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The governance of vulnerability: regulation, support and social divisions in action

Kate Brown (Department of Social Policy and Social Work, University of York, York, UK)

International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy

ISSN: 0144-333X

Article publication date: 10 October 2017




Diverse narratives and practices concerned with “vulnerability” increasingly inform how a range of social issues are understood and addressed, yet the subtle creep of the notion into various governance arenas has tended to slip by unnoticed. The purpose of this paper is to explore the role of vulnerability in responding to longstanding and on-going dilemmas about social precariousness and harm.


Drawing on in-depth qualitative research into how vulnerability was operationalised in services for “vulnerable” young people in an English city, prominent narratives of vulnerability are traced, which operate in relation to a variety of often-dissonant service user responses.


The paper shows the governance of vulnerability as a dynamic process, informed by policy developments and wider beliefs about the behaviours of “problem” populations, interpreted and modified by interactions between practitioners and young people, and in turn shaping lived experiences of vulnerability. Patterns in this process illuminate how vulnerability narratives re-shape long-running tensions at the heart of social welfare interventions between a drive to provide services that might mitigate social precariousness and an impetus towards regulating behaviour.


The paper argues that although gesturing to inclusivity, the governance of vulnerability elaborates power dynamics and social divisions in new ways. Resulting outcomes are evidently varied and fluid, holding the promise of further social change.



The University of Leeds School of Sociology and Social Policy funded the research project on which this paper is based; Malcolm Harrison’s guidance was invaluable. The author is grateful to Mark Bevir, Catherine Needham and other contributors in this special issue for their helpful comments at the Decentering Social Policy Conference, University of California, Berkeley. The author would also like to thank Peter Dwyer for comments on a draft. The author remains grateful to practitioners who gave their time and expertise to support the study. Special thanks to the young people who shared their stories and insights with the author.


Brown, K. (2017), "The governance of vulnerability: regulation, support and social divisions in action", International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Vol. 37 No. 11-12, pp. 667-682.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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