Essays

Reframing Vulnerability as a Condition of Potential

This essay appears in the issue “Healing Social and Ecological Rifts Part 1″ (Volume 8, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue


Scholars most often frame vulnerability as a condition with an implied likelihood of violence or other harm. They classify “the vulnerable” as people who lack resources, face hardships, are marginalized in society, and generally need help. Such vulnerable people are said to suffer disproportionately in disaster events.

This framing fits comfortably within a system where the oppressed are encouraged to “build resilience.” In such a system, the negative outcomes that “the vulnerable” experience are predominantly discussed as deficiencies at the level of the individual, and responsibility is placed squarely on the victim. Erinn Gilson observes,

“if to be vulnerable is to be weak and subject to harm, then to be invulnerable is the only way to be strong and competent. Invulnerability as a form of mastery is sought at the price of disavowing vulnerability.”1

Striving for invulnerability is hardly a surprising position, and it emerges out of Western modernity, patriarchy and, more recently, the neoliberal consensus. In a society where people fear scarcity and glorify competition, it is inevitable that oppression and exploitation abound.

But this is not the only way to frame vulnerability.

Simone Drichel argues that vulnerability is “marked by a constitutive doubleness” and that it might actually be claimed as a condition of intersubjective freedom.2 As commonly argued in feminist ways of reframing vulnerability, a vulnerable “body” is open to two very different alternatives: wounding and caring.

Here we can locate the underexplored potential of vulnerability—to be affected and to affect in turn. Vulnerability ultimately enables us to love and be loved. It asks that we act not only in response to injustice, but also that we act through profound care and a desire to live and love in community. As bell hooks writes, “Our willingness to make sacrifices reflects our awareness of interdependency.”3

In this essay, I will first consider how vulnerability has emerged and been used as a scientific concept in the study of hazards and disasters. I will then explore how an incomplete theoretical scope has allowed it to unwittingly act as a foil for a “resilience building” agenda that has emerged and come to dominate policy and practice in service of globalized capital. Finally, I will propose a way forward in which we reframe vulnerability in an interconnected, loving, and politically salient way.

A Vulnerability of Wounding

The English word vulnerability is derived from the Latin vulnerare (‘to be wounded’). In relation to hazards and disasters, vulnerability is predominantly articulated as a propensity to be harmed physically, emotionally, or economically, and is also framed as a condition or process of weakness or lack.

However, this is hardly a universal intention of those who use the word.

Scholarship at the interface of disasters and international development in the 1970s and 80s led to the emergence of the concepts of vulnerability and resilience in relation to risk in society. The critical objective of this labor was to emphasize the societal root causes of disasters in the face of a dominant technocratic focus on natural hazards. The “vulnerability paradigm” was born out of these developments, perhaps most famously articulated in the 1994 book At Risk.4

This paradigm has been formative in pushing generations of scholars to maintain a focus on oppression and violence when critiquing structural injustices in society. At the same time, the vulnerability paradigm has also been contested by claims that it renders its subjects “a homogenized, culturally undifferentiated mass of humanity variously associated with powerlessness, passivity, ignorance, hunger, illiteracy, neediness, oppression and inertia.”5

Pathologizing vulnerability in this way serves to inspire humanitarian action in response to injustice in a number of ways. The openness of the human body—that is, the representation of humanness as being vulnerable to violence—is foundational to how we conceive of and make claims for human rights.6 For example, gender and disaster scholars have highlighted the importance of vulnerability as a concept when claiming women’s fundamental rights in the face of systematic violation.7

The idea is that if we conceive of vulnerability as an openness to violence, we can more effectively target the system for change, respond emotionally and openly to human rights injustices, and privilege otherness8 by asserting agency and sustaining voices that oppose dominant patriarchal, capitalist, and racist logic.

However, if we remain limited to a hegemonic framing that aligns vulnerability with only violence, we ignore possibilities for transformative change. Thinking of vulnerability as exposure to violation leads to fear, and so often to futile pursuits of invulnerability or “resilience building”. But vulnerability framed differently, as caring—that is, as a site of interconnectedness and solidarity—can move us not only to an affective language of care, but to political action.

“If members of the group on the bottom love one another and affirm one another’s worth,” writes Patricia Hill Collins, “then the entire system that assigns that group to the bottom becomes suspect.”9

Vulnerability can situate us in the struggle for justice.

Resilience: Neoliberalism’s Trojan Horse

The language of resilience has spread rapidly in scientific, policy, and media discourses over the past 30 years. As governments around the world have undermined their public sectors, responsibility for dealing with disaster risk has quietly been transferred to individuals and communities. The idea that communities and individuals just need to become more resilient is a discourse intended to legitimize a global political economy that is entirely invested in producing risk. Indeed, the idea that disasters are apolitical “events” continues to dominate, and may be “contributing to the durability of a disaster-creating system.”10

Proponents of the so-called “resilience agenda” proceed from the assumption that key structures of society are ultimately just, legitimate and beneficial for all; therefore, radical change, or transformation, is unnecessary. This agenda seems to suggest that helping the “vulnerable other” is within our grasp, perhaps using data, technology or advocacy. It maintains that the resilience of some is not predicated on the exploitation of others.

Yet, an individualized, privatized utopia is a privileged mirage—what we actually see materializing is a world of haves and have nots, where risk continues to accumulate for the oppressed.

“The resilient subject is a subject which must permanently struggle to accommodate itself to the world, and not a subject which can conceive of changing the world, its structure and conditions of possibility.”11

It is therefore easy to see why resilience has come to animate so many discourses and become a staple of neoliberal policy and practice. From this vantage point, individuals and groups who lack, who are weak, who need help must simply change or be changed. The harmful structures—and people who benefit from them—can remain unaltered. This understanding of resilience is intimately tied to the moral narcissism of Western philosophies, promoting the autonomous ego and spurning the beauty of interdependence—between nature and humanity, and between each of us.

The fact that resilience and vulnerability discourses are natural sites of contestation—in that they should always attend to oppression and injustice12—is obscured. The dominant aesthetic dialectic is that of initial vulnerability and subsequent resilience; in other words, valiant, bootstrapping individuals bettering themselves.

This kind of resilience building is not preventing disasters.

Rather than enabling liberation,13 we are encouraged to work within a boundary of “helping” the so-called vulnerable to become more invulnerable, while stopping short of questioning the systems that enable their oppression. Dreaming of what justice might look like is certainly off the table.

Contesting Resilience and Reframing Vulnerability

People are vulnerable by virtue of our humanity—but often rightly fear violation. And while the “resilience agenda” may promise personal freedom, it is not a freedom situated in non-oppression. Audre Lorde memorably declared, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”14

Shalanda Baker instead suggests an “anti-resilience” that expressly incorporates the politics of anti-racism, anti-oppression, equity, and transformation.15 Rather than enabling oppressive systems to endure, this kind of critical approach to resilience aims to ensure that structural inequality and injustice are unable to hide beneath resilience building exercises and can become part of intersectional resistance to oppression.

A contestation of resilience aligns with a vulnerability that enables, rather than limits, us.

Judith Butler posits that by displaying—indeed problematizing—our precarity, we “enact a form of resistance that presupposes a vulnerability of a specific kind, and opposes precarity.”16 This positioning emphasizes how our vulnerability is intimately related to a dependency on the environment, social relations, and networks of support and sustenance. Vulnerability becomes a condition of potential, where the foregone conclusion of violence is stripped away.”17

We urgently need to make this disassociation.

Could vulnerability “be reclaimed as a condition of intersubjective freedom, action, and political engagement?”18 Yes, we are vulnerable; but we are also powerful and organized.

In political and ethical discourse, vulnerability has such potential when framed in this way. Rather than being trapped in a neoliberal pursuit of independence, security, growth and efficiency, our vision becomes transformative and anti-oppressive. Rejecting the need to become invulnerable, we can start to understand interbeing and the interdependency of all life. “As long as you continue to breathe, I continue to be in you,” taught Thich Nhat Hanh.19

Such consciousness could be the foundation of more robust political and ethical practice.

Our dominant mode of social organization remains one of competition rather than cooperation. By contrast, we must cultivate a politics of care that builds from our mutual interdependencies and does not disavow vulnerability;20 one that instead embraces vulnerability’s intersubjective freedom and transformative potential. We must recognize that framing vulnerability as weakness or lack serves those who benefit from the status quo by carefully controlling the narrative.21

We must also look deeper than the symptoms of oppressive systems and challenge their very roots.

Our vulnerable bodies are open to both wounding and caring. It takes courage to admit that—to stare down the potential for harm or rejection.22 Through care, we can protect each other from wounding. If we care, we will act; we will pursue justice as an obligation.23 If we care, we will center justice at a structural, relational level, thereby ensuring that reduction of physical, emotional, mental and social harm is not located solely at the individual level for attention and responsibility.

Transformative change comes closer when we commit to and draw power from an interdependent relationship to each other and the world around us. People labeled “vulnerable” time and again show us what love, care, and solidarity look like when faced with disaster. Contesting resilience and reframing vulnerability is a practical way for those studying—and those living through—hazards and disasters to be part of a struggle to organize around new principles of justice.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the editors, reviewers and my colleagues Ksenia Chmutina, Darien Alexander Williams, Jamie Vickery, Roberto Barrios and Lori Peek for constructive feedback on drafts of this essay.


Jason von Meding is a researcher, educator and communicator in disaster studies and an Associate Professor at the University of Florida. His research centers the experiences, knowledges and strengths of affected communities and focuses on how injustice and inequality underpin the creation of risk in society, profoundly shaping disaster impacts. As part of a focus on public facing science communication, he is co-host of the Disasters: Deconstructed Podcast and tweets @vonmeding.


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Notes

  1. Erinn Gilson, “Vulnerability, Ignorance, and Oppression,” Hypatia 26, no. 2 (2011): 308-332.
  2. Simone Drichel, “Reframing Vulnerability: “so obviously the problem…”?”, SubStance 42, no. 3 (2013): 5.
  3. bell hooks, All about Love: New Visions (New York, Harper Perennial, 2001), 143.
  4. Piers Blaikie, Terry Cannon, Ian Davis, and Ben Wisner, At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters (London & New York, Routledge, 1994).
  5. Greg Bankoff, “Rendering the World Unsafe: ‘Vulnerability’ as Western Discourse,” Disasters 25, no. 1 (2001): 19-35.
  6. Bryan Turner, Vulnerability and Human Rights (University Park, PA, The Pennsylvania State University Press), 9.
  7. Elaine Enarson and Maureen Fordham, “From Women’s Needs to Women’s Rights in Disasters.” Environmental Hazards 3, no. 3 (2001): 133-136.
  8. Elaine Enarson and Brenda Phillips, “Invitation to a New Feminist Disaster Sociology: Integrating Feminist Theory and Methods,” in Women and Disasters: From Theory to Practice, ed. B. Phillips and B. H. Morrow (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2008), 41-74.
  9. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought (New York: Routledge, 2000), 184.
  10. Roberto Barrios, “Resilience: A Commentary from the Vantage Point of Anthropology,” Annals of Anthropological Practice 40, no. 1 (2016): 28-38.
  11. Brad Evans and Julian Reid, “Dangerously Exposed: The Life and Death of the Resilient Subject,” Resilience 1, no. 2 (2013): 83-98.
  12. Lori Peek, “A Just Resilience,” Director’s Corner, Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder, August 20, 2017, https://hazards.colorado.edu/news/director/a-just-resilience; Alessandra Jerolleman, Disaster Recovery Through the Lens of Justice, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).
  13. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 1970), 76.
  14. Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (1984), in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, Crossing Press, 2007), 110-114.
  15. Shalanda Baker, “Anti-Resilience: A Roadmap for Transformational Justice within the Energy System,” Harvard CR-CLL Review 54 (2019): 1-48.
  16. Judith Butler, “Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance,” in Vulnerability in Resistance (Durham, Duke University Press, 2016), 15.
  17. Ann Murphy, Violence and the Philosophical Imaginary (New York, SUNY Press, 2012), 86.
  18. Ewa Plonowska Ziarek, “Feminist Reflections on Vulnerability: Disrespect, Obligation, Action,” SubStance 42, no. 3 (2013): 67-84.
  19. Thich Nhat Hanh, Thich Nhat Hanh: Essential Writings (New York, Orbis Books, 2001), 55.
  20. The Care Collective, The Care Manifesto (Verso Books, 2020), 4.
  21. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 210-211.
  22. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Penguin, 2015).
  23. Drawing on a conversation with Roberto Barrios, October 15, 2020.