About one year ago I wrote a short contribution about the notion of risk and my research to a forum, just after I had for the first time met a colleague living in Helsinki who recommended this participation. The forum itself is maintained on the Cornell University Law School web site, and as the page says, is a collaboration among scholars from the “Asia-Pacific region, the United States, and around the world”. Risk and many other contemporary topics (including finance and crises) have appeared in the forums, and you can read the forums’ summaries here.
The post about risk is here in this link: http://meridian-180.org/node/1425.
As the entry is so concise and informative, I would simply recommend reading it if the theme of risk interests you. Having said that, there are many points that struck me as interesting regarding the application of the risk concept and I will record a few of them here for myself:
Firstly, all of the details on the notion and practices of risk seemed relevant and a nice contrast to the popular more general discussions about a contemporary “culture of risk”. That is to say, risk management problematizes hazards by asking specific questions like: What is the understanding and definition of a risk? Who gets compensated should such a risk occur, who should have been prepared? How does one mitigate risks and how does one communicate these measures to other actors? What about risks that cannot be quantified as a probability and a harm? Whether people use the concept of risk or not — and many do not as I found in my thesis — I would claim they often think about matters in such terms, at least in my own data from Finland.
Furthermore, these are not merely questions by and for safety experts (in the sense of having that as your profession). On the contrary, a social scientist studying risk, too, seems to be confronted these same kinds of questions or so I feel in my work. For example, how do you define your own notion of risk as a social analyst? What actors does this definition concern? Can each unwanted event be measured by its probability and harm? What other rational methods are there — and which do you suggest — for assessing such and other hazards? Just like other risk analysts, a social scientist then develops a dual relation to risk: she or he both studies other people who perceive and manage risk and reflects upon her or his own choices of what risk means as a concept and a method.
Another point invoked early on in the above link is that risk creates the condition of possibility for anticipating uncertainties. That seems like a nice summary and a point on the paradox of risk thinking: risk management is a means of anticipating what could probably go wrong and how harmful or costly that would be, but it does not really anticipate when this will happen or even predict whether it will happen at all. In other words, risk management establishes new ways of perceiving social problems and their mitigation, but also renders this mitigation different and in some cases even more limited than other means of managing uncertainties (such as rules of thumb, which may in some cases have greater predictive possibilities concerning what usually happens during day-to-day conduct). Another, further limitation can in some cases be posed by risk knowledge. If some unwanted event does not seem to have a measurable probability or a cost or the probability is too low to establish the event as a risk even if its consequences are perceived as catastrophic, then traditional risk analysis does not really grasp the event; that, in turn, is a problematic question in need of different assessment methods by experts.
Or, in any case, these are the general features of risk analysis. At the same time, the forum’s attention to the international and national comparative traits of risk seemed revealing. In many cases, it is no doubt easy to see how risk has become an international concept and a practice (for example, the proponents of risk management and analysis in my study, about a failure of a critical infrastructure, include the European Council and the US Department of Homeland Security). Nonetheless, especially to someone doing ethnography, it is apparent that risk management is always also enacted locally and finds different traits in different situations and locations. For example, in my case studies, the energy traders I have studied did not talk about their work in terms of risk, but in terms of skills. On the national scale, the concept of risk was likewise rarely used systematically though the energy experts I studied were certainly managing risks on an ongoing basis, as far as a social scientist would see it. Finding such other situated examples in other countries (like the other Nordic countries, continental Europe, or Estonia, Japan, or China) would certainly pose an interesting further step, and relevant examples abound in the forum summary linked above.