Vulnerability as a heuristic concept for interdisciplinary research: assessing the thematic and methodological structure of empirical life course studies

Doris Hanappi, Laura Bernardi, Dario Spini


Changes in human lives are studied in psychology, sociology, and adjacent fields as outcomes of developmental processes, institutional regulations and policies, culturally and normatively structured life courses, or empirical accounts. However, such studies have used a wide range of complementary, but often divergent, concepts. This review has two aims. First, we report on the structure that has emerged from scientific life course research by focusing on abstracts from longitudinal and life course studies beginning with the year 2000. Second, we provide a sense of the disciplinary diversity of the field and assess the value of the concept of ‘vulnerability’ as a heuristic tool for studying human lives. Applying correspondence analysis to 10,632 scientific abstracts, we find a disciplinary divide between psychology and sociology, and observe indications of both similarities of—and differences between—studies, driven at least partly by the data and methods employed. We also find that vulnerability takes a central position in this scientific field, which leads us to suggest several reasons to see value in pursuing theory development for longitudinal and life course studies in this direction.



vulnerability, life course, risks, resources, stress process, social context

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