Sociology of Risk Research Paper

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I. Introduction

II. Defining Risk, Risk Assessment, Risk Evaluation, and Risk Management

A. Risk Defined

B. Technical Risk Assessment, Evaluation, and Management

1. Risk Assessment

2. Risk Evaluation

3. Risk Management

C. The Problem: Factual and Value Uncertainties

III. The Allocation of Risks and Social Inequality

IV. Social Responses to the Inadequacies of Risk Assessment

V. Conclusions

I. Introduction

Since their evolutionary origins humans have been confronted with risk—threats to themselves and what they value. It will always be so, even if the threats change dramatically, from that of the saber-toothed tigers threatening our ancestors to the possibility of runaway nanotechnologies facing our descendents. Roots of the idea of risk, that humans can exercise their unique quality of agency to anticipate, assess, avoid, or reduce risk consequences can be traced to very ancient times. For example, in the Tigris-Euphrates valley around 3200 BC lived a group called the Asipu who acted as a new type of seer, not as one who claims to foresee the future, but one who is consulted on risky, uncertain, or difficult decisions (Covello and Mumpower 1985). Still in ancient times, 1700 BC, the Code of Hammurabi included a variety of proscriptions about risk in its 282 clauses.

But the early foundations of the modern idea of risk do not occur until centuries later, in classical Greece. It was there that we find the first use of the word risk (rhiza) in the works of Homer. It is there, too, that we find the first instance of risk transfer, an incipient version of modern day insurance called “bottomry.” It was a loan made to a ship owner to finance the ship’s voyage, but remarkably enough, the debt was forgiven if the ship was lost or sunk (Ziskind 1974). Evolving over the centuries that followed was a refined version of bottomry that we now know as modern insurance, in all its variations.

Despite these ancient beginnings, and despite subsequent refinements accompanying the rise of the insurance industry, risk as an analytic tool is a product of high modernity. More particularly, risk is a child of advanced industrialization with its vast increase in the scale and interconnection of complex technologies. The increased complexity of technology was punctuated with the technological advances of World War II—especially the harnessing of the atom for destructive purposes. After the war, the vast potential of that knowledge was directed not only at making larger destructive devices but also for peaceful purposes, principally in the commercial application of nuclear energy for the generation of electricity. And it is in the nuclear industry, owing to the prodigious growth in the size of nuclear reactors, that we find the first applications of formal risk assessment with the application of probabilistic risk assessment (PRA) (cf. U.S. Atomic Energy Commission 1975). PRA is a highly reductionistic methodology where all the components of a technological system are broken down into their elementary parts, where the probability of each part is estimated, and where overall risk is the aggregation of these individual risks. While other assessment techniques followed PRA, its rational, reductionistic framework continues to dominate the field of risk assessment (Jaeger et al. 2001).

Acknowledgment that the world is sated with natural and human-created risks, recognition that the social fabric itself is at risk (Short 1984), and realization that risk is manifested in ever increasing consequences led to a recognition that risk is unavoidable—but subject to anticipation and management. It also led to making risk analysis the key analytic lens for anticipating the untoward outcomes of natural or social forces. The analysis of “natural” and technological risks has now become an institutionalized practice in developing public policy and in establishing standards and regulations.

The pervasiveness of risks and recognition of the need to anticipate and manage them not only stimulated new tools, such as risk analysis, but also a new consciousness. The contemporary era, whatever one’s preferred sociological label, is replete with risks of a scale and magnitude unknown to history. Looming large for the global community is a variety of highly dreaded risks: risks of the detonation of nuclear weapons, risks of expanding the holes in the ozone layer protecting us, risks of global warming, risks of new knowledge (e.g., cloning and bionanotechnology), risks of bringing more species to extinction while creating new species, risks of terrorism, risks of both natural and technological disasters, and perhaps the ultimate risk, that of over exploiting nature’s capital. These and myriad other contemporary risks reflect the new consciousness as well as provide grist as natural for the sociological mill as one would hope to find.

Despite the promising grist, sociology was slow to recognize the pervasiveness of risk in daily human choices or in major decision challenges for society as a whole. Early beginnings to process the grist can be found in the 1940s, with sociological work on natural disasters. But, a focused sociological attention to risk did not occur until the mid- 1980s, on the heels of America’s most serious nuclear mishap at the Three Mile Island facility in Pennsylvania in March 1979 (Freudenburg and Rosa 1984; Perrow [1984] 1999; Short 1984). Since then, the topic has attracted steady, if sporadic, attention. In the United States, sociologists continue to investigate natural disasters (e.g., Stallings 1995) while adding social psychological (e.g., Rosa, Matsuda, and Kleinhesselink 2000), as well as organizational studies (e.g., Clarke 1989; Perrow [1984] 1999; Vaughan 1996). A focus of particular sociological attention has also been on the distribution of risks as a reflection of class and racial injustice (Albrecht 1995; Brown et al. 2003; Bullard 1994; Szasz and Mueser 1997).

European sociology also awoke to the importance of risk in the mid-1980s (see Rosa 2000 for a review of the principal theories). Appearing on the heels of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Ukraine in April of 1986 was the highly influential book by German theorist Ulrich Beck ([1986] 1992), The Risk Society. Stimulated by the Chernobyl accident, Beck did not simply reflect on the many risks of contemporary society but instead identified risk as the foundational strut of high modernity. Whereas in past society, the principal preoccupation was with the distribution of “goods,” the high modern era had reversed the order of concerns. For the contemporary society, the distribution of “bads” became its principal preoccupation; it is, therefore, aptly called the “risk society.”

Other European theorists rang in on the same general theme. Risk so dominated the structure and consciousness of this era that it must occupy a central role in theorizing society. Anthony Giddens (1990), in agreement with Beck, argues that the era of high modernity represents a sharp break with the past, due to the “manufactured” nature of risks and the threats of ecological crises. German Niklas Luhman (1982), a system theorist, argues that risk has come to dominate social systems because many of the features of society that were defined as danger and external to social systems (and beyond human control) have been internalized. With their increased internalization came the increased pressure to assess and manage them. Complementary arguments emphasize the increased vulnerability and fragility of human societies due to the risks that accompany the sophistication and spread of knowledge (Stehr 2001).

This research paper is designed to introduce a wider readership to the sociology of risk. The approach to meeting this goal is to cover key, selected issues in depth, rather than provide a broad coverage that would result in a veneer of the field. Our choice of substantive coverage stems from an emphasis on those risk topics most consonant with mainstream sociological concerns. The paper begins with an explanation of the formalities of risk assessment, including a definition of risk and definitions of conventional terms in the field. Covered next is doubtless one of the most challenging issues with risk: how to integrate risk assessment (what’s our best guess of the likelihood of realizing a risk?) with public preferences and public policies for determining which risks are worth taking. Examined next is a risk topic that stems from mainstream sociological issues of inequality. Many risks reinforce racial, gender, and class injustices, providing the topic with another venue for exposing obdurate discriminations in American society. Next comes a discussion of social and political responses to the inadequacies of risk assessment, especially where there are efforts to trump citizen concerns with the quantitative results of formal assessments. Finally, sketched out are key gaps in the field and new directions in research.

II. Defining Risk, Risk Assessment, Risk Evaluation, and Risk Management

The field of risk assessment is characterized by both consensus and conflict over terminology. This section contains a brief discussion of basic risk terminology: Risk is defined; major components of risk assessment, risk evaluation, and risk management are presented; and the limitations of these formal techniques are outlined (see also Dietz, Frey, and Rosa 2002).

A. Risk Defined

Most technical definitions emphasize the idea that risk is the product of the probability and adverse consequences for humans resulting from exposure to a hazard (Lowrance 1976:70–74). Adverse effects to human health include death, disease, and injury. Such effects can be either acute or chronic; acute refers to adverse effects that occur quickly, whereas chronic refers to adverse effects that occur over a long period of time. Hazards are environmental agents that have acute or chronic effects on human health, such as cigarettes, pesticides and other toxic agents, technology, events, and the like. Rosa (1998:28) provides a broader, more epistemologically grounded definition, whose breadth comprises both undesirable risks (such as those above) and desirable risks (e.g., BASE jumping), and whose defining features are independent of human perceptions. Risk is a situation or event where something of human value (including humans themselves) is at stake and where the outcome is uncertain.

B. Technical Risk Assessment, Evaluation, and Management

In view of terminological controversies it is important to be clear about the meaning of the key, consensus components of the effort to assess, evaluate, and manage risk. Each component is briefly discussed in the following sections.

1. Risk Assessment

Risk assessment is typically defined as the estimation of the probability and magnitude of adverse effects on humans resulting from exposure to a hazard. The U.S. National Research Council (1983) has identified four distinct steps in risk assessment: (1) hazard identification, (2) dose-response assessment, (3) exposure assessment, and (4) risk characterization.

Hazard identification is the process of establishing that a substance, technology, or event may adversely effect human health or result in death. Various techniques have been used in the identification of hazards, including epidemiologic and laboratory methods. Adverse consequences of interest may include traumatic injury, cancer and other chronic diseases, reproductive problems such as sterility or miscarriage, neurobehavioral problems, acute and chronic damage to specific organs of the body, birth defects, and, of course, premature death. The goal is to establish a causal link between exposure to a hazard and an adverse health effect or death.

Dose-response assessment seeks to determine the link between exposure magnitude and adverse health effects or death. This step often includes the determination of the extent to which various subpopulations experience different exposure levels and other factors that may affect response to the hazard. This step is essentially one of estimating the nature and magnitude of health effects for humans under different conditions of hazard exposure through the use of epidemiologic and animal studies.

Exposure assessment is typically understood as the determination of the nature and degree of human exposure to a hazard. The source, route, dose, frequency, duration, and timing of hazard exposure, as well as the types of population exposed to the hazard are the goals of exposure assessments.

Risk characterization is a summary of the information about the probability and magnitude of adverse consequences identified in the other three steps. Risk characterizations are quantitative estimates of the nature and degree of risk associated with hazard exposure and will often contain information on the uncertainty (such as error bounds on statistical data) associated with the risk estimate.

2. Risk Evaluation

Risk evaluation is a determination of the acceptability of the risk. The process is often controversial because the determination of acceptable risk levels is value based, a political decision rather than a technical one, always involving normative considerations. Various methods have been developed to evaluate the acceptability of risks. Traditional techniques include risk-cost-benefit calculations, revealed preferences (risk actions people have taken), and expressed preferences (perceived seriousness of risks), among others. Each of these techniques is used, but it appears as if risk-cost-benefit calculations are used more often in the evaluation of risks.

Risk-cost-benefit analysis is based on the idea that the risks associated with a particular hazard are acceptable, if the economic or other benefits of the hazard outweigh the economic and other costs. Based on the logic of economic efficiency, this method has been criticized on a number of grounds, including the problems of assigning monetary value to human health and the inequitable distribution of most risks across populations (Ackerman and Heinzerling 2004).

The method of revealed preferences is based on the supposition that the risks of a new hazard are acceptable, if they do not exceed the risks of existing risk choices and practices that have similar benefits. Various analysts have developed risk estimates for existing hazards (such as smoking cigarettes; drinking alcohol; and traveling by plane, automobile, and bicycle) and recommend that interrisk comparisons be used in the determination of the acceptability of new risks. This method has been subjected to numerous criticisms, including questions about the underlying social and political legitimacy of existing patterns of risk.

The method of expressed preferences refers to the elicitation of public preferences on the acceptability of identified risks. Surveys, laboratory studies, public hearings, and other elicitation techniques are often used to identify public preferences. The weakness of this method resides in layperson perceptions of risk that are not always well informed, and they are seldom stable across time (Slovic, Fischhoff, and Lichtenstein 1979).

3. Risk Management

Risk management is the process of preventing, controlling, or mitigating risks that have been deemed unacceptable. Various strategies are used to control unacceptable risks, including direct regulation, indirect regulation, and alternatives to regulation (cf. Hadden 1986). Direct regulation refers to active intervention in the market by banning a hazard or reducing its risks to an acceptable level by establishing formal controls (e.g., laws and regulations) on the actual production and use of a hazard. Indirect regulation begins with the acceptance of the risks associated with a hazard, but then attempts to encourage prudent behavior by informing those at risk through the dissemination of information such as warning labels and other forms of risk communication. Alternatives to regulation include voluntary compliance with recommended practices for the production and use of a given hazard; incentives to enhance the safe production and use of a hazard; and protection of those at risk through such mechanisms as the market, courts, and insurance.

C. The Problem: Factual and Value Uncertainties

A variety of factors hinder the determination of the precise probability and magnitude of the adverse consequences of hazard exposure. Further complicating the problem is the inherent uncertainty in probabilities (by definition a probability is a mathematical representation of uncertainty) or consequences, indeterminacy between cause and effect. For instance, identifying a causal relationship between exposure to a hazard and the development of disease is complicated by long latency periods. These periods may last years or decades in length; cancer, for example, may take 20–40 years to develop. Accurate exposure data seldom exist, so it is difficult to establish unequivocally causality and determine the nature of the dose-response relationship between hazardous agents and adverse health consequences. Distinguishing between the effects of a specific hazard and other causal agents also is a problem because of the existence of a staggering variety of hazardous agents in the environment (e.g., 70,000 by some estimates). Chronic diseases are multifaceted in origin, arising from behavioral and biological factors and other environmental factors, such as occupational exposure, making controlled estimates of the separate causes all but impossible. Compounding the problem is the lack of adequate information about the possible additive or synergistic relationships between environmental agents. In many cases, it is difficult to find a control population that has not been exposed to the chemical or other type of hazard that is being tested. Existing risk analytic techniques are unable to deal adequately with all of these problems.

Methods used in the assessment of the adverse health consequences associated with various environmental agents may be based on tenuous assumptions. Results generated with such techniques, therefore, are open to alternative interpretations. Thus, evidence alone cannot lead to clear-cut regulatory or management guidance. This lack of clarity in interpretation plays a fundamental role in the connection between risk and inequality.

III. The Allocation of Risks and Social Inequality

The process and form of formal risk assessment has often reinforced unequal distributions of risk. European risk theory (Beck [1986] 1992; Giddens 1990; Luhman 1982), by emphasizing global risks, such as the threat of nuclear accidents or the threat of global warming, and by theorizing risk around those universal threats, has flattened social structures. As a consequence issues associated with the unequal distribution of risk, congruent with other structural features of inequality, are theorized away (Freudenburg 2000). Yet unequal distribution of risk has, indeed, created undue burdens on racial minorities, women, people of lower economic status, and populations of developing nations. Risk analysis, too, generally fails to detect key social inequalities because it overlooks particular types of risk, makes inaccurate estimates of them, lacks objectivity in evaluating them, or does not have adequate policy. While ignored by European theory and by conventional risk assessment, North American researchers have found race, class, and gender as fertile ground for empirical research.

Inequitable risks are multiple. Since the 1980s researchers have pointed to the unequal distribution of environmental hazards with Native Americans (Hooks and Smith 2004), people of color, and the poor. They face a disproportionate measure of exposures such as buried munitions, more landfills, refineries, and other toxics (Bullard 1994). Debate has formed regarding the causal sequence between hazard proximity to minority communities. Some argue that noxious facilities are drawn to areas inhabited by unskilled populations who need jobs, while others claim that facilities are sited in neighborhoods without sufficient political clout to prevent them. In either case, the fact of differential, cumulative exposures is undisputed, and it has not been accounted for in risk analysis procedures.

Differential exposure means differences in health impacts (Aschengrau et al. 1996). Poor people and African Americans, for example, are more likely to contract a variety of cancers because of their exposure to environmental toxics (Taylor, Repetti, and Seeman 1999). Inner city populations are also at much higher risk of experiencing asthma, the cause of which has been traced to, among other things, bus depots and truck routes in those areas (Friedman et al. 2001). Hazardous exposure to chemicals in the workplace also causes negative health outcomes (Schettler et al. 1999), particularly in industrial processes to which working class populations are predominately exposed. There is a long history of workers contesting these exposures, but employers more often than not can avoid blame. Industry has attempted to divert debates over workplace risks to arguments about genetic vulnerability, making the claim that certain people are more susceptible to exposures than others. However, this argument sidesteps the need for improved worker safety and leaves the exposed population subject to health risks (Draper 2000).

The exposure of racial, ethnic, and low-income communities to hazards does not end with dangerous materials, but includes natural hazards too. Examples of this are as distant as the 1886 Charleston, South Carolina, earthquake (Steinberg 2000) and as close as the Northridge quake in 1994 (Stallings 1995). Other examples include hurricanes, such as the three Category 5 hurricanes in 2006—Katrina, Rita, and Wilma—that devastated the city of New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, and the Caribbean rim.

Gender is another dimension where risk is unequally distributed. Because of both distinct biological traits and contrasting social contexts, women are more sensitive to certain types of risks than men. A growing body of research has demonstrated that women’s health is disproportionately negatively affected by inaccurate assessments of carcinogenic chemicals. Such chemicals have been shown to increase breast cancer rates (Fishman 2000; Kasper and Ferguson 2000), endometriosis (a source of pelvic pain and infertility) (Capek 2000), and affect the health of fetuses in utero (Jacobson and Jacobson 1996).

Unequal distribution of risk has also been international in scope, with developing nations inordinately affected. Recently, this process has accelerated due to globalization. In the far-reaching process of globalization, capital has become increasingly mobile (Held et al. 1999), allowing transnational corporations (TNCs) to move operations to areas where high-risk industrial processes are allowed (Frey 2003; Rodrik 1997). Outsourcing of production to developing nations causes their populations to encounter its related toxic products and environmental threats—often for the first time. For example, debates about instituting the North American Free Trade Agreement addressed the possibility of polluting companies moving from the United States, where environmental and health regulations were more stringent, to Mexico where workers would not be as well protected, and point-source pollution would be less monitored (Frey 2003).

Air pollution, one form of point source, also affects health. Regulatory measures in many developing nations have not matched those of developed nations, resulting in higher levels of air pollution: 90 percent of deaths due to air pollution take place in developing nations, mostly due to indoor fires for heating and cooking (Woodford 2002). One critical mechanism in the unequal distribution of globalization’s impacts has been the difficulty of holding TNCs accountable to affected populations (Koenig-Archibugi 2004). Governments have faced increasing challenges in forcing corporations to report on risk-imposing activities and to levy fines on those that violate regulations. Collusion between Third World governmental officials, regulatory competition to promote foreign direct investment, weak democratic institutions, and even political subversion are common factors reducing the accountability of TNCs.

Arguably, transnational-level risks are more serious and more difficult to manage than domestic ones. They include a vast number of health, environmental, and economic processes such as carbon loads, stratospheric ozone depletion, generation of biocumulative chemicals, international trade regulations, transboundary pollution, and economic development. While these problems first affect local populations, many of them transcend national boundaries with global ramifications. For example, toxic chemicals that originated in North America and Europe have been found in the blood and breast milk of indigenous women in remote arctic areas causing developmental problems (Colborn, Dumanoski, and Myers 1997). These chemicals are now ubiquitous in the environment and it is virtually impossible to stop their transmission to multiple contexts. The development of transnational institutions and mechanisms to calculate and regulate such risks are still in their incipient stages.

IV. Social Responses to the Inadequacies of Risk Assessment

The role of the public in risk assessment and management has been an unshakable feature of risk policy (U.S. National Research Council 1993, 1996). Some have argued that scientists should play a dominant role in selecting risks to be evaluated and in conducting that evaluation. Corporations have depended on the professionalization of risk assessment resulting in the disenfranchisement of the general public on grounds that it is irrational, selfinterested, and ignorant. Noting the influential role of corporations and other vested stakeholders, others have argued that scientists’ claims to objectivity are invalid, and their values affect their evaluation of risk (Andrews 2000). Therefore, they conclude that the public should be directly involved in risk assessment. Advocacy groups and business often take different philosophical approaches to protection from risks as well (Dietz and Rycroft 1987). While the first often promotes a precautionary principle (where precaution is called for in the light of any evidence of harm), the latter pushes the need for absolute certainty before regulating potential hazards.

There are multiple sources of public distrust of risk assessment. Possibly, most important is the marginalization of lay citizens in its construction. Debates about who should be involved in the science of risk assessment centers on whose knowledge is considered legitimate. Some (Fischer 2000) argue that politics of risk reflect politics of knowledge. Since risks are increasingly invisible to the naked eye and therefore require scientific substantiation, experts are required to assess them. Meanwhile, from time to time attentive citizens become increasingly skeptical of science and technology that has historically operated in a monopolistic manner, and that excludes democratic participation. This results in tension between those who possess expert knowledge and lay citizens. German theorist Ulrich Beck ([1986] 1992) points to this disjuncture as the major fault line of the “risk society.”

The debate over public involvement in the entire process of dealing with risk—risk identification, assessment, and management—has evolved beyond the polarization of the past (Stern and Fineberg 1996). The analytic-deliberative process (A-D) proposed by the National Academies of Science has struck a responsive chord among policymakers and the risk community resulting in its rapid growth in public policy decisions. Governments and transnational institutions have taken a more participatory approach to risk and are beginning to include the public as an important part of the decision-making process. Nevertheless, the development of such institutions has been slow and painstaking, and the ultimate success of A-D confronts a number of barriers.

There are still few institutional mechanisms that adequately engage the public in the process of risk assessment. In the past, a “deficit model” prevailed where interface with citizens consists of educating them about risk-based decision making. An emphasis on risk communication rested on the assumption that citizens’ perceptions should be brought in line with that of experts, not that citizens should have an equal say in which risks should be assessed and how, and who should judge their acceptability.

Historically, the most direct method of citizen franchisement is the activities of organized citizen groups or of social movements. Tesh (2000) and other scholars have discussed the role that social movements and citizen groups play in changing how risk is constructed. Citizens have often organized locally or as members of social movements in response to the failures of risk assessment. Labor movements, women’s movements, environmentalists, and other citizens groups have contested the accuracy of risk assessment and the acceptability of consequences, often asserting that risks are too high to be acceptable. New social movement frames have emerged to reconceptualize risk in more equitable ways. For example, environmental justice activists emphasize the unfair distribution of consequences as a basis for reducing exposure to environmental hazards by minority groups (Bullard 1993, 1994).

Environmental movements, too, serve as watchdog groups, especially in developing nations, where transnational networks (Frey 2003; Keck and Sikkink 1998) have emerged in response to disempowerment of citizens. These groups attempt to import transnational norms developed in democratic states about participation, environmentalism, and equality (Khagram et al. 2000) to protect threatened populations and reduce the impacts of globalization. In the absence of institutionalized democracies or social welfare policies, these groups work to protect poor and disempowered people from the practices of transnational corporations. The disempowered face increasing risks in the work setting, experience displacement, environmental degradation, and community disintegration as a result of increased corporate activities in their areas. However, as these and other risks increase, citizens and their watchdogs demand greater direct involvement in risk policy and greater governmental assurance and protection (Rodrik 1997).

Many social movement groups point to the powerful role that corporate stakeholders play in risk assessment. Tierney (1999) states that “the risk analysis field, by its very structure and organization, has an especially close affinity with the interests of the federal government and major industries” (p. 224). The federal government employs one-fourth of risk professionals and 18 percent work for corporations. Industry also influences risk research (Dietz and Rycroft 1987). Fischhoff (1996) argues that the sponsor of research shapes findings in its favor in a number of ways, by soliciting certain types of proposals, by reducing funding for labs that find unfavorable results, and by establishing reporting requirements. Industry has often undermined accurate representations of risk assessment by withholding scientific evidence. The most pronounced example of this practice is the case of “big tobacco” that withheld knowledge that cigarettes were addictive with negative health outcomes and which led the way to defining unwanted scientific findings as “junk science” (Mooney 2005). A similar instance occurred with lead. Paint manufacturers continued to use it in their products long beyond the time when there was sufficient data supporting a link between lead and a variety of health problems (Markowitz and Rosner 2002).

V. Conclusions

We have attempted to highlight and underscore the centrality of risk to contemporary society, manifest in a new consciousness and in new scientific and management tools for dealing with risk. The pervasiveness of that consciousness has attracted sociological attention across framing domains: macro theory (almost exclusively a European preoccupation), meso theory and analyses (e.g., organization theory and inequalities), and micro studies (such as the shaping of risk perceptions by culture or social position). The institutionalization of risk assessment and management practices and their pivotal role in public policy at all levels of government not only underscores the pervasive, new consciousness, but also opens a space of challenge and opportunity. For contemporary societies, especially those who must manage complex technologies, a key challenge is how to perform risks assessments that take into account the obdurate inequalities in society. A key opportunity lies in the development and application of policy that extends the domain of participation, thereby franchising social groups previously excluded from the policy process.

There are arresting and challenging gaps in our sociological knowledge about risk across theoretical and framing domains. Key gaps at the macro level comprise both conceptual and empirical issues. Conceptually, there is the need to develop the scope conditions that permit complementary theorizing about global and local risks within a common theoretical framework. Success at this task would lead to an even more challenging question: To what extent do such frames sweep away venerable sociological visions of social structure? Owing to the source of risk theories, a European tradition deeply influenced by a Continental approach to theory as broad interpretation, we know of no successful attempts to harness macro risk theory to operational hypotheses and empirical tests. The appropriate direction here should be ostensibly clear—and also intimidating due to the formidability of the challenge.

Because the principal decision makers in contemporary society, in power and numbers, are organizations, there is a deep gap in our understanding of how organizations perceive, anticipate, prepare, and respond to risk. This need applies not only to organizational dynamics in a single setting (e.g., Vaughan 1996) but especially to interorganizational, and infrastructural dynamics, such as the Y2K risk at the turn of the millennium (Perrow 1999).

A variety of important gaps remain in microanalyses of risk. The most fundamental one is the question over the respective balance between biology and culture in how ordinary people think about risk. While the cumulative sociological work addresses this question in part, and while there is considerable growth in our knowledge of this issue, there remains a pivotal need to fine-tune our understanding of this pivotal issue. Another issue is the lack of a compelling theoretical explanation for the persistent gap in risk perceptions between men and women. Why, for almost any risk, do women perceive the risk to be more serious than men? A final gap, with deep psychological and political implications, is the risks of terrorism (Clarke 2005). There is much yet to learn about the thoughts of terrorists, how they deal with their risks, and by what mechanisms they are recruited to perform acts of ultimate self-sacrifice. There is also the question, which overlaps with organizational analysis, of how terrorist networks are created, how they communicate, and how they plan and execute terrorist actions.

The biggest gap of all falls into none of the three sociological domains of inquiry discussed above, but subsumes them all. The technical and social scientific field of risk, having become sufficiently specialized, can be characterized as a loosely coupled network of knowledge domains. Communication and cross-fertilization across specialties is limited and unsystematic. Hence, the challenge here is obvious, although the solution may not be; there is a need to develop mechanisms not for connecting dots but for connecting knowledge domains so that knowledge in one domain may be put in service to others.

Taken together, the selected gaps discussed here, along with suggestions for conducting research to address them, should reawaken us to the centrality of risk to the functions and operations of all societies. Once again, therefore, we find a vast quantity of grist for the sociological mill. The remaining issue, then, is to maintain sociology’s eye on the grains of understanding waiting the thoughtful grinding of that grist.

Read more:


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