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The concept of vulnerability has been first developed in the field of environmental sciences and received a growing attention these last years in social and psychological sciences (Misztal, 2012; Ranci, 2010; Schröder-Butterfill & Marianti, 2006). Based on these previous definitions, we defined vulnerability as a process of resources or reserves loss or insufficiency in one or more life domains that exposes individuals to: (1) an inability to avoid individual, social or environmental stressors, (2) an inability to cope effectively with these stressors, and (3) an inability to recover from stressors or to take advantage of opportunities by a given deadline (Spini, Bernardi, & Oris, 2017; Spini & Widmer, in preparation).

We find two contrasted views of vulnerability in the literature (Brown, 2011). The first view characterizes specific social categories who are in need of care or of the support of the welfare state, and a second view considering vulnerability as an ontological feature of the human condition throughout the life course. The first approach refers to a classic and static view of vulnerability defined as a syndrome of low levels of resources (Ranci, 2010) or a lack of autonomy related to a need of others’ care (Misztal, 2012). This low level of resources implies a state of weakness, inability, dependency and the need to be helped in order to avoid harm and achieve adequate satisfaction of legitimate claims (Tavaglione et al., 2015). Social categories that are labeled vulnerable in this tradition include homeless people, sex workers, asylum seekers, refugees, children and the very old, the poor and those who are chronically ill.

In contrast with this categorical approach of vulnerability, we defined vulnerability as a balance linking individuals’ resources or reserves with the personal and contextual circumstances in which they find themselves at different points in their lives (notably in relation to stressors). In this second perspective, human beings have a latent vulnerability irrespective of their social category that may become manifest in special circumstances (non-normative events, stressful life transitions, accumulation of disadvantages, economic, social or political collective downturns). Professionals or institutions may in specific situations objectify vulnerability states with diagnostics and other evaluative tools (Spini, 2011). As shown by a variety of contributions of LIVES these latent and manifest vulnerability processes can be studied empirically within the life course framework bridging the vulnerability psycho-socio-economic and policy traditions in a life course perspective (Spini et al., 2013; Spini, Bernardi, & Oris, 2017).

This interdisciplinary approach has different advantages over previous approaches of vulnerability. First, it encourages researchers from different horizons to work together. A literature review by Hanappi, Bernardi, and Spini (2014) showed that sociological studies focused on issues such as the welfare state, poverty or family, whereas psychology was more interested in issues such of personality, coping, stress, or depression. Gerontology, on its side, focused on the close concept of frailty. In this structure, vulnerability appeared to be independent of these focuses and a possible candidate for integration of various phenomena across disciplines. Indeed, a second advantage of relating the life course tradition and the vulnerability framework is that it brings together knowledge of processes that can be generalized across different disciplinary perspectives and topical fields like health, family, or work.

The basic components of vulnerability processes are related to dynamics of resources, reserves, and stressors. Resources relates in a larger sense to whatever increase the likelihood of individuals to meet the social expectations (including their own) and increase their meaning in life or well-being. In that regard, many individual and collective factors, from personality traits, cognitive performance, social or cultural capital, policies, to economic assets can be considered as resources.

The concept of resources does not suggest any time related process as it rather promote a distinction between those who, at a certain point in time, have resources and those who do not. In that respect, the conceptual advances proposed by the reserve perspective are highly relevant for the study of vulnerability processes. Reserves in different domains are resources which are not needed for immediate use but which, when accumulated to a sufficient extent, are available to recover from life shocks and adversity, social or economic stressors, or non-normative transitory periods across the life course (Cullati et al., 2019). It is to some extent the opposite to vulnerability, defined in life course studies as a lack of resources making the occurrence of critical events more likely and the recovery from such events more difficult (Spini et al., 2017). Concerning stressors, they are a central dimension of life events and lifespan losses in a psychological perspective (Reese & Smyer, 1983). However, stress is not only an individual subjective appraisal issue. Following, Pearlin and his associates (Pearlin, 1989; Pearlin & Skaff, 1996), stress is unequally distributed across the social spectrum. People in disadvantaged positions have more risks to experience and suffer from stressors, be they chronic or acute, precisely because they lack resources and reserves.

There is a sequential definition of vulnerability processes in three steps; before the critical stressors, during the exposure to the stressors (notably acute ones) and after the stressors happened. It has, even if it is always difficult to disentangle the complexity of vulnerability processes, the advantage of distinguishing and combining different hypotheses; for example, the hypothesis of social causation and the hypothesis of differential vulnerability (Diderichsen, Hallqvist, & Whitehead, 2019; Kessler, 1979). The hypothesis of social causation states that distal or proximal social statuses impact on subsequent states in other domains and life course trajectories. The differential vulnerability hypothesis states that different levels of personal or social resources (typically related to disadvantaged social groups) may lead to a greater susceptibility to be harmed when confronted to stressors than less vulnerable individuals or groups. If social causation may be active since the start of life and in step 1 of our processual framework (and be measured by direct effects of social categories, or levels of personal or social resources and reserves, on risks of being exposed to stressors), vulnerability susceptibility may be more observable in relation to specific stressors at step two or three of this sequential model.

Finally, most empirical studies related to this vulnerability sequence model have focused on the negative side of vulnerability. However, as stressed by George (2003), the inverse hypothesis, that experiencing stressors may be a source of learning and increased resilience should not be evacuated. In this regard, it is important to consider opportunities and protective factors in life trajectories, and not only constraints and stressors (Ferraro & Shippee, 2009). Vulnerability should not refer only to negative consequences of the stressors or a lack of resources and reserves. It should lead us to study processes of reserve constitution or reconstitution, resilience or recovery. As proposed by the relational perspective of Overton (2013), vulnerability should be put in relation to its antonyms and should not be simply opposed to them. A major difficulty is then to elect a single antonym. The concept of invulnerability is not applicable to mortal human beings. Thus, there are different candidates to be put in relation with vulnerability in the literature, from different fields, like resilience (mostly used in psychology in reference to extraordinary features of specific individuals or versus chronicity or vulnerability in PTSD and clinical literature), autonomy (opposed usually to dependence in social policy or gerontology), or robustness (versus frailty in gerontology). This relative fuzziness may be the subject of criticisms by some, whereas others, like Overton (2013) would probably defend the idea that concepts should create metatheoretical spaces where “foundations are groundings, not bedrocks of certainty, and analysis is about creating categories, not about cutting nature as its joints” (p.42).

Authors: Dario Spini, Laura Bernardi


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