Childhood Vulnerability Journal

, Volume 1, Issue 1–3, pp 5–14 | Cite as

Cultural Context, Intersectionality, and Child Vulnerability

  • Yochay NadanEmail author
  • Jill Korbin
Original Article


Children around the world are vulnerable to multiple and varying sources of adversity and risk, the meanings, experiences, and outcomes of which are shaped by the cultural context and the individual’s place in that context. In this paper we explore how the cultural context and intersectionality frameworks may aid in understanding which children are vulnerable and under which circumstances. Culture influences child vulnerability by providing the context in which children live in their families, communities and the larger global world. Nevertheless, within any cultural context, some children are more vulnerable than are others. Intersectionality takes into account the ways in which multiple meaningful and overlapping social group memberships combine to shape experiences of vulnerability. Taken together, cultural context and intersectional approaches enhance the potential of planning meaningful actions to improve the safety and well-being of children, families, and communities.


Child vulnerability Culture Cultural context Intersectionality 

Children around the world are vulnerable to multiple and varying sources of adversity and risk, the meanings, experiences, and outcomes of which are shaped by the cultural context and the individual’s place in that context. From a long-standing history of cross-cultural research, we know that there is significant inter- and intra-cultural variability in children’s vulnerability due to a range of complex contributing factors. From the emerging literature on intersectionality, we know that the place of any individual within their cultural context also is complex, with some children are more vulnerable than are others. In this paper we propose to bring together cultural context and intersectionality frameworks to address questions about which children are vulnerable and under what circumstances.

Culture influences child vulnerability by providing the context in which children live in their families, communities and the larger global world. Nevertheless, within any cultural context, some children are more vulnerable than are others. Intersectionality takes into account the ways in which multiple meaningful and overlapping social group memberships combine to shape experiences of vulnerability. Taken together, cultural context and intersectional approaches enhance the potential of planning meaningful actions to improve the safety and well-being of children, families, and communities.

We begin with two interrelated challenges for addressing children’s vulnerability and protection. First, how can we enhance the generalizability of our data in a culturally and intersectionality informed way? Cross-cultural research on children and childhood has promoted the view that cultures vary in the circumstances and outcomes for children. Going back to Margaret Mead’s research in the 1920s, cross-cultural and anthropological work has interrogated conclusions based on Euro-centric studies alone. Mead confronted prominent ideas of her time that adolescence is universally a time of storm and stress, pointing to the different circumstances of and outcomes for Samoan adolescents. While her work has been criticized, the basic orientation of looking to the cultural context remains a core focus of cross-cultural research. A substantial literature exists within anthropology and related fields that the cultural context of childhood is a major, if not the major force in understanding how children fare.

The underrepresentation of the majority of the world’s children (e.g. Arnett 2008; Levine 2017; LeVine and New 2008) came to increased attention with the publication of The Weirdest People in the World (Henrich et al. 2010). This paper reported the over-representation of Euro-centric samples in psychological journals and coined of the term “WEIRD” as signifying Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies (North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Israel). While children growing up in Western countries comprise only about 10–12% of the world’s population of children (Henrich et al. 2010; LeVine and New 2008), approximately 96% of child development research in the leading peer-reviewed psychology journals in the United States is based on samples from what have come to be called “WEIRD” societies. “Regardless of the reasons underlying these population differences, our concern is whether researchers can reasonably generalize from WEIRD samples to humanity at large” (Henrich et al. 2010, p.62). This resonates with a long-standing view in cross-cultural anthropological research that “…the provisional character of monocultural findings [is] a fundamental methodological principle” (LeVine 2017, p. 25).

A second challenge is to address the commonalities and tensions in what have been termed “universalist” and “pluralistic” approaches. These perspectives are not necessarily diametrically opposed, but represent a continuum. Both perspectives coalesce on the core principle that all children should be protected equitably, but there are tensions on how much diversity dilutes an acceptable standard. While diversity is recognized in both approaches, in a universalist approach, diversity is secondary to ensuring that all children are accorded the same standard of protection from harm and vulnerability. In a pluralistic approach, diversity is foregrounded. While these contrasts cannot be as starkly drawn in practice, there are consequences in the policies and actions that stem from them. In its most extreme, a universalist approach directs efforts towards single solutions and pathways, while in a pluralistic, the effort tends towards multiple pathways that reduce vulnerability. The universalist approach is more compatible with international conventions and country-specific laws to comply with those conventions, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). While the UNCRC includes provisions that cultural differences are an important right for children, the conventions and laws still to strive towards single standard as an ideal with the goal of protecting children equally. The pluralistic approach leans towards looking at local context and solutions. Emerging work from non-“WEIRD” nations suggest the necessity for important departures from universal standards (e.g. Mafigiri and Walakira 2017).

Andresen (2014) sheds light on these issues, noting that an essentialist approach views vulnerability as a fact that can be objectively identified. In contrast, a constructivist view of vulnerability is based in a group’s identification of that vulnerability and a shared view that it exists (Andresen 2014). Is vulnerability perceived the same everywhere? This question of the reality of vulnerability leads us into an exploration of how the cultural context, and intersectionality shape views of vulnerability.

The Cultural Context as a Frame for Understanding Child Vulnerability

Culture may broadly defined as providing the settings in which children and their families live their daily lives and the meanings ascribed to these activities and lifeways. Culture, then, influences child vulnerability by providing this larger context. The cultural context determines the people with whom children will interact, the settings in which they will carry out their daily activities, the tasks they will be assigned, the resources available to them, and the behavior and values that they will be encouraged to develop and embrace. All of these contextual factors can influence vulnerability, but measuring how the context influences vulnerability can be challenging.

A number of theoretical frameworks have been developed that incorporate the larger context in studying how children fare. Perhaps the best known, Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological model has been widely utilized as a framework for organizing the influences on children’s development. The model can be visualized as concentric circles that surround the individual child, the micro, meso and macrosystems. Each level involves processes, persons, contexts, and time. Cicchetti and Lynch (1993) note that it is the transactions, or fit, across the levels that influences the outcome. For example, a child with aggressive behaviors in a dangerous neighborhood may fare quite differently than in a safer secure one.

In anthropology, the pioneering work of John and Beatrice Whiting and the Six Cultures Study (1963) influenced understandings of childhood that took into account environmental and social factors. It sets the groundwork for understanding how factors in the physical and social environment could influence children’s development, and by extension for our purposes, vulnerabilities to a range of risks. This early work has been expanded to encompass theoretical approaches that can help to explain children’s well-being and vulnerability. Ecocultural theory (Weisner 2002) considers the more immediate context and the more distal environment in understanding the daily activities in which children are engaged. All cultures have ideas about protection of children, but what they are to be protected from, and how this protection should occur varies. These ideas also have been expanded into a bioecocultural model (Worthman 2010), that could be employed to view vulnerability by considering biological mechanisms at work such that culture “gets under the skin.” The cultural context influences which children are more vulnerable than others using theoretical approaches such as the above.

We turn to a consideration of two dimensions in which the cultural context influences child vulnerability: (1) identity and/or social categories; and (2) settings and associated activities. First, categories of children may be vulnerable by virtue of their identity or social position, most broadly by categories including nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, or socioeconomic status. Vulnerability by category varies according to the cultural context. In some contexts adopted or fostered children may be at risk for exploitation or abuse while in others they are considered to have an advantage because they have multiple adults in parental roles who care for and are invested in them (Leinaweaver 2014). As another example, there is a substantial literature that in some cultures daughters are more vulnerable than their brothers for a range of outcomes including health, nutrition and education. However, conditions can change even in societies such as China with its long history of son-preference such that daughters become highly valued (Shi 2017).

A second, and overlapping, category of vulnerability has to do with the settings and activities in which children are engaged. For example, in most of the world’s non-WEIRD societies, children are expected to contribute to the family economy (Lancy 2008). In Uganda, for example, children who gather water for the family, while performing a valued and necessary task, are vulnerable to assault and compromising their educations, with girls more vulnerable than boys (Mugumya et al. 2017). Similarly, children taking care of younger siblings may be highly valued in some contexts, but in others, such as urban slums, increases the vulnerability of children to risks of house fires in sub-standard housing, or traffic on congested streets (Ritchie and Ritchie 1981).

The cultural context provides a framework for identifying which categories of children are vulnerable, and under what circumstances. Within vulnerable categories of children, some children are more vulnerable than others, and even within the most vulnerable categories some children still survive and perhaps even thrive. Identifying categories of vulnerable children and circumstances is an important step, but the field needs to go further to understand within contextual variability. To better understand this within contextual variability, we turn to intersectionality theory.

Intersectionality: An Emerging Perspective for Understanding the Complexity of Children’s Vulnerability

To understand the critical issues affecting children and young people today, we must adopt an inclusive theoretical and methodological approach, one that takes into account diversity based not only on culture, race and ethnicity but also based on other meaningful, and overlapping, social group memberships such as gender, SES, sexual orientation, and immigrant status etc. (Ghavami et al. 2016). The ways in which multiple social group memberships combine to shape experiences of vulnerability and resilience in a diverse context is at the core of the theoretical framework of intersectionality.

Intersectionality is a conceptual framework for understanding the ways in which aspects of human identity (e.g., gender, race, socioeconomic status) simultaneously interact and intersect to shape lived experience and life chances through interlocking systems of bias and inequality that exist at the macro social-structural level (i.e., sexism, racism, classism) (Crenshaw 1989). In the micro, individual level, categories of difference such as gender, age, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status, are understood not as independent dimensions of human diversity but rather as interconnected and in interaction with each other (McCall 2005). These micro intersections and subjectively lived experiences are embedded in our current macro social structures (Brah and Phoenix 2004). On the macro, social-structural level, systems of power and oppression are not mutually exclusive and can exacerbate or compound one another over time (Brown 2012). Due to the simultaneous operation of micro and macro social processes, structures, and dynamics, human lives cannot be understood through a single-factor explanations (e.g. race, gender or socioeconomic status) but rather seen as multidimensional and complex (Etherington and Baker 2018; Nadan et al. 2015; Kelly 2009). Whereas Intersectionality started with the categories of race, gender and SES, later scholars have broadened their analyses to other categories of difference such as age, mental health, disability, sexual orientation, religion and geographic location (Murphy et al. 2009).

Three main principles of intersectionality have been identified by Stewart and McDermott (2004) that are relevant to our discussion on child vulnerability. First, social and cultural groups are heterogeneous. It therefore rejects essentialist assumptions that all members of a particular group are the same and highlights the importance of intragroup diversity (Etherington and Baker 2018; Fontes 2005; Korbin 1980). Second, people are understood as located within macro social structures that take into consideration social disparities and power dynamics. Access to power, in particular, is a frequently neglected but highly influential aspect of social structure. Third, individuals may identify with more than one social group, which has a unique, non-additive effect. A person can share identification in one or more categories with another person (e.g. gender and race), whereas they do not hold in common social contexts. Such contextual difference may create a range of experiences, worldviews, and psychological mechanisms for dealing with the world (Morris et al. 2015; Stewart and McDermott 2004).

As seen in Fig. 1, our proposed model for understanding children’s vulnerability includes two layers: At the micro level, children and their families’ subjective experiences of their own intersecting identities and related biases are examined. These include age/developmental level, gender, ethnicity, race, socioeconomic status, family structure, dis/ability, foster care status, sexual orientation, religion, spirituality, geographic location, and citizenship status, to name a few.
Fig. 1

Children’s vulnerability from an intersectional perspective

At the same time, intersectionality theory advocates that these micro intersections and subjectively lived experiences are embedded in our current macro social structures (Brah and Phoenix 2004). The macro level includes two related dimensions: the first are those multiple societal processes, discourses and structural sources of bias and discrimination including ageism, sexism, classism, ethnocentrism, racism, ableism, homophobia and related forms of discrimination, sometimes referred to as the “Isms” (Latting 1990).

A second dimension of the macro level is derived from existing national and global systems and policies such as immigration policy, child welfare policy, the legal and educational systems, as well as wars, the economy and other global processes. Intersectionality focuses on a person as a “whole”, including their sometimes simultaneously experienced privilege and oppression (Etherington and Baker 2018).

The simultaneous interaction of micro and macro levels advocated by the conceptual framework of intersectionality may be a crucial perspective to understand the complexity of vulnerability. This has been demonstrated by intersectional authors mainly through their understanding of women’s vulnerability to violence. Crenshaw (1991) for example, applied intersectionality to understand the vulnerability of women of color to violence. She demonstrated how race and gender intersect to produce women of color’s particular vulnerability to battery and rape through facing structural obstacles. In this case, an intersectional approach is essential in understanding how certain groups of women were made particularly vulnerable to violence as well as vulnerable to professional interventions that failed to take into account the structural dimensions of the context (Cho et al. 2013).

Whereas the conceptual framework of intersectionality was relatively widely implemented to understand and intervene in the field of violence against women (e.g. Creek and Dunn 2011; Crenshaw 1991; Josephson 2002), it has received limited attention in the study of children’s vulnerability. Why has intersectionality been so rarely applied to the study of children’s vulnerability? One assumption is related to the prominence of the category of “childhood” that transcends all other categories and distinctions (Etherington and Baker 2018). The category of childhood has been associated with vulnerability for centuries, and more recently vulnerability was incorporated as a key concept in developmental studies (Brown et al. 2017). Perhaps the prominence of “childhood” as a category and the association to vulnerability does not invite looking at other, more nuanced categories of difference. A second assumption is related to the growing awareness and implementation of “cultural competence” in prevention and intervention programs with children and families (e.g. Hernandez and Issacs 1998; Korbin 2002; NASW 2015). Critics will argue that prevalent constructions of cultural competence in the helping professions were strongly influenced by essentialist perspectives of “culture,” including broad cultural descriptions of ethnic or racial groups in the search to gain cultural knowledge about the “Other” (Ben-Ari and Strier 2010; Nadan 2017). Such a position on culture and ethnicity as pre-determined, static and homogenous, stands in contrast to more nuanced, complex and constructivist perspectives regarding human diversity, as promoted by intersectionality. A third assumption for the absence of intersectionality from children’s vulnerability discourse is probably related to the issue of practicality, as developing intersectional research and promoting intersectional policy is much more difficult and complex, often requiring more resources (Etherington and Baker 2018).

The contribution of an intersectional perspective to the understanding of children’s vulnerability can be demonstrated in the situation of lesbian African-American mothers. In a recent qualitative study conducted by Brie Radis in the Philadelphia area, lesbian African-American mothers’ perspectives on wellbeing, risk, and protection of their families were explored (Radis 2018). One focus of the study was the impact of the legalization of gay marriage in the United States in 2015 on these families. One of the interesting findings of the study indicates a differential impact of the legalization of gay marriage on these families and their children. Mothers who had higher family incomes (middle to upper class) indicated that there were more benefits than negative consequences to marriage. Higher income mothers highlighted the security and legitimacy marriage brings, including financial incentives and benefits, such as sharing health insurance. In contrast, mothers who were in a low-income financial class typically viewed getting married as having negative consequences, with concerns that they would lose housing and child care subsidies as a result. This example demonstrates the significance of intersectionality in understanding children’s vulnerability. Whereas these families live under multiple interlocking systems of bias, oppression and inequality at the macro social-structural level (e.g. sexism, racism, homophobia), it is their socioeconomic status that determines whether legislation will be a mechanism of empowerment or of increasing their families’ and children’s vulnerability. It illustrates that legislative and policy aims of promoting equality for a specific group might have a differing effect on different segments of a minority group.

This example demonstrates the major contribution of intersectionality to the understanding of children’s vulnerability by encourage moving from unidimensional and linear explanations, to a complex, multi-dimensional and sometimes circular explanations. Whereas studies have tended to focus on demographic variables separately, research on children’s lives have recognized the importance of applying intersectionality to this demographic with attention given to the ways in which power, oppression, and identity impact children’s development and well-being (Etherington and Baker 2018; Ghavami et al. 2016).

In her paper “Childhood vulnerability: systematic, structural, and individual dimensions,” Sabine Andresen (2014) argues that children’s vulnerability can be understood through essentialist or constructivist lenses. In essentialism, vulnerability is conceived as a factual susceptibility; resilience, as a factual coping ability. This essentialist perspective can be contrasted with a constructivist one where vulnerability is not (just) an objectively given exposure but a shared assumption that one could be threatened and vulnerable. In this sense, it is the product of a social (and professional) construction. One of the concerns in studies focusing on children’s vulnerability in a specific ethnic, racial or social group, is what has been termed by Fontes (2005) as “ethnic lumping” –the use of large group categorizations (e.g., African-American, LGBT) that risks minimizing or ignoring intra-group diversity. It is by the use of language, the society, legislation and professionals can produce the category of “vulnerable” or “at-risk” by means of the process of othering. This can in turn lead to a stereotypic view and labeling an entire group of children as vulnerable. This view can lead to the use of “vulnerability” as a normative discourse, including social divisions, exclusion and behavioral regulation (Brown et al. 2017).

This has been argued to be the case with children and youth of Ethiopian origin in Israel. In a recent qualitative study (Engdau-Vanda, Nadan and Roer-Strier, manuscript in preparation) based on interviews with Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian social workers and child protection officers, we found that, as a group, children and adolescents of Ethiopian origin were constructed as “at risk” and as vulnerable in a complex circular process. In this process, societal attitudes of stigmatization, racism and othering toward the Ethiopian community permeated to the educational and welfare systems. Low expectations of Ethiopian students, coupled with bias regarding their academic abilities, led to discrimination in the educational and welfare systems and to a very high proportion of out of home placements to boarding schools. Children and parents internalized these images and labels which in turn strengthened societal stigma. As part of the welfare system’s efforts to deal with Ethiopian youths’ vulnerability, special after school projects for “at risk youth” were opened in impoverished neighborhoods populated with Ethiopian families. This in turn, has intensified the internalization of stigma as well as the process of social control. Critics have argued that normative ideas of vulnerability (especially when deployed in policy) “can mix concerns about risk to certain groups with anxieties about risks from these groups, and can give limited space for acknowledgement of human agency” (Brown et al. 2017). Besides the danger of overgeneralization, the vulnerability of those who exist at the “intersection between inequalities” (Krizsan and Lombardo 2013) is not recognized.

We argue that adopting an intersectional perspective to understanding children’s vulnerability has the potential for challenging such processes of othering, especially due to its cautions against placing individuals into fixed categories, and in avoiding erasing the children’s experiences of complexity and uniqueness (Murphy et al. 2009).

Intersectionality can shed light on another aspect sometimes lacking in the discourse of children’s vulnerability which is resilience and agency. Theorists of intersectionality have argued about the uses to which intersectional theory should be put primarily – for uncovering vulnerabilities and exclusions or should it focus on examining resources, resilience and agency, as a means of empowerment? (Davis 2008). We believe both are equally important. On one hand it is important to draw attention to processes and mechanisms of inequality, power relations and bias, which can assist researchers, policy makers and practitioners to “zoom out” to macro processes involving inequality, leading to specific vulnerabilities and differences in outcomes for children and families. On the other hand, searching for and shedding light on resources, resilience and agency of children can challenge societal stigma and processes of othering, which in turn can also change the internalized images of children and families themselves. For practitioners, such perspectives can assist in challenging the tendency of pathologizing children of minority groups, and through operating from a strength based approach, encourage processes of empowerment.

Concluding Remarks

Approaches grounded in cultural context and intersectionality can make significant contributions to understanding and responding to child vulnerability. Taken together, contextual and intersectional approaches enhance the potential of planning meaningful actions to improve the safety and well-being of vulnerable children, families, and communities. These approaches act against the “othering” of populations and individuals that has hampered global efforts to reduce child vulnerability. Contextual and intersectional approaches shape understanding the ways in which aspects of human identity at the micro level (e.g., gender, race, socioeconomic status) simultaneously interact and intersect to shape lived experience and life chances through interlocking macro systems. Research, practice and policy need to reach beyond “WEIRD” societies to understand vulnerability from a wider perspective on children’s experiences around the world. Intersectionality, an inclusive conceptual framework, offers an approach to meaningful, and overlapping, social group memberships. Together, these approaches encourage moving from unidimensional and linear explanations to complex, multi-dimensional explanations and solutions.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social WelfareThe Hebrew University of JerusalemJerusalemIsrael
  2. 2.Department of Anthropology and Schubert Center for Child StudiesCase Western Reserve UniversityClevelandUSA

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