Environmental Policy

Evaluating social vulnerability indicators: criteria and their application to the Social Vulnerability Index

Spielman, S.E.; Tuccillo, J.; Folch, D.C.; Schweikert, A.; Davies, R.; Wood, N.; Tate, E.


As a concept, social vulnerability describes combinations of social, cultural, economic, political, and institutional processes that shape socioeconomic differentials in the experience of and recovery from hazards. Quantitative measures of social vulnerability are widely used in research and practice. In this paper, we establish criteria for the evaluation of social vulnerability indicators and apply those criteria to the most widely used measure of social vulnerability, the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). SoVI is a single quantitative indicator that purports to measure a place’s social vulnerability. We show that SoVI has some critical shortcomings regarding theoretical and internal consistency. Specifically, multiple SoVI-based measurements of the vulnerability of the same place, using the same data, can yield strikingly different results. We also show that the SoVI is often misaligned with theory; increases in variables that contribute to vulnerability, like the unemployment rate, often decrease vulnerability as measured by the SoVI. We caution against the use of the index in policy making or other risk-reduction efforts, and we suggest ways to more reliably assess social vulnerability in practice.