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Professor Jason Von Meding of the University of Florida presents the 'Rethinking Vulnerability'

Professor Jason Von Meding of the University of Florida presents the 'Rethinking Vulnerability'

January 19, 2023-What other things come to your mind when you think of vulnerability? How do you translate it into other languages?

Dr. Jason von Meding, Associate Professor from the Rinker School of Construction Management, Florida Institute for Built Environment Resilience in the University of Florida opened his lecture entitled “Rethinking Vulnerability” under the Emerging & Systemic Risks Monthly Lectures of Y-EMERGE, DHEUSeR Research Cluster & CIFAL York last January 19, 2023, with these questions. 

Meding stressed the importance of reflecting on the meaning of vulnerability to each person. He said that the concept of vulnerability usually talks about other people, who are often oppressed, marginalized, or feel the impacts of different injustices and inequalities, and that it is something that we need to avoid. However, through that process of talking to people affected by disasters, he learned that disasters were more than the interaction of people and hazards but actually were political, and social and the risk was socially constructed.

The architect turned disaster and scientific researcher in thinking about vulnerability, he realized that efforts to reduce vulnerability by focusing people on the root causes have not really led to system change and have usually inspired more humanitarian responses than responses rooted in solidarity and community action.

The critique of the usage of vulnerability usually has a colonial heritage, it promotes unequal power relationships. Those of us in hazards in disasters and hazards usually think about people who are out of sight, out of reach, out of the loop, out of money, out of scope, or marginalized based on different identities and all of these may be useful in practical terms when we’re organizing programs or research projects. We really have to be aware of different meanings, experiences, choices, needs, and preferences in terms of how people want to be acknowledged and some of the damaging ways of that labels are used.

Meding quoted that Perry Cannon also argues that vulnerability is one of the most used and abused concepts in disaster scholarship and the vulnerability paradigm itself has really tried to urge us away from hazard-centric approaches that focus on technical solutions. 

He added that the “overarching problem is vulnerability being portrayed as a weakness, it implies that it’s something bad and something that we need to reduce in the context of disaster, vulnerability’s often used in contrast to resilience.”

“Aaron Gilson, I quote, from one of her papers which really spoke to me and changed the way I looked at things thinking about the way we often look at vulnerability and say we need to react to this harm that’s being done by being invulnerable and achieving mastery over vulnerability which is sought at the price of disavowing vulnerability.”

One of the first things that he did to address this was work with former Mayor Heidi Harmon of San Luis Obispo in California where they wrote an essay on open democracy during COVID-19. The essay was inspired by a lot of authoritarian-style leaders around the world who were saying that they were kind of invulnerable and they weren’t scared of it. They talked about how vulnerability by choice is the only way that we can be in a relationship with other human beings.

That led to another essay entitled “Reframing Vulnerability as a Condition of Potential” which discusses how vulnerability can be seen as an opportunity to care for each other and to protect each other from wounding.

Meding’s recent projects also include works with other disaster researchers about how they tell stories of vulnerability; looking at the securitization of vulnerability; and looking at a theory for disaster studies of vulnerability reframed.

“I think it's all about how we frame stories and that's why it's so important because language is fluid and so we, by creating these kinds of normative understandings may help us to save time, to take quicker action. When we're speaking of vulnerability, I encourage everybody to be careful and think about how you're using language to work with others toward collective action and be a reflective practitioner when we're dealing with issues that are so important, and that requires system change.

Meding ended his lecture by encouraging everyone to be intentional when using the term vulnerability in their papers and projects.

Meanwhile, Prof. Jianhong Wu, Y-EMERGE Director expressed gratitude to all attendees and reiterated that the said Emerging & Systemic Risks Monthly Lectures aim to really provide a platform for the exchange of the current thinking about the emergency mitigation engagement response and governance and that Dr. Meding’s session really served its purpose.