Vulnerability Theory and Its Main Concepts


According to vulnerability theory, individuals are defenseless against natural disasters and possible social catastrophes. A strong government can protect the property of its citizens and support them. Vulnerability is defined as susceptibility to harm or the process that leads to this susceptibility. The theory involves both technical and social concepts of vulnerability and serves to study how to assess the risk and protect citizens from disasters.

Many researchers have studied vulnerability theory, and one of the most important researchers who developed this theory is Martha Albertson Fineman. She framed the theory in concepts of human nature, justice, freedom, equality, and others (Zakour & Swager, 2018). The theory deals with five major components, the first of which is the role of institutions in identifying and preventing disasters. The second component is the movement from formal to real equality. The third element of the theory is the call for intervention from the side of the government. Finally, it rejects the liberal subject, defying an individual as a vulnerable subject. Thus, vulnerability is seen by this theory as a constant that should be considered to mitigate the risks.

Vulnerabilities can be divided into three main groups: social, economic, and environmental. Depending on these groups, different approaches to vulnerability exist. Keiler and Fuchs (2014) note that the natural scientific approach focuses mostly on damage and loss of property caused by disasters. However, such an approach cannot function independently for the prevention and mitigation of emergencies; individuals should also be regarded in their social dimension. Such paradigms as risk management and economic and social vulnerability should be considered as well.

According to the risk management paradigm, vulnerability often results from the lack of proper organization. It is also caused by overall economic instability and the disadvantages of the societal framework. Thus, according to the vulnerability theory, nature and society should not be regarded as opposed factors but as interdependent ones. In addition, vulnerability is often considered together with resilience, which is its counterpart. The theory is sometimes criticized for its limitations and formality. However, it is still an effective tool for organizing the concepts related to risk assessment.

Quantitative and Qualitative Vulnerability Assessment

There are two main paradigms aimed at the assessment of risk and vulnerability. The first one is quantitative, which includes regular monitoring and studying of a certain event. The decisions on mitigation of the consequences of the event and on its prevention are made beforehand (Davis & Aldieri, 2021). There are clear instructions on actions that should be taken in case of an emergency. Qualitative assessment is based on the evaluation of a certain institution based on standards or guidance applied to it. A risk manager and risk assessor get information about the way the control is implemented. It is often made in the form of a scale; for example, one on this scale would mean that the organization does not consider control over the event. A “5” would mean that the control is made and documented according to the existing standards. Thus, qualitative assessment largely depends on the subjective opinion of the assessor, whereas quantitative assessment is based on pre-defined and measurable data. The two methods can be used solely or combined in order to increase efficiency.

Actions Taken by Local Government in Case of Disaster

At the local level, any government can take different measures to mitigate the consequences of a disaster. First of all, it can provide an emergency response through different services. It can use social media, radio, the internet, and other means of communication in order to spread information concerning the disaster, proclaim a state of emergency, and help people to organize their actions. The government can also activate the Emergency Operations Plan and the Emergency Operation Center. In addition, it should coordinate the actions of private and public organizations in case of a disaster and stimulate people to help each other. Finally, the local government should request assistance from the higher levels of authority in case the local resources are not enough to cope with the emergency situation.

State Government Actions in Case of a Disaster

At the level of the state government, a number of measures can be taken to mitigate the emergency situation. First of all, the situation should be evaluated, after which a decision should be made whether it is the incapability of the State or it can be mitigated locally. A state-level of emergency is also proclaimed via different means of communication. If the disaster is too large-scale to deal with it at the level of the State, the State government should call for federal assistance.


Thus, vulnerability theory includes different approaches, such as natural, social, economic, and others. The theory allows for analyzing natural disasters and their consequences on people’s health and property. It also deals with two types of risk assessment, particularly quantitative and qualitative. Measures against disasters can be taken by governments at different levels. It can be local, State, or federal, and the situation should be properly estimated at each level.


Davis, B. & Aldieri, E. (2021). Precarity and Resistance: A critique of Martha Fineman’s vulnerability theory. Hypatia, 36. 1-17. Web.

Keiler M., Fuchs, S. The need for comprehensive vulnerability approaches to mirror the multiplicity in mountain hazard risk. EGU General Assembly 2014.

Zakour M., Swager Ch. M. (2018). Rebuilding resilience. Butterworth-Heinemann,45-78. Web.

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