Essay on Risk

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The term ”risk” can be viewed from at least two different perspectives — the information approach and the decision approach.

Information Approach

The risk of a certain event (R(E)) is defined as the probability of a dangerous event (p(E)) multiplied by the amount of the expected damage (D) connected to this event: RE) = p(E) x D. In this conception, risk is a question of complete or incomplete knowledge. Risk management, in this perspective, has the task of dealing with an information problem, namely the problem to acquire as much information as possible about probability and damage. One critical issue of this approach is the quantification of possible benefits and damages. Many situations in technological decision-making, but also in everyday life, make it difficult to establish a uniform risk measure.

Decision Approach

The central characteristic of a risk decision consists of the need to select between different options, which all may entail negative consequences for third parties and therefore will provoke the issue of responsibility. A decision is risky, because and insofar as three aspects are intertwined: (1) the knowledge that non-decision is impossible; even inactivity contains a decision; (2) the knowledge that unspecific knowledge is unavoidable; this knowledge makes us aware that consequences will appear later, which are epistemologically unknown when the decision is taken; and they will bear negative effects for others; (3) the knowledge that future consequences will be attributed to the decision and to the decision-maker’s responsibility. This aspect of uncertainty entails a paradoxical moment, which Clausen and Dombrowsky (1984) called the warning paradox. It says that warning against possible dangers does not help to decide risky cases. The reason is that we only can learn whether the warning was reasonable if do not listen to it. If we follow the warning, we will never know whether it was well founded or not.

Whereas risk is related to the decision-making actor or institution, the concept of danger refers to the side of those affected by the consequences of the decision. Modern societies are fundamentally characterized by the difference between decision-makers and those affected by the decisions. Every person may usually take each of the two sides of this distinction in various social contexts.

Three groups of risk theory describe and explain aspects of risk in modern society:

  • Psychology and cognition theory is focused on analyzing individual and collective attitudes toward risk behaviour and risk management under given situational conditions. It shows that risks which are taken voluntarily are viewed as much more acceptable than those which are forced. Moreover, the acceptance of a given risk depends on the amount of perceived control over the risk and/or over the source of the risk. The more distant the possible consequences seem to be, the lower will the risk of a decision be judged. Also, risk acceptance in particular depends on the perceived reversibility of the decision.
  • Cultural theorylooks at social groups as a decisive factor. It understands risk as a collective social construct, one which depends on the properties of the social group in which it occurs. Douglas and Wildavsky 1982), distinguish four types ofsocial groups cultures), each with a specific concept of risk: 1) hierarchical treats risks as manageable; 2) individualistic market culture attributes risks to the sphere of individual action frames and generally accepts them as calculable issues; 3) egalitarian culture is highly averse to risk and very sensitive to all kinds of danger; 4) fatalist culture conceives risks as imposed by others.  In contrast to the psychological theories, cultural theory aims at, and allows for, an understanding of risk as a socially constructed phenomenon.
  • Sociological systems theory also looks at risk as a social phenomenon by studying the characteristic features of risky decisions. The future more and more becomes a relevant dimension with respect to the legitimation of decisions. It is no longer seen as constitutively intransparent and incalculable. The issue of risk assessment becomes pervasive for all social systems which tend to externalize these risks and to shift the responsibility of risky decisions to other functional systems.


  1. Clausen, L. & Dombrowsky, W. R. (1984) Warnpraxis und Warnlogik. Zeitschrift fiir Soziologie 13 (4): 293—307.
  2. Collingridge,    (1980)   The   Social   Control of Technology. Frances Pinter, London.
  3. Douglas, M. & Wildavsky, A. (1982) Risk and Culture. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
  4. Luhmann, N. (1993) Risk: A Sociological Theory. De Gruyter, Berlin/New York.
  5. Beck, U. (1999) World Risk Society. Polity Press, Cambridge.

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