Title

Is Vulnerability an Outdated Concept? After Subjects and Spaces

Publication Date

1-1-2020

Document Type

Article

Department

Anthropology

Publication Title

Annals of Anthropological Practice

Volume

44

Issue

1

DOI

10.1111/napa.12132

First Page

33

Last Page

46

Abstract

Theories of vulnerability have constituted the conceptual core of the anthropology of disaster for roughly 40 years. Yet, there is an undercurrent of disquiet among disaster scholars and community leaders who worry that vernacular uses of vulnerability can be insulting to individuals and communities with whom we work, and/or with whom we identify. There is a growing discomfort that categorizing the “vulnerable” acts to discursively nullify the everywhere-visible “resilience,” toughness, and genius that exist in communities that are habitually exposed to risk and hazards. We argue that constructing vulnerability as a characteristic of subaltern peoples and marginalized places is truncated at best and can perpetuate violence—epistemic, semiotic, and material—at worst. To identify the “vulnerable” is, we contend, necessarily a process of otherizing and essentializing. We see and are concerned to further encourage an emergent form of disaster anthropology that is particularly oriented toward understanding and theorizing the institutions, systems, and individuals that structure risk, and in the process to focus attention away from “the vulnerable.” To our surprise, this has emerged in recent anthropological writings in very particular ways. We find the orientation away from vulnerable populations among our colleagues who write at the intersections of disaster institutions and local communities. Here, we recognize vulnerability conceived not merely as historical inequity that produces negative outcomes, but as nested and contested sites of struggle for different visions of utopian futures, for contrasting articulations of what constitutes risk, and for diverse cultural logics of the good.

Keywords

disaster, otherwise, postcolonial, vulnerability

Share

COinS