Critically engaging vulnerability: Rethinking oral health with vulnerabilized populations

Mary Ellen Macdonald (Lead / Corresponding author), Vanessa Muirhead, Janine Doughty, Ruth Freeman

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


This paper is the third in a series of narrative reviews challenging core concepts in oral health research and practice. Our series started with a framework for Inclusion Oral Health. Our second review explored one component of this framework, looking at how intersectionality adds important complexity to oral public health. This current manuscript drills into a second component of Inclusion Oral Health, exploring how labels can lead to ‘othering’ thereby misrepresenting populations and (re)producing harms. Specifically, we address a common oral public health label: vulnerable populations. This term is commonly used descriptively: an adjective (vulnerable) is used to modify a noun (population). What this descriptor conceals is the ‘how,’ ‘why,’ and ‘therefore’ that leads to and from vulnerability: How and why is a population made vulnerable; to what are they vulnerable; what makes them ‘at risk,’ and to what are they ‘at risk’? In concealing these questions, we argue our conventional approach unwittingly does harm. Vulnerability is a term that implies a population has inherent characteristics that make them vulnerable; further, it casts populations as discrete, homogenous entities, thereby misrepresenting the complexities that people live. In so doing, this label can eclipse the strengths, agency and power of individuals and populations to care for themselves and each other. Regarding oral public health, the convention of vulnerability averts our research gaze away from social processes that produce vulnerability to instead focus on the downstream product, the vulnerable population. This paper theorizes vulnerability for oral public health, critically engaging its production and reproduction. Drawing from critical public health literature and disability studies, we advance a critique of vulnerability to make explicit hidden assumptions and their harmful outcomes. We propose solutions for research and practice, including co-engagement and co-production with peoples who have been vulnerabilized. In so doing, this paper moves forward the potential for oral public health to advance research and practice that engages complexity in our work with vulnerabilized populations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)469-475
Number of pages7
JournalCommunity Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology
Issue number6
Early online date9 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021


  • dental public health
  • health disparities
  • oral health
  • public health
  • vulnerability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Dentistry
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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