include environmental disasters (earth quake, flood, storms), climate change, illness and disability (including cancer, mental illness, physical restrictions, other disease or disability), un/underemployment and insecure employment, conflict, abuse, domestic violence, homelessness/housing insecurity, drug/alcohol addiction, sexism, racism, discrimination or bullying, among other things. Adversities are ‘things’ that fundamentally challenge us, as human subjects. Adversities are situations, events and conditions that stay with us, no matter how long ago they occurred; they influence our understandings and worldviews in a number of ways. At the heart of adversity (and overcoming it) is the age-old debate about structure and agency.

Understanding the ways young people work through adversity requires the strengths of contemporary sociological theories and ideas. Key debates in sociology have progressed and the distinctions (and the usefulness of these distinctions) between structure and agency have been widely disputed (e.g. Coffey and Farrugia, 2014). Theorists and researchers have drawn on post-structuralism and social practice theories to respond with rigor to broadening our understandings of subjectivity and power. More recently still, new materialism provides what Coole (2013) calls ‘a political-ethical intervention within the material unfolding of the 21st century’ (p. 452).

New materialism does not adhere to one defined approach or set of ideas, however, as Coole outlines, there are two areas that broadly define the approach. Firstly, it is a concern with ‘an ontology of becoming, in which the very processes involved in the materialization of matter are being redescribed. The second entails renewed attention to actual material changes and processes that are currently underway’ (p. 452). It is an integration of detailed, micro studies, with attention to the broader macro-level systems – for example, considering policy, together with relationships, emotion and affect, and broad trends.

In line with new materialism, the concept of adversity capital does not assume a unified, bounded (and masculine) subject. Instead, it accounts for change, for lines of flight, for processes of becoming. Adversity capital is a resource that can be used to materially-discursively produce new opportunities. It is a specific form of cultural capital, with an emphasis on the embodied form (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992 p. 119). Yet what is different about adversity capital is its usefulness outside of a specific ‘field’. For example, the lived experience of long term unemployment can be understood as a type of capital that can be drawn upon in multiple fields, whether they be the arts, education, specific occupations, and so on.

As a concept, adversity capital is yet to be further explored, however I argue that it is a concept that can support a productive analysis of contemporary social issues and one that can work towards social change. Firstly, it allows for an analysis of the affects of adversity to be understood as productive. Not withstanding the ontological clash between the common conceptualization of capital (as a thing that can be had/developed) and the new materialist ideas of moving with/through adversity, ‘adversity capital’, I argue, is a way of working through these clashes in productive ways. Secondly, adversity capital may support young people and those who work with them to begin the slow process of cultural and personal change – challenging normative and persistent views of ‘successful transitions’, ‘good choices’, and even restrictive gender norms.


Ahmed, S. (2004). The cultural politics of emotion. New York: Routledge.

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The logic of practice. Stanford: Stanford Univ Pr.

Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, L.J.D. (1992). An invitation to reflexive sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Coffey, J., & Farrugia, D. (2014). Unpacking the black box: The problem of agency in the sociology of youth. Journal of youth studies, 17(4), 461-474.

Coole, D. (2013). Agentic capacities and capacious historical materialism: Thinking with new materialisms in the political sciences. Millennium-Journal of International Studies, 41(3), 451-469.

Pavlidis, A. (2009). The Diverse Logics of Risk: Young People’s Negotiations of the Risk Society. Paper presented at the The Australian Sociological Association, Canberra, ANU.

Pavlidis, A., & Baker, S. (2010). Who Participates?: Differing Perceptions of Risk by Young People and the Impact on Strategies for Youth Participation. Youth Studies Australia, 29(1), 27.

Probyn, E. (2005). Blush. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.

Walsh, L. (2016). Adversity Capital. Educating Generation Next (pp. 79-99): Springer.


About tasayouth

Blog of the Australian Sociological Association's Youth Thematic Group
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