Are we all vulnerable? Reflections on the term ‘vulnerability’


‘Vulnerability’ is a contested term. In our project, we work with youths, children, minorities, women, people who have escaped wars and conflicts; those are usually identified as ‘vulnerable groups’. However, overall, within our team we tend not to use this word much, perhaps because the idea of vulnerability is often associated with the stigma of victimhood and risk. 

Vulnerability’ comes from Latin, ‘vulnerare’, a verb that means ‘to hurt’, ‘to damage’, ‘to offend’, but also ‘to break a principle’. In late Latin it was used also as in ‘to break a law’. The adjective then followed, ‘vulnerabile’, as in English ‘vulnerable’. Vulnerability as an analytical concept emerged in environmental sciences (Wisner, 1993) in relation to the effect of natural or economic disasters on human beings (Virokannas et al, 2020). After that, it was rapidly used in other fields, e.g. in health, social care, and policy making (Virokannas et al, 2020). 

Interestingly, in a recent literature review which aimed to shed light on the conceptualisation of vulnerability, Virokannas and colleagues concluded that, after reviewing over 80 journal articles on the topic of vulnerability, that the term was used in a ‘self-evident manner, referring to certain people or groups’ (Virokannas et al, 2020: 335).  Many of the articles mentioned in the review, presented a critique of the term ‘vulnerable’: this could be stigmatising, it could deny the agency and voice of those perceived as vulnerable, and may lead to the responsibility of the state, to prevent vulnerability, being overlooked. However, there are other scholars, especially philosophers, who talk about a universal, human vulnerability. For example, Martha Fineman (2010) writes that human vulnerability ‘arises from our embodiment, which carries with it the imminent or ever-present possibility of harm, injury, and misfortune’ (p. 267).  Fineman argues that vulnerability is both universal and particular, and that the relationship between individuals and society and institutions should be unpacked as to understand the social processes that generated vulnerability and the responsibility that the state carries towards its citizens as to alleviate the causes and consequences of vulnerability. 

Martha Nussbaum also argues that vulnerability is a common trait of humanity: she calls for ‘a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable, and who discard the grandiose demands for omnipotence and completeness that have been at the heart of so much human misery’ (Nussbaum, 2004:17). She acknowledges that all of us as human beings are more vulnerable at some point of our life, for example as a newborn, an elderly person, when we fall ill etc. However, she says, there is no harm in admitting we are ‘needy and vulnerable’, and this does not mean that we should not act to reduce the causes and consequences of vulnerability, nor that the state and its institutions are not to be held responsible about their citizens’ vulnerability. 

The debate on the term is fascinating, and many more things could be said. However, perhaps, for our purpose here, the main point would be that either you choose to use or not to use the word vulnerable, it is interesting to be aware of the whole debate and see whether there is space for common-ground and mutual understanding.  


Nussbaum, M. (2004) Hiding from Humanity: disgust, shame and the Law. Princeton: Princeton University Press 

Virokannas E., Liuski S, & Kuronen  M(2020) The contested concept of vulnerability – a literature review, European Journal of Social Work, 23:2, 327-339, DOI: 10.1080/13691457.2018.1508001  

Fineman, M. A. (2010). The vulnerable subject and the responsive state. Emory Law Journal, 60(2), 251–275. Emory Public Law Research Paper No. 10-130. Available at SSRN: = 1694740 

Wisner, B. (1993). Disaster vulnerability: Scale, power and daily life. GeoJournal, 30(2), 127–140. doi:10.1007/BF00808129  

The Culture for Sustainable and Inclusive Peace (CUSP) is funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) via the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of the UK Governments Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).