CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Monday, November 27, 2023

Ranchordas & Beck on Vulnerability

While there has been commendable progress in the protection of vulnerable groups, the definition of vulnerability has been a fragmented exercise. While there are many meaningful descriptions of this concept, there is also the perception that scholars have defined vulnerability either too broadly or too narrowly. Definitions of vulnerability can be at times vague and elusive but they can also be biased and limited in their scope when vulnerability is connected to closed groups and categories. In addition, there has been a significant misuse of the term ‘vulnerability’ in scholarship, popular science, and media. This misuse of the concept risks depriving it from its intended meaning and protective impact. Considering existing scholarship, we review the four most relevant conceptualizations of vulnerability which define this concept based on the notions of (i) exposure to harm; (ii) individual particularities; (iii) the universal character of vulnerability; and (iv) the existence of multiple layers of vulnerability.

In this contribution, we understand vulnerability as a universal, individual, and multi-layered concept. Vulnerability is the susceptibility of being placed in a position of economic, social, ecological or legal disadvantage with potential harm as result. In our administrative law and sociolegal scholarship, we develop the term ‘administrative vulnerability’ to convey the inability to critically engage with digital government, bureaucracy, and exercise rights before government on equal terms. Administrative vulnerability is a fluid concept that encompasses intrinsic and situational vulnerability. It conveys a state of inequality, i.e., citizens experiencing situational vulnerability will not be able to exercise their rights on equal terms. Administrative vulnerability also highlights the possibility of being harmed by digital government while experiencing vulnerability.

Drawing on interdisciplinary literature, we argue that vulnerability is a state that every individual can experience, rather than a status or label that is given to underprivileged groups. While some individuals are more exposed to different layers of vulnerability and may thus require additional protection, the state should be mindful that vulnerability is inescapable.

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