CfP: Vulnerability – Theories and Concepts in Philosophy and the Social Sciences

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Conference at University of Graz: October 2022 – Elodie Boublil, Kate Brown, Patrick Brown, Jagna Brudzińska, Thomas Fuchs, Erinn Gilson.

International Conference
Vulnerability. Theories and Concepts in Philosophy and the Social Sciences
Organizers: Bernhard Geißler, Frithjof Nungesser, Sonja Rinofner-Kreidl and Antonia Schirgi
Location: University of Graz (Austria)
Date: October 20–22, 2022

Confirmed speakers: Elodie Boublil (University Paris Est-Créteil/ University of Cologne), Kate Brown (University of York), Patrick Brown (University of Amsterdam), Jagna Brudzińska (Polish Academy of Sciences/ University of Cologne), Thomas Fuchs (University of Heidelberg), Erinn Gilson (Merrimack College).

In recent years, vulnerability has proven to be a promising field of research, a challenging concept, and a contested issue in public debates. As a field of research, vulnerability has gained increasing attention in various disciplines, not only but especially in philosophy and the social sciences. The research community has approached the topic of vulnerability from heterogeneous perspectives, which are, in part, built on different theoretical foundations and diverging methodologies. Despite a number of widely used theoretical references (such as phenomenology or feminist theories), attempts to systematize or integrate the diverse approaches to vulnerability are relatively sparse. An ambitious theoretical debate, however, seems necessary for the advancement of conceptual and empirical research on vulnerability.
Due to its internal complexities and its entanglements with other important concepts and phenomena, vulnerability has also turned out to be an intricate subject of research which entails numerous conceptual challenges. Firstly, there is the question of which entities can and should be conceived as vulnerable. Can only individuals, or even just human individuals, be considered vulnerable? How does their vulnerability differ from the vulnerability of other entities such as groups, institutions, or systems? Secondly, the dimensions of vulnerability need to be investigated. Is vulnerability basically or exclusively a bodily feature? What role do psychological, affective, linguistic, social, economic, cultural, identity-specific and/or other dimensions play? Thirdly, research on vulnerability needs to tackle the issue of perspective. Who decides and who has the right to decide on who is vulnerable to what and under which circumstances? Are researchers (or other authorities) epistemically privileged to ascribe vulnerability? Or, are the experiences of the individuals concerned the basic point of reference? Fourthly, the socio-cultural embeddedness of vulnerability gives rise to profound questions regarding, for example, the historical emergence or disappearance of certain vulnerabilities or the social conflicts surrounding the hierarchization of vulnerabilities. Fifthly, any conclusive understanding of the concept of vulnerability must consider its relation to other pertinent notions. On the one hand, this refers to kindred concepts such as fragility, sensibility, exposure, or risk. On the other hand, the conceptualization of vulnerability is closely associated with (seemingly) opposing notions such as agency, resilience, coping, and even ideas such as invulnerability.
The vocabulary of vulnerability has also increasingly diffused into political and public debates. In the last years, the coronavirus pandemic and the measures marshalled to prevent its spread have laid bare various entanglements, conflicts, and hierarchies of vulnerable entities and dimensions of vulnerability (e.g., health vs. economy; the vulnerability of children vs. the vulnerability of aged persons). There has also been a constant struggle over the definition and the adequate perspective on vulnerabilities (e.g., responsibility of the state vs. individual freedom). Similar issues can be observed concerning the ecological crisis, social inequalities, migration, or questions concerning old age and care. Vulnerabilities, their existence, justification, and hierarchization are more and more politicized in various forms (from hashtag activism to civil disobedience) and by diverse social movements, including Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, the Yellow Vests, and protests against Covid-19-restrictions. Thus, both as an analytical tool and a political topos, vulnerability forcefully makes itself felt as a key concept for the understanding of contemporary society.
The complexity of vulnerability requires a systematic and interdisciplinary approach. As vulnerability is a current and increasingly important topic in both research and society, the organisers consider this to be a good moment to broaden and intensify the dialogue between philosophy and the social sciences on this subject. Against this background, the organisers call for contributions from philosophy, the social sciences, and neighboring fields that engage with one or more of the following questions in a theoretically and conceptually ambitious way. While contributions may refer to a specific empirical case, they should take on the theoretical challenge of the conference.

For further information, including themes, rubric, and timeline, please see

This conference is organized in collaboration with the Cultural Sociology section of the German Sociological Association (DGS).