30.11. – 1.12.17 | How does vulnerability matter? An international conference


International con­fe­rence organized in Helsinki 30.11. – 1.12.2017 at The House of Science and Letters by the Research project Vulnerable Agency (Academy of Finland 2012 – 2017) directed by professor Marja-Liisa Honkasalo.

During the last decade, studies on vul­ne­ra­bi­li­ty have increased enor­mous­ly. When we started our research in 2012, vul­ne­ra­bi­li­ty was a novel approach to studying agency – one of the most central concepts of sociology. Our aims were to 1) cri­tical­ly scru­ti­nize the idea of ‘free choice’ from the point of view of health and illness; in this context agency is inesca­pably embedded – and vul­ne­rable; 2) conduct eth­no­grap­hy among extremely vul­ne­rable lives: the elderly in deficient home-care settings, people with serious drug addic­tions and people with tech­no­lo­gical­ly improved bodies and replaced body parts and, finally, 3) scru­ti­nize the implica­tions of vul­ne­ra­bi­li­ty on agency and ask how vul­ne­ra­bi­li­ty generates social ties and networks.

Today the concept of vul­ne­ra­bi­li­ty is vital in critical discus­sions on the limits of ‘freedom’ and ‘free choice’ – both central slogans in the inc­rea­sing pri­va­tiza­tion of the health care market, occurring in Finland as elsewhere.

Vulnerability has been widely used as a desc­rip­ti­ve concept in the study of fragile life situa­tions, socially excluded people and mino­ri­ties and, e.g. dependent human beings and animals. However, this articu­la­tion of the concept has been cri­ticized for being human-centered. The concept can also have a normative character, which refers to bio­lo­gical life, especial­ly climate change and non-human lives. In a normative sense and from a Foucauldian take on pro­duc­ti­vi­ty, vul­ne­ra­bi­li­ty in current neo-liberal societies can also be unders­tood as a vehicle for indi­vi­dua­liza­tion and identity politics. Vulnerability has also been used as an onto­lo­gical concept, a necessary feature of the human condition. This is probably the oldest meaning of vul­ne­ra­bi­li­ty which has been exten­si­ve­ly discussed e.g. in religious and ethical settings. When studying current societies, vul­ne­ra­bi­li­ty as an onto­lo­gical concept is frequent­ly modified to serve political ends.

This seminar examines the range of defi­ni­tions that vul­ne­ra­bi­li­ty is given today. Does vul­ne­ra­bi­li­ty matter – how? With inc­rea­singly broad articu­la­tions of the term, is it in the danger of losing its meaning? What kind of common deno­mi­na­tors do the various articu­la­tions share? How can researc­hers of vul­ne­ra­bi­li­ty com­mu­nica­te with one another?”

In addition, we invite papers, which discuss mate­ria­li­ty, affects and media­tions between social relations and the politics of vul­ne­ra­bi­li­ty. We invite par­tici­pants from all relevant subjects, such as social sciences, huma­ni­ties and the arts, phi­lo­sop­hy and medicine.


Don Kulick, Professor of Anthropology, University of Upsala, Sweden

Heini Hakosalo, University lecturer, University of Oulu

Kristiina Brunila, Professor (tenure track) of social justice and equality in education, University of Helsinki

INTRODUCTION: Marja-Liisa Honkasalo, Professor of Culture, Health and Well Being, University of Turku

Conference arranged by Academy of Finland research project ‘Vulnerable lives’ (2013−2017) in col­la­bo­ra­tion with the Finnish Anthropological Society.

Keynote abstracts available at

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