Seminar: Professor Steve Rayner, "Political culture and risk"

Past Event

21 February 2008, 4:30pm - 6:00pm

Lecture Theatre, Oxford Martin School
34 Broad Street (corner of Holywell and Catte Streets), Oxford, OX1 3BD

Professor Steve Rayner, Director of the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization

The seminar on “Risk and political Culture” by Professor Steve Rayner fell into two parts: He first gave an overview over major research lines within the social science of risk and then, in the second part, argued that risk cast in purely technical terms is inimical to democratic governance.

The history of the field begins forty years ago with the work by Starr (1969) on the question on “How safe is safe enough?” in the context of the civic use of nuclear power. The important social studies by Kahneman and Tversky in the 1970s that showed that people did not behave “rationally” as regards risks, but are driven by heuristics and biases, such as the framing effect. These studies were continued by Slovic and others with a focus on the responses of individuals. Following this, came Wyne and Perrow’s social system approach to risk and Douglas’s cultural theory of risk in the 1980s.

Rayner’s first contribution to the subject also occurs in the 80s: together with Cantor, he addressed not on the traditional question of “How safe is safe enough?”, but rather “How fair is safe enough?” In answering this question, one needs to transcend the narrow picture of risk as harm times probability and include the so-called TLC factor, i.e. the trust, liability and consent, as regards the given information on the expected harm and its occurrence probabilities. Another important factor within this approach is time: discounting is central in fairness considerations on long-term risks. Among others, notable contributions of the risk studies within the social sciences are the notion of postnormal science as introduced by Funtowics and Ravetz as well as the risk society proclaimed by Beck and Giddens.

The now popular and widely-spread practice of risk management builds on a concept of risk as a total metric. As pointed out by Hood, risk management then itself gives rise to new risks. For example, organisations now face the risk of being seen not to manage risk properly! In current times, when risk has become a global issue not restricted to the developed word, risk has become a vehicle for governments to shifts responsibility and blame. Public engagement is nowadays increasingly popular, however the underling assumptions about citizenship are unrealistic and the discourse of participation remains a managerial one. Professor Rayner ended by arguing for a need to revitalise representative democracy through an enhanced capacity for public engagement.