Publication of the article “The challenges of the concept of vulnerability in the human rights context from a discourse-analytical perspective” in the journal Zeitschrift für Menschenrechte/journal for human rights 2/2020

The article discusses the challenges and implications of the concept of vulnerability using a frame-theoretical approach. It is argued that vulnerability is a problematic concept in the human rights context. It is often associated with specific “social groups” and is involved in reproducing a racial, sexual and in any other form stereotypically marked “Other”. It is a deficit-oriented concept and produces different forms of exclusions.

Monika Mayrhofer

In the human rights context, the notion of vulnerability has stimulated a wide discussion on the benefits and challenges of the concept for the advancement of human rights. Proponents of the vulnerability approach refer to the potential promises of the concept, such as providing a more substantial concept for equality or taking into consideration the “natural” dimension of human beings in the human rights context. The concept is also commended for universalizing rights entitlements as the vulnerable subject is proposed to be a more universal figure as the liberal subject. More skeptical researchers, however, emphasize that the concept with the primary meaning of “wound” and “being wounded” is stigmatized and contributes to a stereotypical representation of persons and groups associated with this concept.

In this article it is argued, that the expectations the concept raises cannot be fulfilled and its shortcomings cannot be mended, as vulnerability is a loaded concept. The problems associated with the concept are not only the results of a misapplication of the concept; they are an inherent part of the concept.

In order to grasp the implications of the concept of vulnerability on the human rights discourse, the paper uses a frame-analytical approach. Frame analysis is a type of discourse analysis, which aims at scrutinizing terminology and concepts, which are influential in policy and legal processes and documents. Frame analysis identifies different narratives and frames used to discuss specific social issues and analysis the impacts of these frames on policy making as well as on academic, political and legal perception and interpretation of these issues. Thus, vulnerability in this paper is understood as a frame. Frames are concepts, such as specific narratives, metaphors or myths that allow to attach meaning to social and political issues and processes. Frames are assumed to be selective as they highlight specific aspects in a communication text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition and interpretation and, therefore, open up certain spaces for action and close off others. Frames indicate how a social situation and/or problem is named and defined, they refer to stories and/or assumptions individuals tell about the world and that give meaning to their experience. The theory of frames has two dimensions: on the one hand, frame as a noun refers to the aspect that frames are characterized by some degree of stability. On the other hand, frame as a verb refers to the fact that narratives are alterable, that actors in the political and social arena can (re)frame a certain issue when a frame is not adequate any longer or a frame is changed or dismissed in the course of a political and social process.

The article discusses the implications of the frame, id est the narrative and the metaphor, of vulnerability in the human rights context. It is argued that vulnerability is a loaded concept that has, in particular, problematic sexist and racist implications. It is, firstly, argued that the concept of vulnerability is based on a natural metaphor, which has not only the effect of depoliticizing social, economic and other political issues, but also resonates well with sexist and racist discourses. I will outline the various implications of the depoliticizing effects of the vulnerability concept including even a narrowing of human rights. Secondly, the proposition made by vulnerability proponents is analyzed to replace the liberal subject – a pivotal as well as contentious reference point of human rights discourse – with the vulnerable subject. It is argued that the deployment of the vulnerable subject has, paradoxically, reinforced and confirmed the liberal subject and contributed to the process of invoking a racial and sexist “Other”. In a third section the political implications of the vulnerability concept and its consequences for the conceptualization of equality is analyzed.

For a copy of the journal, please see here.


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