Mini-series: In search of social justice: encountering, embodying and embracing vulnerability in the classroom

Blurry photo of dancers in black background.
Photo credit: Ahmad Odeh, Unsplash CC0

In this sixth post for the Mini-series “Curriculum as a site for Social Justice and Anti-Discrimination”, Agomoni Ganguli-Mitra, Lecturer and Chancellor’s Fellow in Bioethics and Global Health Ethics at Edinburgh University School of Law, explores the transformative approach of teaching through and with vulnerability…

This piece is based on a talk given at the Race.Ed Launch Event on 8 July 2020 on Creative Pedagogy.

My main task in the classroom, as I see it, is helping students hone their critical thinking skills and apply these tools to various aspects of bioethics, medical ethics, research ethics, and public health ethics. These skills are not only applied to analysing fact and value-based claims, to distinguishing the descriptive from the normative, but also in interrogating whether our policies, institutions and social structures truly lead to human health, wellbeing and flourishing.

Given that my own research engages closely with concerns of structural, epistemic and gender justice, concerns of justice naturally permeate any research-led teaching I undertake. And while it is possible to teach without attending to the more thorny and uncomfortable questions of justice, this wouldn’t be doing my discipline, or my students a favour. Over the years, examining the nature and scope of vulnerability and engaging with its normative pull in my research, has triggered fascinating discussions in the classroom, including the concept’s relationship with agency, moral and political obligation, and to social justice. There are often familiar patterns to those discussions, but also new and creative responses to current events, or prevalent social tensions and mood.

Bioethics has a long and fraught history with the concept of vulnerability, and continues to encounter it in various ways, for example in the clinical relationship, in research guidelines, and in public health measures. Depending on its conceptualisation and use, the term might target very specific individuals and groups (for example those who are deemed legally incompetent to consent) and leave many out of our moral horizon, who deserve our moral attention. On the other hand, it runs the risk of labelling entire groups as lacking the ability to govern their own lives, and of encouraging overly restrictive and protectionist policies. In thinking about vulnerability in narrow ways, we run the risk of pathologizing individual capacity, autonomy and agency, without attention to the structures and processes that render individuals vulnerable. The term can also be wielded by those in power to define and dismiss, while others are in turn defined and dismissed (1). The imposition of vulnerability, or the labelling of individuals, groups or communities as vulnerable has historically led to reinforcing oppression and silencing. Equally, history of research ethics also is filled with incidences of exploitation of those rendered vulnerable, by war, slavery, institutions, or by various features of the colonial and neoliberal global order. Recent calls around segmenting at-risk populations as public health measure, are ideal examples of the ways in which applying the concept of vulnerability, without attending to social justice and structural inequalities, can fail uphold the interest of those who are most adversely affected (2).

Engaging in critical thinking in bioethics not only requires that we engage with vulnerability, but also, at times, that we embody it. When introducing the concept of epistemic injustice, I often remind my students that entering a classroom as a not-very-tall, brown woman, I do not hold the same kind of epistemic authority that other colleagues might. It is both a pedagogical tool, and a way to remind ourselves of the cognitive biases that lead to othering. This is also important because in presenting their own arguments in class, I need students to also let down their guards slightly, to allow themselves to be vulnerable, in order to listen and critique their peers with reason and respect. Exposing my own vulnerability can be an emotionally exhausting task, but one that I hope ultimately nurtures resilience as well as intellectual allyship. Fostering and embodying vulnerability allows for ideas around social justice and structural inequalities to be examined with renewed honesty and creativity.

Finally, embodying vulnerability in the classroom has allowed me to rethink the nature and scope of social justice in the curriculum. In a curriculum that is traditionally based on applying the ideas of Hume, Kant, Aristotle, and others thinkers who have held incredibly problematic and harmful views about humanity, I am beginning to make space for decolonisation, and anti-racist scholarship.  I am increasingly aware of the vulnerability arising from resisting the canon, but I am willing to embrace it and to take the leap.


1. Ahmad, Chung, Eckenwiler, Ganguli-Mitra, Hunt, Richards, Saghai, Schwartz, Scully, Wild , ‘What does it mean to be made vulnerable in the era of Covid-19’, Lancet, (27.04.2020)

2. Ganguli-Mitra et al. ‘Segmenting communities as public health strategy: a view from the social sciences and humanities’, Wellcome Open Research, (26.05.2020):

photograph of the authorAgomoni Ganguli-Mitra

Agomoni Ganguli-Mitra  is Lecturer and Chancellor’s Fellow in Bioethics and Global Health Ethics at Edinburgh University School of Law, and Deputy Director of the JK Mason Institute for Medicine, Life Sciences and the Law. She is also a member of the Wellcome Trust-funded Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society, where she leads on the Centre themes Beyond Global and Beyond Sex. Dr. Ganguli-Mitra’s background is in bioethics, with a special interest in global bioethics, structural and gender justice. She has written on ethical issues related to global surrogacy, sex-selection, biomedical research in low-income countries, social value in research governance and the concepts of exploitation and vulnerability in bioethics.

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