Conceptualising Risk: A theoretical and practical agenda

To my concern, this Blog has been on-line for nearly one year without none of the readers signaling a very important element: what is this all about? Similarly to the report on 'Governing the Innovation' this is the second of a series of posts which will define the ways in which terms are used and to provide some guidance also for potential contributions from other authors in relation to the themes of this Blog.

Risk is an elusive concept and it is widely known that the understanding of risk differs widely across disciplines, theories and even individual scientists. For instance, at a micro level of analysis, risk management is associated with probabilities, calculations, risk reduction and allocation mechanisms. According to this view risk calculations are used to regulate the behaviour human agents within organisations, to help the design of mechanisms to 'track' blames, monitor roles and assign responsibilities. A risk can be the probability of the occurrence of an unintended or unplanned effect or the consequence or effect of an illegitimate course of action. Many authors have dwelled with the idea of risk, but even more recent accounts and explanations can be associated either with the model of risk management summarised above or to the authors below.

Mary Douglas, famous for her work on risk perception across cultures and founder of modern cultural theory, explains that risk is a very powerful concept also at the macro level of analysis in the social sciences. Its scientific validity and precision, and yet its vagueness and elusiveness can be shaped and modelled at whim. In this way the concept of risk contributes to the construction of social priorities and affect the way in which risks are faced and dealt with in different societies. According to Mary Douglas, irrespective of whether the public understands risk in comparative terms, it is not risk calculations that are important, since the very same notion of risk is considered and recorded as unacceptable. Therefore the notion of risk, understood in the terms outlined above, risks to become a political tool to justify a course of action, and again, to assign guilt and responsibilities accordingly.

Michael Foucault's idea of 'governmentality' can also add interesting insight into the concept of risk. Governmentality is the process of population regulation and control which since the 16th century has sealed the emergence of the modern idea of state in Europe. Knowledge about people's conditions, gathered via demographic statistics, life expectancy, the calculation of mortality and birth rates, would be used to deploy and prioritise resources, assign tasks and produce technologies aimed at the well being of the population. Therefore, Foucault's idea of governmentality, even if not directly aimed at explaining risk, understands it as a 'discourse' which places the citizen at the centre of a net of expert systems of knowledge. These create 'rings' of control propagating the language of the socially considered appropriate or risk free behaviour. That is why for Foucault risk is a 'moral technology' to dominate time and discipline the future, to make it predictable and controllable.

Following now the ideas of Ulrick Beck and Anothony Giddens, risk is considered an embedded component of modern society. Beck explains the society we live in essentially a 'risk society'. The risk society emerges from the recognition that the nature of risk is global. Risk, again, is not a rational calculation, but its perception, construction and understanding leads to the emergence of new social phenomena. Similarly to Foucault, Beck and Giddens acknowledge the role of expert systems of knowledge in relation to nature of risk. For instance, experts of various kinds are consulted (or 'evoked') before decisions concerning our health or major life events (such as having a baby) occur. However, Beck and Giddens provide also a rather different insight and level of analysis. Giddens' idea of modernity is understood as 'in the making' of a modern society looking at the changes and revolutions of daily life. Individualisation, dis-aggregation and reflexivity are the processes which Giddens identify as the main facets of the transition to modernity. In each of the former the individual assumes an attitude of continuos re-exploration and re-assessment of herself, facing uncertainty, anxiety and dubious. As a result, expert knowledge systems become the major sources of appropriate information and behaviour to reduce or minimise risk.

Giddens' approach to risk is in many instances similar to Beck's. However, whereas for Giddens the processes of isolation, disaggregation and reflexivity is lived problematically, according to Beck it instead becomes an exigency of the individual in the post-modern age. As a result such understanding promotes the creation of international cooperative and multi-lateral institutions, where the narrowly national boundaries of politics become less relevant in the creation of global alliances, the emergence of new transnational political parties, and organisation forms beyond those of traditional hierarchies and bureaucracies. Beck's standing therefore is not inscribed at the individual level of analysis, but looks at the global dimension and idiosyncrasies that the passage to modernity implies in terms of governance and dis-aggregation and re-groping of social and political movements internationally.

If we are to link up our previous entry on innovation with risk it could be argued that innovations carry with themselves an implicit or explicit element of risk. Since not only the consequences of applying new methods of thinking and doing is not predictable, thus generating risks and side effects, but also the way in which the innovation will spread, diffuse and be used is not controllable even when risk management techniques are used. Following Claudio Ciborra's extensive study 'From Control to Drift' and the forthcoming evaluation of risk in the creation of large scale information infrastructures, he explains that attempts to control risks or their occurrence generate in turn new risks and challenges that can ramify into outcomes which were neither originally thought of, nor predictable in the first place.

Ultimately, whether at the micro or macro level risk is understood as being somehow un-detachable from any type of innovation processes, not only it is associated with the transition to modernity and globalisation at the individual and institutional level but affects also the choices of individuals and institutions themselves. For instance, until now, the way in which organisations and modern legislation have worked is by socialising risk from individuals to group responsibilities creating companies with 'limited liability' where individual's errors, mistakes or irresponsible behaviour has been effectively shielded against responsibility. A more insightful understanding of the governance mechanisms in place beyond and above the networks of organisations as well as their checks and balances therefore is needed.

In concluding this second entry comments will be highly welcome for either of the following:

d) Opinions, ideas, feedback or comments about what was outlined.
e) Suggestions about reading material, documentation, or other sources of information.
f) Provide an alternative view.

(Posted by Daniele Navarra at 29 June, 2004) --- Permalink ---