In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Vulnerability, Risk, and Hazards

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Historical Context
  • Definitions and Concepts
  • Geophysical Analyses
  • Social/Demographic Traits
  • Economic Vulnerability and Risk
  • Health Vulnerability and Risk
  • Political, Institutional, and Organizational Vulnerability and Risk
  • Infrastructure and Buildings Vulnerability and Risk
  • Research Methods and Measurement
  • Technological Advances and Tools
  • Managing the Risk
  • Mitigation

Geography Vulnerability, Risk, and Hazards
Jennifer J. Haney, Burrell E. Montz, Graham A. Tobin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 May 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0012


Consideration of the nexus between the geophysical and social components of natural hazards can be dated to Gilbert White’s recognition in 1942 that “floods are acts of God, but flood losses are largely acts of man [sic].” Since that time, hazards researchers have sought to understand the extent to which the losses from extreme natural events can be explained by physical processes of the events and characteristics of those at risk. This has led to considerations of how risk and vulnerability are conceptualized, measured, and mitigated. Some researchers have focused on geophysical risk and the vulnerability of locations, while others have been concerned with understanding vulnerability comprising social, demographic, and economic factors, no matter what the risk. As a result, the body of literature is diverse, with foci ranging from works addressing a physical perspective of risk to those documenting vulnerability as a product of the political-economic systems in which people reside. With this diversity has come a variety of definitions of the terms “risk” and “vulnerability.” For instance, risk analysts often define risk as the product of the probability of an event’s occurrence and its magnitude (i.e., probability × magnitude = risk), while hazards researchers in geography and other disciplines tend to view this relationship as including an exponent to account for social values or societal impacts (i.e., probability × magnitude n), although n may be difficult to measure. Similarly, much discussion in the literature deals with defining vulnerability, with some works equating it with risk and others expressing it in relationship to resilience. Yet, it has been recognized that the mitigation and adaptation options available to reduce risk and vulnerability may be quite different. This article addresses these topics by focusing on works that seek to improve our understanding of the complexities of each term and then turning to research that has advanced our understanding of how risk and vulnerability might be measured and, ultimately, mitigated to reduce losses. The references cited do not compose a definitive list of publications on vulnerability and risk but instead represent a sample of those available. The references have been organized into different categories based on general vulnerability factors, such that readers will see a cross-section of the available literature. However, many citations could easily fit into two or more categories; indeed, it is the overlapping and interdisciplinary nature of the topic that exemplifies this area of research.

General Overviews

The wide-ranging literature on natural hazards includes a number of works that discuss various approaches to incorporating the interactions of the physical environment, the socioeconomic and engineered systems in which they take place, and the factors that define risk and vulnerability in different contexts. Burton, et al. 1993 addresses these factors individually as well as their interactions through different temporal and decision-making scales. Mileti 1999 focuses on these interactions with an eye to developing disaster-resilient communities. Adger 2006 also addresses resilience and the interventions that may be needed to reduce vulnerability. This is similar to the focus in Cannon 1994 on the factors that affect vulnerability, with both works recognizing the complex situations that separate hazards from disasters. The theoretical framework presented in Cutter 1996 illustrates these interactions and sets the stage for future vulnerability analyses. Given these interactions, several publications address the need for integrated research, because the approaches and methods of social science are essential to sort out variations in risk, impact, and response. Examples of these are Phillips and Morrow 2007 and National Research Council Committee on Disaster Research in the Social Sciences 2006. Kasperson and Kasperson 2001 adopts this integrated approach in understanding environmental risk.

  • Adger, W. Neil. “Vulnerability.” In Special Issue: Resilience, Vulnerability, and Adaptation: A Cross-Cutting Theme of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change. Edited by Marco A. Janssen and Elinor Ostrom. Global Environmental Change 16.3 (August 2006): 268–281.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2006.02.006

    This article focuses on the interaction of social and physical ecosystems and the need for multilevel government involvement to increase capacity for resilience. Gradual incremental change, it is argued, may exacerbate vulnerabilities in coastal regions. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Burton, Ian, Robert W. Kates, and Gilbert F. White. The Environment as Hazard. 2d ed. New York and London: Guilford, 1993.

    The authors develop the natural hazards paradigm through an examination of how characteristics of events influence decision making and how individual and societal conditions constrain choices.

  • Cannon, Terry. “Vulnerability Analysis and the Explanation of Natural Disasters.” In Disasters, Development and Environment. Edited by Ann Varley, 13–30. Chichester, UK: Wiley, 1994.

    Hazards are natural; disasters are not. In this way, Cannon advances an idea of vulnerability that centers on economic and social systems, and access to resources with political power, as the driving force behind vulnerabilities.

  • Cutter, Susan L. “Vulnerability to Environmental Hazards.” Progress in Human Geography 20.4 (1996): 529–539.

    DOI: 10.1177/030913259602000407

    This article explores the ideas and definitions of vulnerability and culminates in the “hazards of place” concept, which emphasizes the importance of context in hazard studies. It provides a framework for looking at vulnerability in disaster settings.

  • Kasperson, Jeanne X., and Roger E. Kasperson, eds. Global Environmental Risk. London: Earthscan, 2001.

    Consisting of four parts, this volume seeks to characterize environmental risks, to understand the implications of them, and to evaluate the regional differences in threats and vulnerabilities. This book moves beyond risk as a scientific measure to one that is inextricably linked to society.

  • Mileti, Dennis S. Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States. Natural Hazards and Disasters. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry, 1999.

    This text summarizes, to some extent, what is known about hazards and coping strategies, with a view to promoting sustainable approaches to mitigation. Innovative paths and new directions are discussed along with new policy options.

  • National Research Council Committee on Disaster Research in the Social Sciences. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2006.

    This is a truly interdisciplinary text exploring the human dimensions of natural hazards. The authors recognize the challenges that research in hazards and disasters presents, and they promote interdisciplinary collaborations among social scientists, natural scientists, and engineers.

  • Phillips, Brenda D., and Betty Hearn Morrow. “Social Science Research Needs: Focus on Vulnerable Populations, Forecasting, and Warnings.” Natural Hazards Review 8.3 (August 2007): 61–68.

    DOI: 10.1061/(ASCE)1527-6988(2007)8:3(61)

    This article reviews the social science literature on warning responses and vulnerable populations and presents seven conditions where researchers have made significant contributions. New technologies, different methodological approaches, sampling designs, and participation are also discussed, leading to a series of recommendations for further research. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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