In our March meeting, we discussed Anthony Giddens’ paper ‘Risk and Responsibility’ (Modern Law Review 62(1), 1999). This very readable paper had originally been delivered as a Chorley Lecture at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences in 1998, and was based on material from ‘Risk Society: The Context of British Politics’ in J. Franklin (ed), The Politics of Risk Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998). Giddens summarises sociological thinking – his own and Ulrich Beck’s – on risk in contemporary society, particularly as it is evoked and examined by science. I had chosen it for our last meeting to discuss if we have conceptually moved on from risk as a useful theoretical notion, despite still (or even more so) researching behaviours as risk factors, or chronic conditions of which we all might be at risk.
Giddens suggests that ‘risk society’ experiences constant change, which is particularly accelerated by scientific discovery and technological innovations, and this leads to growing uncertainty. As scientific knowledge increasingly seeps into the public domain, we, as consumers, struggle to keep up with scientific inquiry and its “constant revision of claims to knowledge”, while science has its structures and techniques (evidence reviews, confidence intervals etc.) to manage uncertainty. He muses, for example, that we have been exposed to a variety of scientific claims over the years regarding both the health benefits and harms of a glass of red wine, and are none the wiser. This is certainly not a concern confined to the 1990s. More recent additions of complex, ambivalent and often contradictory health evidence that has entered the public consciousness includes latest studies on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fats (there might be ‘good’ saturated fats after all), sugar versus fat (is a calorie a calorie?) and the benefits or harms of statins, to name a few. In Giddens’ example of beef, risk from BSE has been replaced by risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer. A further acceleration of this public uncertainty might have been unforeseen by Giddens in the late 90s; many medical publications now are accompanied by their own press release, and ideally, a few headlines and visits on breakfast radio or TV. In fact, impact of scientific research seems to be measured as much in media appearances and social media shares (Altmetrics) as in influence on practice and policy. Other prominent scientific fields such as climate change have undergone similar public jostling within the scientific community, and while consensus has largely been established on causation and extent of the problem, its remedy is much less subject to a majority view – both among scientists and the public. Can nuclear power have a role in weaning us off fossil fuels or will it ultimately just add to the human-made assault on our environment? Risk is communicated ever more prolifically in the public realm, we concluded, but without the tools to make sense of it.
Giddens states that we live in a technological world “which no one completely understands”, and in which “we stopped worrying so much about what nature could do to us, and we started worrying more about what we have done to nature”. Giddens describes this as a transition from external to manufactured risks, alongside new ways of negotiating and managing such risks. From the start, this paper’s Blairite undertone sparked a much wider discussion of the historic and political context of our analytical categories. As an example of shifting responsibilities alongside risks, Giddens picks another health example. He suggests that while many illnesses result from both unhealthy lifestyles and unhealthy environments, liability, as he calls it here, should not remain with society collectively. Instead, individuals should live responsibly, for example avoid smoking, but he does not refer back to his earlier points; we might well feel responsible for our own health but receive complex and sometimes contradictory advice on how to exactly go about making the right choices. More widely, the trouble of keeping up with scientific claims might apply as much to the collective as the individual. Bold public policy choices such as a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages are not easily helped by complex, contested and partial scientific evidence when addressing strong economic and political resistance.
Finally, returning to our point of discussion as to whether ‘risk society’ is a slightly outdated analytical lens, we also discussed the range of social theoretical writings on risk, from Mary Douglas to Michel Foucault, Deborah Lupton and Ulrich Beck. All offered very different perspectives and conceptualisations of risk, and we concluded that there might still be room for new conceptual re-imaginings. Sharing our own examples, I talked about my research on aspirations of healthy ageing. Chronic illnesses seemed less a concern for my study participant who had already experienced diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer than risk of dementia, still waiting on the horizon. Therefore, being socially and mentally active was as important in their strategies of leading healthy lives as being physically active. Similarly, in Sarah Hoare’s current work on dying, articulations of risk are closely linked to taking control. Depending on the perspective of those dying and their family and health professionals in charge, the home and the clinical space are respectively regarded as risky environments. This includes the space of the ambulance which, from a hospital health professional’s perspective might be seen as risky on the way to the home upon discharge (still technically in their care) but less so on the way to the hospital (when not yet under their responsibility). Perhaps what is needed is freeing our analytical category from ‘risk’, but retaining our empirical focus on exploring risks as these are (re)produced, (re)prised and (re)presented in our society.