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Definition: risk from Dictionary of Energy

Health & Safety. the possibility of loss or injury; a finite measure of the severity and likelihood of an occurrence of damage, disease, or any other negative consequence.

Summary Article: risk
From The Dictionary of Human Geography

In the first, technical, sense, risk refers to the probability of a known event (which may be a cost or a benefit) occurring. Such probabilities assume that causes and consequences can be determined, mapped and predicted. This is a highly rationalist endeavour characteristic of modernity and a belief in controllability. Risk in this sense is about knowing the world, and is therefore not subject to uncertainty or indeterminacy. In order for such a probability to be calculated, the risk must be first identified (e.g. failure of an aircraft engine, the development of lung cancer, leakage of radioactive waste). The pathways to the event also need to be identified, and the likelihood of such pathways and events occurring needs to be calculated. The latter will often require some element of technical knowledge, but also an understanding of the social and institutional relations that surround a risk (e.g. the ability of a regulatory body to police possible risk pathways). In certain circumstances, probabilities can be calculated from past events (the chances of developing lung cancer from smoking can be estimated from population data). In other circumstances, where events are uncommon or where new technologies mean that there are few if any precedents, determining risk becomes more and more contentious. Not only are the occurrences or manifest dangers/benefits difficult to second-guess, but the pathways to them may be impossible to imagine prior to the event, and the institutions responsible for regulating behaviour may not be sufficiently established or experienced. Meanwhile, given the geographical, material and social complexities of everything from taking a drug to building a nuclear power station, the ability to calculate risk becomes ever more fraught with uncertainty and indeterminacy. The growing sense of the non-calculability of risks feeds in to a second, more qualitative, sense of risk. Here, risk takes on a meaning that has more akin with uncontrollability and danger. Most effectively taken up in Beck’s Risk society (1992) and Mary Douglas’ anthropology of risk and blame (Douglas, 1992), risk becomes a contestable issue in society at large. All calculations become liable to re-calculation or to rendering non-calculable. Controversies over risk become more and more common as various individuals and bodies contest each other’s estimation of events and pathways, and dispute the ability of responsible or regulatory bodies to shepherd technologies, processes and markets in such a way as to minimize risk (the ongoing battles over the environmental and human safety or otherwise of genetically modified foods is a case in point) (Bingham and Blackmore, 2003). The latter, institutional, element to risk debates has been taken up most effectively by those researchers who have investigated the dynamics of trust relationships between (expert) responsible bodies and (lay) publics (Wynne, 1992, 1996). At the same time, and partly on account of the inevitably of ‘not knowing’, risk enters the vernacular as something that should be encouraged, for if risks are not taken then nothing creative or new can be generated. Nevertheless, as Douglas (1992) and Lupton (1999) have argued, risk increasingly refers to the hazards, dangers, threats and contingencies of actions. (See also biosecurity; security.)

Suggested reading

Full bibliography is available here.

Bingham and Blackmore (2003)

Lupton (1999).

© 2009 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd except for editorial material and organization, © 2009 Derek Gregory, Ron Johnston, Geraldine Pratt, Michael J. Watts, and Sarah Whatmore

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