The calculation of risk and probability is no longer confined to sectors such as insurance and engineering. The assessment and management of risk has become the business of government, the professions, and even individuals. We need to better understand the new relationship between risk and society.
A number of colleagues in SSPSSR are interested in the assessment, perception, management and communication of risk, but less in terms of formal procedures than understanding how and why concerns have evolved in this way, and what the consequences are likely to be. In other words – as one of our major projects was entitled – we are interested in the Social Contexts and Responses to Risk. Our concern is with reactions to risk as much as risks themselves, understanding that these can acquire a life of their own. In one current project, for example, we are looking at the distinctive Japanese practice of wearing face masks which is ostensibly concerned with protection from flu but is no longer restricted to when flu poses an actual risk. These reactions to perceived risk are shaped by a wide range of actors, and social, economic, cultural and political pressures. Understanding their influence and interaction is as important as understanding the nature of the hazard to which they relate.
Our approach to risk is distinctive in 4 ways:
Our constructionist emphasis draws upon social science research which understands that social concerns and problems are made in society.
Our interdisciplinary character: as well as sociological approaches we draw upon many other influences, from psychological research through to social policy.
Our critical emphasis: we recognise the continued need for evidence-based approaches to issues such as illegal drug use, and the wider importance of probabilistic understanding in particular contexts. At the same time we understand that, for example, institutionalised risk assessment and management is as likely to be a damaging ritual as a productive enterprise. Further, thinking and arguing exclusively in terms of probability and harm cannot be a substitute for discussion in other terms; such as what we think and can argue to be ‘right’.
Understanding of risk in relation to uncertainty
Our understanding of risk in relation to uncertainty: in many cases, it is the attempt to manage uncertainty that creates risk, not the other way around.