Sociology is the study of how society is organized and how people experience life, and Professor Barbara Misztal, of the Department of Sociology, has been researching the conditions under which people can become vulnerable – and how that vulnerability can be reduced.
While the concept of vulnerability has a long history in the study of natural disasters, hazards, famine and epidemiology, the recent intensification of interest in the issue amongst the media, politicians and the public has been mirrored by growing fascination with this subject within social science.
Addressing the issues of vulnerability is timely due not only to the continuing presence of ‘old ‘ risks but also as a result of growing concerns with consequences of new technologies and new social divisions and threats generated by the information flows and globalization.
Professor Misztal, inspired by Arendt’s concept of ‘the frailty of human affairs’, defines vulnerability as rooted in the human condition of dependence on others, in the unpredictability of action and in the irreversibility of human experiences. Such a conception of vulnerable humanity prompts search for ‘control mechanisms’ that can reduce vulnerability, and imbue people with the faith and hope they desperately need. Forgiveness, Promise and Trust can be applied at the level of the individual, or across the entirety of societies.
Forgiveness looks back in time and absolves the vulnerable from past mistakes, while Promising aims to establish ‘islands of security’ in an otherwise uncertain future. Trust is necessary; without it, vulnerable people would be reluctant to do anything. They need to feel confident both that others will keep to agreements to act in reliable and predictable ways, and that if their own actions have unintended consequences, it won’t be the end of the world.
Professor Misztal said that understanding vulnerability and its remedies is important; “such an understanding could help us to comprehend the essential conditions [for,] and the greatest obstacles to the construction of a peaceful and cosmopolitan world”.
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