Risk and Culture

Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers

MARY DOUGLAS
AARON WILDAVSKY
Copyright Date: 1982
Edition: 1
Pages: 224
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt7zw3mr
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  • Book Info
    Risk and Culture
    Book Description:

    The concern of many Americans with dangers to the natural environment is not justified rationally, according to the authors, but results from American cultural biases and the political goals of environmentalists.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-90739-3
    Subjects: Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Can We Know The Risks We Face?
    (pp. 1-15)

    Can we know the risks we face, now or in the future? No, we cannot; but yes, we must act as if we do. Some dangers are unknown; others are known, but not by us because no one person can know everything. Most people cannot be aware of most dangers at most times. Hence, no one can calculate precisely the total risk to be faced. How, then, do people decide which risks to take and which to ignore? On what basis are certain dangers guarded against and others relegated to secondary status? The current consideration of risk has three peculiarities....

  5. I Risks are Hidden
    (pp. 16-28)

    If we ask why in the United States today there is an urgent, massive, collective concern to ward off risk, we receive seemingly straightforward answers. The human race and its physical environment is threatened with degradation or even extinction. What is more, the risks are so great that no knowledgeable individual would accept them. What is worse, the risks are the more insidious for being kept secret. Decomposing this impending catastrophe into its essential elements, we are being told that the dangers are involuntary (we would not willingly accept them), irreversible (there is no turning back), and hidden (we shall...

  6. II Risks are Selected
    (pp. 29-48)

    It is easy to understand that before modern times natural dangers were used as threats in the work of mustering social consensus. We moderns are supposed to behave differently, especially because the same science and technology that make us modern also produce our risks and because advanced statistics enable us to calculate them. Before we decide that our own case is totally different, first let us try to understand how cultural theory explains the selection of dangers among people who are without the benefit of modern science.

    The common view is that whereas past generations of humankind have been dominated...

  7. III Scientists Disagree
    (pp. 49-66)

    In our modern world people are supposed to live and die subject to known, measurable natural forces, not subject to mysterious moral agencies. That mode of reasoning, indeed, is what makes modern man modern. Science wrought this change between us and nonmoderns. It is hardly true, however, that their universe is more unknown than ours. For anyone disposed to worry about the unknown, science has actually expanded the universe about which we cannot speak with confidence. In one direction, parsecs and megaparsecs enable people to consider huge magnitudes otherwise too difficult to manage, and in the other direction technological advance...

  8. IV Assessment is Biased
    (pp. 67-82)

    The political argument over technology is conducted between the heavily risk averse and the risk takers. The risk-averse side starts from the point that unbridled economic growth has hurt the natural environment and human life. The land has been despoiled, the seas polluted, and people diseased. The advantages of quantitative growth, the argument goes, have to be sacrificed to improve the quality of life. The other (risk-takers) side says that economic growth is good; it advises citizens not to lower standards of living by very much in order to reduce risk a little. It tries to convert the currency of...

  9. V The Center is Complacent
    (pp. 83-101)

    The computer can do it, but “people may have great difficulty making decisions about gambles when they are forced to resolve conflicts generated by the possibility of experiencing both gains and losses, and uncertain ones at that.”¹ From this, the next step is to remedy human limitations as one would improve the design of a computer program. Improve the labeling on poisons, smarten the packaging of information about risks, then all that is required for correct perception is to rev up the reasoning process. “Decisions about risk require sophisticated reasoning on behalf of both experts and the public. Needed are...

  10. VI The Border is Alarmed
    (pp. 102-125)

    Social limits to curiosity are drawn so that central institutions can trundle along for many generations without being thrown off balance by alarms and crises. Any rational outlook always includes blinkers. The shortcomings of the vision of individualists and hierarchists have naturally drawn a lot of scholarly attention. What can be said about them is mostly well known. By contrast, the social sources of fundamental criticism (the opposition to individualism and hierarchy) have been curiously neglected. If institutional forms imply strategies and values, analysis that works for the center will also apply to the border.

    To identify the risk portfolio...

  11. VII The Border Fears For Nature
    (pp. 126-151)

    The many groups that exist to mobilize public concern for the evils of our times are organized in various ways. We can demonstrate the social theory of risk perception by classifying them according to their principles of organization. We expect that those which show up as most hierarchical in their relation with each other and the outside world will also be making the more typically hierarchical selection of dangers. Those organized on voluntaristic, egalitarian principles will make the sectarian selection of risks and justify their view of danger with a recognizably sectarian worldview.

    Little hierarchies speak and act like big...

  12. VIII America Is A Border Country
    (pp. 152-173)

    Why did sectarian forces grow so much stronger in America in the mid-1960s? It is not easy to explain why significant events occurred at a particular point in time. There are general historical factors operating throughout American history. There are medium-range factors, closer to the time in question, that facilitate the emergence of certain patterns of behavior. And there are short-term factors predisposing the events to occur when they do. Sectarianism, we contend, has always had some strength in America. Its potential has increased because of widespread changes in education, industry, and political mobilization that manifested themselves in mid-century; and...

  13. IX The Dialogue is Political
    (pp. 174-185)

    They will never agree, said Sidney Smith about two Edinburgh women hurling insults at each other from the top windows of their tenements; they are arguing from different premises. According to our theory of culture, center and border are doing just that. Their views about risk are not to be considered as independent ideas or personal preferences so much as public statements topping different social structures. So long as their loyalties are turned toward centers or borders, people will buy a whole package of political judgments about nature, human and physical, that go with center or border views. On other...

  14. Conclusion: Risk is a Collective Construct
    (pp. 186-198)

    The aim of this book has been to understand the social forces that speak on behalf of environmental protection in America. The movement that now defends the natural environment from the effects of technology is allied to similar movements in Europe. All have emerged in the last twenty years, though they are different in each country. Here is a case of cultural change to which cultural analysis can be applied. The argument pursued here is not easy however. The idea that public perception of risk and its acceptable levels are collective constructs, a bit like language and a bit like...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 199-214)
  16. Index
    (pp. 215-221)