Risk is a contested concept that takes on different meaning in different environment - by itself the concept is meaningless (Kessler, 2010). Any definition of risk is socially constructed and inseparable from the sense-making process that shapes the risk itself.

Social construction of risk#

The sense-making process confines the problem space, causal chains, mechanisms, interventions and outcomes as concepts and cognitive frameworks. They are formed and linked within, not only communicated through, language. There is no objective risk separated from our interpretations of it. We interpret same information and events in a different way, thus our conclusions and practices differ (Dervin 2002; Aaltonen 2007). Our interpretation shape risks even more than environmental changes shape our interpretations of the risk. The definition of risk requires acknowledging different perspectives, cultures and interpretations. In addition, the risk definition is driven by plausibility rather than accuracy - it must be socially acceptable, pragmatic and credible (Parry 2003; Aaltonen 2007). Consequently, the definition of risk is heterogeneous, contradicting and constantly changing set of discursive and non-discursive practices (Kessler 2010).

Traditional conceptions of risk#

Traditional concept highlights progress, linearity and controllability of both natural and social systems (Kessler 2010). Interdependencies are expected to be able to be traced, objectively quantified and managed (Rowe 1980; Simon et al. 1997). Risk management process follows systematic steps: risk identification, risk analysis, risk evaluation, risk mitigation (Moore 1983; The Royal Society 1992; Lowrance 1980; Cox and Townsend 1998; Mitchell 1999; ISO 2009). Linear thinking is focused on developing existing practices and activities based on existing resources in stable circumstances (Aaltonen 2007). Classical risk definitions are based on causes and effects of the past that are adapted and linear extrapolated. The risk management process take place prior to decision-making pertaining resource allocation that is required to mitigate risk at the acceptable level (The Royal Society 1992; ISO 2009). Traditional conception of risk is deeply embedded in the positivist philosophy of science (Kessler 2010).

Risk and complex social systems#

Increasing complexity of systems and globalization has changed the risk environment. Complexity is a dynamic quality or pattern of interaction that arises when an increasing number of independent variables begin interacting in ways that cannot be derived from any of the parts (Aaltonen 2007; Ilachinski 2001). These systems are often multidimensional and dimensions interact and influence each other through wide-spread information flows and feedback-loops (Mitleton-Kelly 2003). Rarely, it is possible to perceive and define a problem space, identify vulnerable elements and select single interventions that lead to the risk mitigation. More often than not it is ambiguous to make sense what is really happening, and identify those factors which success or failure consists of (Aaltonen 2007). The complex social systems can be best understood by observing behavior of individuals and organizations when they are adapting to environmental changes. The qualitative descriptions of organization can be compared to quantitative descriptions of the whole system (Aaltonen 2007).

Risk and globalization#

Globalization has influenced on the conception of risk. Despite of the fact that threats are spatial and temporal bounded, consequences are often global. Threats are less assessable and insurable (because increasing amount of unknowns) that has increased demand for political interventions and importance of foresight (Kessler 2010). We are used to assess risk based on the past events, but more often the anticipation of threats provides rationale for interventions (Dervin 1998, 2002; Kessler 2010; Aaltonen 2007).

Approaches to risk as a social construction#

Risk as social construction can be approached in two ways: risk as dispositif underlines the structure and risk as mode of observation language and communication. The dispositif refers to the ways in which 'heterogeneous ensemble consisting of institutions, discourses, regulatory decisions, administrative interventions, scientific statements, philosophical propositions' is configured and assembled into a specific 'apparatus' and reproduced by both discursive and non-discursive practices (Kessler 2010). It extends beyond calculability and predictability of risk by means of governance. Threats are managed by creating global policies that divide responsibilities to initiate measures, control circulation of populations and goods, surveillance. The dispositif uses uncertainty as a primary decisions tool (Kessler 2010). Global institutions form, shape and disseminate risk concepts that are used to reach specific aims and objects.

Risk as a mode of observation is based on specific distinctions. The notion of risk in itself is meaningless until it is separated from and differentiated from counter-concepts (Kessler 2010). Multiplicity of different stakeholders, their knowledge and experiences, their sense-making and logic can create common concepts but different meanings. Observes can discern distinctions that are context-specific that is dependent on the environment where they are presented. Societal meaning structures can be connected to each other through language and a single element has a meaning only when connected to other elements. In one they form a plausible story that is the risk description.


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