Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Link Pack #13: A great paper on vulnerability

Reading: Are you a vulnerability researcher? There's a great new paper by James Ford and others reviewing vulnerability research and defining a forward-looking research agenda. From a review of 587 papers, they identify seven concerns in vulnerability research from 1990 to 2016. They are: neglect of social drivers, promotion of a static under- standing of human-environment interactions, vagueness about the concept of vulnerability, neglect of cross-scale interactions, passive and negative framing, limited influence on decision-making, and limited collaboration across disciplines. 

Most usefully, the paper crosschecks if each concern is substantiated by the literature. For example, they find the concern that social drivers of vulnerability are neglected has limited supporting evidence since foundational work in vulnerability (such as Watts and Bohle's work on famine and vulnerability, Blaikie and Wisner's seminal work on the political economy of risk, and Jesse Ribot's thesis that vulnerability does not fall from the sky) have been discussing non-climatic drivers of vulnerability since the late 1980s.

One big takeaway for me from the paper was that the authors found an absence of studies evaluating whether vulnerability research is informing decision-making. Given the amount of funds going into vulnerability alleviation projects, this appears to be a critical gap to filled, and one that can be addressed with an eye on the IPCC's AR6 which is just kicking off.
"While there still remains little consensus about its precise meaning— and the success of studies seeking to bring clarity to vulnerability research is debatable—there is agreement that vulnerability denotes susceptibility to harm, and is composed of exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity... In this view, rather than striving for a unified approach to vulnerability, researchers should be aware of the diverse approaches that exist, and be explicit about the concepts they use."
The paper closes on a positive note with directions for future research, practice, and funding. The authors call for methodological development (something we have been trying to do within the ASSAR project through life history interviews), expanding future scenarios work that is predominantly quantitative and focussed on biophysical aspects, reimagining case studies to draw on their rich empirics but feed into broader meta-analyses, and revisiting past research to inform present concerns and gaps. All of this of course points towards a reorientation of how vulnerability funding is given, both in terms of duration and topics of focus.  

For more insights, do read the paper! Suggest reading with McDowell et al. 2016 which also focusses on advances and gaps in vulnerability research but restricts itself to the community scale (both papers are open access).