Social injustices, structural and personal crises as well as intensifying stress on some citizens seem increasing preoccupations in contemporary society and social policy. In this context, the concept of vulnerability has come to play a prominent role in academic, governmental and everyday accounts of the human condition. Policy makers and practitioners are now concerned with addressing vulnerability through an expansive range of interventions. As this special issue draws attention to, a vulnerability zeitgeist or ‘spirit of the time’ has been traced in contemporary welfare and disciplinary arrangements (Brown, 2014, 2015), which now informs a range of interventions and approaches to social problems, both in the UK and internationally. As prominent examples, ‘vulnerable’ people are legally entitled to ‘priority need’ in English social housing allocations (Carr and Hunter, 2008), vulnerable victims of crime are seen as requiring special responses in the UK criminal justice system (see Roulstone et al., 2011; Walkgate, 2011), ‘vulnerable adults’ have designated ‘protections’ under British law (Dunn et al., 2008; Clough, 2014) and vulnerable migrants and refugees are increasingly prioritised within international immigration processes (Peroni and Timmer, 2013). There is a long tradition in the field of social policy of critiquing the implications of particular concepts as mechanisms of governance, from poverty (Townsend, 1979; Lister, 2004) and social exclusion (Levitas, 1998; Young 1999) to risk (Beck, 1992; Kemshall, 2002) and resilience (Ecclestone and Lewis, 2014; Wright, 2016). Yet while vulnerability seems to be one of the latest buzzwords gathering political and cultural momentum, critiques and empirical studies of how it is operationalised in different policy and practice contexts are less well elaborated.