Evaluating social vulnerability indicators: criteria and their application to the Social Vulnerability Index

Abstract

As a concept, social vulnerability describes combinations of social, cultural, economic, political, and institutional processes that shape socioeconomic differentials in the experience of and recovery from hazards. Quantitative measures of social vulnerability are widely used in research and practice. In this paper, we establish criteria for the evaluation of social vulnerability indicators and apply those criteria to the most widely used measure of social vulnerability, the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). SoVI is a single quantitative indicator that purports to measure a place’s social vulnerability. We show that SoVI has some critical shortcomings regarding theoretical and internal consistency. Specifically, multiple SoVI-based measurements of the vulnerability of the same place, using the same data, can yield strikingly different results. We also show that the SoVI is often misaligned with theory; increases in variables that contribute to vulnerability, like the unemployment rate, often decrease vulnerability as measured by the SoVI. We caution against the use of the index in policy making or other risk-reduction efforts, and we suggest ways to more reliably assess social vulnerability in practice.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The SoVI is constructed using over two dozen variables; the specific formulation varies over time and application. For those familiar with principal components analysis, the index is constructed by summing the first n components of from PCA. This yields a continuous numeric score. The original formulation of SoVI retained 11 components retaining 76% of the variance in the original data set.

  2. 2.

    Palm and Caruso (1972) discuss some problems that emerged in urban studies due to the use of labels applied to cities. We review this in more detail in Sect. 6.

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Acknowledgements

To facilitate advances to current practice and to allow replication of our results, all of the code and data used in this analysis is open source and available at (https://github.com/geoss/sovi-validity). Funding was provided by the US National Science Foundation (Award No. 1333271) and the U.S. Geological Survey Land Change Science Program.

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Spielman, S.E., Tuccillo, J., Folch, D.C. et al. Evaluating social vulnerability indicators: criteria and their application to the Social Vulnerability Index. Nat Hazards 100, 417–436 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-019-03820-z

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Keywords

  • Social vulnerability
  • Evaluation
  • Social indicators