Vulnerability Griperia

This is a wee bit of a rant, fueled by one of my favourite work discussions ever with some of my favourite colleagues ever. You know who you are. You’re not even reading are you. Awkward.

I’ve got issues with the use of vulnerability criteria. And they may annoy you.

1. Keeping vulnerability in the singular disguises its massively complex (dynamic, pluralistic and relational) nature. Using the term vulnerabilities doesn’t automatically include all of the four (DCPR) aspects, but it least moves the concept and therefore the conception of it, towards them. Vulnerabilities infers that anyone can have many types of vulnerability. That in turn, kind of, infers that they could be relational, even dynamic, and definitely complex. It’s one small step for pedants. A small twist. Many people don’t react warmly to such ‘superficial’ changes. Such hyper-sensitive knit-picking. It’s PC gone mad. But as various people have demonstrated over a prolonged period of time, language and specifically words matter. Let’s pretend to be social scientists for a moment. How many times have you used words in the last week? I’ll make it easier, the last 24 hours? Nope? Even the last minute – how many words did you use, in thought or out loud? Great, so we’ve established that volume is high. High enough to be uncountable in a 60 short seconds. So if words within that are unrepresentative of the complex concepts they aim to articulate, how long does it take such a ‘superficial’ difference to become a more significant one. If you’re on a boat that is 1 degree off course, it doesn’t matter much if you’re crossing a lake. But an ocean, that’s an issue. And we cross oceans of words on a daily basis. 

2. Vulnerability is often something that is broken down into personal, individual, internal aspects. Like health. Like age. Like sex. It’s not so good at situating these as sociologically informed and influenced facets. Being female is often considered a vulnerability. Full stop. Short sighted, no? Even in practical terms, there are situations where men are more vulnerable than women, to certain risks and in particular contexts. And that highlights two issues. The first is touched on above, that assigning vulnerability to people is often done in a reductionist fashion (there should be a game about how often I write that word). That labeling someone as vulnerable is so short-sighted, it’s unhelpful. The second is that our relative proportions of vulnerabilities are hugely influenced by our contexts.

3. Vulnerability is currently situated within the individual, and that is hugely unrepresentative of their actual levels of risk. We should therefore consider both individual factors, and those outside of the individual. Societal factors such as stigma. Legal factors such as migration status. We could then start to situate blame not where vulnerabilities land, but from where they are derived.

The above only alludes to it, but it’s worth being clear that the word ‘intersectionality’ is critical and underpinning much of the above thought. Reducing such complexity to a single score is a tough pill to swallow. But in the name of haste, I wont tempt myself into a tangential rant about the myth of specificity and credibility that we often use as a lens through which we see quantitative information, even if it’s concluded through qualitative methods.

So here’s an ill-informed attempt at something with a cheeky bit more nuance. They at least take into account external marginalisation as well as internal vulnerability. They’re not complete, nor comprehensive, but they hopefully nudge in the right kind of direction.

  • External (marginalisation)
    • Legal
      • Migration status
      • Citizenship
    • Societal
      • Stigma relating to homo- or trans-phobia
      • Stigma relating to being a returnee
  • Internal (vulnerability)
    • Physical
      • Recent injuries
      • Chronic injuries / physical disabilities
    • Psychological
      • PTSD / victime of trauma
      • Psychological disorder, e.g. mental health

Or, as it is the root of all things, it could be something we phrase in terms of agency:

  • Structural agency – state or regionally defined, e.g. legal aspects, infrastructure such as roads
  • Systemic agency – the application of the structural, e.g. state health services or police action
  • Societal agency – the sociological context, e.g. class/gender/ethnicity, but also wealth for example
  • Psychological agency – current and chronic psychological factors
  • Physical agency – current and chronic physical factors

More to follow on agency being root of all things. If you want to see the real thought behind it, have a look at Amartya Sen’s infamous work, or Arjun Appadurai’s ‘Capacity to Aspire’. Poverty isn’t financial. You can have no money in your pocket and be fed by your family. Well-off people generally have greater safety nets in times of immediate financial poverty. They have friends, family, probably qualifications – they have multiple facets of capital that they can still mobilise in times of desperation. As said by Selina Kyle in the Dark Knight: “even the rich don’t go broke like the rest of us”. They still have the agency, the freedom, the ability to navigate out of shocks. Because of their inherent privilege. Mini-rant done – now you start to see why agency is going to a word as repetitious as reductionist in these post.

Vulnerability Griperia

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