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Re-moralising ‘vulnerability’

Kate Brown


The idea that the ‘most vulnerable’ must be ‘protected’ has featured prominently in UK Coalition rhetoric aimed at legitimising reductions to state welfare provision. The same notion also influenced social policy across a number of arenas during the New Labour era. This approach seems to resonate with principles of social justice, and may at first appear to be beneficial to disadvantaged groups. Closer scrutiny reveals that singling out ‘the vulnerable’ for special care and attention is linked to a moralising agenda in social policy, helping to create and sustain binary oppositions about the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ within society. This paper will discuss some of the practical and theoretical implications of the utilisation of the concept of ‘vulnerability’ in contemporary social policy. The analysis questions how far a seemingly protective and therapeutic emphasis on vulnerability has more stigmatising and exclusive effects. It will be proposed that within certain policy contexts, the prioritisation of vulnerable groups can act a conceptual mechanism which emphasises personal accountability for the difficulties experienced by individuals, and is an approach at odds with rights-based approaches to citizenship.


DOI 10.3351/ppp.0006.0001.0005