Vulnerability definitions

The ordinary use of the word ‘vulnerability’ refers to the capacity to be wounded, i.e., the degree to which a system is likely to experience harm due to exposure to a hazard.

The scientific use of ‘vulnerability’ has its roots in geography and natural hazards research but this term is now a central concept in a variety of research contexts such as natural hazards and disaster management, ecology, public health, poverty and development, secure livelihoods and famine, sustainability science, land change, and climate impacts and adaptation. 

In order to make sense of the range of definitions, the different interpretations and definitions can be seen to be  rooted in three academic disciplines namely risk and hazard or biophysical approaches, political economy and the concept of ecological resilience. Some are focused on systems, places and activities, some on individuals, livelihoods, sectors, landscapes, ecosystems. Generally definitions relate to a product of exposure and resilience.
From a climate change perspective, according to the IPCC, vulnerability is “the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes”.
The three components of vulnerability, according to the IPCC definition are:
  • exposure,
  • sensitivity,
  • adaptive capacity.

Below are a selection of definitions, highlighting the need to understand what exactly is meant when 'vulnerability' is spoken or written about divided into the disciplines of their origin. The summary of the three lineages is taken from a paper by Eakin and Luers (2006) and examples of each are given though in some cases they are difficult to place as they span the range of lineages. There is also a discussion of definitions and concepts in the theme page on poverty and vulnerability on the AfricaAdapt platform.

You may also want to explore different frameworks for assessing vulnerability, guidance on vulnerability assessment and this short module on vulnerability assessment.

 

Risk/hazard definitions

The focal questions in this lineage are: What are the hazards? What are the impacts. What is exposed, to what, where and when?

Key attributes: Exposure (physical threat, external to system), sensitivity

Exposure unit: Places, sectors, activities, landscapes, regions

Decision scale: Regional global

Examples:

  • Gabor and Griffith (1980)

Vulnerability is the threat (to hazardous materials) to which people are exposed (including chemical agents and the ecological situation of the communities and their level of emergency preparedness). Vulnerability is the risk context.

  • Timmerman (1981)

Vulnerability is the degree to which a system acts adversely to the occurrence of a hazardous event. The degree and quality of the adverse reaction are conditioned by a system's resilience (a measure of the system's capacity to absorb and recover from the event).

  • UNDRO (1982)

Vulnerability is the degree of loss to a given element or set of elements at risk resulting from the occurrence of a natural phenomenon of a given magnitude.

  • Kates (1985)

Vulnerability is the capacity to suffer harm and react adversely.

  • Pijawka and Radian (1985)

Vulnerability is the threat or interaction between risk and preparedness. It is the degree to which hazardous materials threaten a particular population (risk) and the capacity of the community to reduce the risk or adverse consequences of hazardous materials releases.

  • Bogard (1989)

Vulnerability is operationally defined as the inability to take effective measures to insure against losses. When applied to individuals vulnerability is a consequence of the impossibility or improbability of effective mitigation and is a function of our ability to detect the hazards.

  • Mitchell (1989)

Vulnerability is the potential for loss.

  • Chambers (1989)

Vulnerability refers to exposure to contingencies and stress, and difficulty in coping with them. Vulnerability has thus two sides: an external side of risks, shocks, and stress to which an individual or household is subject: and an internal side which is defenselessness, meaning a lack of means to cope without damaging loss.

  • Watts and Bohle (1993)

Vulnerability is defined in terms of exposure, capacity and potentiality. Accordingly, the prescriptive and normative response to vulnerability is to reduce exposure, enhance coping capacity, strengthen recovery potential and bolster damage control (i.e., minimize destructive consequences) via private and public means.

  • Dow (1992)

Vulnerability is the differential capacity of groups and individuals to deal with hazards based on their positions within physical and social worlds.

  • Smith (1992)

Risk from a specific hazard varies through time and according to changes in either (or both) physical exposure or human vulnerability (the breadth of social and economic tolerance available at the same site).

  •  Alexander (1993)

Human vulnerability is a function of the costs and benefits of inhabiting areas at risk from natural disaster.

  • UNEP (1999)

Vulnerability is a function of sensitivity to present climatic variability, the risk of adverse future climate change and capacity to adapt. The extent to which climate change may damage or harm a system; vulnerability is a function of not only the systems' sensitivity, but also its ability to adapt to new climatic conditions.

  • Adger (2000)

Individual and collective vulnerability and public policy determine the social vulnerability to hazards and environmental risks, defines here as the presence or lack of ability to withstand shocks and stresses to livelihood (following Chambers 1989; Watts and Bohle 1993; Adger 1999)

  • Dow and Downing (1995)

Vulnerability is the differential susceptibility of circumstances contributing to Vulnerability. Biophysical, demographic, economic, social and technological factors such as population ages, economic dependency, racism and age of infrastructure are some factors which have been examined in association with natural hazards.

  • Blaikie et al. (1994)

By vulnerability we mean the characteristics of a person or group in terms of their capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a natural hazard. It involves a combination of factors that determine the degree to which someone's life and livelihood are put at risk by a discrete and identifiable event in nature or in society.

  • IPCC (1997)

Vulnerability is defined as the extent to which a natural or social system is susceptible to sustaining damage from climate change. Vulnerability is a function of the sensitivity of a system to changes in climate and the ability to adapt to system to changes in climate. Under this framework, a highly vulnerable system would be one that is highly sensitive to modest changes in climate.

  • Vogel (1998)

Vulnerability is perhaps best defined in terms of resilience and susceptibility including such dimensions as physical, social, cultural and psychological vulnerability and capacities that are usually viewed against the backdrop of gender, time, space and scale (e.g. Anderson and Woodrow, 1989)

  • Cutter (1996)

Vulnerability is conceived as both a biophysical risk as well as a social response, but within a specific areal or geographic domain. This can be geographic space, where vulnerable people and places are located, or social space_who in those places is most vulnerable.

  • Cutter et al. (2000)

Broadly defined, vulnerability is the potential for loss of property or life from environmental hazards.

  • Kasperson, et al. (2002)

Vulnerability is the degree to which a person, system or unit is likely to experience harm due to exposure to perturbations or stresses.

 

Political economy/political ecology lineage

Focal question: How are people and places affected differently?

What explains differential capacities to cope and adapt?

What are the causes and consequences of differential susceptibility?

Key attributes: Capacity, sensitivity, exposure

Exposure unit: Individuals, households, social groups

Decision scale: Local, regional, global

Examples:

  • Susman et al. (1984)

Vulnerability is the degree to which different classes of society are differentially at risk.

  • Liverman (1990)

Distinguishes between vulnerability as a biophysical condition and vulnerability as defined by political, social and economic conditions of society's vulnerability is defined both in geographic space (where vulnerable people and places are located) and in social space (who in that place is vulnerable).

  • Downing (1991)

Vulnerability has three connotations: it refers to a consequence (e.g., famine) rather than a cause (e.g., drought); it implies an adverse consequence; and it is a relative term that differentiates among socio-economic groups or regions, rather than an absolute measure of deprivation.

  • Cutter (1993)

Vulnerability is the likelihood that an individual or group will be exposed to and adversely affected by a hazard. It is the interaction of the hazards of place (risk and mitigation) with the social profile of communities.

  • Bohle et al. (1994)

Vulnerability is best described as an aggregate measure of human welfare that integrates environmental, social, economic and political exposure to a range of potential harmful perturbations. Vulnerability is a multi-layered and multidimensional social space defined by the determinate, political, economic and institutional capabilities of people in specific places at specific times.

  • Cannon (1994)

Vulnerability is a measure of the degree and type of exposure to risk generated by different societies in relation to hazards. Vulnerability is the a characteristic of individuals and groups of people who inhabit a given natural, social and economic space, within which they are differentiated according to their varying position in society into more or less vulnerable individuals and groups.

 

Ecological resilience thinking

Focal question: Why and how do systems change?

What is the capacity to respond to change?

What are the underlying processes that control the ability to cope or adapt?

Key attributes: Thresholds of change, reorganisation; Capacity

Exposure Unit: Ecosystems, coupled human-environmental systems

Decision scale: Landscapes, ecological regions, multiple scales

Examples:

  • Carpenter, Walker, Anderies and Abel, 2001

Vulnerability defined as the opposite of resilience, where resilience is "the capacity of a system to undergo disturbance and maintain its function and controls"

 

Please add to these lists if you are working in any of these fields and come across additional definitions...

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