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

Christian Kuhlicke, Mariana Madruga de Brito, Bartosz Bartkowski, Wouter Botzen, Canay Doğulu, Sungju Han, Paul Hudson, Ayse Nuray Karanci, Christian J. Klassert, Danny Otto, Anna Scolobig, Thais Moreno Soares, Samuel Rufat

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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.
Original languageEnglish
Article number102672
Number of pages13
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
Early online date28 Apr 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2023

Bibliographical note

© 2023 Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an author-produced version of the published paper. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy.


  • Natural hazards
  • Preparedness
  • Adaptive behaviour
  • Coping
  • Inductive research
  • Deductive research
  • Theorising

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