Vulnerability as a Measure of Change in Society

August 2003 (VOL. 21, NO. 2)

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Assessing risk and evaluating crises—be they financial, social, political or environmental—have come increasingly to preoccupy the interests and concerns of analysts around the globe. In developed countries or what until recently was usually referred to as the First World, such considerations involve the re-conceptualization of post-industrial societies as ones in which the rise of “manufactured uncertainties” have undermined the state’s established safety systems and its conventional calculus of security (Giddens 1991). Yet to the billions of humanity who continue to live in the less developed countries of the Third or Fourth Worlds and whose peoples still have faith in the benefits of development or have seen that promise come and go in a single lifetime, these finer considerations of risk may seem less important. The threats posed by dumping industrial wastes, unsafe chemical production and the pollution of air and water, though real and graphically manifest on occasion, often pale in comparison to the daily risks posed by natural hazards and human-induced calamities that recent decades have only intensified. Rather than the “risk society” proposed by Ulrich Beck and others (1992), it is the need to understand the historical evolution of vulnerability and the degree to which different social classes are differently placed at risk that require more urgent consideration for most communities (Susman et al. 1983).