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Risk Acceptability According to the Social Sciences

Risk Acceptability According to the Social Sciences

Douglas Mary
Copyright Date: May 1986
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 128
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  • Book Info
    Risk Acceptability According to the Social Sciences
    Book Description:

    In this provocative report on the study of risk, anthropologist Mary Douglas exposes a pervasive neglect of the social bases of risk perception. Researchers have concentrated on the individual's perceptions and choices, ignoring the social influences that direct them. The result is an inability to explore certain crucial questions—how standards of acceptable risk reflect moral judgments, for example, and how the acceptable distribution of risk is an aspect of social justice. Douglas' findings offer a challenge and a new agenda to all who are interested in the way risk is defined and managed in our society.   "An altogether brilliant piece of writing--far-reaching and a joy to read." —Amartya Sen, Oxford University

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-158-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    Originally this was intended as a review of the literature on social influences on risk perception. However, it proved difficult to achieve the usual form of a literature review. When there is a large, focused body of work to be abstracted, various outlying areas and innovations can be related within a single framework. In this case the relevant work is found entirely in the outlying areas, and the central core of interest in social influences on risk perception is missing. At the same time a very significant body of work views risk perception as an individual and not as a...

  4. Chapter 1 Moral Issues in Risk Acceptability
    (pp. 5-18)

    In every generation one or another branch of the social sciences is put on the witness stand to be interrogated about drastic problems—famine or economic recession, the causes of war or crime. For the last decade and more, such urgent questions have been about the risks of new technology. The fears and conscience of Western industrial nations have been roused by nuclear radiation, chemical wastes, asbestos and lead poisoning. In response, an important new subdiscipline of the social sciences has emerged which specifically addresses questions asked by industry and government about the public perception of risk. (See Table 1...

  5. Chapter 2 The Emergence of a New Subdiscipline
    (pp. 19-28)

    Historians and philosophers of science are interested in the origins of distinctive sets of ideas. The subdiscipline of risk perception affords an interesting contemporary case. Its emergence can reasonably be dated to 1969 when Chauncey Starr’s article “Social Benefit Versus Technological Risk” in Science provoked controversy. The controversy gave rise to conferences, the conferences gave rise to research institutes and journals. These quickly gave rise to a new profession and to a considerable literature. The new subdiscipline is not only a defined historical entity. Its restrictive assumptions and preferred methods provide it with structure and reinforce its internal channels of...

  6. Chapter 3 Perception of Risk
    (pp. 29-40)

    The best established results of risk research show that individuals have a strong but unjustified sense of subjective immunity. In very familiar activities there is a tendency to mimimize the probability of bad outcomes. Apparently, people underestimate risks which are supposed to be under their control. They reckon they can cope with familiar situations. They also underestimate risks of events which are rarely expected to happen. Our first question about perception of risk is why so many, in their layman’s role, judge everyday hazards to be safe and think themselves able to cope when the event shows they cannot.


  7. Chapter 4 Choice and Risk
    (pp. 41-52)

    The theory of choice applies logic to the act of choosing. The rational argument is one that is not self-contradictory and likewise the rational choice. To be rational, one choice does not negate another. Rational behavior implies some ordering of alternatives in terms of relative desirability. The logic of choice concerns non-contradictory or ordered preferences. In science, probabilities are assessments of the reliability of expectations about events. Probabilities also figure prominently in the theory of choice. It makes a lot of difference to a decision if the alternatives involve choosing between a certainty and an uncertainty, or between a low...

  8. Chapter 5 Natural Risks
    (pp. 53-64)

    There is a current misleading assumption about how dangers from nature are perceived. Physical signs of the typhoon or earthquake appear first as small spots on the horizon; interpreting them is full of uncertainty; as they approach, misperceptions pile up and the final disaster comes as a surprise—stochastically foreseen by the expert but not by the victims. Such a physical idea of perception and the passive idea of the public is a carryover from the earlier work in the sociology of disaster where the focus was not on perception at all.

    In the twenty years from 1942 to 1962...

  9. Chapter 6 Credibility
    (pp. 65-72)

    According to research on public perception of risks, people regularly underestimate risks in familiar situations and low-probability risks. They get worried by media-reported events that seem dramatic (air crashes with film stars on board) and less worried by undramatic losses (such as deaths from asthma).

    “Salience” makes one interpretation more available than another (Tversky and Kahneman 1974). Different kinds of salience are used to explain the variations in perception between different communities or different times. The references to salience are valuable as attempts to differentiate perceptual processes, but since they do not reach the culturally learnt coding which provides principles...

  10. Chapter 7 Risk-Seeking and Safety first
    (pp. 73-82)

    Rational choice needs to take into account the working of a principle that sets the lower limit for acceptable risks. Utility theory allowed for outcomes being so undesirable as to fall outside of the individual’s schedule of preferences. Engel’s law (Houthakker 1957) recognizes a kind of safety-first concern. According to this observation, the poorer the households in a given income distribution, the lower is the elasticity of response to changes in the price of food. The household head has an order of spending that strives to ensure the basic requirements of his family. In investment analysis, liquidity preference is a...

  11. Chapter 8 Institutional Constraints
    (pp. 83-90)

    “The organizational and social environment in which the decision maker finds himself determines what consequences he will anticipate, what ones he will ignore. In a theory of organization, these variables cannot be treated as unexplained, independent factors, but must be determined and explained by the theory” (March and Simon 1958). It was a long time ago that this was said by March and Simon. It suggests that organizational theory would have much to reveal about the rational agent’s definition of a situation and selection of odds. There has indeed been considerable work on the differences of viewpoint from different parts...

  12. Chapter 9 Risks Encoded
    (pp. 91-102)

    This volume pivots on a central contrast. On the one hand, the analysis of risk within the theory of choice, as we saw in chapter 4, clears away all adhering real world considerations; understandably, a pure theory of risk separates its topic from prejudices entertained by the decision-maker and from institutional and historical contingencies. On the other hand, in the real world the perception of probable natural losses is freighted with moral associations and institutional bias (as we saw in chapter 5). Here is constituted a practical dilemma for the social sciences. The current challenge to them concerns levels of...

  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 103-114)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 115-122)