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Vulnerability stereotypes

We have identified that assumptions and extrapolations are often made when seeking to identify vulnerability (all old people are vulnerable). This can result in mass stereotyping when individual vulnerability can vary significantly within groups.

Let’s look at some examples of how this approach is limiting.

In 2008 the UK Civil Contingencies Secretariat published this guidance:

Secretariat, C. C. (2008) Identifying People who are vulnerable in a crisis: Guidance for Emergency Planners and Responders. [online] available from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/identifying-people-who-are-vulnerable-in-a-crisis-guidance-for-emergency-planners-and-responders

The guidance recommends working with those who are best placed to have records of vulnerable people such as care homes (the elderly) and hotels (tourists). It recognises the difficulty of maintaining a central list of ‘vulnerable people’ and so recommends compiling a list of organisations that can provide their own lists at the time of a crisis.

The guidance considers vulnerable people as those:

That are less able to help themselves in the circumstances of an emergency.

(UK Civil Contingencies Secretariat 2008)

The guidance contains lists of potentially vulnerable people which are intended as examples and recognises there may be additional groups to consider.

The difficulty with guidance of this kind is that it tends to suggest everyone in the categories listed is vulnerable but this does not take into account individual capabilities and circumstances. In addition to those in the groups listed as potentially vulnerable, anyone could become more, or less, vulnerable depending on circumstances.

A fit youth who has an accident and breaks a leg just before an evacuation is likely to be more vulnerable than a similar able-bodied individual. Vulnerability may be different to the reason assumed. It was noted that in the 1953 flood in England, deaths were not necessarily caused by drowning. Of 41 post mortems carried out in one community, 14 people died of other causes than drowning, such as shock and heart attack (Jonkman, S. N. and Kelman, I., 2005).

The UK guidance does state:

Being in one of these categories does not automatically denote vulnerability, and stereotyping should be avoided.

(UK Civil Contingencies Secretariat 2008)

It goes on to say that vulnerability will depend on three considerations:

  • The type of emergency

  • The responses required

  • The support individuals normally receive

Closer examination of groups designated as vulnerable often reveals individuals who are resourceful and have successful coping capabilities.

Indicators of vulnerability and lists are a useful starting point for vulnerability analysis. However, vulnerability is complex and emergency planners need to take care not to be drawn into vulnerability stereotypes without careful consideration and analysis, including how those at risk receive, understand, and take action based on available information (Lazrus et al. 2012).

In a key essay (Bohle 2007), the complexity of social vulnerability is highlighted, and those at risk are viewed as ‘agents’ reacting to and shaping their own vulnerability. Those at risk are not passive recipients of assistance but take a dynamic approach to developing their coping strategies in the face of shocks. Sometimes these approaches fail and such failure may be linked to their position in society, their ability to maintain a sustainable livelihood and access to a secure future.

But of course many community coping strategies succeed.

…the vulnerable are not mere victims, rather they possess a lot of agency. They constantly try to cope with threats to their livelihoods, they deliberately adapt to the shifting regimes of vulnerability

(Bohle 2007)


Jonkman, S. N., and Kelman, I. (2005) ‘Deaths During the 1953 North Sea Storm Surge’. Solutions to Coastal Disasters 2005. ed. by Wallendorf, L., Ewing, L., Rogers, S., and Jones, C. Virginia, US: American Society of Civil Engineers, 749-758

Lazrus, H., Morrow, B. H., Morss, R. E., and Lazo, J. K. (2012) ‘Vulnerability Beyond Stereotypes: Context and Agency in Hurricane Risk Communication’. Weather, Climate, and Society 4 (2), 103-109

Bohle, H. G. (2007) Living With Vulnerability: Livelihoods and Human Security in Risky Environments. Bonn, Germany: UNU-EHS

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This article is from the free online course:

Community Preparedness, Recovery and Resilience: An Introduction

Coventry University