published on Universität Bielefeld Center for InterAmerican Studies
In a general sense, the concept vulnerability is used to describe the susceptibility of individuals and collective groups to environmental, economic, social, cultural, and political harms. Since the 1980s, the concept has been increasingly applied in very different contexts in the Americas and also across the globe. Initially, vulnerability was addressed by sociologists, anthropologists, and geographers examining natural disaster risks such as Phil O’ Keefe, Ken Westgate, and Ben Wisner, who concluded that “[t]he greatest loss of life per disaster is observed in underdeveloped countries, and there are general indications that the vulnerability of these countries in particular is increasing” (1976, 566). In the following years, numerous vulnerability analysts distanced themselves from the conventional “dominant approach to disaster” (Bolin, 2007, 123) and increasingly considered political economic processes in disaster research and management (see Bohle et al., 1994; Oliver-Smith, 1996; Hewitt, 1997). Complementary, the term vulnerability was also drawn upon in the research on poverty and development-mechanisms, for instance in 1981 by Amartya Sen in his study on the vulnerability to droughts and famines, and in Robert Chambers’ publications in 1983 and 1989 on the vulnerability of poor people becoming poorer. In 1980 the “development aid”-initiatives then popularized the concept of vulnerability, which was, at that time, defined in contrast to “poverty”, not relating to a “lack or want, but [to] defenselessness, insecurity, and exposure to risk, shocks, and stress” (Chambers, 2006, 33). Since then, vulnerability has been assessed in very different contexts ranging from the susceptibility to diseases, to the sensitivity of ecosystems, to environmental changes.