Risk and Culture

Bob Heyman

in The Oxford Handbook of Culture and Psychology

Published in print May 2012 | ISBN: 9780195396430
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Library of Psychology

Risk and Culture


This chapter explores the interrelationships between risk and culture with particular reference to ‘late-modern’ societies. In such societies, the benefits of technological progress are no longer taken routinely for granted, and the human predicament is understood in relation to the ‘lens of risk’. The chapter homes in on the taken-for-granted presuppositions which underpin this interpretive framework. Following a brief mapping of leading social scientific risk theories, the chapter will address still neglected definitional issues. Risk-thinking will be considered as a specific way of constructing contingency; and contingency thinking as derivative from a universal human tendency to view events in relation to the potential infinity of what might happen. The unlimited scope of possibility will be contrasted with the necessary cultural selection of a small number of contingencies, viewed mostly as risks in late-modern societies, which become objects of organized concern. The lens of risk will then be unpacked by recasting each of the elements in a standard definition of risk (The Royal Society, 1992, with present author's additions in parentheses) as: the probability (3) that a particular adverse (2) event (1) occurs during a stated period of time (4a), or results from a particular challenge (4b). Each numbered element will be reframed in order to bring out its concealed interpretive underpinnings: events as categories; adversity as negative valuing; probabilities as rule-of-thumb derived expectations; and ‘stated’ time periods as time frames (indefinite and therefore incalculable in the case of condition 4b). It will be argued that societies and social groups must attempt to align their interpretations of the above elements in order to make organized risk management possible. It will be further argued that this interpretive work tends to be pushed to the background of social consciousness through a tacit process of ‘deletion.’ Without such unspoken but collective direction of attention away from the indefinitely large set of what might happen, social orders organized around selective attention to particular risks could not be sustained.

Keywords: probability; risk; culture; interpretation; escalation

Article.  16420 words. 

Subjects: Psychology ; Social Psychology

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