Spinning in circles? A systematic review on the role of theory in social vulnerability, resilience and adaptation research

Kuhlicke C., Madruga de Brito M., Bartkowski B., Botzen W., Doğulu C., Han S., ...More

Global Environmental Change, vol.80, 2023 (SCI-Expanded) identifier

  • Publication Type: Article / Article
  • Volume: 80
  • Publication Date: 2023
  • Doi Number: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2023.102672
  • Journal Name: Global Environmental Change
  • Journal Indexes: Science Citation Index Expanded (SCI-EXPANDED), Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI), Scopus, International Bibliography of Social Sciences, PASCAL, Aerospace Database, Aquatic Science & Fisheries Abstracts (ASFA), CAB Abstracts, Communication Abstracts, Environment Index, Greenfile, Metadex, Pollution Abstracts, Public Affairs Index, Veterinary Science Database, Civil Engineering Abstracts
  • Keywords: Adaptive behaviour, Coping, Deductive research, Inductive research, Natural hazards, Preparedness, Theorising
  • TED University Affiliated: Yes


An increasing number of publications focus on social vulnerability, resilience, and adaptation (SVRA) towards natural hazards and climate change. Despite this proliferation of research, a systematic understanding of how these studies are theoretically grounded is lacking. Here, we systematically reviewed 4432 articles that address SVRA in various disciplinary fields (e.g. psychology, sociology, geography, mathematics) for various hazards, including floods, droughts, landslides, storm surges, wildfires, tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcano eruptions. We focus on the extent to which these studies explicate the frameworks, theoretical constructs or theories they rely on. Surprisingly, we found that about 90% of the reviewed studies do not explicitly refer to a theoretical underpinning. Overall, theories focusing on individuals’ SVRA were more frequently used than those focusing on systems, society, groups, and networks. Moreover, the uptake of theories varied according to the hazard investigated and field of knowledge, being more frequent in wildfire and flood studies and articles published in social science journals. Based on our analysis, we propose a reflexive handling of theories to foster more transparent, comparable, and robust empirical research on SVRA.