Indiana University Bloomington

What is vulnerability?

Vulnerability has become a significant concept of analysis in fields of study or disciplines such as ethics, public health (and policy), risk management, and social work. One common way of understanding vulnerability is as susceptibility to harm. This often leads people to conceptualize vulnerability in negative terms–seeking to limit or eliminate vulnerability for the sake of preserving something meaningful or important. However, I would like to think about ways to reconceptualize vulnerability. Are there ways in which vulnerability (variously understood) is valuable in human experience?​


This question was posed by Professor Michael Ing of the Indiana University Bloomington Religious Studies Department. Professor Ing’s research focuses on Confucianism, ritual theory, religious ethics, theory of religion, and Chinese thought. Currently Professor Ing is researching vulnerability within Confucian thought, specifically as it pertains to death, integrity, and historical memory.

6 Responses to “What is vulnerability?”

  1. Hannah Murray

    Vulnerability as weakness is a foreign conceptualization for me, but one that seems to fit many modern assumptions we have about the self as some insular, indivisible state of existence. I think vulnerability—emotional vulnerability in particular—demonstrates a tremendous amount of courage amidst societal norms of autonomy. Vulnerability is irrevocably part of what it means to be human; that is, we are called to fall and endure falling. Are we ever more human than when we accept our common brokenness and mutual incompetence in the face of infinity?

    I can remember last semester in Professor Sullivan’s Joan of Arc class when we watched both Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Luc Besson’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. Some students favored the vengeful wrath of Besson’s Joan as she commanded her subordinates with a flurry of bellows one moment and slit open her enemies’ throats the next, a Christus victor on steroids. I preferred Dreyer’s Joan as she weeps before her judges, silently bearing their taunts as they placed a crown of thorns upon her head. The final scene of Joan crippling into ashes at the stake lasts fifteen minutes. She embodies a victimhood we shy away from or scorn at with our secular definitions of “martyrdom” as synonymous with voluntary torment. But her suffering reflects strength, one that endures not in spite of but because of her susceptibility. Vulnerability is recognition of our weakness, a forfeit of our feigned omnipotence, which in itself takes great strength today.

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    • Hannah Murray

      Questions: does the redemption of vulnerability in modern eyes necessitate the redemption of the martyr? How would other religious/ethical frameworks answer this question of vulnerability other than the Medieval/Early Modern Christian one I’ve touched on?

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  2. Claire

    Vulnerability can be viewed as openness to people. Sounds weird, but regardless: a lot of actions that foster connections between people require a certain degree of risk and vulnerability. That vulnerability and extension of trust or friendship is how I think people can connect with each other. If you truly trust someone, you can allow yourself to be vulnerable around them. To me, it can be both a tool and a marker of intimacy.

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  3. Abby Matt

    I agree that one of the most common ways vulnerability is understood is as a road to harm. Sometimes, when vulnerability is depicted in this way, it is also connected to weakness, shyness, or being a coward because our society sees expressing emotions as weak and inferior. However, I think that these associations are incorrect to make. Vulnerability is about being brave enough to open oneself to the outside world. The person being vulnerable is trusting that everyone external will treat them with respect. This is a courageous task. Being emotionally vulnerable is valuable to us because it allows to understand more about the world. While being vulnerable, we are able to step outside our comfort zone and have new experiences. While listening to someone being vulnerable, we are able to learn new perspective and be understanding. If we can change the way the word “vulnerable” is socially constructed to have underlying meanings of brave instead of weak, vulnerability can be key to human compassion.

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  4. Rachel C.

    According to the OED, a 17th century use of “vulnerable” means “having the power to wound.” Later, in examples like Macbeth and J.B. Rose’s translation of Virgil’s Æneis, vulnerable means “susceptible of receiving wounds or physical injury.”
    The interplay of agency here is fascinating to me. The transference of that which may wound—the important point here being an ambiguity of both being “to be wounded” and “to wound another” tied into the simple infinitive form “to wound”—to that which is “susceptible of receiving” the wounds is astounding.
    For the first definition, there is a twofoldedness to being wounded—to having the power to be wounded, the power to recognize ones own incompletion or fallibility—and to wounding. Wounding as an action upon another is, too, a kind of vulnerability. If you think about the exposure you are put into in harming someone. There is deep discomfort and openness to causing harm. It is a friction, a tension, and a kind of connectivity between two beings that tethers the one to the other. If you think of the vulnerability of the wounded as being someone receiving the blow, the assailant is the someone bestowing it. I think that connection is mutually vulnerable in the sense that they are dependent upon one another—both in significance (the wounded is not wounded without the assailant, the assailant is not the assailant without the wounded) and in a rawness of action. Obviously, in saying this, I do not mean to demean the voice and ethical importance of the wounded. I am not attempting to disregard suffering or victimhood, but rather consider it as an exchange process, as a mutually affective relationship.
    There is also a lot of be said of the “ability” in “vulnerability”—the ability to be wounded. It is a skill, an aptitude, a suitableness for being wounded. Ability, to me, connotes potential, as if it is a human potential to be vulnerable, but specifically in such a way as to be very much positive. It is something perhaps not everyone has an aptitude for—importantly and significantly so.

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  5. Sarah Kissel

    The point Rachel raises about “vulnerability” transitioning as a concept agentially is uber fascinating – the fact that it morphed from connoting the capability to harm to the susceptibility to harm is an essential piece of historical context because it begs questions surrounding the impact of the word: was the idea of committing harm as damaging to early users of the word as our modern understanding of being exposed to damage? If so, that indicates an understanding of the repercussions of one’s actions in a far more reverberatory manner than we think about them today – for 17th century English-speakers, an act was individual; it’s ripple-effects boomeranged: if you caused harm, you were harmed yourself. That notion, taken a step further, has gripping implications for the historical evolvement of the self because it suggests that, in the 17th century, we could not act upon the world around us without acting on ourselves. Therefore one must ask where precisely the boundaries between the internal and the external lie, if to destroy is to self-destruct. Is that notion preserved within the modern understanding of vulnerability, though it seems to be politically opposite of the early use?

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