What does vulnerability mean? Life course research seen through the prism of television series

What does vulnerability mean? Life course research seen through the prism of television series

The concept of vulnerability has become increasingly important in social sciences to explain different phenomena of fragility in the face of new social risks. The National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES has made important contributions to this theoretical reflection through its interdisciplinary approach. This has just resulted in a major publication and several important scientific collaborative projects about life course paradigms. For a better understanding of these developments, a detour via entertainment can be quite revealing. Scriptwriters of the most popular series have intuitively understood what the studies demonstrate: danger is most stressful when it combines both professional and private life. The individual must fight threats at different levels, including threats to his bodily integrity, as well as his relationships, identity and values. Finally, temporality is essential, both to the pace of a good story and in the course of real life.

People have been readily fascinated by series, with their dose of suspense and surprises, for as long as newspapers have existed. In the 20th century, television series replaced printed stories. With the third millennium and the digital revolution, their importance has grown with an increase in the choice and accessibility of shows. One of the most emblematic series of the 2000s was 24, which recounted, in almost real time, the daily life of Jack Bauer, a federal agent in the Counter Terrorist Unit. During the first season the hero was responsible for the protection of a candidate for the presidential election. At the same time his own family was under threat: his wife and daughter had been kidnapped. Excitement guaranteed for viewers who quickly became addicted to the story, thanks to the gripping pace and desperate energy emanating from the main character who, without his emotional bonds, would have been a ‘simple’ superman devoid of human complexity.

In the years since, countless series have used the recipe combining professional with private ingredients as a guarantee of success. This tension across different life domains – relationships, place of living, activities, health – is also the first line of investigation by the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES – Overcoming vulnerability: Life course perspectives (NCCR LIVES). This scientific programme based at the University of Lausanne and the University of Geneva, with collaboration in Zurich, Berne, Fribourg, Basel, Lucerne, etc. has just published a special issue of the prestigious American journal Research in Human Development. This is an important stage in the theorisation of the concept of vulnerability, considered to be the most likely to federate multiple disciplines of social sciences involved in life course research.

Diffusion of stress

According to Dario Spini, Laura Bernardi and Michel Oris, the editors of the publication, “vulnerability is a lack of resources in one or more life domains that, in specific contexts, exposes individuals or groups to (1) negative consequences related to sources of stress; (2) an inability to cope effectively with stressors; and (3) an inability to recover from stressors or to take advantage of opportunities by a given deadline.” The authors appeal for a “systemic and dynamic” vision of vulnerability in the life course, and propose three orientations for research. Firstly, they consider that the process of diffusion of stress and the mobilization of resources is multidimensional, that it crosses different domains of life, as Jack Bauer’s situation illustrates. The three researchers go on to propose that the process is multilevel in nature, from the micro to the macro. This means that when observing vulnerable people, their social and normative environment must also be taken into consideration. Lastly, they underline that the analysis of vulnerability in the life course must be multidirectional: Vulnerability evolves over time, is subject to variations for which causes are rarely simple to identify, and escapes neither retrospective interpretation nor corrective anticipation.

The best example produced by an American studio to illustrate the three above-mentioned perspectives is Breaking Bad. The series won several awards and garnered acclaim from critics and viewers alike between 2008 and 2013. Five seasons tell the story of a man simple in appearance, a chemistry teacher in a suburban high school. He turns to producing drugs to provide for his family when he learns he has cancer. The intrigue skilfully combines Walter White’s two occupations – one legal, the other illegal – with his family’s financial and health problems – a pregnant wife, a disabled son, his almost paternal relationship with his accomplice, a police officer as brother-in-law, and his chemotherapy treatment which he must undergo and finance. His production of methamphetamine brings about a devastating chain of events which drag him further and further down the road to immorality.

Conflicting norms

If the series was such a success, other than for its cinematographic qualities, it is due to a main character each of us can identify with: a perfect representative of the middle class who is drawn into an unknown world, haunted by his conscience, but relishing the crimes he is led to commit. This example shows to what degree our referential norms can be brought into confrontation: do I have the right to do wrong to take care of my family? Is respect for the law simply a cowardly front, whereas the adrenaline generated by illegality makes a sick man finally feel truly alive? Do society’s expectations – be a good parent, earn an honest living, accept our lot – equip us for the unforeseen if the welfare State is defective?

This is, in part, the theme of the multilevel orientation proposed by the NCCR LIVES. In the special edition dedicated to vulnerability, Eric Widmer and Dario Spini publish a slightly provocative article establishing the notion of “misleading norms”. These are codes of conduct which are taken for granted but over time may lead to unfavourable developments. The two researchers take the example of parent couples with preschool children whereby the mother withdraws from professional life to conform to the predominant expectations of Swiss society. With the increase in the number of divorces, this norm of the stay-at-home mother leads to a high risk of vulnerability for those who look for a job later. To a lesser extent, the norm of the bread-winner father can prevent certain men from developing adequate relationships with their children, a situation that might make them suffer after a separation.

Little tales in the great history

The third approach, the multidirectional aspect, is easily explained using the British series, Downton Abbey. This saga, which covers the period from 1912 to the middle of the 1920s, evokes different historical events (the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War, the Spanish Flu, the Irish War of Independence, etc.) which have an impact on all the characters. The temporal dimension is not merely a background to create a context. Following the same characters over several years, and observing the evolution of successive generations, makes it possible to understand a highly-debated principle central to life course research: the accumulation of advantages and disadvantages, which is not always as mechanical as determinist approaches may lead us to think. Downton Abbey accentuates the relationships between and within social classes – aristocrats and servants, observing their practices and opinions, a reminder of the multilevel approach. And as in any good series, the multidimensional approach adds to the intrigue and gives the characters more depth.

It is noteworthy that in both the articles forming the special issue of Research in Human Development, and the three series referred to, inequality between men and women is patent. In 24, the hero’s wife and daughter are just sidekicks cast as victims. In Breaking Bad the main character’s wife is a stay-at-home mother about to give birth, despondent about her frustrated literary ambitions. And in Downton Abbey, the daughters cannot inherit, and this is the essential starting point for the narrative.

Higher risks for women

The gender theme is indeed central to the articles in the special edition about vulnerability published by the NCCR LIVES. The article focusing on the multidimensional theme, by Laura Bernardi, Grégoire Bollmann, Gina Potarca and Jérôme Rossier, demonstrates that the transition to parenthood affects women’s well-being much more than that of men, in their efforts to reconcile family, work and leisure; whereas personality differences have only limited impact. The article by Eric Widmer and Dario Spini about the multilevel theme effectively shows, as explained above, that women pay a higher price for respecting gender norms and staying at home to bring up their children. Finally, the article about the multidirectional aspect by Michel Oris, Rainer Gabriel, Gilbert Ritschard and Matthias Kliegel examines poverty in old age in Switzerland. The article illustrates that the most vulnerable are, once again, predominantly women: A part of the population which did not accumulate the necessary capital resources, in economic, social, cultural and institutional terms, before their retirement.

Television series may not represent real life, but research about life courses attempts to grasp it, to have a better understanding of the mechanisms. The common point between entertainment and scientific studies is the interest in the darker side of our existence, where human beings feel vulnerable. The difference is that research also attempts to understand what may help overcome the difficulties, whereas series take a perverse pleasure in making their characters suffer. “Happy endings” are becoming less and less fashionable because they generate less anticipation for a possible future season. Research on the other hand, has everything to gain from examining why some fare better than others. Understanding agency – in other words, the capacity for action which is vital to resilience – is the real challenge for future life course research, conclude Kenneth Ferraro and Markus H. Schafer, the American researchers asked to comment on this special edition: A publication which definitively positions LIVES as an academic standard internationally.

>> Dario Spini, Laura Bernardi, Michel Oris (2017). Vulnerability across the Life Course. Research in Human Development. Vol. 14, Issue 1.

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