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From labelling weakness to liberatory praxis: a new theory of vulnerability for disaster studies

Jason von Meding (Florida Institute for Built Environment Resilience, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, USA)
Ksenia Chmutina (Department of Architecture, Building and Civil Engineering, Loughborough University, Loughborough, UK)

Disaster Prevention and Management

ISSN: 0965-3562

Article publication date: 9 May 2023

Issue publication date: 12 July 2023

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Abstract

Purpose

Vulnerability is a label and a concept that is widely used in disaster studies. To date the meaning has been quite limited and implied “weakness”, with criticisms arising periodically but not halting vulnerability's reproduction. In this paper, the authors offer a new theory of vulnerability for the field, suggesting that complicating the concept can create space for liberatory discourse and organising.

Design/methodology/approach

The authors draw from diverse understandings of vulnerability to generate new conceptual ground for disaster scholars. The authors explore the relationships between power and agency and autonomy and social hierarchy with regards to how vulnerability is considered within neoliberal democracies. The authors also outline ideological responses and the political actions that follow.

Findings

This exploration is underpinned by dissatisfaction with the way that vulnerability has thus far been theorised in disaster studies. Using the analytical framings provided, the authors hope that others will build on the idea that so-called “vulnerable” people, working in solidarity and using intersecting frameworks of anti-racism, anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism, can undermine the risk-creating norms of the neoliberal state.

Originality/value

The authors argue that the dominant framing of vulnerability in disaster studies – and usage of the vulnerability paradigm – provides political traction for neoliberal social projects, based on notions of humanitarianism. The authors make this claim as a challenge to the authors and the authors' peers to maintain reflexive scholarship and search for liberatory potential, not only in vulnerability but in other concepts that have become normative.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank A.J. Faas and Joanne Jordan for invaluable feedback on drafts of the manuscript.

Citation

von Meding, J. and Chmutina, K. (2023), "From labelling weakness to liberatory praxis: a new theory of vulnerability for disaster studies", Disaster Prevention and Management, Vol. 32 No. 2, pp. 364-378. https://doi.org/10.1108/DPM-10-2022-0208

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2023, Emerald Publishing Limited

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