Saturday, May 19, 2012

On "risk thinking": risk as rationalization

To understand the relationship between technology, finitude and uncertainty, we need to appreciate how far the futures our use of technology creates are increasingly viewed through the lens of risk. The use of risk as a frame for representing the future to ourselves has become central to a wide range of areas of public life, including government and regulation, business, and health care. This has been largely a post-World War II phenomenon, becoming particularly evident during the decades since the 1970s, alongside the transition within industrialised societies from a consensual, essentially Keynesian socio-economic settlement (the age of centralised technocracies and welfarism, including the French régime général, the German Soziale Marktwirtschaft, the British Welfare State and later Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”) towards more fragmented, neo-liberal and initially monetarist social forms.

Risk Thinking
What Nikolas Rose has referred to as "risk thinking" is a loose collection of social practices and habits of mind which centre on the idea that social action can best be legitimated through the evaluation of probably consequences of actions. A substantial body of scholarship rooted in Science and Technology Studies has documented how a probabilistic and purportedly systematic view of potential future outcomes of action, drawing essentially on methods of failure management within engineering, became part of a wider social movement towards quantitative measurement and assessment of the outcomes of policy during the 1970s (Wynne 1992; Wynne 1996), drawing on a variety of developments in neo-classical economics, game theory, public choice theory and so on in a “search for new forms of legitimate order and authority” in a new neoliberal age (Wynne 1996, p. 78).

Calculating and managing risks offers a way of taming what, in this historical period, appears as an increasingly worrying tendency for even the most supposedly disciplined forms of social action to produce harmful unintended consequences. Most importantly, it promises to do so in ways which do not merely symbolically separate the orderly from the disorderly, irrational from rational, pure from the impure. Risk thinking should therefore be seen as an extension of well-established trends towards “rationalization” that are often (particularly by sociologists working in the Weberian tradition) taken to be synonymous with and as definitive of modernity (Turner 1993). Rationalization through risk thinking promises control, made possible by translating unknowns, through research and investigation, into known, quantifiable factors that can be entered into a theoretical model. 

Rationalization is generally associated with centralization – whether in industry, as in Fordism and Taylorism, or in government, as in the model of modernisation which drove the emergence of social insurance models across advanced industrial nations during the 20th century. Yet it is possible to see the increase in decentralization associated with neoliberalism as accompanied by an increase in rationalization. In fact, rather than decentralisation, neoliberalism means re-centralisation, associated with multiple centres of calculation. From this perspective, the breakdown of the post-war socio-economic consensus in the USA and Europe increased the need for societies to become “legible” and standardized to those (such as civil servants in government, but also increasingly including arms-length regulatory institutions and private businesses enrolled in increasingly privatised public services such as energy and water utilities) tasked with shaping and executing public policy (Moran 2007). 

With the emergence of neo-liberal states and their reliance on a wide variety of social actors, public and private, in extending and realising the executive power of government, the need for statistical inputs into policy increases, rather than decreasing. Everything from energy demand and food production levels, to educational attainment and healthcare outcomes becomes the subject of measurement, proportionate to the degree to which administrative responsibilities were re-distributed. The more distant from central government the actors who sustain the executive power of the state are, the more they are subjected to audit (Power 1997). Risk thinking extends this drive for measurement into the future, seeking to make it as legible and standardised as the spatial territory over which governance extends here in the present.

The promise of better management based on probability and the quantification of benefits and harms offers the prospect of erasing the distinction between what Tannert, Elvers et al (2007) call objective and subjective uncertainty. Facing a future populated by events which we may be unable to predict (objective uncertainty), we may be unable to decide which values or norms should guide us (subjective uncertainty). However, systematic risk analysis holds out the hope that, through careful research, the distribution of potential negative or positive outcomes can be characterized well-enough to provide us with firm guidance. As a manifestation of deeper processes of rationalization, risk thinking may be interpreted as an extension of the disenchantment that Max Weber saw as characteristic of modernity. 

The disenchantment of the world is founded on the growing authority of scientific knowledge in the modern age, which Weber and his champions assume gradually replaces religious consciousness and, more generally, symbolic modes of understanding reality. Freud, for instance, represents this development as growing societal momentum towards “disillusionment”. Religions, and moralities based on them, promote the symbolic effects of action, effects that scientific thinking criticises as necessarily illusory. By contrast, science enables us to understand the real effects of action by systematizing data about the world with which our particular bodily senses and cognitive capabilities provide us (Freud 1962). It replaces the connotative forms of thinking which characterise religion with denotative, positivist thought, where what is represented is the thing itself and its quantifiable, measurable properties.

But is this true of risk thinking? In the next post, I want to suggest that the demarcations it sets out to establish are no less symbolic and connotative than the categories employed by religious thought, and that they are inappropriate to deal with the kinds of uncertainty that accompany wide reliance on naturalised technologies. Rationalization, in this sense, retains something of a mythological core; probability and prophecy are perhaps not as easy to distinguish as risk thinking hopes.


Freud, S. 1962. The future of an illusion. London: Institute of Psychoanalysis.

Moran, M. 2007. The British Regulatory State: High Modernism and Hyper-Innovation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Power, M. 1997. The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tannert, C. et al. 2007. The ethics of uncertainty: In the light of possible dangers, research becomes a moral duty. EMBO reports 8(10), pp. 892–896.

Turner, B. S. 1993. Max Weber: from history to modernity. London: Routledge.

Wynne, B. 1992. Uncertainty and Environmental Learning - Reconceiving Science and Policy in the Preventive Paradigm. Global Environmental Change-Human and Policy Dimensions 2(2), pp. 111-127.

Wynne, B. 1996. May the sheep safely graze? A reflexive view of the expert-lay knowledge divide. In: Lash, S. et al. eds. Risk, environment and modernity: towards a new ecology.  London: Sage, pp. 44-83.

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