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date: 25 February 2024

Vulnerability as Concept, Model, Metric, and Toolfree

Vulnerability as Concept, Model, Metric, and Toolfree

  • Benjamin WisnerBenjamin WisnerOberlin College


Vulnerability is complex because it involves many characteristics of people and groups that expose them to harm and limit their ability to anticipate, cope with, and recover from harm. The subject is also complex because workers in many disciplines such as public health, psychology, geography, and development studies (among others) have different ways of defining, measuring, and assessing vulnerability. Some of these practitioners focus on the short-term identification of vulnerability, so that maps and lists of people living “at risk” can be generated and used by authorities. Others are more concerned with reasons why some people are more vulnerable when facing a hazard or threat than others. Professionals working at the scale of localities are interested in methods that bring out residents’ own knowledge of hazards and help them to cooperate with each other to find ways of reducing risk. There are some interpretations of vulnerability that seek its root cause in the creation of risk by political and economic systems that make investment and locational decisions for the benefit of small elites without regard for how these decisions affect the majority. Finally, whatever success there may be in treating vulnerability in any of the ways just mentioned, it will always be a part of the human condition, and this fact in itself is puzzling.


  • Vulnerability


The history of the term vulnerability is long and complex. There are many streams that drain the headwaters of human experience, converge and branch following the topography of disciplines and sub-disciplines, professions, and applied sciences. These braided streams include problem-focused, often quantitative approaches to vulnerability. Medical and health sciences use a variety of metrics to measure risk of suffering harm (Kane & Radosevich, 2010), a wounding in the etymological sense of the word vulnerability.1 Social work, sociology, and psychology also seek to profile the susceptibility of individuals and groups to harm (Dominelli, 2012; Roberts & Ashley, 2008; Wisner & Kelman, 2015), as do disciplines such as development studies (Bankoff, Frerks, & Hilhorst, 2004; Pelling, Maskrey, Ruiz, & Hall,2004; Varley, 1995), disaster and humanitarian studies (Alexander, 2000; Hewitt, 1997; Wisner, Blaikie, Cannon, & Davis, 2004; Wisner, Gaillard, & Kelman, 2012a) and climate science (Brooks, 2003; Pelling, 2010; Preston, Yuen, & Westaway, 2011). The word is also common in public health and food security studies (Kovats, Ebi, & Menne, 2003; Luna, 2014; WFP, 2015; WHO, 2015).

Abstracting from the human beings involved, economists and political scientists may use the word metaphorically while attempting to quantify a whole system’s stability in the face of shocks and unanticipated changes (Bieri, 2000; Coetzee & Dewald, 2012; Foster & Josephson, 1997; Timmerman, 1981). Ecologists and engineers who also take a systems approach follow a similar path. The systems approach to vulnerability is a dominant feature of interdisciplinary studies of global environmental change (Turner et al., 2003; Adger, 2006; Eakin & Luers, 2006; Janssen & Ostrom, 2006). In addition, there are studies of information systems vulnerability, business continuity following extreme natural events and other disruptions, and reports on the financial vulnerability of businesses as well as their reputational risk under normal, day to day conditions (Anton, Anderson, Mesic, & Scheiern, 2003; ADVISEN, 2013; IIBHS, 2011; Verhezen, 2015). There are monographs and papers on the vulnerability of national and municipal infrastructure and, indeed, of whole economies (Johnson, 2006; Ozgöde, 2011; Ritchie, 2010). The UN uses an economic vulnerability index as one criterion for classifying a country as “least developed,” and for a time the UN published a “world economic vulnerability monitor.”

Some of these scholars, professionals, and practitioners are only concerned in the short term with the identification of people, groups, and systems at risk and the application of solutions that reduce risk. While some focus more conventionally on the risk-bearer’s perceptions and behavior, a more radical approach is concerned with consciousness and the effort of the risk bearers to understand the causes of their own vulnerability and perhaps even to resist efforts by authorities to help. Words such as capabilities and transformative resilience may be used (Pelling, 2010). An array of community-based tools for self-assessment of vulnerability and capacity has been created. Using these tools, outside specialists (“certified” scientists) and local people with knowledge and experience (“uncertified” scientists)2 may join forces to map threats and hazards and assess (though perhaps not measure) local capacity to confront and reduce the likely impact of such hazards. Some of these knowledge workers, for example those practicing popular epidemiology and the political ecology of disaster, may take a longer view and attempt to unravel the root the causes of vulnerability.

Yet other streams diverge a considerable distance from those explored by the disciplines just mentioned. Based more in the humanities, existential psychoanalysis; much art, music, and literature; and the pastoral care provided by the world’s faith and wisdom traditions share a healing, centering, guiding function for lives abruptly changed and turned upside down (Aloudat & Christensen, 2012; Lipsky, 2009; Oliver-Smith & Hoffman, 1999; Roberts & Ashley, 2008). In her study of vulnerability as a virtue in ancient Greek literature and philosophy, Marina Berzins McCoy writes (2013, p. vii): “Vulnerability is part of the human condition that is concerned with living as temporal creatures who undergo change and transformations of various sorts and who live with an awareness of the likelihood of change.”

Bibliometric Overview

Several academics have conducted bibliometric analyses of the literature on vulnerability, ascending in hot air balloons to survey and count the branching steams. Fuller and Pincetl (2015) studied 200 papers published between 1973 and 2012, in the United States. They point out terminological confusion and state that their analysis aims at creating “opportunities for bridge building and greater consensus for terms and theoretical ideas” (p. 322). The authors found the greatest volume of work in geography and natural resources, environmental management, sociology, and public health when broken down by discipline. In their “industrial” category, they found most activity in what is classified as environmental engineering, public environmental and occupational health, and multidisciplinary sciences.

Another pair of researchers investigated the lineages of current vulnerability work (using a nicely literary phrase), and found that there are three approaches or schools of thought (Eakins & Luers, 2006). They produced a useful table that summarizes key questions for each of the three (p. 368).

Table 1: Key questions put by different vulnerability approaches. Extracted and adapted from Eakins and Luers (2006, p. 368).




What are the hazards?

Where and when?

What are the impacts?

Political economy / Political ecology

How are people and places affected differently?

What explains differential capacities to cope and adapt?

What are the causes and consequences of differential susceptibility?

Ecological Resilience

How and why do systems change?

What is the capacity to respond to change?

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

Westcoat (2015) trawled literature using five scholarly search engines to find work that links the sub-discipline of political ecology (PE) with key concepts of natural hazards research. These concepts were risk, hazard, vulnerability, disaster, mitigation, and resilience. He found that in all PhD dissertations for all dates, and in other publications from 2000 to 2013, vulnerability was the second most commonly used key term (p. 297). He also found a large number of PE PhD theses that were concerned with vulnerability, and eight of the ten books identified by WorldCat as linking PE and vulnerability had originated as PhD dissertations. Westcoat’s conclusion was that a younger generation of researchers are focusing on “equity, injustice, and marginalization” and paying “increased attention to human agency and capacity” (pp. 297–298).

Tschakert and her colleagues also discussed generational changes in the way vulnerability is conceived, albeit exclusively within the study of climate change (Tschakert, van Oort, St. Clair, & LaMadrid, 2013). Their approach was also bibliometric. They identified a first generation of publications that focus on current impact and harm, treating vulnerability to climate change impacts as “tightly coupled with impacts, exposure and sensitivity” (p. 342). Tschakert’s team found that growing awareness of the need to document the capacity of people and systems to cope with and to adapt to these stresses led to the addition of assessments of human and systems response. However it was left to a later generation of workers to investigate the institutional and structural contexts that limit or promote successful coping and adaptation. These are themes to which I will return below, together with points made by the other groups of intrepid bibliometricians.

Historical Antecedents

This article will provide a somewhat different map of the intellectual and emotional terrain on which people around the world use linguistically comparable3 words for “vulnerability.” I discuss many situations in which people seek to improve the human condition in concrete ways, at local to national and international scales, by using the term vulnerability and associated words (capacity, capability, risk) as tools assembled within methods that are, in turn, informed by theories and models.

Political ecologist Paul Robbins says a concept can be used as a hatchet (Robbins, 2012, pp. 1–16). In hazard and disaster studies, vulnerability has been used as such a hatchet to hack away at misconceptions and biases that earlier dominated these fields. During the Cold War, the approach to disasters was hazard-focused to the extent that disaster and hazard could be taken as synonymous. Disasters were seen to be caused by natural events. Human intervention could only take the form of applying scientific knowledge of the hazard events in ways that allowed prediction, warning, and preparedness (Knowles, 2011). Experts would dispense knowledge and organize preparedness. This early history coincided with the establishment of civil defense institutions as much or more concerned with nuclear attack than with natural hazards (Rubin, 2012).

Early pushback against this paradigm—which was centered on the triggering hazard and dependent on technology and social engineering (backed, ultimately, by military and police)—came from geography interpreted as human ecology. Drawing on his own teacher’s concept of “geography as human ecology” (Barrows, 1923), Gilbert White argued, from the 1940s, that the frequency and magnitude of flood disasters could be reduced not only by hydrological engineering (e.g., dams and levees) but also by understanding and affecting people’s land-use decisions. White also pointed out the importance of people’s awareness and perceptions of risk (White, 1945). White’s PhD students Robert Kates and Ian Burton took work on flood plain management further, and together these three founded an influential school of natural hazards studies within geography (Burton, Kates, & White, 1978). The key notion was that people perceive risk and act accordingly. People are rational in the face of natural hazards such as floods, coastal storms, tornadoes, droughts, and earthquakes. However, people are not omniscient and have what these authors called bounded rationality. Policy is effective, and society is safer, when good science, engineering, and policy coincide with public education, thus expanding the cognitive boundaries of people at risk, leading them to cooperate with planners and regulators.

Emergence of Vulnerability as a New Paradigm

An innovation that this risk perception approach brought to geography, to the study of natural hazards, and to social science generally, was the incorporation of a variety of psychological tests into fieldwork. In the 1970s, the hazard perception paradigm was tested in some low income, non-Western country sites including Tanzania, Nigeria, and Indonesia (White, 1974). However, carrying out this work, graduate students (fourth generation human ecologists, counting from Gilbert White’s teacher) were troubled for two reasons. First, unquestioned assumptions about perception and cognition jarred with cultural and linguistic realities. Indeed, people’s incomprehension and inability to respond to the psychological protocols often were simply classed as “fatalism,” when, to those who spoke the vernacular languages such as Swahili, it was clear that people just thought differently about drought, flood, etc. (Neumann, 2014, pp. 23–24; Waddell, 1977).

Second, even more worrying, were the results of fieldwork in the global south carried out by this cohort of graduate students in the 1970s and 1980s. They produced evidence that bad governance, corruption, skewed access to resources (land, water, etc.), and lack of investment in infrastructure and social services had far more to do with turning a natural phenomenon such as drought or coastal storm into a disaster than did either faulty risk perception (aka “bounded rationality”), lack of good policy on natural hazards, or, indeed, lack of good engineering. For example, drought, a natural phenomenon, did not necessarily lead to disastrous hunger or famine. Social, economic, and political conditions were required to turn the hazard into a disaster (Meillassoux, 1973; O’Keefe & Wisner, 1975; Sen, 1981; Watts, 1983; Wisner, 1978; Wisner & Mbithi, 1974). Hurricanes and cyclones, floods and earthquakes were found to impact different groups of people differently according to race, ethnicity, gender, and economic status (Maskrey & Romero, 1983; O’Keefe & Wisner, 1975; Susman, O’Keefe, & Wisner, 1983; Winchester, 1986).

In light of this increasing evidence, both the hazard-focused paradigm and the perception paradigm developed by White, Burton, and Kates were rejected (Susman et al., 1983). The term vulnerability approach became short hand for a new paradigm that sought to replace both dominant paradigms (hazard-focused and perception-focused). The term vulnerability emerged about the same time within development studies, where Robert Chambers asserted that policy and planning should put “the last first” in rural development. Chambers argued that this revolution in development practice could only be achieved by understanding daily life as lived by people and the constraints and threats they faced, including their economic and political marginality (Chambers, 1983).

As more field data were amassed, the vulnerability approach was consolidated as a contending counter paradigm in the 1990s (Anderson & Woodrow, 1989; Blaikie, Cannon, Davis, & Wisner, 1994; Bohle, Downing, & Watts, 1994; Cutter, 1996; Enarson & Morrow, 1997; Hewitt, 1997). At this time, studies of the role of race and gender in Florida’s Hurricane Andrew (Peacock, Morrow, & Gladwin, 1997) and the role of ethnicity in California’s Northridge earthquake (Bolin & Stanford, 1998) made clear that vulnerability was a factor in affluent as well as low-income countries. Common to both were issues of access to resources, employment, and conditions of work that together are often given the shorthand “poverty.”

Another sign that the vulnerability approach had achieved acceptance was the World Bank’s devoting its World Development Report 2000–2001 on “attacking poverty” to an expanded series of “dimensions of human deprivation” that include “vulnerability and exposure to risk—and voicelessness and powerlessness” (World Bank, 2001, p. 15). Some international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) began to lobby governments for policies that take vulnerability into account. Since then, there has been considerable if uneven uptake of the vulnerability approach by some governments, principally in Latin America and the Caribbean, and in South and Southeast Asia (Lavell & Lopez-Marrero, 2014; Lavell & Maskrey, 2014; van Niekerk & Wisner, 2014; Vatsa, 2014).

Beyond Victimhood and Taxonomies

Once established as a credible counter paradigm and made operational as a series of metrics, tools, and models, the vulnerability approach evolved. A sea change in the use of the “v” word across most, if not all, the domains mentioned earlier has been a shift away from one-sided treatment of vulnerability as signifying weakness, dependency, and victimhood. As I mentioned earlier, the ancient Greeks thought of vulnerability as a humbling virtue that enables empathy and cohesion in the community. Modern investigators and planners tacitly agree with Homer, Sophocles, and Aristotle. Contemporary work on vulnerability includes consideration of self-awareness of capacities as well as vulnerability (Wisner, 2004, 2013b). People living with risk are increasingly being seen as “powerful claimants with rights, rather than poor victims or passive recipients” (Heijmans, 2004, p. 127). Children, elderly people, and people living with disabilities have valuable knowledge, experience, and skill to contribute to social protection and risk reduction (HelpAge International, 2007; Kelman & Stough, 2015; Mitchell et al., 2009; Ngo, 2012; Peek, 2008; Wisner, 2006). Whole communities are capable of reflecting on their situation, engaging in so-called strength, weakness, opportunity, and threats analysis (SWOT), in the lingo of INGO projects (McCall and Peters-Guarin, 2012; Wisner, Schaerer, Haghebaert & Arnold, 2008).

To date, most state institutions (national, subnational, and municipal governments) have failed to follow the lead of INGOs and NGOs by enlisting “the untapped potential” (Wisner, O’Keefe & Westgate, 1977) of people’s own assessments of their vulnerabilities and capacities. For example, at the national level in the United Kingdom, guidance on vulnerability to local authorities from the Cabinet Office mandates that these local governments compile and maintain lists of people in a variety of categories such as “elderly,” “pregnant women,” “tourists,” etc. The Cabinet Office’s definition of vulnerability is simply this: “those [who] are less able to help themselves in circumstances of an emergency” (U.K. Civil Contingencies Secretariat, 2008, p. 4). Citing privacy concerns, the guidelines clearly rule out focus groups of citizens participating in assessing their own vulnerability as in the brief, ill-fated experiment by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the United States called “Project Impact” that was eliminated at the beginning of the G. W. Bush administration (Holderman, 2005).

Exclusive focus on vulnerability (versus capacity) is misplaced and misleading for several reasons. The most obvious reason is that information about the ways that local people are proactive in protecting themselves does not come to light. The potential for building on such local knowledge and skill can be missed. Of course, local potentials should also not be romanticized. A second reason why researchers and practitioners mislead by overemphasizing vulnerability against capacity is that such a description can aid and abet the construction of people as victims. There is considerable debate about the term victim itself (Goodey, 2005, pp. 42–64; Govier, 2015, pp. 43–66). Some people who have suffered in various ways reject the label (Jones & Ippy, n.d.), and some argue that the word is a Western imposition when used elsewhere (van Dijk, 2009).

There is a complex local cultural politics at play wherever the state interacts with local residents concerning their needs. People make demands on the state, including demands for public goods such as relief following hazard impacts. In order to maximize their share of such relief, people may well represent themselves as helpless victims. In other cases, where there is already a history of tension between localities and the state, the latter may try to seize the moment following a disaster to assert its control, whether residents want the help or not, and may invoke its duty to assist “helpless victims” in order to justify aggressive top-down assistance (which might involve resettlement against residents’ wishes).

Each individual, household, social group, or community is more and less vulnerable over the course of time (season, life cycle, economic cycle, electoral cycle). They are also more and less vulnerable to a wide variety of everyday risks such as crime, violence, ill health, and economic crisis, as well as to less frequent large-scale events such as civil war, chemical and radiological accident, earthquake, landslide, cyclone, flood, or epidemic (GNDR, 2015). The interaction of everyday and large-scale threats in a temporal context of multifaceted change demands understanding of people’s situation, not their category. Changes come in legions and interact, and they affect people’s vulnerabilities and capacities. Change may take many forms, including political and economic change; administrative, legal, and technological innovation: change through culture contact: and environmental and climatic change.

It makes no sense to assert that “women” or “people living with HIV” or “the elderly” are a vulnerable group or should be considered “at risk” in an absolute sense. Patterns of vulnerability are far too complex and dynamic to support such sweeping generalizations (Frerks & Bender, 2004; Hilhorst & Bankoff, 2004). Vulnerabilities are often layered on top of one another (Philips & Morrow, 2007). Indeed, at least in the United States, epidemiological studies of injury and death in disasters do not support the common assertion that people categorized conventionally as “vulnerable” suffer disproportionately—women, elderly people, undocumented immigrants, etc. (Bourque, Siegel, Kano, & Wood, 2007, p. 98). The rigid and uncritical equation of poverty with vulnerability is another misleading element of conventional wisdom. For complex historical, social, and economic reasons, the lower middle class (not the poorest people) in the coastal Chilean town of Talcahuano chose to live in a low-lying zone where destruction of wetland vegetation left them highly vulnerable to the 2010 tsunami (Romero & Mendonça, 2012). Wealthy Californians made a similar decision to dwell in the Oakland Hills, and many died in the 1991 wildfire (Simon, 2014). That said, it would also be foolhardy to ignore the constantly growing evidence in case after case that in many, indeed possibly most, situations, marginalized groups of people (Twigg, 2004, pp. 80–103), impoverished people, and people lacking access to resources are more susceptible to loss and harm from natural hazards and have more difficulty recovering.

Models of Vulnerability

In this section, approaches to vulnerability are studied in order to clarify their limits and potentials. Qualitative data can be converted to quantitative data by analysis of the frequency of key words, and quantitative analysis is based on assumptions and researchers’ mental maps that are, in fact, qualitative. For most practical, day-to-day applications, there is a distinction between them, yet there is often considerable overlap. Indeed, methodology de jour in the early 21st century seemingly demands mixed methods (Creswell, 2013; Piano & Creswell, 2007) despite epistemological doubts leading to problems of acceptance by some policy audiences (Philip, 1998).

There are particular applications better suited to measurement (typically as aids to decision making at global, national, subnational, and large municipal scale). Metrics are less useful and play a less important role at the community (urban neighborhood or rural village and hamlet) scale, where qualitative focus group and participatory mapping exercises may assist local leaders and civil society to plan and to act. As this section proceeds, I will argue that both metrics and tools depend on models. Models, in turn, depend on the definition of concepts whose interaction they seek to represent.

Expanding Definitions

Models of vulnerability are, in fact, expanded definitions (sometimes taxonomies) that suggest to various degrees of detail the biophysical and social processes that combine to produce susceptibility to loss and harm and obstacles to recovery. These models are, for the most part, diagrammatic overviews or frameworks for asking questions (Wisner, Gaillard, & Kelman, 2012b).

Chambers was one of the first to introduce formally the term vulnerability into the analysis of rural poverty. It came as one of five elements that interlocked with each other, producing what he termed a ratchet effect or deprivation trap (Chambers 1983, p. 112): a condition of “integrated rural poverty” from which it is very difficult to extract oneself. The other elements were political powerlessness, physical weakness (ill health), isolation, and income poverty. Wisner and his colleagues produced a definition that is often used:

By vulnerability we mean the characteristics of a person or group and their situation that influence their capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a natural hazard (an extreme natural event or process) [italics in the original].

(Wisner et al., 2004, p. 11)

Anderson and Woodrow (1998), pioneers in the development of practical vulnerability and capacity assessment (VCA) define vulnerability as “long-term factors which affect the ability of a community to respond to events or which make it susceptible to calamities” (p. 10). They go on to distinguish among material/physical, social/organizational, motivational/attitudinal vulnerabilities (pp. 13–14).

Alexander provides a very broad but useful definition.

Vulnerability represents the potential harm incurred by a person, asset, activity or assemblage of items that is at risk . . . [T]he risk is motivated by natural, technological, social, intentional, or complex hazards and the potential outcome is a disaster. As it is mainly the result of social, economic, political, and cultural factors in decision making, vulnerability is constructed socially (2013, p. 980).

Alexander goes on to distinguish six vulnerability types (p. 982):


Economic: people lack adequate occupation.


Technological (or technocratic): caused by the riskiness of technology.


Residual: caused by lack of modernization.


Delinquent: caused by corruption, negligence, etc.


Newly generated: caused by changes in circumstances.


Total: life is generally precarious.

While in shorthand form, some of these six might seem glib, even ironic, the last three illuminate the two subjects I will argue below are taboo within disaster risk studies, hazard studies, and the climate change and development communities. Regarding Alexander’s second type of vulnerability, this review article does not attempt to deal with pervasive technological risk (Beck, 1992) or catastrophic failure of technological systems (Perrow, 1998).

The United Nations Office for Disaster Reduction, usually referred to as the UN Strategy for International Disaster Reduction or UNISDR, undertook to update and to modify its terminology after its ten-year-long program of global risk reduction based on the Hyogo Framework of Action expired. However, as of August 2015, the newly established Sendai Framework of Action continued to define vulnerability as follows: “The conditions determined by physical, economic, social and environmental factors, which increase the susceptibility of a community to the impacts of a hazard” (UNISDR, 2015c, p. 31).

Given the influence of the United Nations on governments, and to some degree on scientists who advise governments, it is worth considering this definition in depth. For instance, what is the difference between “physical” and “environmental” conditions? How is a “community” to be defined? Must one assume homogeneous interests and uniform vulnerabilities among all the people in such a sociospatial unit? However, problems with this definition go deeper than the use of loose language. Striking by its absence is any reference to politics. The power relations discussed by Alexander and Chambers and the institutional failures flagged by Anderson and Woodrow are not in evidence. Moreover, there is no room in UN bureaucratese for intentionality—either malign, as in Alexander’s notion of delinquent vulnerability or beneficent as in the notion of “capacity to anticipate, cope with and recover from” found in the definition by Wisner and his co-authors.

From Definitions to Models

Birkmann (Birkmann & Wisner, 2006; Birkmann, 2013) suggests that vulnerability can be conceptualized at a series of increased degrees of complexity and scale. The models discussed in this chapter would all fall under the outermost two rings in his diagram (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Birkmann’s representation of the scale and complexity of vulnerability concepts. From Birkmann (2013, p. 39).

Indeed, what is common in all these definitions just reviewed is the identification of factors influencing vulnerability from many domains at a wide range of temporal and spatial scales. The Progression of Vulnerability framework (Figure 2) attempts to model the relationships among these processes and the intersection of scale over time. Root causes may be remote geographically from the local site of vulnerability, such as an investment decision by a distant corporation. They may be remote in time, such as the history of enslavement in Haiti and Louisiana, serfdom in Russia and Nepal, or, famously in Anthony Oliver-Smith’s formulation, “Peru’s Five-Hundred-Year Earthquake,” whose root causes he traces to the Spanish conquest of the Inca (Oliver-Smith, 1995).

Dynamic pressures are normally decadal-scale trends involving business cycles, population dynamics, land use, and governance. They translate or transmit root causes to local scale and present moment, where they produce unsafe conditions and fragile livelihoods. As Alexander notes (2013, p. 980), “In the same way that friction comes into existence when it is mobilized by resistance to a force, so vulnerability is fully manifest only when hazards materialize and threaten a person, asset or activity.”

Although most writers such as Alexander insist that vulnerability only has meaning in relation to one or another specific hazard and, indeed, that vulnerability is only ever revealed or realized after a hazard impact, I argue there is a special case. Hewitt (1983, p. 27) refers to everyday conditions that prefigure disasters to come. In this way, there is a generalized vulnerability that affects the poorest of the poor and most marginal in all parts of the world (including such groups within affluent countries) (cf. Hewitt, 1997, p. 157; Wisner, 1993).

Figure 2. The progression of vulnerability. From Wisner, Gaillard, and Kelman (2012b, p. 32).

Elsewhere I have put it this way:

Generalized vulnerability is a characteristic of the poorest of the poor in every society, especially those who not only suffer income poverty [but] are also politically marginal (no voice in decisions that affect them), spatially marginal (resident in urban squatter settlements or in remote rural locations), ecologically marginal (livelihoods based on access to meager natural resources or living in degraded environments), and economically marginal (poor access to markets).

(Wisner, 2013a, p. 258)

Generalized vulnerability, defined in this manner, is similar to a view held by some in the climate change community. Kazmierczak and Handly (2011, p. 3) refer to inherent vulnerability, stating that “elements at risk (i.e., the people, places and things) can have inherent vulnerability, irrespective of whether they do or will ever come into contact with a hazard of sufficient magnitude to cause harm.” They juxtapose this with the official definition produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

Vulnerability defines the extent to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes. It depends not only on a system’s sensitivity but also on its adaptive capacity.

(Op. cit., citing IPCC, 2007)

Cannon (2008, pp. 2–3) breaks vulnerability down into five components:


Livelihood strength and resilience


Wellbeing and base-line status




Social protection



Drawing these clusters of variables from his earlier collaboration in developing the Progression of Vulnerability or Pressure and Release (PAR) framework (Wisner et al., 2004), he rearranges them in a way that reveals the linkages more dynamically than the PAR itself does (Figure 3). He highlights the key disconnects that explain the persistence of vulnerability.

Figure 3. Cannon’s “Five Components of Vulnerability and Their Main Determinants.” From Cannon (2008, p. 3).

Cannon’s approach and the earlier versions of PAR (Blaikie, Cannon, Davis, & Wisner, 1994; Wisner et al., 2004) did not model the role of human-environment relations. The environment and, in particular, natural hazards are taken for granted. Only in PAR’s latest revision (Figure 2) do human actions or inactions modify hazards. One of Cannon’s contributions to the second edition of At Risk was a diagram that framed the book theoretically in the dialectical relations between people and nature (Wisner et al., 2004, p. 8).

Cannon’s earlier diagram (Figure 4) is composed of vertical stack of boxes numbered 1-8. At the top of the page, number one reads “Natural environment.” Directly below, number two is “Spatially varied, with unequal distributions of opportunities and hazards.” It bifurcates into numbers three and four: “Opportunities, locations and resources for human activities” and “Hazards affecting human activities.” Four boxes sit below and point upwards toward “Opportunities” and “Hazards.” From the bottom of the page these read, “Political and economic systems at national and international scales” (8), “Social systems and power relations” (7), “Class – gender – ethnicity – age group – disability – immigration status” (6), and “Social processes determine unequal access to opportunities, and unequal exposure to hazards” (5).

Figure 4. Cannon’s “Social Determinants of Disaster.” From Wisner, Blaikie, Cannon, and Davis (2004, p. 8).

Thus, seen in context, neither Cannon nor the early PAR models are oblivious to the natural environment. Nevertheless, in Turner et al. (2003), the socioecological model is more explicit concerning human-environment linkages and feedback loops, while, alas, it is less detailed than Cannon and all versions of PAR in modeling socioeconomic and political relations (Figure 5). In the best of all worlds, a synthesis of these would provide a strong framework for disaster research and policy advocacy.

Figure 5. Turner et al.’s Socio-ecology Model of Vulnerability. From Turner, et al. (2003).

Also seeking to find root causes and dynamic pressures that produce vulnerability is the so-called “forensic” approach understanding disasters developed by researchers associated with the Integrated Research on Disaster Reduction (IRDR) program of the International Council for Science (ICSU) (Burton, 2010; Cutter et al., 2015; Oliver-Smith, A., Alcántara-Ayala, I., Burton, I., & Lavell, A., 2016). FORIN (as the approach is abbreviated) is grounded in a theory of social construction of disaster risk. While keenly aware of physical and biological processes that may be hazards, it focuses on the process of “development” itself as a locus of risk creation. Vulnerability features among FORIN’s “central analytical themes,” which are:

Triggering events

Exposure of social and environmental elements

Social and economic structures of exposed communities



Institutional and governance elements (Oliver-Smith, A., Alcántara-Ayala, I., Burton, I. & Lavell, A., 2016: 22-27)

Note that where PAR juxtaposes vulnerability to capacity, FORIN has adopted the similar term resilience in fashion in climate change circles (Liverman, 2015, p. 308). I will say more about capacity, capability, and resilience later. For now the reader can take resilience and capacity to cope and to recover as roughly equivalent.

FORIN proceeds in two moments: descriptive and analytical. As a first level introduction to vulnerability, FORIN utilizes the thematic elements just mentioned to organize a “descriptive systematization of loss and damage under determined hazard and exposure conditions . . . particularly where social elements suffer more grievous impacts regardless of hazard intensity or location . . .” (Oliver-Smith, A., Alcántara-Ayala, I., Burton, I., & Lavell, A., 2016, p. 23). In the course of this descriptive moment, FORIN suggests several fundamental questions be asked about vulnerability:

How were loss and damage, impact and effect differentially distributed between different areas, social groups, types of infrastructure and production?

Were there notable aberrations in the sense that less exposed and hazard-prone social and economic elements suffered greater impacts than more exposed and hazard-prone elements? In what sense was this materialized?

What were the principal pre-disaster differentiated expressions of livelihood and human vulnerability, and what were the principal manifest, immediate, symptomatic causal factors? This could include such things as: building collapse with loss of life or loss of livelihood inputs and support infrastructure; loss of transport and energy infrastructure and its impact on livelihoods, health and employment, etc.

How were the post-impact relief and rehabilitation processes carried out, and how just, equitable and efficient were they with regard to different social groups and their needs? Did the existing political agenda play a role in the response and rehabilitation processes? (Oliver-Smith, A., Alcántara-Ayala, I., Burton, I., & Lavell, A., 2016, p. 27)

FORIN’s authors introduce the second moment, “the movement from . . . description to understanding of underlying, root causes and dynamic processes” in this way (Oliver-Smith et al., 2016, p. 28):

The preceding identification of central themes and fundamental questions that allow a basic knowledge of damage and loss, impacts and effects and their immediate descriptive causal relations, must be accompanied by more structural, deep-rooted, underlying causal analysis that allows us to understand why such unsafe conditions exist as such. Essential to the analysis of root causes is the delineation of derived risk drivers, sometimes referred to as dynamic processes.

FORIN then suggests that researchers ask a series of questions about four sets of dynamic processes (compare the sixteen specified by PAR in Figure 2 above). These are:

Population growth and distribution

Urban and rural land use patterns and processes

Environmental degradation and ecosystem service depletion

Poverty and income distribution. (Oliver-Smith et al., 2016, pp. 29–30)

Conceived with multiple objectives—research, educational, policy, and developmental—FORIN’s creators suggest a number of ways this approach to risk creation can be used. These include both retrospective and prospective longitudinal analysis, comparative case analysis, and meta-analysis (Oliver-Smith et al., 2016, p. 32). They work examples in order to concretize these methodological approaches to the social creation of risk: a longitudinal reconstruction of the causes of the 2010 earthquake disaster in Haiti; use of a 1992 study of Honduras as if it had been a prospective scenario building exercise that revealed vulnerabilities that resulted in the 1998 Hurricane Mitch disaster in that country; a case comparison of vulnerability to the impacts of Hurricane Luis in 1995 on the French part versus the Dutch part of the Caribbean island of St. Maarten; and a meta-analysis of urban vulnerability to a variety of hazards in a number of megacities.

Birkmann and Welle (2015) analyze various models and sets of methods for assessment of loss and damage from climate-related hazards. They begin with the basic model by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of what drives climate-related disaster risk (Figure 6), which, like that of Turner et al. (2003), is socioecological and works at a similar level of abstraction.

Figure 6. IPCC’s socio-ecological model. (IPCC, 2012b; adapted from Birkmann & Welle, 2015, p. 4).

In this IPCC model the causes of vulnerability are not included. In fairness, the IPCC model is highly generalized and not meant to drive deeply into the determinants of development, which in the diagram appears to be the major cause of both exposure and vulnerability. The components of development among other root causes are explicit and detailed in PAR and Cannon (2008) as well as in FORIN.

In Turner et al. (2003, Figure 5), the causes of vulnerability are suggested in a generalized way by reference to human conditions and changes in human conditions as well as external drivers labeled macro political economy, institutions, and global trends and transitions—compare dynamic pressures in PAR and FORIN. As international research and policy on climate change evolved, more focus on social vulnerability began to appear (Liverman, 2015; Tschakert et al., 2013), especially in the watershed monograph with the nickname, SREX, dealing with extreme climate events and their consequences (IPCC, 2012a).4 This treatment of social vulnerability should be seen in the context of what had been climate science’s nearly exclusive focus on biophysical vulnerability, that is, exposure (Brooks, 2003). Drawing from Turner et al. (2003) and a number of later attempts at visualization and heuristic framing/modeling, Birkmann et al. (2013) produced what they term a “consensus” view (p. 207) of multiple dimension of vulnerability and put forward their so-called MOVE5 approach as a “thinking tool” (p. 207) (similar to the claim that Wisner et al., 2012b, make that the PAR framework is a guide to systematic questioning).

Birkmann and Welle distinguish between quantitative and qualitative approaches to loss and damage assessment, adding a category for broader risk assessment (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Overview of different approaches, methodologies, and tools for loss and damage assessment. From Birkmann and Welle (2015, p. 5).

Of note, too, is the placement of community-based disaster risk management (CBDRM) and vulnerability and capacity assessment (VCA) under both pre- and post-disaster approaches commonly used by practitioners of disaster risk reduction (DRR). They are correct, of course, but whether or not such post-disaster activities take place depends on how recovery is understood by governments and local people. It turns out that the fabled “window of opportunity” not only to “build back better” but to make social, economic, and institutional changes that reduce the chance of the next disaster is rare and fragile. I will return to this tension between knowing and doing later.

What is most striking in Figure 7 is the absence of overlap in methodology between climate change adaptation (CCA) and DRR apparent in Birkmann and Welle’s summary diagram. Others have noticed the gap between CCA and DRR and pondered whether bridges can be built to mutual advantage and considerable benefit for risk-bearers—be they governments, corporations, or ordinary people (Gaillard, 2010; IFRC, 2008; Kelman, 2010; Kelman & Gaillard, 2008; Mercer, 2010; O’Brien, O’Keefe, Rose, & Wisner, 2006; Turnbull, Sterrett, & Hilleboe, 2013; Wisner et al., 2014). As these and other authors lament, sharing methods and resources for the assessment of vulnerability between the climate change and DRR communities of practice is not common and yet would benefit both.

Cutter (1996) developed a Hazards-of-a-Place model that served as the basis for useful systems of vulnerability indicators in later years, as will be seen in the next section. Her model is very abstract, and the set of processes she labels “social fabric” is a black box within which the socioeconomic, political, and institutional causes of social vulnerability lie waiting for Cutter and her associates to pull them out when they mine the social vulnerability case study literature and choose roughly corresponding census data surrogates to generate social vulnerability indices (SoVI) (Figure 8). To their credit, Cutter and her associates and others inspired by their work recognized the untapped potential of such large data sets and have used them to develop indices of vulnerability finely tuned to the circumstances in a variety of countries (Clémence et al., 2015; Chen, Cutter, de Oliveira Mendes, 2009; Chen, Cutter, Emrich, & Shi, 2013; Siagian, Purhadi, Suhartono, & Ritonga, 2014; Holand, Lujala, & Rød, 2011; Hummell, 2012).

Figure 8. Cutter’s Hazards-of-a-Place model. From Cutter (1996, p. 53).

Hufschmidt (2011) reviews six models: PAR and its nested subframework that models livelihood security in terms of access (Wisner et al., 2004), the socioecological framing by Turner et al. (2003), an elaboration of the “Hazards-of-a-Place” model (Cutter, 1996) called SoVI developed by Cutter, Boruff, and Shirley (2003)—all discussed above; in addition, Hufschmidt (2011) presents the BBC-framework created by staff of the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security (Borgardi & Birkman, 2004), and the elaboration of Chambers’s (1989) treatment of the rural deprivation trap by Bohle, Downing, and Watts (1994).

Based on her analysis of these models, Hufschmidt produced a synthesis or summary model applied to the household and community scale (Figure 9).

Hufschmidt explains the flow and causal cascade in these words:

Shaped by the frame (i.e., the political, economic, cultural and environmental settings of a society), the socioeconomic profile of a community (socioeconomic, built environment critical infrastructure) filters access to resources. Access to resources determines adaptive capacity that translates resources into the process of adaptation initializing adaptive activities. Adaptive activities can be realised in particular before and in the aftermath of a harmful event or disaster.

(Hufschmidt, 2011, p. 634)

Figure 9. Summary model of vulnerability of households and communities. From Hufschmidt (2011, p. 635).

Cardona and Carreño (2013) reviewed some of the same models dissected by Hufschmidt and found deficiencies when examined with a view to making them operational as machines that produce measurements:

[T]he socio-ecological framework (Turner et al., 2003) was conceptually sound, but its implementation becomes problematic. The relationship between scales (place, region and global) and the interaction between variables outlined in the schema were unclear, so defining specific metrics would be difficult in an integrated assessment using this approach . . . [T]he Pressure and Release Model (PAR) (Wisner et al., 2004) has a level of abstraction that precludes distinguishing one driving factor from another, especially in defining proxies for measurement . . . [T]he BBC Framework (Birkmann, 2006) and the Hazards of Place Model (Cutter, 1996) have both been tested empirically.

(Cardona & Carreño, 2013, p. 24)

Below, when discussion turns to the use of vulnerability as a qualitative tool for community assessment, as opposed to measurement, it should be obvious that such objections are narrowly conceived from the point of view of measurement. One can test a model by whether it guides researchers, policy makers and practitioners to ask questions that lead to decisions that do, in fact, reduce risks. One can also test by observing whether qualitative vulnerability assessment tools based on the model have been applied in situations where risks are, in fact, reduced. For now, however, pace Cardona and Carreño, I turn to the question of measurement.

Quantitative Methods: Metrics, Indices, and Efforts to Measure Vulnerability

Attempts to measure vulnerability are based explicitly or implicitly on a model of disaster risk of the sort discussed above. Leaving aside their categorical and parametric diversity and differences in scale, the central claim of all such models involves a simple assertion. Risk is a function of (a) exposure to a hazard, (b) susceptibility or sensitivity to harm or loss, (c) degree of personal or social protection enjoyed, and (d) capacity to cope or adapt to the impact of the hazard.

Efforts to develop an index of vulnerability take these core components into account, although some deal only with the last three as strictly internal to the notion of vulnerability. Where large data bases are available, usually at national, sometimes at sub-national and municipal scale, variables are screened deductively to see which come closest to measuring processes that the case study literature suggests are crucial to vulnerability and/or capacity to cope and to recover.

Researchers then choose a large number of variables, from existing data sets (for example, a national population census) that serve as surrogates for susceptibility/sensitivity, protection (also called mitigation, especially in the United States), and capacity. As mentioned above, Cutter’s Hazards-of-a-Place model served as the basis for developing a method for indexing vulnerability with the use of census data and other large data sets. Cutter et al. (2003) used 42 variables from the U.S. census (1960–2000) to map county-by-county variation in social vulnerability. Following further improvements, these so-called SoVI scores show the high degree of variability within a large country like the United States (Cutter & Morath, 2013). The scores for 2006–2010 can be viewed in color, online at the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States took a similar approach to developing its social vulnerability index (SVI) as an aid to local disaster management by mapping 15 census variables at the census tract scale. The variables were clustered around the following themes (Flanagan, 2011):


Socioeconomic status (comprising income, poverty, employment, and education variables).


Household composition/disability (comprising age, single parenting, and disability variables).


Minority status/language (comprising race, ethnicity, and English language proficiency variables).


Housing/transportation (comprising housing structure, crowding, and vehicle access variables).

They applied this approach to patterns of mortality in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and found the approach useful in explaining the spatial distribution of disproportionately high deaths from drowning of elderly people.

A regional Latin American risk-indexing project used a suite of four indices (Cardona & Carreño, 2013). One index is focused on national financial impacts of disaster, another assesses the impact of localized disaster events, and a third uses 24 variables to summarize national disaster risk management capacity. The fourth index is called the Prevalent Vulnerability Index (PVI). It measures socio-economic fragility and lack of resilience. These are characteristics of vulnerable households and communities around which a consensus in the literature has developed (Wisner et al., 2014; Twigg, 2009). The PVI utilizes 24 generally available variables including the following:


Population living on below one USD per day.


Dependents as proportion of working-age population.


Human Poverty Index (from UNDP’s annual Human Development Report [HDR]).


Social disparity (concentration of income measured by GINI coefficient).


Human Development Index (from HDR).


Gender-related Development Index (from HDR).


Insurance of infrastructure and housing.


Hospital beds per 1,000 people. (Cardona & Carreño, 2013, p. 263)

The work of Cardona and his associates is exceptional. Other attempts to measure risk at multinational or global scales have relied on very crude surrogates for vulnerability. Pelling (2013) reviewed several of these global risk index projects, including Disaster Risk Hotspots, a World Bank effort to detect patterns in mortality and economic loss from earthquake, floods, storms, droughts, landslides, and volcanoes from 1980 to 2003 (Dilley et al., 2005). Dilley, its lead author, notes this about Hotspots:

The assessment focused on two disaster-related outcomes: mortality and economic losses. Relative risks of these two outcomes were assessed for major natural hazards on a 5 × 5 km global grid . . . The hazard exposure of the population and GDP in each grid cell was determined by multiplying the population or GDP in each cell by the historical hazard frequency or probability for each hazard. Risk levels were calculated by weighting the result with a vulnerability coefficient . . . These vulnerability coefficients were estimated from hazard-specific mortality and economic loss data.

(Dilley, 2013, pp. 211, 214)

Dilley’s description makes clear that Hotspots generates a highly generalized product. Human beings are not differentiated. They are just members of a population. They live or they die. As observed below, such a scale of general mapping may serve a useful purpose for international agencies, but not for those at national or local scale who wish to plan.

A final example of the treatment of vulnerability in global risk indexing approaches is the WorldRiskIndex (United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), 2014). This approach, which benefits from and builds on the experience of Hotspots, is more ambitious. In common with such models, it uses surrogates available in 171 countries in order to combine exposure, susceptibility, and coping capacity together to yield a measure of risk. A fourth set of variables is sought in worldwide data sources, namely those corresponding to adaptive capacity in the face of the impacts of climate change. This also marks a significant advance over Hotspots. Vulnerability is considered a function of susceptibility, coping capacity, and capacity to adapt. The specific data used are listed in Table 2 (UNU-EHS, 2014, pp. 40–41).

Table 2


Percentage of population exposed to earthquake, cyclone, flood, drought, and sea level rise.


Percentage living without adequate sanitation or water supply, percentage of urban areas classified as slum, percentage undernourished, dependency ratio (those aged under 15 and over 65 as percentage of working age population), percentage living on less than USD 1.25 per day, gloss domestic product per capita, Gini Index (measure of inequality on income distribution).


Corruption index, failed state index, physicians per 10,000 population, hospital beds per 10,000 population, percentage formal insurance penetration.


Adult literacy rate; gross school enrollment; gender parity in education; state of management of water resources, forests, and agricultural land; state of biodiversity and habitat protection; public expenditure on health care; life expectancy at birth; private health expenditure.

There are two problems with this ambitious attempt. In terms of data, the approach is dependent on the availability of data in all of a very large number of countries. This means that some of the data they would like to have are simply not available in a sufficient number of countries. These include percentage of slums and fragile housing, some measure of social networks, a measure of the adequacy of preparedness and early warning systems at national scale, and a measure of government steps taken to adapt to climate change. The second problem is conceptual. Unlike national indices produced in data rich environments with the availability of abundant case study literature (the way Cutter and her colleagues built up SoVI), most of the low and medium income countries among the 171 studied have not been the objects of intensive field research. There is not a critical mass of studies that would suggest the processes that lead, for example, from adult literacy to adaptive capacity, or from a high dependency ratio to increased susceptibility to harm.

By comparison, subnational indices, at least those in high and some medium income countries, can be based on more variables that are demonstrably connected causally with susceptibility and coping capacity. Such is the case for the individual states covered by applications of SoVI. The SoVI approach was also applied to the Yangtze River Delta region in China, where it used 29 publically available variables covering 15 categories listed in Table 3 (Chen et al., 2013).

Table 3

1. Socioeconomic

6. Urban/rural

11. Population change

2. Gender

7. Renter conditions

12. Housing status

3. Race/ethnicity

8. Occupation

13. Medical services

4. Age

9. Family structure

14. Social dependency

5. Unemployment loss

10. Education

15. Special needs population

The results showed considerable variation in vulnerability in the delta region, pointing to sites and processes that could be addressed by public policy, especially the gap between rural and urban areas. Where such data are not available at a subnational scale, dedicated surveys are required. For example, in Tanzania, interviews were conducted with 2,040 households in 84 villages in 42 of the 113 districts in the country. Multistage sampling ensured coverage of Tanzania’s seven major agro-ecological zones (Kiunsi & Meshak, 2013). Informants were asked about the most common hazards, how people coped, and the impacts of the most recent event. The three most commonly mentioned hazards were pest infestations, drought, and disease outbreaks.

The resulting quantification of the data resulted in indices that highlighted differences among Tanzania’s seven major agro-ecological zones as regards perceived frequency of these three hazards, perceived severity of impacts, and the capacity to manage them. While some of the results would not surprise most Tanzanians (e.g., frequency of drought in the country’s semi-arid Central Plateau), other results had fresh policy relevance; for example, the importance of pests in some regions.

In sum, a wide variety of quantitative approaches to vulnerability are available. They vary in scale, and their usefulness is largely determined by scale. Global indexing is useful for international organizations, donors, and humanitarian organizations that desire to anticipate likely expenditures and to plan interventions. At a minimum, global indexing may help to pre-position relief supplies and equipment and set aside budget contingency funds for relief operations. At the national scale, these approaches may be used by governments (including subnational governments and very large urban jurisdictions) for efforts along the same lines—at best for prevention and risk reduction, at least to plan for the worst-case scenario.

Qualitative Methods: Tools and Efforts to Assess and Self-Assess Vulnerability

I have argued that measurement of vulnerability can have a vital role in assisting decision making at global, national, subnational, and large urban (especially megacity) scales. Decisions about financial management, insurance and reinsurance, land use planning, and public and private infrastructure may benefit from the kinds of indices just reviewed. Nevertheless, there are methodological and practical limits to quantification. Before turning to qualitative approaches, I will summarize these limits.

Quantitative indexing methods involve circular reasoning, or, more charitably, iterative thinking. Variables are chosen based upon metastudies of detailed cases studies that reveal aspects of vulnerability. This literature grows and self-corrects; yet meanwhile, the field researchers producing the next generation of case studies are influenced by the products of high profile quantification for the sociological reason that quantification has more prestige within professions influenced by the positivist desire to mimic physics. Cutter and Morath (2013) recall that in developing the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI), they “first deductively culled an exhaustive collection of 250 socio-economic and built-environment candidate variables describing social vulnerability from the [U.S.] 1990 Decennial Census” (p. 307). They “culled” by looking for the available census variables, ultimately numbering 42, that came closest to capturing characteristics of households’ “socio-economic status, race and ethnicity, gender, age, employment, . . . housing tenure, and special needs [disability].” The authors explain that these are the “key indicators” they found in literature about vulnerability in the United States at the time, citing such summaries by Mileti (1999), Morrow (1999), and Heinz Center (2002). To their credit, in later applications of SoVI, this team took on board subsequent additions to literature that include imprisonment and other forms of institutionalization as indicators of vulnerability; while others, such as sexual identity, have not yet been incorporated (Wisner, 2013b, p. 448; Wisner, Berger, & Gaillard, 2016). The hamster wheel must constantly turn, linking inductive and deductive reasoning. And this is the best-case scenario—one where there exists a critical mass of case studies and a strong field research tradition. As observed in relation to the WorldRiskIndex, most of the 171 countries covered have no such solid field research basis to provide the necessary self-corrective cycle of induction and deduction.

Furthermore, SoVI is descriptive. The only insight into cause and effect comes from the weak evidence of statistical correlation. Few efforts at measurement are able to quantify all the elements in the models on which they depend, thus capturing the real world dynamics and the complexity of the elements that comprise vulnerability. Of course, the larger the scale and larger the number of elements at risk, the more solid is the statistical inference. At the global scale, Disaster Risk Hotspots was able to map vulnerability at a gross scale (5 × 5 km grid), but only because it used the very few variables globally accessible—stripping away all social relations and treating each human being as a unit of population (with no age or gender or any other difference). Each unit of population either lives or dies in a particular event. Such are the sacrifices mapping at a global scale requires, given the state of mathematics and cartography in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

On the other end of the scale continuum is the community—defined crudely as primary locality (urban neighborhood, small town, village, or hamlet) with no misleading suggestion of social homogeneity in even the smallest of these (Delica-Willison & Gaillard, 2012, p. 712; FAO, 1997). At this scale, fine-grained knowledge is necessary. It is also the scale where people’s perceptions and their local knowledge are essential in efforts to reduce disaster risk. Here, change may be rapid. Multiple changes may interact: social, economic, political, administrative, legal, technological, and environmental (Wangui et al., 2012). Much of the world’s population lives in such unstable and dynamic situations characterized by complexity, fragility, and informality.6

Dialogue with people in their localities about threats, hazards, vulnerabilities, capabilities, and barriers to local action to reduce risk requires a situational approach. Planning together with local women, youth, children, and men (people often referred to by bureaucrats as stakeholders or risk bearers) requires people’s trust and mutual respect for the knowledge facilitators bring, and for the knowledge local people offer to the dialogue. Here dialogue and coproduction refer to the interaction of outside specialist knowledge and local knowledge in the context of mutual respect and trust (Kelman & Mercer, 2014; Mercer, 2010; Wisner, 2010).

Birkmann and Wisner (2006) put it this way, reflecting on the ironic title of their monograph, Measuring the Unmeasurable.

The term measuring vulnerability does not solely encompass quantitative approaches, which is what first comes to mind. It also seeks to discuss and develop all types of methods able to translate the abstract concept of vulnerability into practical tools to be applied in the field. If one takes the bare bones, simple definition as ‘subject to harm’, then the questions rapidly proliferate and become concrete and situational: What kind of harm? Harm from what? How often? Recoverable or treatable harm? Avoidable harm? and above all, Under what economic, social, and political conditions?

(Birkmann & Wisner, 2006, p. 7)

Methods Fostering Dialog

Mary Anderson and Peter Woodrow were among the first to lay out a detailed guide to the tools and methods useful at local scale to assess vulnerability and capacity and to plan actions together with community members. Their work was commissioned by Oxfam and was originally published in 1989 (Anderson & Woodrow, 1998). The book succinctly describes a capacity and vulnerability analysis (CVA)7 framework and discusses programming and field methods in six chapters over 90 pages. Eleven case studies of community-based CVA in Africa, Latin America, and Asia follow in Part 2. This was a watershed achievement at just the right moment in terms of consolidating vulnerability as a counter paradigm, and an enormously valuable, simply written guide for practitioners. It coincided with the publication of Maskrey (1989), a similarly pioneering work on community-based risk reduction in Peru. Fortunately both are still in print.

The intended audience for Anderson and Woodrow’s book, Rising from the Ashes, is INGO workers responding to a disaster. Vulnerability and capacity are therefore discussed in terms of the impact of a disaster on three domains of life: physical/material, social/organizational, and motivational/attitudinal. A two-by-three matrix constructed of these elements is the basis for conversations with local people as participants in planning recovery and reduction of risk to the next hazard (pp. 10–14). The basic matrix is then disaggregated by gender (men/women) and economic class (rich, middle, poor). Other breakdowns are possible, for example by age or by ethnicity or religion in culturally mixed communities. These simple matrices were employed in case studies as guides to community discussion and action planning.

A more recent example of VCA comes from Pakistan (Twigg, 2009, p. 55). As part of its DRR program, Church World Service Pakistan/Afghanistan carried out a rapid hazard, vulnerability and capacity assessment in a mountainous district in Pakistan. The exercise had these objectives:


Identify a community exposed to various hazards.


With the help of the community, identify the hazards that affected them, categorize their vulnerabilities, and map out their capacities.


Engage the community to develop a DRR plan (a holistic set of developmental and disaster management activities).


Disseminate the results among the relevant stakeholders.

The assessment team used a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods including secondary data (e.g., hazard maps), focus group discussions involving a variety of participatory rural appraisal tools (e.g., timelines, seasonal calendars, hazard priority charts, village maps, and transect walks), and discussions with local stakeholders.

Another example comes from Zimbabwe (Murwira et al., 2000). Wisner had follow-up conversations with the principle investigator through 2007 and found that the original approach to community mobilization had long-term effects and was replicated. The approach can be summarized as follows (Wisner, 2013a, p. 443).With the assistance of a resident facilitator from Intermediate Technology Development Group (now Practical Action), a group in the drought-prone Chivi district of southern Zimbabwe used wealth ranking in addition to other criteria to identify people who were most vulnerable to drought. The self-assessment of drought vulnerability included sketch-mapping of farms to identify resources and environmental constraints and labor profiles that showed activities by gender over the annual cycle on a month-to-month basis. Focus group discussions identified the range of people’s coping technology. A series of local drought-proofing measures were identified, including seed selection, intercropping, and small-scale irrigation. Drought-coping mechanisms, such as sale of livestock and wage labor outside the community, were also mentioned. Going beyond focus group discussions, the community tested additional means for avoiding the impacts of drought. These included the use of tied ridges in their maize (corn) fields to trap rainwater.

Central America provides another application of VCA (Wisner et al., 2014, pp. 183–186). In 2005, a coalition of INGOs initiated a community-based capacity building program in El Salvador after Hurricane Stan and a volcanic eruption struck that country’s western region. They began in five municipalities in two of the region’s departments. The overall approach was conceived and executed more in the spirit of community mobilization (Freire, 1970; Luna, 2014) than a more narrow technical exercise in hazard mapping and vulnerability/capacity assessment alone. Nevertheless, the tools of VCA were used. Residents analyzed their vulnerabilities and capacities, and they undertook mapping of current hazards and past disaster impacts. They designed an early warning system and made evacuation plans. Notably, the residents formed local committees for civil protection that came to be legally recognized by the municipal civil protection authorities. In years three and four of the project, these committees formed networks with others in the municipalities, and community representatives were elected to sit on municipal civil protection commissions. In 2010, the value of the mobilization/CBDRR approach was evident in the El Salvador case during tropical storms Agatha and Alex. The community-based civil protection committees collected damage and needs data in their communities and coordinated with municipal commissions for immediate response. The local communities had become advocates for their own needs and rights.

This example shows how a more localized application of qualitative VCA can be an essential part of a longer-term process of building confidence in local people to make their needs and their ideas heard by administrative decision makers. For example, one of the communities was able to convince its municipal government to build a pedestrian bridge across a dangerous river crossing. Authorities took such proposals from communities more seriously because they were grounded in local research and backed by maps and other evidence, precisely what others have found elsewhere at the same scale of risk governance; for example, in Tanzania (Wisner, 2015).

A plethora of guides to VCA have been created by dozens of INGOs since Anderson and Woodrow’s Rising from the Ashes and Maskrey’s Disaster Mitigation. Good summaries can be found (IFRC, 2007; McCall & Peters-Guarin, 2012; Twigg, 2009; Wisner, Schaerer, Haghebaert, & Arnold, 2008). Researchers have also developed new methods that integrate geotechnology such as Geographic Positioning Systems (GPS) and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) with local knowledge and empower local people to utilize these modern tools (Kienberger & Steinbruch, 2005; Peters, McCall, & van Westen, 2009; Tran et al., 2009). Likewise mobile communication technology has been used in the context of community-based early warning systems and to provide crowd-sourced information about perceptions of risk and the effectiveness of government disaster reduction outreach (GNDR, 2011). Tools such as three-dimensional participatory mapping (3DPM) have become widespread (Cadag and Gaillard, 2013).

All these community-based assessment methods and tools build on a body of experience with participatory research (PR) and participatory action research (PAR) within development studies and planning. Roots of these methods go back to the notions of action planning in the 1930s (Wisner, Stea, & Kruks, 1991) and experiments in the early days of community development. Also influential were a series of initiatives to develop shortcuts to socioeconomic data gathering (Cernea, 1985) and so-called “rapid rural appraisal” (Chambers, 1981) within academic and operational sides of international development. With such a genealogy, VCA takes on both the strengths and the weaknesses of older, established, nominally participatory methods. I use the word “nominal” because much research shows that community participation can take many forms, from highly manipulative “consultation” with outside agencies about plans that have already been made, to community-defined and controlled research involving the learning cycle: action → reflection → action (Twigg, 2004, pp. 114–130; Wisner, 1988).

Capacity and Capability

The large amount of work done in partnership with communities just reviewed exists because of a major conceptual shift in disaster studies. Earlier in this article, I discussed the paradigm shift that gave rise to the vulnerability approach. I also noted, as this new paradigm matured, that researchers and activists became critical of list-making and approaches that relied on categories of people considered by outsiders and specialists to be “at risk.” Closely related is the shift in focus from the negative story of vulnerability to the positive narrative of people’s capacities for self-protection and also for mobilized, common effort to attain their right to safety from governments.

One way of thinking about vulnerability is the blockage of people’s homegrown abilities to foresee dangers and to take action to avoid them. Wisner, Gaillard, and Kelman (2012b) discuss such blockages as denial or limitation of access to a variety of different resources: political, economic, social, human, physical and natural (Figure 10).

Figure 10. The Circle of Capacities. From Wisner, Gaillard, and Kelman (2012b, p. 28).

In fact, these authors should have called these “capabilities.” There is an important distinction between capacity (or ability) and capability. Nussbaum (2011, p. 20) writes, “[Capabilities] are not just abilities residing inside a person but also freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social and economic environment.” Thus vulnerability arises when political, social, and economic structures deny people the environment within which their abilities (capacities) can flourish and manifest as capabilities. Denial or blockage of access can take many forms, but one of the most insidious is marginalization: to render people invisible, voiceless in decisions that affect their lives, dismissing their local knowledge (Wisner, 2010).

Vulnerability Reduction or Capacity Building: Getting from Knowledge to Action

Definitions, models, tools—one might ask, So what? The point of all this is to save lives and reduce suffering and loss. There are many views of such insistence on practical results, on outcomes as opposed to inputs and outputs, or “deliverables” in project terms. Some scholars simply want to understand why some people at some times and places are more prone to loss and harm from shocks. Some of these researchers believe a discipline is only considered mature when it is able to develop mathematical theory (Turchin, 2003). Such has been one of the dreams of positivist social science since at least the end of the nineteenth century (Steinmetz, 1898–1899). Many of these still believe today that their job is to understand, not to apply knowledge. Others are action-oriented and want to use measurement and assessment of vulnerability in order to facilitate what they judge to be beneficial change. These knowledge workers have in mind intervention at a wide range of scales from village and neighborhood, where CBDRR might guide local preparedness and risk reduction, to national legislatures, where legal frameworks aimed at reducing risk are crafted, to international campaigns for social accountability of banks and corporations, whose investments are shown to displace people and put them at risk.

Taking the activist branch of the stream, as I do, there are more questions. In his preface to Birkmann’s benchmark review of efforts to measure vulnerability (Birkmann, 2013), Briceño makes what seems at first an obvious point. Measurement and assessment of vulnerability is needed so that “both people at risk and decision-makers can base their actions on sound information” (Briceño, 2013, p. xxviii). Likewise, both the Hyogo Framework of Action for Disaster Reduction (2005–2015) and its successor Sendai Framework of Action emphasize the importance of information. Yet the questions remain, Whose knowledge counts? Who will benefit from its use?

Tschakert et al. (2013) provides an account of interactive decision making, action, and reflection that has one plausible answer to these questions (Figure 11). She proposes a process that begins and ends (and begins again) with vulnerability assessment that involves households and communities as agents and beneficiaries in partnership with administrators and professionals at various scales. The logic of this virtuous spiral is change, the sort of transformation that would deal incrementally with the root causes and dynamic pressures identified earlier by the PAR and FORIN frameworks.

Figure 11. Iterative and multi-scalar methodological framework for ITAs, combining assessments (light grey/green) with enhancement of the capacity for change (dark grey/purple). From Tschakert, van Oort, St. Clair, and LaMadrid (2013, p. 347).

Taboos: What Most Dare Not Question

Vulnerability is a concept with meanings rooted in Western culture as far back as the ancient Greeks. The concept has been given many specific definitions and used in many domains from medicine and psychology to disaster management. Scholars have sought the various causes of vulnerability. They have created models of how vulnerability interacts with other processes to give rise to disasters. They have attempted to quantify, index, and map vulnerability as an aid to decision making at various scales. Others have created tools for qualitative assessment of vulnerability and capacity in communities as a form of cooperation between outside and local experts and as an aid to local preparedness planning and actions to reduce risk. Still others have used these tools as part of a broader agenda of community mobilization and empowerment.

However, seldom during these most recent four and a half decades of elaboration and use of the notion of vulnerability have three fundamental issues come to the surface. Or when they surface, they have been ignored by multilateral and bilateral gatekeepers of so-called “disaster risk reduction” such as the UNISDR. They are subjects that are taboo. In order to refine disaster risk reduction beyond the guidelines and goals agreed to in Sendai, Japan, at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in March 2015, these three issues must be confronted directly.

The first issue concerns an odd silence and lack of symmetry in UN and national government discourse. “Disaster risk reduction” has been a rallying cry for decades. Little or nothing is said about disaster risk creation. One key to the mobilizing and politicizing effect of much CBDRR is people’s growing awareness that the very development process that is supposed to “lift all boats” is, in fact, sinking theirs by creating risk.

Lavell and Maskrey (2014) put it this way: “Disasters are manifestations of unresolved development problems and outcome-based indicators of skewed, unsustainable development processes” (p. 272, italics in original). This is a vital insight that comes out of decades of work on disaster that began in Latin America in the 1980s and later drew evidence from all over the world. This evidence-based finding has been repeated in documents published by the UN agency mandated to coordinate disaster risk reduction, yet there is no evidence of it in the international risk reduction agreement brokered by that same agency. The Global Assessment of Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 (UNISDR, 2015) documents how movements of international finance capital are creating new risk by displacing poor populations as sections of cities are gentrified, displacing others as small farms are erased by encroachment of foreign-owned agribusiness, and yet others whose livelihoods are made impossible by large-scale mining operations and other megaprojects (Holden & Jacobson, 2012; Sassen, 2014). One must add to this nominally legal and normal function of capital, land, and property markets the illegal and corrupt practices by elites (Lewis & Kelman, 2012)—non-enforcement of building standards, theft of donor funds—producing what Alexander (2013) calls “delinquent vulnerability.”

Criticizing the myth of development is a second taboo issue. Hewitt (2013) argues that development itself must share the blame for creating disaster risk:

Few will doubt that economic and social uplift can contribute to all the conditions and options that reduce vulnerability, or improve social security and response capacities. Equally, development projects may not bring such benefits. Disasters are certainly associated with communities suffering lack of development. They are also linked to the style and direction of development. Safety outcomes are rarely uniform across the communities involved. Projects alter or redistribute risks. In fact, there are tens of millions of persons in [developing countries] who have lost their livelihoods, been uprooted and driven into urban slums, or entered the huge armies of migrant labour, thanks to development projects. (p. 5)

It is not enough to lament that disaster exposure and vulnerability are increasing because of an “uneven and unsustainable development path” (Ward, 2012, p. 3, reviewing IPCC, 2012). Each and every private and public investment and all development initiatives must be screened for their impact on disaster risk (Wisner et al., 2004, pp. 32–35). It is not enough to take an integrated approach to disaster and development (Pelling, Maskrey, Ruiz, & Hall, 2004); development itself has to be questioned and radically reformed.

Without acknowledging the role of maldevelopment in creating new risk and in blocking the reduction of old risk, disaster managers and other development planners and practitioners provide no more than palliative care to terminally sick societies (Grove, 2013; Susman et al., 1983). Grove (2013, p. 615) quotes the haunting words of longtime student of humanitarianism Mark Duffield (2011, p. 763): “[R]esilience is the official response to the environmental terror embedded in the radically interconnected and emergent lifeworld that liberalism has created.” Climate change and talk of the Anthropocene epoch has incubated a growing consensus that it is global capitalism and the particular forms that accumulation and concentration are taking in the 21st century that are the root causes of maldevelopment (Moore, 2015).

Security is a third taboo issue. Just as the language of risk reduction deflects the mind from risk creation, the protective function of the state is generally taken for granted. What state would be considered credible that did not have institutions and processes to secure human life? Yet increasing numbers of writers build on Foucault’s concept of biopolitics to question whether and how technocratic management of risk and fear have become a dominant mode of governing or controlling populations (Bauman, 2006; Grove, 2013; Lorey, 2015). Ordinary people know this and often resist, giving rise to puzzlement on the part of well-meaning technocrats who find people refusing to respond to warning systems, reluctant to provide answers to census takers, and failing to show up for public consultations. As a strategy to distract people from excesses of maldevelopment and the growing gap between rich and poor, government-by-fear-and-dependency has so far been effective. As a way of mobilizing local energy and knowledge to reduce disaster risk in partnership with government, this approach leads to apathy, dependency, passive resistance, and illegibility (Das, 2004). James Scott’s classic, Weapons of the Weak (1985) is a foundational work for workers in DRR who seek to understand the inside dimensions of vulnerability, as is his more recent, The Art of Not Being Governed (Scott, 2010).


I cited Peter Timmerman’s 1981 essay in the introduction to my own tour d’horizon some 34 years later. He began by invoking Spengler’s Decline of the West and painting a word picture of societies that were, even then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, drawing inward behind metaphorical walls, concerned with human enemies and natural hazards. His words deserve re-reading.

Below the apocalypse of nuclear war, there is a widespread sense of possible catastrophe, of the toppling of social order through disaster, resource depletion, sabotage, or the embargo of vital supplies . . . [L]ike the citizenry of the Dark Ages, we are moving back into castles, and awaiting the onslaught of the Vikings. Enemies are all around us. At one end of the scale the enemies are human, the new barbarians of varying hues and persuasions, at the other end, the enemy is Nature: the known and unknown response of Nature to what is being done to her, mingles with her own autonomous powers of destruction.

(Timmerman, 1981, p. 1)

About the same time, in 1986, Ulrich Beck published Risikogeschelschaft (later translated as Risk Society, 1992) and Charles Perrow gave us his book Normal Accidents (1984). In different ways, Beck and Perrow complemented Timmerman’s Spenglerian gloom. Their additional insight was that the “enemy” is also we, ourselves. In this view, capitalism had produced a level of contamination that no amount of ecological modernization can abate (Beck) and a level of technological complexity that invites failures, from nuclear power stations to space shuttles, and more (Perrow).

Among the many readings of vulnerability, the political economic/political ecological perspective provides deep insight into the role of global capitalism and the resulting maldevelopment it supports. The many other approaches to vulnerability, the array of other framings, models, metrics, and tools discussed are useful, but they only inform palliative measures. They do not reveal the root causes of vulnerability and, therefore, cannot point to reforms and transformations that can change a system based on greed, conflict, and destruction of nature. In Pope Francis’ words:

The degradation of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet . . . Today . . . we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. (Francis, 2015, pp. 22–23; emphasis in the original; cf. Boff, 1997, a liberation theologian whose thought has influenced Pope Francis)

Timmerman, Beck, and Perrow wrote before the end of the Cold War. Since then, even that respite seems to have been fleeting. The dismal record of climate negotiations, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, the great Tohoku earthquake and melt down at Fukushimi Dai Ichi, and the crisis of people fleeing Syria and seeking shelter in the European Union are consistent with the dismal view of societal vulnerability shared by these three earlier writers.

Is there reason to hope? The political economic and political ecological approach to vulnerability, toward which this essay built and with which it now concludes, points to that space of hope (Harvey, 2000; Lawson, 2005; Zinn, 2004). Community-based disaster risk reduction (CBDRR) as a dialogical, decentralized approach is just one of a vast number of similar action research and activist interventions taking place across planet Earth. They have in common dialogue with people about their own capacities in the face of change and threats. They involve a locally based process that can raise consciousness and begin a process of social and political mobilization. The result is demand on the state for transformation, and beyond or in parallel to this, the circumvention of the state as groups of people create their own alternatives (El-Khoury, 2015; Gibson-Graham, 2005; Hardt & Negri, 2004; McCarthy, 2005; Myers, 2011). A participatory approach to vulnerability will not change the world in the short term, but multitudinous struggles in this and other domains of daily life—health, food, energy, biodiversity, shelter, transportation, and more—could eventually coalesce in a critical mass of both resistance to current maldevelopment and positive affirmation of concrete alternatives.

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  • 1. Vulnerable, derived from “late Latin vulnerabilis, from Latin vulnerare to wound, from vulner-, vulnus wound; probably akin to Latin vellere to pluck, Greek oulē wound” as defined in Merriam-Webster Dictionary On-Line.

  • 2. Stuart Lane’s (University of Lausanne) wonderful phrase used, in 2008, during presentations and conversations at Durham University, in describing his hydrological and flood management research together with farmers in England.

  • 3. The English word “vulnerability” turns out to be difficult to translate into many languages; even when a term is found, inevitably a good deal is lost in translation. I shall return to this point below.

  • 4. Treatment of elements of social vulnerability are there in context in several of the chapters despite the fact that a rather limited definition of the term remains in the report’s Glossary of Terms: “The propensity or predisposition to be adversely affected” (IPCC, 2007, p. 564).

  • 5. Methods for the Improvement of Vulnerability Assessment in Europe.

  • 6. Personal communication from Marcus Oxley, Director, Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction, London, February 2015.

  • 7. Terminology and acronyms differ by INGOs, government development assistance agencies, etc. In this chapter, I use the phrase “vulnerability and capacity assessment” (VCA). It should be taken as synonymous with Anderson and Woodrow’s “capacity and vulnerability analysis” (CVA), although when it comes to fine detail, there are differences between “assessment” and “analysis.”