Vulnerable People and Groups

Understandings of vulnerability

Dimensions of vulnerability

Vulnerability can understood in terms of four main dimensions as set out below. These dimensions interact with each other in complex ways.

• Vulnerable individuals

The term ‘vulnerable individual’ can be understood as including children, by virtue of their age, and some categories of adult. The Department of Health’s paper ‘No Secrets’ (2002, paragraph 2.3) defines adults vulnerable to abuse in institutional settings as

A person who is 18 years of age or over, and who is or may be in need of community care services by reason of mental or other disability, age or illness; and who is or may be unable to take care of him or herself, or unable to protect him or herself against significant harm or exploitation.

However, from the point of view of the social researcher, vulnerable adults can also include such people as victims of domestic violence, homeless people, drug addicts, prostitutes as well as those who may be vulnerable due to their sexual orientation. People who have undergone traumatic or adverse emotional events are also vulnerable, especially with regard to research relating to that event.

• Vulnerable categories or groups; and vulnerability through group membership

People can be vulnerable simply by virtue of the group to which they belong (or to which others consider them to belong), especially if that group is socially stigmatized or marginalized. Examples include ethnic and religious minorities, asylum seekers.

Individuals may also be vulnerable through being part of an institution. This is complex: institutional membership may carry social stigma; moreover being institutionalized can diminish autonomy, thereby making people vulnerable; and both of these aspects can interact with the personal ‘vulnerabilities’ that brought the individual into the institution in the first place. Prisoners, for instance, may be ‘triply vulnerable’, experiencing the stigma of being in prison, the loss of freedom and strong demands for compliance inherent in the prison system, together with any personal vulnerabilities (e.g. prisons have high prevalence of mental health problems, substance abuse, learning disabilities, literacy problems and language problems). Institutional dimensions are discussed more fully under ‘Informed Consent’.

• Co-production of vulnerability (construction of vulnerability)

A further dimension of vulnerability is the co-production that takes place as a result of the research activity itself. By this it is meant that there is potential for research to exacerbate the vulnerability of individuals (who may be vulnerable by virtue of any or all of the above dimensions). Research can draw negative attention, either by raising the profile of the particular people researched, or more subtly, by inadvertently reinforcing social stereotypes about that social group. The dangers of making matters worse in this way are consider further under ‘Anonymity, Confidentiality and Protecting from Danger’. However, the emancipatory research tradition (see 'Defining and Contesting'), emphasises the ethical obligation to design research which develops the co-production of positive understanding.

• Vulnerable research environments

Being seen to engage in research may be socially or even physically dangerous for some people (for example, drug addicts or prisoners, where participation may be interpreted by others as ‘collusion’). It should also be borne in mind that for some people, some research environments may be experienced as intimidating. Attention to the specific needs of the participants involved is required when designing research. The use of protocols to maintain the safety of participants are considered under ‘Anonymity, Confidentiality and Protecting from Danger’; matters relating to the design of non-intimidating research environments are discussed under ‘Conducting research and Dissemination'.


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