Wellbeing, Livelihoods and Resources in Social Practice

Sarah White and Mark Ellison


'When in 1334 the Duchess of Tyrol, Margareta Maultasch, encircled the castle of Hochosterwitz in the province of Carinthia, she knew only too well that the fortress, situated on an incredibly steep rock rising high above the valley floor, was impregnable to direct attack and would yield only to a long siege. In due course, the situation of the defenders became critical: they were down to their last ox and had only two bags of barley corn left. Margareta's situation was becoming equally pressing, albeit for different reasons: her troops were beginning to be unruly, there seemed to be no end to the siege in sight, and she had similarly urgent military business, elsewhere. At this point the commandant of the castle decided on a desperate course of action which to his men must have seemed sheer folly: he had the last ox slaughtered, had its abdominal cavity filled with the remaining barley, and ordered the carcass thrown down the steep cliff onto a meadow in front of the enemy camp. Upon receiving this scornful message from above, the discouraged duchess abandoned the siege and moved on.'

(Watzlawick et al 1994:xi)

This story gives an example of comic reversal in the definition and deployment of resources. Faced with a desperate situation of chronic food shortage and imminent military and political defeat, the commandant resorted to a reckless, apparently irrational act. Rather than consuming the last of their food resources in a final attempt to rally his people's flagging strength, he had the ox and barley hurled over the barricades in a last-ditch, winner-takes-all, symbolic act of resistance. The gamble paid off. The duchess, already wearied by her recalcitrant troops and the lure of other battles to fight, had had enough. The commandant's transformatory interpretation of the resources at his disposal had a transformatory outcome. The use of ox and barley as cultural symbol of shame, scorn and defiance had a material impact far beyond their 'innate' capacity. From simply enabling an insupportable situation to be continued a little longer, they became the means for liberation.

The story suggests a number of cautions for any attempt to advance a naïve, realist account of the resources that people have at their disposal. It points, first, to the way that the character of resources is given by the context in which they are perceived - and the potentially radical way in which they may be re-conceived and creatively deployed. Second it shows the importance of agency, that it is human subjects and their reading of their needs and what they wish to achieve in the situation they face, that defines how resources are understood - and indeed, whether things are perceived as resources at all. Third, it points to the importance of relationship, and the significance of social identities and power relations to both the capacity to use resources and the outcomes of that use. Finally, it points to the indeterminacy of social practice. However great the creative inspiration of the commandant, the success of his action depended on the response of his opponents. Had they reacted otherwise, the fate of his community and the history of that part of the world would have been very different.

This paper considers the significance of these points to the use of 'resources' as a conceptual category in attempts to comprehend wellbeing. Against the dominant tendency to see resources as stable, fixed categories of assets, we argue that what constitutes a resource in any given context depends primarily on the purposes of the people involved. Resources offer means to an end. Only when one has a goal in mind can one identify what resources one has to secure it. For policy makers, therefore, understanding the ends, or purposes, that people wish to pursue must logically precede any identification of the resources they may use to achieve their aims. The social comprehends the economic.

We begin with a brief introduction to the concept of wellbeing and the livelihood frameworks which inform approaches to wellbeing in development studies. Noting that these break the view that 'resources' or 'capital' comprise only income and productive assets, we ask how much more work such frameworks can do. To pursue this we explore further the social processes through which resources are constituted and deployed. We note how different goods may be classified by different writers as different kinds of resource. Education, for example, is seen by most as 'human capital', but Bourdieu sees it as cultural and symbolic capital. Rather than seeing one of these as right and one wrong, we can see that in practice education may function in both ways. To progress we need to de-stabilise the reified usage of 'capital' and 'resources'. First, this means opening the space to differentiate between (tangible and intangible) goods that can be observed objectively to exist, and the transformation of such goods into resources (or capital) when they are perceived by people as offering the means to meet a particular end. Second, it means questioning the relations between different categories of resource. Rather than seeing specific goods as constituting always a particular type of resource, we suggest it may be more useful to say that all goods have the potential for use as material, social (or political) and symbolic resources. The next section re-locates to the dingy kitchen of a couple of Caribbean share-croppers, to consider a what the cooking of an omelette shows of how subjectivity determines the character of resources and how social structure and agency articulate with this. For theoretical clarification we draw in particular on Bourdieu's concept of habitus, which we consider to be particularly apposite for a focus on wellbeing because it offers an unusually holistic view of human experience, connecting the bodily to the social, and the social to the psychological.

In the final section we note that the value of broadening definitions of 'capital' or 'resources' from the material or financial to include the social or cultural is not self-evident: it becomes meaningful in the context of a policy discourse which privileges economic understandings of what is important. We seek in this section to open up in a very preliminary way the big questions about what constitutes this dominant discourse, and how we might begin to approach things differently. We argue that in place of a reified focus on resources, we should focus on livelihoods and attempts to secure wellbeing as forms of social practice, and consider in particular the negotiation of identities and social relations that these involve. We also argue the importance of consider the needs and purposes of planners and policymakers, and how these shape the concepts and frameworks that are used. We close by calling for a more self-aware, and better theorised approach of social analysis for development and wellbeing, which recognises the creativity and indeterminacy of social practice, and expects to be surprised.


Watzlawick, P. Weakland, J.H. and Fisch, R. 1974. Change - Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution. London: W.W.Norton & Co.