The Security of Place & Resilience

An interview with Dr. Victor Counted on how place impacts resilience.

Posted Mar 19, 2019

Today we continue in this series of interviews with experts on how resilience—one of the major themes of my book, A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience—connects to their area of study.

Victor Counted, used with permission
Source: Victor Counted, used with permission

This interview is on the subject of place and resilience with Dr. Victor Counted. He specializes in the psychology of religion and spiritual care at Western Sydney University (Australia) and the University of Groningen (Netherlands) and is affiliated with the Cambridge Institute of Applied Psychology and Religion. He is currently completing a new book, Finding God Without Losing Yourself: Resolving the Internal Conflict with God and Self.

JA: How do you personally define place?

VC: “Place” is a multidimensional construct with ascribed meanings that represent the emotions, identity, and commitments that individuals have with a particular environment.

First, this representation involves attachment to the physical and non-physical elements of a particular place, which enable the individual to develop a positive, enduring bond with a place. In this sense, a place can be conceptualized as an object of attachment.

Second, a place can be defined in terms of how it affects the individual’s cognitive development and shapes identity, beliefs, perceptions, and character over an extended stay in a particular place. A senior colleague and place phenomenologist, David Seamon, refers to this aspect as “genius loci,” which simply describes how the individual mirrors the spirit of a place.

A third way in which to describe place involves conative attitudes toward a particular setting, showing how the individual’s behavioral commitments to or dependence on the life-worlds—activities (e.g. religious tourism, leisure vacation), events (e.g. festivals), and resources (e.g. job and education opportunities)—in a place influence how they act or behave. Repeated and extended visits to a particular place may shape the individual’s sense of attachment to, and identity of, a place.

These meanings and representations transform the definitive attributes of place as a locus of meaning-making, identity formation, and psychological adjustment. Disruption of place meanings, whether through man-made events (e.g., war conflicts, terror attacks, LGBT movement, etc.) or natural disasters (e.g., floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.) can predispose affected individuals to psychopathological issues.  

JA: How did you first get interested in studying place?

VC: My journey toward place research started with a personal experience. I left my home country at the tender age of 15, and by the time I was 30 I had lived on almost every continent of the world. This had a huge impact on the way I saw myself and the world around me, as I embodied a part of every country in which I had lived, either consciously or unconsciously. To this day I am sometimes lost in thought, visualizing my life moments in those places and the mix of cultures that I have absorbed into my identity as a human being with a traceless, global accent lost in transit in a world that will never be called home.

These displacement experiences triggered my desire to understand the meaning of place as I negotiated my identity in foreign lands where I am seen as the ‘other’ and even in my home country where I am perceived as an ‘outsider.’ The difficulties and the disconnect were the genesis of my journey as a place scholar, leading me to explore the intersection of place and health, with a focus on migrant and dispersed populations—one of the topics I studied for my Ph.D. research. As I reflected on my personal pilgrimage as a ‘migrant,’ or perhaps a ‘dispersed person,’ little did I know that I had the capacity to deal with the difficulties I faced.

One thing is certain: there is a relationship between how I experienced the places in which I lived and my personal relationship with God. The latter held the core of my identity, as a secure base which has helped me to navigate the former while on the margins of hope and uncertainty.  It was from this secure base that my identity was shaped in foreign lands, and it is to this safe haven that I turn in times of distress. Therefore, it is little wonder I was interested in understanding the relationship between place experiences and religious attachment, and the effects of these experiences on health and quality of life outcomes.

JA: What is the connection between place and resilience?

VC: I think there are many ways to look at the link between place and resilience. Looking through the understanding that resilience can be defined as our ability to recover from life's difficulties based on our relationship with the self and others, the security that comes from such a relationship can serve as a secure base from which to explore our own identity and growth in the world or play the role of a safe haven in difficult times. Hence, secure relationships with objects of attachment (e.g. significant places, religious figures) can help us build resilience. This is where the relationship between place and resilience has a functional meaning because of the understanding of place as an object of attachment assuring a sense of identity, individual growth, and felt-security. The attachment advantage offered by a significant place as a safe haven, a secure base, and a target for proximity enables individuals drawn to such a place to cope with life stressors and negotiate their quality of life.

To understand the connection between place and resilience, we need to weigh the extent to which the individual’s experiences in a place are related to their relationship with an attachment figure. In some of my recent work, I have conceptualized this experience as the circle of place spirituality, arguing that there is a circular pattern of movement which could be described as a circle of security, in which the individual goes back and forth between a place and another object of attachment, depending on their intentions, curiosity, emotions, needs, and motivations. For example, an individual is likely to turn to place (e.g. by traveling to a significant place, viewing or showing photos of a place, visualizing a childhood place, etc.) because of negative experiences they are having with an attachment figure (e.g. a parent, Divine entity, romantic partner, etc.). Alternatively, when there is perceived danger in a place, either through a natural disaster or man-made events such as terror attacks or racial discrimination, individuals previously drawn to such places may switch their alignment by turning to a more reliable object of attachment in order to cope. This exchanging of one object of attachment for another does not only apply as a result of a negative experience or take the form of a compensatory turn but can also take place when the attached individual wants to explore a new relationship out of curiosity. In this sense, a place serves as both an affect-regulating and security-enhancing object.  

JA: What are some ways people might cultivate a stronger sense of place in order to live more resiliently?

VC: It is possible to live more resiliently in a particular environment by developing pro-environmental coping strategies in the form of affective, behavioral, and cognitive processes. One way in which people can do this is to express place affect through their emotional responses toward a particular environment. For example, many refugees build up a picture of what their new life will look like when they arrive at their destination, even though they have never visited those places, by simply reaching them through their visualization.

Another way to express resilience is through place behavior, which is the functional use of, and commitment to, a place in terms of how we interact with and depend on activities or events in a geographical setting. For instance, most people depend on various significant places and activities in those settings (e.g. Jerusalem or church for Christians, Mecca or mosque for Muslims, music festivals for young people, language schools for refugees, etc.) which help them live more resiliently, based on their set goal.

A third way in which pro-environmental coping can be expressed is through the cognitive link between the self and the environment, showing how the individual embodies the identity, character, culture, and memories of a place through the way they speak, dress, and reason. For example, migrants in a new place are very likely to learn the language and lifestyle of the place in order to quickly assimilate into a new culture. Living in Paris for an extended period of time is likely to change the way you dress, in the same way as living in Italy for an extended period of time might change the way you express yourself (e.g. speaking more loudly, more quickly, and throwing your arms around). It could be argued that these pro-environmental strategies are conscious and unconscious skills adopted by individuals in order to enhance their sense of place which, in turn, helps them to live more resiliently and integrate better in a place. A sense of place is a strategy for building resilience, and this can be contingent on one’s secure base.

JA: Can you share what you’re working on these days related to place?

VC: Although I have just recently completed my Ph.D., I am actively involved in research looking at how our relationship with objects of attachment, such as geographical places and divine entities, can help us understand attachment-related religious psychopathology and conflict (e.g. terrorism, religious violence, political conflict). Specifically, I am looking at what happens when the relationship with an object of attachment (e.g., place: sacred religious buildings, memorial grounds, home, etc.; religious figure: God, Allah, Jesus, Prophet Muhammed, etc.) is disrupted, whether through natural disaster or war conflict, disparaging remarks about one’s religious figure, or other forms of disruption (e.g. human migration, advocacy of rights, anti-conservative views, etc.). My interest in this topic is to see how individuals involved in religious conflicts and acts of terrorism are predisposed to psychopathological separation issues (e.g. protest, despair, and detachment) that are linked to their attachment bond with a religious figure and a significant place. Theoretically, my intention is to examine the potential links between attachment disruptions and religious psychopathology, since this is probably an understudied topic in psychology. I am hoping to do further research in this area in the coming years by drawing on other psychological perspectives to supplement research in religious psychopathology using the concept of terrorist ideation. This will help me to illuminate the processes leading to one becoming a terrorist or radicalized. I also hope to develop measurement tools for assessing the extent of attachment-related religious psychopathology in multi-cultural and multi-faith societies and design interventions for practice and policy.

JA: Anything else you care to share?

VC: Readers interested in my recent work can follow the upcoming issue of Archive for the Psychology of Religion, which features my work on “Place Spirituality” with commentaries on the original paper. The issue should be officially released in April 2019, and I look forward to further discussion on the topic. I am also co-editing a new book with Fraser Watts on Religion and Place: Psychological Perspectives, with expected publication before the end of 2019. Anyone interested in my work can learn more at here.