Contextualizing social vulnerability: findings from case studies across Europe

Abstract

Social vulnerability is a term that has been widely used in the natural hazards literature for quite a few years now. Yet, regardless of how scholars define the term, the approaches and indicators they use remain contested. This article presents findings from social vulnerability assessments conducted in different case studies of flood events in Europe (Germany, Italy and the UK). The case studies relied upon a common set of comparable indicators, but they also adopted a context-sensitive, qualitative approach. A shared finding across the case studies was that it was not possible to identify a common set of socio-economic–demographic indicators to explain social vulnerability of groups and/or individuals for all phases of the disastrous events. Similarly, network-related indicators as well as location- and event-specific indicators did not have the relevance we expected them to have. The results underline that vulnerability is a product of specific spatial, socio-economic–demographic, cultural and institutional contexts imposing not only specific challenges to cross-country research concerning social vulnerability to flooding but also to attempts at assessing social vulnerability in general. The study ends with some reflections upon the methodological, practical and theoretical implications of our findings.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    FLOODsite (2004–2009) was a European, interdisciplinary project integrating expertise from physical, environmental, engineering and social sciences, as well as spatial planning and management. The project covered over 30 research tasks. This paper derives from work accomplished in Task 11, entitled “Risk perception, community behaviour and social resilience”.

  2. 2.

    The Italian study actually considered six communities and two of them have not been included in this paper: the town of Vipiteno/Sterzing, Adige/Sarca river basin in the Trentino Alto Adige Region, and the small municipality of Malborghetto-Valbruna, Tagliamento river basin in the Friuli Venezia Giulia Region (see for more detail De Marchi et al. 2007).

  3. 3.

    The terms are derived from phonetics and phonemics, respectively, which are used in linguistics.

  4. 4.

    In all of the case studies, further hypothetical indicators were tested but as our focus in this paper is on cross-country comparison (particularly between the German and the Italian case studies), only those indicators are shown which were tested both in the German and the Italian questionnaire survey. Moreover, the table also provides information of whether the respective variables had also been used in the UK case study. For the single case studies, see in more detail Steinführer and Kuhlicke 2007, De Marchi et al. 2007 and Tunstall et al. 2007.

  5. 5.

    In the UK case studies also multivariate statistics were applied.

  6. 6.

    The application of SMCE to a case study requires specifying alternatives and criteria, for example to reduce social vulnerability. Alternatives and criteria can be defined directly by the local experts involved in the study or also by the residents. The first phase consists of the development of alternatives which is then followed by the selection of relevant criteria. Finally, different methods are used to compare the alternatives (Munda 2004 and 2008).

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Acknowledgments

The work described in this publication was supported by the European Community’s Sixth Framework Programme through the grant to the budget of the Integrated Project Floodsite (2004–2009; http://www.floodsite.net), contract GOCE-CT-2004-505420. The article reflects the authors’ views and not those of the European Community. Neither the European Community nor any member of the FLOODsite Consortium is liable for any use of the information in this article. We would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful and constructive comments.

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Kuhlicke, C., Scolobig, A., Tapsell, S. et al. Contextualizing social vulnerability: findings from case studies across Europe. Nat Hazards 58, 789–810 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-011-9751-6

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Keywords

  • Flood
  • Social vulnerability assessment
  • Indicators
  • Case studies
  • Europe
  • Interviews
  • Focus groups
  • Qualitative and quantitative methods
  • Triangulation