Social vulnerability

Social vulnerability

Research on social vulnerability to date has stemmed from a variety of fields in the natural and social sciences. Each field has defined the concept differently, manifest in a host of definitions and approaches (Blaikie, Cannon et al. 1994; Henninger 1998; Frankenberger, Drinkwater et al. 2000; Alwang, Siegel et al. 2001; Oliver-Smith 2003; Cannon, Twigg et al. 2005). Yet some common threads run through most of the available work.

In its broadest sense, social vulnerability is one dimension of vulnerability to multiple stressors and shocks, including natural hazards. Social vulnerability refers to the inability of people, organizations, and societies to withstand adverse impacts from multiple stressors to which they are exposed. These impacts are due in part to characteristics inherent in social interactions, institutions, and systems of cultural values.

Because it is most apparent when calamity occurs, many studies of social vulnerability are found in risk management literature (Peacock and Ragsdale 1997; Anderson and Woodrow 1998; Alwang, Siegel et al. 2001; Conway and Norton 2002). However, social vulnerability is a pre-existing condition that affects a society’s ability to prepare for and recover from a disruptive event.

Social vulnerability is created through the interaction of social forces and multiple stressors, and resolved through social (as opposed to individual) means. While individuals within a socially vulnerable context may break through the “vicious cycle,” social vulnerability itself can persist because of structural—i.e. social and political—influences that reinforce vulnerability. More needs to be known about the mechanisms of vulnerability and resilience in groups of people most affected by shocks.


Vulnerability derives from the Latin word "vulnerare" (to be wounded) and describes the potential to be harmed physically and/or psychologically. Vulnerability is often understood as the counterpart of resilience, and is increasingly studied in linked social-ecological systems.

The concept of social vulnerability emerged most recently within the discourse on natural hazards and disasters. To date no one definition has been agreed upon. Similarly, multiple theories of social vulnerability exist (Weichselgartner 2001). Most work conducted so far focuses on empirical observation and conceptual models. Thus current social vulnerability research is a middle range theory and represents an attempt to understand the social conditions that transform a natural hazard (e.g. flood, earthquake, mass movements etc.) into a social disaster. The concept emphasizes two central themes:
#Both the causes and the phenomenon of disasters are defined by social processes and structures. Thus it is not only a geo- or biophysical hazard, but rather the social context that is taken into account to understand “natural” disasters (Hewitt 1983).
#Although different groups of a society may share a similar exposure to a natural hazard, the hazard has varying consequences for these groups, since they have diverging capacities and abilities to handle the impact of a hazard.

History of the concept

In the 1970s the concept of vulnerability was introduced within the discourse on natural hazards and disaster by O´Keefe, Westgate and Wisner (O´Keefe, Westgate et al. 1976). In “taking the naturalness out of natural disasters” these authors insisted that socio-economic conditions are the causes for natural disasters. The work illustrated by means of empirical data that the occurrence of disasters increased over the last 50 years, paralleled by an increasing loss of life. The work also showed that the greatest losses of life concentrate in underdeveloped countries, where the authors concluded that vulnerability is increasing. Chambers put these empirical findings on a conceptual level and argued that vulnerability has an external and internal side: People are exposed to specific natural and social risk. At the same time people possess different capacities to deal with their exposure by means of various strategies of action (Chambers 1989). This argument was again refined be Blaikie, Cannon, Davis and Wisner. They developed the Pressure and Release Model (PAR), which understands disaster as the intersection of two opposing forces: socio-economic processes on the one side, and physical exposure on the other side. They distinguished between three components on the social side – that are root causes, dynamic pressure and unsafe conditions and one component on the natural side, which is the hazard itself. The most important root causes are “economic, demographic and political processes”, which affect the allocation and distribution of resources between different groups of people. Dynamic Pressures translate economic and political processes in local circumstances (e.g. migration patterns). Unsafe conditions are the specific forms in which vulnerability is expressed in time and space (Blaikie, Cannon et al. 1994). Watts and Bohle argued similarly by formalizing the “social space of vulnerability”, which is constituted by exposure, capacity and potentiality (Watts and Bohle 1993).

Cutter developed an integrative approach (hazard of place), which tries to consider both multiple geo- and biophysical hazards on the one hand as well as social vulnerabilities on the other hand (Cutter, Mitchell et al. 2000). Recently, Oliver-Smith grasped the nature-culture dichotomy by focusing both on the cultural construction of the people-environment-relationship and on the material production of conditions that define the social vulnerability of people (Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2002).

Some authors criticize the conceptualization of social vulnerability for overemphasizing the social, political and economical processes and structures that lead to vulnerable conditions. Inherent in such a view is the tendency to understand people as passive victims (Hewitt 1997) and to neglect the subjective and intersubjective interpretation and perception of disastrous events. Bankoff criticizes the very basis of the concept, since in his view it is shaped by a knowledge system that was developed and formed within the academic environment of western countries and therefore inevitably represents values and principles of that culture. According to Bankoff the ultimate aim underlying this concept is to depict large parts of the world as dangerous and hostile to provide further justification for interference and intervention (Bankoff 2003).

Current and future research

Social vulnerability research has become a deeply interdisciplinary science, rooted in the modern realization that humans are the causal agents of disasters – i.e., disasters are never natural, but a consequence of human behavior. The desire to understand geographic, historic, and socio-economic characteristics of social vulnerability motivates much of the research being conducted around the world today. Two principal goals are currently driving the field of social vulnerability research:
#The design of models which explain vulnerability and the root causes which create it, and
#The development of indicators and indexes which attempt to map vulnerability over time and space (Villágran de León 2006). The temporal and spatial aspects of vulnerability science are pervasive, particularly in research that attempts to demonstrate the impact of development on social vulnerability. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are increasingly being used to map vulnerability, and to better understand how various phenomena (hydrological, meteorological, geophysical, social, political and economic) effect human populations. Researchers have yet to develop reliable models capable of predicting future outcomes based upon existing theories and data. Designing and testing the validity of such models, particularly at the sub-national scale at which vulnerability reduction takes place, is expected to become a major component of social vulnerability research in the future. An even greater aspiration in social vulnerability research is the search for one, broadly applicable theory, which can be applied systematically at a variety of scales, all over the world. Climate change scientists, building engineers, public health specialists, and many other related professions have already achieved major strides in reaching common approaches. Some social vulnerability scientists argue that it is time for them to do the same, and they are creating a variety of new forums in order to seek a consensus on common frameworks, standards, tools, and research priorities. Many academic, policy, and public/NGO organizations promote a globally applicable approach in social vulnerability science and policy (see section 5 for links to some of these institutions).

Research opportunities and challenges

Research on social vulnerability is expanding rapidly to fill the research and action gaps in this field. This work can be characterized in three major groupings, including research, public awareness, and policy. The following issues have been identified as requiring further attention to understand and reduce social vulnerability (Warner and Loster 2006):


1. Foster a common understanding of social vulnerability – its definition(s), theories, and measurement approaches.

2. Aim for science that produces tangible and applied outcomes.

3. Advance tools and methodologies to reliably measure social vulnerability.

;Public awareness

4. Strive for better understanding of nonlinear relationships and interacting systems (environment, social and economic, hazards), and present this understanding coherently to maximize public understanding.

5. Disseminate and present results in a coherent manner for the use of lay audiences. Develop straight forward information and practical education tools.

6. Recognize the potential of the media as a bridging device between science and society.


7. Involve local communities and stakeholders considered in vulnerability studies.

8. Strengthen people’s ability to help themselves, including an (audible) voice in resource allocation decisions.

9. Create partnerships that allow stakeholders from local, national, and international levels to contribute their knowledge.

10. Generate individual and local trust and ownership of vulnerability reduction efforts.

Debate and ongoing discussion surround the causes and possible solutions to social vulnerability. In cooperation with scientists and policy experts worldwide, momentum is gathering around practice-oriented research on social vulnerability. In the future, links will be strengthened between ongoing policy and academic work to solidify the science, consolidate the research agenda, and fill knowledge gaps about causes of and solutions for social vulnerability.

Further reading

;OverviewAdger, W. Neil. 2006. Vulnerability. Global Environmental Change 16 (3):268-281.

Cutter, Susan L., Bryan J. Boruff, and W. Lynn Shirley. 2003. Social vulnerability to environmental hazards. Social Science Quarterly 84 (1):242-261.

Gallopín, Gilberto C. 2006. Linkages between vulnerability, resilience, and adaptive capacity. Global Environmental Change 16 (3):293-303.

Oliver-Smith, Anthony. 2004. Theorizing vulnerability in a globalized world: a political ecological perspective. In Mapping vulnerability: disasters, development & people, edited by G. Bankoff, G. Frerks and D. Hilhorst. Sterling, VA: Earthscan, 10-24.

;Natural hazards paradigmBurton, Ian, Robert W. Kates, and Gilbert F. White. 1993. The environment as hazard. 2nd ed. New York: Guildford Press.

Kates, Robert W. 1971. Natural hazard in human ecological perspectives: hypotheses and models. Economic Geography 47 (3):438-451.Mitchell, James K. 2001. What's in a name?: issues of terminology and language in hazards research (Editorial). Environmental Hazards 2:87-88.

;Political-ecological traditionBlaikie, Piers, Terry Cannon, Ian Davis and Ben Wisner. 1994. At risk: natural hazards, people's vulnerability, and disasters. ist ed. London: Routledge. (see below under Wisner for 2nd edition)

Bohle, H. G., T. E. Downing, and M. J. Watts. 1994. Climate change and social vulnerability: the sociology and geography of food insecurity. Global Environmental Change 4:37-48.

Langridge, R.; J. Christian-Smith; and K.A. Lohse. "Access and Resilience: Analyzing the Construction of Social Resilience to the Threat of Water Scarcity" Ecology and Society 11(2): insight section.

O'Brien, P., and Robin Leichenko. 2000. Double exposure: assessing the impacts of climate change within the context of economic globalization. Global Environmental Change 10 (3):221-232.

Quarantelli, E. L. 1989. Conceptualizing disasters from a sociological perspective. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 7 (3):243-251.

Sarewitz, Daniel, Roger Pielke, Jr. , and Mojdeh Keykhah. 2003. Vulnerability and risk: some thoughts from a political and policy perspective. Risk Analysis 23 (4):805-810.

Tierney, Kathleen J. 1999. Toward a critical sociology of risk. Sociological Forum 14 (2):215-242.

Wisner, B., Blaikie, Piers, Terry Cannon, Ian Davis. 2004. At risk: natural hazards, people's vulnerability, and disasters. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

;Human-ecological traditionBrooks, Nick, W. Neil Adger, and P. Mick Kelly. 2005. The determinants of vulnerability and adaptive capacity at the national level and the implications for adaptation. Global Environmental Change 15 (2):151-163.

Comfort, L., Ben Wisner, Susan L. Cutter, R. Pulwarty, Kenneth Hewitt, Anthony Oliver-Smith, J. Wiener, M. Fordham, W. Peacock, and F. Krimgold. 1999. Reframing disaster policy: the global evolution of vulnerable communities. Environmental Hazards 1 (1):39-44.Cutter, Susan L. 1996. Vulnerability to environmental hazards. Progress in Human Geography 20 (4):529-539.

Dow, Kirsten. 1992. Exploring differences in our common future(s): the meaning of vulnerability to global environmental change. Geoforum 23:417-436.

Liverman, Diana. 1990. Vulnerability to global environmental change. In Understanding global environmental change: the contributions of risk analysis and management, edited by R. E. Kasperson, K. Dow, D. Golding and J. X. Kasperson. Worcester, MA: Clark University, 27-44.

Turner, B. L. II, Roger E. Kasperson, Pamela A. Matson, James J. McCarthy, Robert W. Corell, Lindsey Christensen, Noelle Eckley, Jeanne X. Kasperson, Amy Luers, Marybeth L. Martello, Colin Polsky, Alexander Pulsipher, and Andrew Schiller. 2003. A framework for vulnerability analysis in sustainability science. PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) 100 (14):8074-8079.

;Research NeedsCutter, Susan L. 2001. A research agenda for vulnerability science and environmental hazards [Internet] . International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change [cited August 18 2006] . Available from

Young, Oran R., Frans Berkhout, Gilberto C. Gallopin, Marco A. Janssen, Elinor Ostrom, and Sander van der Leeuw. 2006. The globalization of socio-ecological systems: an agenda for scientific research. Global Environmental Change 16 (3):304-316.


Alwang, J., P. B. Siegel, et al. (2001). Vulnerability: a view from different disciplines. Social Protection Discussion Paper Series No. 0115. Washington, D.C., Social Protection Unit, Human Development Network, The World Bank. Anderson, M. B. and P. J. Woodrow (1998). Rising from the Ashes: Development Strategies in Times of Disaster. London, IT Publications. Bankoff, G. (2003). Cultures of Disaster: Society and natural hazards in the Philippines. London, RoutledgeCurzon.

Blaikie, P., T. Cannon, I. Davis & B. Wisner. (1994). At Risk: Natural hazards, People's vulnerability, and disasters. London, Routledge. Cannon, T., J. Twigg, et al. (2005). Social Vulnerability, Sustainable Livelihoods and Disasters, Report to DFID Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance Department (CHAD) and Sustainable Livelihoods Support Office. London, DFID: 63. Chambers, R. (1989). "Editorial Introduction: Vulnerability, Coping and Policy." IDS Bulletin 20(2): 7. Conway, T. and A. Norton (2002). "Poverty, Risk and Rights: New Directions in Social Protection." Development Policy Review 20(5). Cutter, S. L., J. T. Mitchell, et al. (2000). "Revealing the Vulnerability of People and Places: A Case Study of Georgetown County, South Carolina." Annals of American Geographers 90(4): 713-737. Frankenberger, T. R., M. Drinkwater, et al. (2000). Operationalizing household livelihood security: a holistic approach for addressing poverty and vulnerability. Forum on Operationalising Sustainable Livelihoods Approaches. Pontignano (Siena), FAO. Henninger, N. (1998). Mapping and Geographic Analysis of Human Welfare and Poverty: Review and Assessment. Washington DC, World Resources Institute. Hewitt, K., Ed. (1983). Interpretation of Calamity: From the Viewpoint of Human Ecology. Boston, Allen. Hewitt, K. (1997). Regions of Risk: A Geographical Introduction to Disasters. Essex, Longman. O´Keefe, K. Westgate, et al. (1976). "Taking the naturalness out of natural disasters." Nature 260. Oliver-Smith, A. (2003). Theorizing Vulnerability in a Globalized World: A Political Ecological Perspective. Mapping Vulnerability: Disasters, Development and People. Bankoff, Frerk and Hilhorst. London, Earthscan: 10-24. Oliver-Smith, A. and S. M. Hoffman (2002). Theorizing Disasters: Nature, Power and Culture. Theorizing Disasters: Nature, Power and CultureCatastrophe and Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster. A. Oliver-Smith. Santa Fe, School of American Research Press. Peacock, W. G. and A. K. Ragsdale (1997). Social Systems, Ecological Networks and Disasters. Hurricane Andrew: Ethnicity, Gender and the Sociology of Disasters. W. G. Peacock, B. H. Morrow and J. Gladwin. New York, NY, Routledge. Villágran de León, J. C. (2006). "Vulnerability Assessment in the Context of Disaster-Risk, a Conceptual and Methodological Review." SOURCE SOURCE No. 4/20. Warner, K. and T. Loster (2006). A research and action agenda for social vulnerability. Bonn, United Nations University Institute of Environment and Human Security. Watts, M. and H. G. Bohle (1993). "The space of vulnerability: the causal structure of hunger and famine." Progress in Human Geography 17(1). Wisner, B,, Blaikie, P., T. Cannon, Davis, I. (2004). At Risk: Natural hazards, people's vulnerability and disasters. 2nd edition, London, Routledge.

Weichselgartner, J. (2001). "Disaster mitigation: the concept of vulnerability revisited." Disaster Prevention and Management 10(2): 85-94.

External links

Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, Texas A&M University

Hazards Research Lab, University of South Carolina

Kings College London, Department of Geography

Livelihoods and Institutions Group, Natural Resources Institute

Munich Re Foundation

National University of Colombia, Working Group on Disaster Management

Radical Interpretations of Disaster (RADIX)

Social protection, International Labor Organisation

Social protection, World Bank

United Nations University’s Institute for Environment & Human Security

Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from the Social Sciences

Vulnerability Net

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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