Rethinking Vulnerability: Language, Power and Social Work


  • Ben Carl Bakker University of Sydney


The term ‘vulnerability’ has risen to prominence in social work and social policy in the 21st century, understood generally as a popular signifier of clients, groups and communities that require ‘intervention’. Proportionate to the magnitude of its use, critical engagement with the definition, function and ramifications of the term’s meaning has been significantly lacking in social work scholarship. This literature review engages specifically with the instability of the many meanings held within ‘vulnerability’, aiming to broaden an understanding of the term’s diverse constructions. The research findings position vulnerability as a complex and critical category, which is both receptive and active within the contexts it emerges. Consequently, the findings orient social work away from a generalised, transferrable definition, and instead towards embedding a process of critical deconstruction and reconstruction when using and responding to ‘vulnerability’. Finally, it is suggested that a greater appreciation for the word’s contested terrain will enhance social justice work in the areas of labelling and oppression.

Author Biography

Ben Carl Bakker, University of Sydney

Social Work Student


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Student edition 2021