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The concept of vulnerability is derived from the Latin vulnus or “wound.” Its etymology signifies the human potential to be wounded, that is, to experience physical trauma. In modern usage, the notion refers to both physical and psychological harm: It indicates human exposure to psychological harm, moral damage, or spiritual threat. Vulnerability more generally includes our ability to suffer psychologically, morally, and spiritually rather than simply a physical capacity for pain from our exposure to the physical world. Our common human vulnerability as illustrated by our morbidity and mortality can be regarded as the basis for shared human rights, such as the right to life itself. Modern revulsion against torture in international legal codes illustrates the common theme of vulnerability running through human rights declarations.
In referring to hazards and disasters, the notion of vulnerability draws attention to the risky relationship between people and their natural environments. Various major disasters in modern times—Hurricane Katrina (2005), the tsunami disaster (2004), the earthquake in Kobe, Japan (1995), and severe droughts across Africa— have encouraged governments and international agencies to seek improved measures of risks and vulnerabilities.
More recently, vulnerability refers in computer sciences to weaknesses in a system that permit an attacker to compromise the integrity, security, and confidentiality of the system, its data, and its applications. Computer vulnerability of a construct exists when many program faults can be traced to it. One important task of computer software programs is to devise appropriate tools that can assist in the discovery and removal of such vulnerabilities as input validation errors.
Various attempts have been made to create standardized measurement systems to provide accurate information on risks and vulnerability. For example, in the realm of information technology security, the U.S. National Infrastructure Advisory Council has promoted the Common Vulnerability Scoring System, which provides universal standard ratings of vulnerabilities. The challenge is to get these measurement criteria universally accepted. In 1973 the United Nations University was created and now incorporates the Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), which exists to study acute environmental hazards. Its journal, SOURCE, has published research that attempts to provide coherent and unified criteria for understanding hazards.
Vulnerability research covers a range of complex fields, such as political ecology, security studies, and disaster and risk management. This research is important for organizations trying to reduce vulnerability. Major research questions are concerned with measuring, assessing, and preventing vulnerability. Although much of this research is concerned with assessing environmental risk, social vulnerability is an important branch of vulnerability research. In this context, vulnerability research considers how different social groups are exposed to natural hazards and major social disruptions. One example is research on the vulnerability of isolated elderly men in the inner-city areas of Chicago who were found to suffer an “excess” of fatalities (as compared to other social groups in the city) during the heat wave of July 1995.
Social risk management (SRM) is a developing academic field associated with attempts to limit poverty and analyze the causes of poverty, including the interaction between empowerment, security, opportunity, and poverty. The threat of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and avian influenza has illustrated the vulnerability of modern societies, especially in the developing world, to the globalization of acute infections, to which traditional quarantine techniques are inadequate policy responses. There is a close relationship between SRM and world development programs that attempt to predict poverty and address its causes. These developments now fall under the general heading of prevention science, which applies the social sciences to a broad range of modern crises on the model that has been developed by public health strategies.
Risk assessment of vulnerable groups plays an important role in public health programs. An early illustration can be taken from the research of George Brown and Tirril Harris (1978) into the social causes of depression among young women in London. They found that the “vulnerability factors” included the loss of a mother before the age of eleven, lack of employment, and three or more children at home under the age of fourteen. The most significant protection against depression was the presence of an intimate friend. An effective social network lowers the risk of clinical depression. Adolescent children are at risk, and suicides among young people have in recent years increased dramatically. In the United States, suicide is the third leading cause of death for twenty-four-year-olds and the sixth leading cause of death for children between the ages of five and fourteen. Various agencies—the American Psychological Association, Usenet newsgroups, and the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information—provide checklists to assess behavioral changes in young people that might indicate increasing risk of self-harm, including suicide, such as a change in eating and sleeping habits, withdrawal from friends, violent behavior, and drug use. The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) is the world’s largest ongoing telephone health survey system tracking health conditions and risk behavior in the United States through fifty state health departments.
With the aging of populations in developed societies, the leading causes of death have changed from infectious disease in infants to geriatric conditions—stroke, heart attack, and cancer—among the elderly. For example, the American Heart Association has identified several risk factors associated with heart disease, such as increasing age, male sex, and hereditary. There are also lifestyle factors that make people vulnerable, such as smoking, physical inactivity, obesity, and diabetes mellitus. Starting with research in the 1950s, psychologists argued that there was an “executive disease” among white-collar employees in the corporate world. American cardiologists claimed that type-A men were competitive and ambitious, and their corporate lifestyle made them vulnerable to heart attack as a consequence of high levels of stress. Medical debate has concentrated on assessing whether vulnerability to disease is produced by environmental factors (such as pollution) that can be modified by legislation and political intervention, or whether the primary causes are genetic, where medical intervention (such as genetic counseling for Huntington’s disease) involves long-term strategies. The evidence suggests that disease is a product of both environmental and genetic causes, and requires appropriate strategies to address both social and genetic dimensions.
The growth of prevention sciences (for consistency with above changes) can be seen as a response to the common perception that the world is becoming increasingly risky. The economic and social assessment of risk arose from attempts to calculate profit and loss in the growing international trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. With modernization, there is greater interconnectivity between societies, making the rapid spread of infectious disease more problematic. With technological development, the risks of industrial pollution and hazard are much greater. With growing sophistication in military technology, the risk of intended and unintended military disaster is also much greater. In short, with modern social change, human vulnerability and institutional precariousness increase.
These social and technological changes were summarized by sociologist Ulrich Beck in his Risk Society, which was originally published in Germany 1986. The concept of a “risk society” greatly stimulated social science research into uncertainty, risk, and hazard. Beck developed a sociological perspective to show why disasters such as the chemical leak at Bhopal (1984), accidents at the nuclear power plants at Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986), and global warming were products of modernization, involving the intensive application of technology to transform the environment to satisfy human needs. Such risks were the unintended consequences of technological modernization. The modern growth of “green” political parties and their electoral successes can also be treated as an indication that the general public is aware of modern vulnerabilities, of which the prospect of global warming is probably the most significant.
- Bankoff, Greg, George Frerks, and Dorothea Hilhorst. 2004. Mapping Vulnerability: Disasters, Development, and People. Sterling, VA: Earthscan.
- Beck, Ulrich. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. Mark Ritter. London: Sage.
- Brown, George W., and Tirril Harris. 1978. Social Origins of Depression: A Study of Psychiatric Disorder in Women. London: Tavistock.
- Klinenberg, Eric. 2002. Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Turner, Bryan S. 2006. Vulnerability and Human Rights. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
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