Real, Imagined, and Displayed Fragility: Vulnerable Positions and Positioning in Society

Silvia Bonacchi
25.03.2021 - 27.03.2021
Hanna Acke


This year’s conference focuses on positions and positioning of vulnerability in emerging discourses and in conversational exchanges.

Vulnerability theories (for an overview cf. Gillespie 2008, Fekete/Hufschmidt 2016, Fineman 2017) are grounded in the deep changes of the human ecologies of our societies and in the sense of precarity and inequality that individuals feel in relation to mainstream groups and institutions. On the one hand, vulnerability is an intrinsic human condition related to our existence and being in the world— as thematized in recent studies about human fragility, body, and embodiment (for an overview see Schilling 1993, Holstein/Gubrium 2000). But on the other hand, the way vulnerability is felt and displayed depends on the way institutions create frames for resilience devices (for an overview see Greene 2002). As Travis exemplifies: “all bodies are vulnerable to illness; however, individuals may have a range of differing resources in order to mitigate the effects of illness. Thus, ‘resilience’ to illness and its effects are affected by laws on the cost, patenting, and distribution of drugs, the circumstances under which the state will pay for healthcare provision, the access to private healthcare afforded through agreement with employers, the care provided through private family arrangements, and the way these roles are recognised by the state” (Travis 2019: 304). Furthermore, an individual sense of being strong or being weak is widely dependent on the opportunity to join target groups which offer possibilities and feelings of belonging. In every situation in which individuals feel socially isolated (for example because of their non-normativity), positions of fragility open up. When people are fragile and exposed to attacks or even feel fragile, they try to find sustainment in groups and ideologies. Individuals and groups who feel fragile can make “vulnerability” their weapon for creating mechanisms of identification in a reversal of the relationship between the strong and weak, between oppressors and the oppressed, between the privileged and disadvantaged. An example of this would be “body positivity”, in which a supposed flaw that leads to marginalization or to the self-perception of marginality is translated into a discourse position of empowerment.
The social positioning of being “weak” provokes a gamut of reactions which represent a challenge for our “solidarity societies”: among them, the feeling that vulnerable subjects have to be “protected” leads to the position that these vulnerable subjects are “beyond” normally valid rules of society (for the notion of “vulnerability” in legal literature see Travis 2019) and ascribed a kind of “special status” which neutralizes regular social dialectics. This fact lead to a series of contradictions: in numerous cases, persons being perceived as “weak” or socially vulnerable (children, women, elders, people belonging to minorities, socially or physically disadvantaged people) are denied to speak out or even silenced. Silencing encompasses harassment or intimidation. Shaming and humiliation are targeted at vulnerable subjects to prevent them from speaking and at the same time deny the legitimacy of their speech. These acts are designed to “shut up” subjects when they raise issues that are not accepted or claim interactional roles that are denied them. A reversal of this position can be a staging of aggression and attacks (Bonacchi 2017) by vulnerable subjects who can claim for themselves special rights. Displaying one’s own fragility at the level of conversational strategies (“I know, I am weak, but…”, “I know, nobody cares about what I say but …”) and even being silent and silencing can be a reactive as well as proactive behaviour which can give rise to forms of aggression and offence (Wardhaugh 1986: 234). In this perspective, studies on vulnerability can lead to important outcomes at the level of effective social risk management (Cardona 2004) and disaster prevention (McEntire 2004).

The epidemiological situation caused by the pandemie of COVID-19, which severely affected us during the preparatory work for this conference and imposed its postponement until spring 2021, has led to serious restrictions on social, economic, and political life in various countries worldwide, laying bare not only the fragility of their health care systems, but also the vulnerability of institutions and citizens. This experience of weakness and fragility, lived directly in everyday life but not yet the object of academic reflection, strongly poses the theme of vulnerability as a challenge to our contemporary societies.

The concept of vulnerability opens up a series of infinite possible conjugations: victimization, fragility, weakness, disadvantage, being neglected, infantilized, ignored, excluded, and silenced. In all these declinations, vulnerability becomes the object of an appropriation through which those individuals potentially or actually wounded can now wound in a ransom impetus that disregards any logical justification, as shown in many cases in the last years (for example in Germany the rhetorics of the Reichsbürger or in Italy the rhetorics of the movement 5 Stars or Italian Brothers).

This leads to a series of (self-)presentation mechanisms at all levels that conference participants are called upon to describe in a wide range of manifestations: among them physical vulnerability, psychological vulnerability, social vulnerability, sexual and gender vulnerability, linguistic vulnerability, institutional vulnerability, verbal aggression.

Starting from these observations, we are interested in theoretical and empirical research that analyses contradictory discourses based on vulnerability positions and positioning. These positions can be expressed in agendas, arenas, and agencies (Spitzmüller/Warnke 2011):

Agendas When are claims of vulnerable positions and positioning used strategically by individuals and groups for themselves or for others to gain rights, power, status or resources?

Arenas In which forums and through which media do individuals and groups negotiate their and others’ belonging and stance as fragile individuals claiming special rights?

Agencies What are the possible options for actions arising from real, imagined, and displayed/staged vulnerability positions? Which are the apparatuses (‘dispositives’) and narratives of vulnerability?

The organisers approach these topics from an interdisciplinary linguistic perspective, and wish to invite researchers from all disciplines to contribute to disciplinary and interdisciplinary discussions. Not only linguists, but also psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists, psychotherapists and psychoanalysts, educational and social scientists, literary and cultural studies scholars, scholars of law as well as artists are welcome to provide their contribution to our conference, which wants to reflect on the phenomenology of vulnerability positions and positioning in the whole gamut of its implications and manifestations, as well as on how far this phenomenon has to be linked to contemporary perspectives and to crisis situations. The conference program will include lectures, working groups, and poster sessions. Students and doctoral students are welcome with contributions in various open formats (posters, films, photos, science slam, field work etc.).

The languages of the third conference in the series are English and German.

We are currently inviting abstracts of up to 300 words for participation. Please send a PDF with your proposal to und by email, together with a short biographical note and the titles of three of your publications no later than 30th November 2020. By 5th December 2020 you will be informed if your proposal was accepted. Abstracts submitted earlier may be notified before this date.
In case the epidemiological situation will not allow the conference to take place in Warsaw, we plan to hold it online.
Selected papers will be published in an edited volume with an international high-quality publisher.

The slots for the lectures are 30 minutes + 15 minutes discussion.

Confirmed Plenary Speakers:
Mitchell Travis (University of Leeds)
Michael Buchholz (International Psychoanalytic University, Berlin)
Pascal Nicklas (University of Mainz)
Tomasz Basiuk (University of Warsaw) & Carsten Junker (Technical University of Dresden)

Actual information:
Warschau – Bremen – Turku – Stockholm – Dresden, June 2020
Silvia Bonacchi – Ingo H. Warnke – Hanna Acke – Charlotta Seiler Brylla – Carsten Junker

Bonacchi, Silvia. 2017. Sprachliche Aggression beschreiben, verstehen und erklären. Theorie und Methodologie einer sprachbezogenen Aggressionsforschung. In S. Bonacchi (ed.), Verbale Aggression: Multidisziplinäre Zugänge zur verletzenden Macht der Sprache. Berlin u.a., 3–31.
Bonanno, G. A. 2004. Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience: Have We Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive after Extremely Aversive Events? American Psychologist, 59(1), 20–28.
Bonanno, G. A. & Gupta, S. 2009. Resilience after Disaster. In Y. Neria, S. Galea, & F. H. Norris (eds.), Mental Health and Disasters. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 145-160.
Bottero, W. 2007. Social Inequality and Interaction. Sociology Compass, 1(2), 814–831.
Cardona, O. D. 2004. The Need for Rethinking the Concepts of Vulnerability and Risk from a Hperspective: A Necessary Review and Criticism for Effective Risk Management. In G. Bankoff, G. Frerks, & D. Hilhorst (#eds.), Mapping Vulnerability: Disasters, Development & People. London: Earthscan, 37-51.
Doll, B., & Lyon, M. 1998. Risk and Resilience: Implications for the Delivery of Educational and Mental Health Services in Schools. School Psychology Review, 27, 348–363.
Fekete, A. & Hufschmidt, G. (eds.). 2016. Atlas Verwundbarkeit und Resilienz/Vulnerability and Resilience. Bonn/Köln
Fineman, M. 2017. Vulnerability and Inevitable Inequality. Oslo Law Review 4, 133-149.
Gillespie, D. F. 2008. Theories of Vulnerability: Key to Reducing Losses from Disasters. In Proceedings of the 21st International Conference of Social Work. Social Work and Human Welfare in a Changeable Community. Cairo, Egypt: Helwan University, 15–26.
Greene, R. R. (ed.). 2002. Resiliency: An Integrated Approach to Practice, Policy, and Research. Washington, DC: NASW.
Holstein J & Gubrium J. 2000. The Self we Live By: Narrative Identity in a Postmodern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McEntire, D. A. 2004. Development, Disasters and Vulnerability: A Discussion of Divergent Theories and the Need for Their Integration. Disaster Prevention and Management, 13(3), 193–198.
Norris, F. H., Tracy, M., & Galea, S. 2009. Looking for Resilience: Understanding the Longitudinal Trajectories of Responses to Stress. Social Science & Medicine, 68, 2190–2198.
Sachweh, S. 2008. Spurenlesen im Sprachdschungel - Kommunikation und Verständigung mit demenzkranken Menschen. Bern: Huber
Shilling C. 1993. The Body and Social Theory . London: Sage.
Spitzmüller, J. & Warnke, I. H. 2011. Diskurslinguistik. Eine Einführung in Theorien und Methoden der transtextuellen Sprachanalyse. Berlin: de Gruyter.
Travis, M.J. 2019. The Vulnerability of Heterosexuality: Consent, Gender Deception and Embodiment. Social and Legal Studies 28(3). 303-326
Wardhaugh, R. 2010. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Blackwell Publishing. 5 / 5

Wainwright, S. P. & Turner, B. S. 2003. Reflections on Embodiment and Vulnerability. J Med Ethics: Medical Humanities 29: 4–7
Zakour M.J. & Gillespie D.F. 2013. Vulnerability Theory. In Zakour, M. J./ Gillespie, D. (eds.): Community Disaster Vulnerability. Springer, New York, NY, 17-35.
Conference fees and payment
Until 31.01.2021: 300 PLN/70 EUR (regular), 150PLN/35 EUR (reduced, on demand), 80 PLN/20 EUR (PhD students), free (students, only 60PLN/15 EUR is demanded as contribution for catering costs). On demand it is possible to obtain an exemption from conference fees.
After 31.01.2021: 450 PLN/110 EUR, (regular), 250 PLN/55 EUR (reduced, on demand), 120 PLN/30 EUR (PhD students), free (students, only 60 PLN/15 EUR is demanded as contribution for catering costs).
On-site fee: 500 PLN/130 EUR
The payment can be done through bank account or through credit card (further information will be announced on our homepage:


Silvia Bonacchi

Real, Imagined, and Displayed Fragility: Vulnerable Positions and Positioning in Society, 25.03.2021 – 27.03.2021 Warschau, in: H-Soz-Kult, 02.07.2020, <>.
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