3. Bridging the political ethnographies of vulnerability

Vulnerability has become a highly debated and widely worked with paradigm for describing a variety of social fragmentations. For instance, it has been used in studies across various disciplines and institutions, often addressing a number of different realities. A floating signifier (Fassin, Rechtman 2007), vulnerability is both used to refer to an ontological understanding of how human experience is founded on a share exposure to harm (Nussbaum 1992, Butler 2016), as well as a framework of analysis of and fight against social injustices (Castel 1995; Agier 2004, 2008; Naepels 2019), as well as a public policy “sorting device” (Lipsky 1980). The politics of vulnerability (Garrau 2018) reveal the differential exposure to extreme forms of domination, shaped by race, class, gender, as well as sexuality, nationality, age, and ability among others, in an intertwined set of power relations.
Vulnerability has also been (re)visited in recent feminist work (Butler, Gambetti and Sabsay 2016; Gilson 2014), seeking to disentangle vulnerability from its association to passivity and fragility, and exploring the theoretical and political implications of thinking together vulnerability and resistance. Be it to study migration, climate, or health, ethnography has proven to be a valuable methodology to gain a nuanced and in-depth understanding of how vulnerability is deployed, experienced, and subject to conflict. In light of this development, we seek to organize a panel which will contribute to illustrate the role of ethnography in understanding vulnerability. How does using vulnerability as a lens impact ethnographic inquiry? How can ethnography reveal the politics of vulnerability? How can vulnerability serve to bridge knowledge across disciplines, while at the same holding the risk of constraining and binding groups to imposed categories? As vulnerability has multiple meanings, studies on vulnerability don’t always speak the same language, and struggle to converge in dialogue.
This panel will question the strengths and the pitfalls of using ethnography to empirically
apprehend vulnerability in situ. It will address how we understand and experience frictions
surrounding the boundaries of vulnerability, its meanings, and the political implications of its uses. We welcome contributions from a broad range of disciplines: sociology, anthropology, political science, history, geography, gender studies. We encourage participants whose work did not explicitly focus on vulnerability from the start, but found that it emerged as a relevant category of analysis through their fieldwork. We would like to foster a dialogue rooted in the contributors’ practice of ethnography, with a particular attention to reflexivity and standpoint.

Open questions
How do we account for hierarchization between vulnerable groups and individuals, and how does this impact the researcher’s position?
In what way does ethnographic research require reflection on the politics of being affected?
How do studies of practices of resistance include political understandings of vulnerability?
What and how can intersectionality contribute both to conceptual and methodological
approaches to vulnerability?
How do we, as researchers, pay attention to conservative political uses of vulnerability?

Reflexivity, categorization, inequality, vulnerability, intersectionality.

Agier, Michel. 2004. « Le camp des vulnérables. Les réfugiés face à leur citoyenneté niée ». Les Temps Modernes, 627(2), p. 120‐37.

Butler, Judith. 2016. « Vulnérabilité, précarité et coalition ». In Politiques de coalition. Penser et se mobiliser avec Judith Butler, Gardey, Delphine, Kraus, Cynthia, (ed.), Zurich: Seismo, p. 250-70.

Butler, Judith, Gambetti, Zeynep, Sabsay, Laeticia (ed.). 2016. Vulnerability in Resistance. Durham: Duke University Press.

Castel, Robert. 1995. Les métamorphoses de la question sociale. Paris: Fayard.
Fassin, Didier, Rechtman, Richard. 2007. L’empire du traumatisme: enquête sur la condition
de victime. Paris: Flammarion.

Garrau, Marie. 2018. Politiques de la vulnérabilité. Paris: CNRS Editions.
Gilson, Erinn. 2014. The Ethics of Vulnerability : A Feminist Analysis of Social Life and Practice. New York: Routledge.

Naepels, Michel. 2019. Dans la détresse: une anthropologie de la vulnérabilité. Paris: Éditions EHESS.

Nussbaum, Martha C. 1992. « Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism ». Political Theory 20 (2): 202‐46.

About the organizers:
Anne-Cécile Caseau (INJEP / LEGS)
Anne-Cécile Caseau holds a PhD in political science and gender studies from University Paris 8. Her work is situated at the intersection of gender, migration, and mobilization, with a focus on Roma migration in France. After completing a post-doctoral position at the Interdisciplinary Research Unit for the Evaluation of Public Policies (LIEPP) at Sciences Po, she is currently a
Fellow at the French Collaborative Institute on Migration, and teaching urban sociology,
qualitative research methods and gender studies at Sciences Po, University Paris 8, and
Nanterre University.

Sara Cesaro – Université Paris 8 – LEGS UMR 8238
Sara Cesaro is a PhD candidate in sociology and gender studies at Université Paris 8. She
currently is a graduate assistant in sociology at Université Toulouse 2 Jean Jaurès.
Her work focuses on the (re)configurations of support practices towards queer asylum seekers. Based on an ethnographic fieldwork, she questions the social conditions of production and maintenance of an expertise understood as specific, based on repertoires of action and work skills drawing on the sexual careers of volunteers. She is interested in the production of domination effects in support relationships, despite the effort to create a working space inspired by the principles of representative bureaucracy and contractualisation.

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