Vulnerability mapping

Jeroen Warner (WUR)

The more we open up to others, to nature, to the world, to enter into relationships and exchange, and give up our autonomy and sovereignty, the more we expose our self to vulnerability.

Vulnerability is defined as a predisposition to be (negatively) affected; the degree to which an adverse event can wound or hurt a person, group, structure or network. “Vulnerability defines the characteristics of a person or group and their situation that influence their capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a hazard” (Wisner et al, 2004).

Reducing vulnerability would seem to be our first impulse. But guarding our autonomy also means cutting up our lifelines. To be social is to be vulnerable. Just like we can only reduce risk to absolutely zero by not breathing, we will have to expect a degree of vulnerability in order to leave a fulfilling life.

That said, we can seek to reduce unnecessary vulnerability. If disaster risk is the relation between probability (of an adverse event happening) and vulnerability (exposure to its harmful effects), the latter can often be dramatically reduced.

Indicator-based Social or Socio-economic Vulnerability (SeVI and SoVI) are useful approximations, but they tend not to take culture into account. Many vulnerability and damage assessments reduce losses to material values.

Below we briefly note several ways of accounting for culture in vulnerability – and vice versa.

Safety culture in organisations and organisational networks

As management guru Peter Drucker has quipped, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. In other words, no matter how good your safety strategy, if the values and perceptions in an organisation are not aligned with that strategy, you’re lost.

The culture ladder shows how organisational culture can evolve from pathological (let’s not get caught) via reactive and proactive to generative (safety is our business). The assumption is that where safety becomes ‘the way we do things around here’ there is little incentive to neglect defenses (see: These defenses can be represented as a ‘Swiss cheese’.

This metaphor sees vulnerability as gaps in an array of protective defences against hazard (economic, organisational, technical, cultural…). Each of these inevitably has ‘holes’ as nobody’s perfect and zero risk does not exist. The challenge is not to make these holes align. But while some holes are due to incidental errors and actions, many are ingrained in the system – production pressure, unhelpful organizational structures.

In complex systems, the defences will inevitably be gaps – nothing is unbreakable; the challenge is to avoid their alignment. This requires the promotion of a safety culture. This is a long-term commitment to constant improvement. This starts with a ‘no blame’ rule: everybody makes mistakes and some things that go wrong cannot be attributed to any one; the all too human tendency to cover up or deflect errors means nobody learns in a high-stakes environment.

A safety culture, then, cannot be imposed, but certainly management and employees can be encouraged to work with rather than against safety culture by banking on positive cultural aspects and reducing negative ones, so below:

Production Pressure Committed Safety Leadership
Complacency Vigilance
Normalization of Deviance Empowerment and Accountability
Tolerance of Inadequate Systems and Resources Resiliency


Vulnerability, culture and development

Terry Cannon (2015) argues that the neglect of culture has added to people’s vulnerability. For social groups, immaterial aspects such as (loss of) social and political trust strongly affect the speed of people’s recovery and rehabilitation. Religion plays a role in this. A church, temple, mosque, synagogue is not only a potential shelter, but also can give solace and meaning to people struck by disaster. To the contrary, the loss of trust in institutions or loss of identity can have long-term impact, as it is reflected in turn in their physical an mental health and attitude.

As Kenneth Hewitt has argued, cultural frameworks moreover affect power distribution, access to resources, exposure to disaster. As a consequence, they drive vulnerability. ActionAid lists “class, occupation, caste, ethnicity, gender, disability and health status, age and immigration status and the nature and extent of social networks.” as vulnerability factors. Changing these factors means “altering the way that power operates in society”.

We know that coping capacity is heavily affected by power differentials (Blaikie et al 1994). For the marginalised, the ‘degrees of freedom’ are strongly constrained. DFID’s Sustainable Livelihoods model conceptualises this as access to various ‘capitals”: social, financial, natural, physical and social. Shocks such as quick-onset disasters or trends (say, ‘creeping catastrophes’ such as erosion) impact all of these and affect people’s livelihoods (See Figure below).

A focus on “vulnerable groups” in society (migrants, aged, indigenous, disabled) however risks seeing them as passive victims. ‘Vulnerable’ or ‘marginalised’ groups have capacities too (Anderson and Woodrow 1989). Even those labelled ‘vulnerable’ may well have offsetting capacities that make them resilient. These authors identify three categories - social/organisational, physical/material, and motivational/attitudinal - for analysing vulnerability and capacity in their interrelatedness. For example, a poor community group may lack access to loans but have a steely determination (attitude) and are very well organised or networked to get what they need (see Figure below). This is from Anderson and Woodrow (1989): for their methods chapter see

A comparative perspective can be generated by filling out VCA matrices for different social categories (men vs. women, young vs old, us vs. the neighbours) or for different points in time (dynamic VCA).

Vulnerabilities Capacities
PHYSICAL / MATERIAL – What productive resources, skills, and hazards exist?
SOCIAL / ORGANISATIONAL – What are the relations and organisation among people?
MOTIVATIONAL / ATTITUDINAL – How does the community view its ability to create change?

Figure: Woodrow and Anderson’ s (1989) Vulnerabilities and Capacities matrix

For example, more men than women survive disasters. Women are often culturally tied to the home and family, and David Alexander found that the L’Aquila earthquake was no exception. Yet, those women who survive tend to do better than men in their resourcefulness and stamina in dealing with adverse, unfamiliar conditions. Likewise the poor are likely to be more resilient than the rich. What they lack is access to a range of resources.

Reducing vulnerability will have to go beyond mere coping. Coping is immediate short-term response. The more people are forced to cope, the more they feel compelled to sacrifice their lifelines for the long term – their savings, their livestock, their tools and storage, even their children.

The ‘nutcracker’ (Pressure and Release) approach to disaster vulnerability analysis sees vulnerable groups squeezed between socio-economic factors and an environmental stress or trigger for complex chains of events. A small change (nudge) can tip their system of survival over the edge, bringing hardship and destitution. The analysis emphasises root causes such as poor governance, environmental degradation, structural inequality, that creates and perpetuates unsafe conditions through ‘dynamic pressures’ such as mass migration or deforestation.

This literature claims that the development model can be a reason for disaster just as much as it can reduce it. This line of thinking also points us to the long-term drivers for vulnerability, that may take us back decades, even to the feudal system. The idea is that it also works the other way round: if we can meaningfully change unsafe conditions, this may positively affect root causes of vulnerability.

While analytical tools such as these are often applied in devloping countries, there is no reason why they would not be useful in Europe, as shown in Trude Rauken and Ilan Kelman’s (2010) application of the model to flood risk in Norway.

References and suggestions for further reading

Action Aid: Participatory vulnerability analysis guide

Anderson, M and Woodrow, J. (1989). Rising from the Ashes. Development Strategies in Times of Disasters. London: Westview Press.

Blaikie, Pierce et al. (1994) At risk: People’s Vulnerability and Disasters. London: Routledge.

Cannon, Terry (2015) Vulnerability, disasters and culture. In: Fred Krueger, Fred Kruger, Greg Bankoff, Terry Cannon, Benedikt Orlowski & E Lisa F Schipper) (eds). “Cultures and Disasters: Understanding Cultural Framings in Disaster Risk Reduction”, Routledge.

Gaillard, J-C. (2010) Vulnerability, Capacity and Resilience. Perspectives for climate and development policy, J. Int. Dev. 22: 218–232. (

Lewis, J. (2015) Cultures and counter cultures. In: Fred Kruger, Greg Bankoff, Terry Cannon, Benedikt Orlowski & E Lisa F Schipper (Eds.) Cultures and Disasters: Understanding Cultural Framings in Disaster Risk Reduction. Routledge.

Rauken, T. and Kelman, I. 2010 River flood vulnerability in Norway through the Pressure and Release model. Journal of Flood Risk Management3(4): 314–322, December 2010.