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'Risk Society' Essay - Sociology | (Opportunities for Active Learning)

elcar 2 | -   Freelance Writer
Dec 18, 2013 | #1


Given that disasters provide opportunities for active learning, why do they repeat?

3,867 words (excluding bibliography)

Given that disasters create opportunities for active learning, why do they repeat?

Risk Society EssayThe notion of a 'risk society' was proposed by Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens. This posited it as developing from the transition from the old, industrial societies to the modern and postmodern, whereby the nature of risk changes from being primarily natural to primarily anthropogenic. Governments are forced to navigate the pitfalls of scientific advice in their attempt to assess and establish the logic of risk, producing what has been dubbed 'manufactured uncertainty. There are always competing and conflicting claims made by scientific assessments, and the ways in which the knowledge is represented presents an especial challenge for the notion of risk. For example, the risks involved in catching CJD from eating beef may appear very much lower than the chances of dying in motorised transport, but far more people are likely to give up beef than given up driving. In terms of establishing risk, society itself acts as a population that allows the scientific appraisal of risk through disasters that occur; the dangers of certain drugs to a minority only become apparent when enough data has been collected over a number of years. Furthermore, risk holds a delicate role when related to the private sphere as the inherent difficulty when applying anticollectivist economics to what were previously common properties, such as is proved repeatedly by overfishing and the reluctance of many governments to manage these problems. Pollution represents a clear example of where the public cost of a common property is reckoned to be low enough that a private enterprise, such as a factory, will be allowed to use such resources freely. There are thus many elements at work in the concept of a risk society, and these can be seen as, firstly, the conflict between privatised economics when applied to common goods; the difficulty with recognising the anthropogenic causes of natural disasters; the methods used to calculate risk and assess the probability of disasters; path dependency; and the lack of knowledge or the gradual modification of knowledge over time.

Disasters can take many forms, but what is usually considered to be a 'disaster' is often termed as such because of a natural element. Were they easily identifiable as manmade, or with obvious human causes, the terms used tend to be 'crisis' or 'accident' Disaster has been dubbed as a duplication of war in terms of something that is imputed to an external agent, given that 'catastrophes' can be imputed to human agency; or a disaster is something which by its nature uncovers social vulnerabilities. In some senses a disaster is crucially an exogenous variable in its context. Although this, of course, is a concept that is not universally accepted given the different ways in which the causes of such disasters can be understood. For example, pandemics can be seen as resulting from exogenous variables of disease. However, pandemics exist not simply because of the existence of the disease but from the human vectors of its transmission, and thus can be prevented in many cases. Likewise, a volcanic eruption can be considered a disaster in terms of being geological fact, rather than holding any fundamental causes. However, the decision to build a town next to a volcano can represent the actual cause of the disaster in this case as it is not the volcanic eruption per se that is the disaster, it is its influence on the town which would not occur if the town had been located elsewhere. However, this suggests the politics of risk, whereby the logic of establishing what might be an acceptable risk, particularly when coupled with the fact that essentially Vulcanology has not reached a point at which it can predict with any complete certainty the eruption of apparently dormant mountains. Volcanic eruptions, hurricanes and tornadoes, tsunamis and earthquakes all represent concepts of disasters that are disastrous only in their influence on humanity; earthquakes in Antarctica pass relatively unnoticed. Given the understanding of the causes of such disasters are ever-increasing, it would be a logic that in a wholly risk-averse society, areas prone to such natural disasters would be avoided at all costs (Gray, 1998). The fact that they are not is an important indication of the politics of a risk society in essentially establishing the pros and cons of placing human settlement. There is little to demonstrate why, for example, San Francisco would continue, being located as it is between two very active faults were a risk assessment carried out, and, as such, it can only be assumed that there must be some element of cost-benefit analysis coupled with path dependency that might override the ever-presence risk of seismic activity.

A first consideration of the reason why disasters repeat even though they present the opportunity for learning is to contradict Beck and suggest that they represent the remnants of the 'natural' versus 'anthropogenic' argument. Beck considers that the risk society represents the notion of a society that has developed beyond the need to be affected by the natural causes of risk. However, numerous examples demonstrate that an explanation of the repetition of disasters is when they are considered to be natural, and thus uncontrollable. This is particularly evident when considering disasters such as earthquakes in the San Francisco Bay Area: because the threat is ever present, residents continue with their lives regardless because they appreciate that they are unable to predict or control the earthquake with any certainty. Indeed, the vested interests in maintaining San Francisco as an urban centre are so great that in the disaster of 1906, more damage was ascribed to the ensuing fire that could not be quenched owing to the fact that the pipes had been broken, than was ascribed to the earthquake itself, thus making the cause a controllable one in terms of infrastructure rather than emphasising the uncontrollable and unpredictable ultimate cause. Attempts have been made to mitigate earthquake risks in San Francisco, such as producing buildings that are structurally sound that might withstand a shock to a certain level. Tunnelling under the bay was avoided when building a metro railway system, and instead an earthquake-proof tube carries the railway over the two fault lines running between the East and West Bay. However, in other cases, such as the road and rail tunnels through the Berkeley hills, it proved impossible to make them earthquake-proof and so it was avoided and the risk was left bare.

In such cases, it is striking that despite the fact that the probability of an earthquake is very high, and seismic activity is closely monitored, individuals continue to live in the area and accept the risk as part of everyday life. This would seem to demonstrate that, contrary to Beck's assertion, where the risks are natural, even where they can be monitored to a certain extent, they are largely ignored owing to their inherent exogenous nature. The causes of the disaster are essentially in situation human settlement where the risks are known to be high; but the fact that this occurs is largely to do with the fact that individuals consider themselves to be unable to control these risks and thus simply accept them. In other cases, risks can be understood as natural but actually owe more to human causes than would appear to be the case a first. This holds different stages: with seismic activity, human causes are limited; were humans not there, the earthquake, tsunami, or volcanic eruption would still occur. However, with flooding, the basic cause could be held to be high rainfall. However, these almost always owe more to human causes. Embankments force rivers to deposit sediment loads in a narrow channel, which will then raise the riverbed above the extent of the embankment, resulting in an increased risk of flooding. Roads and railways that have been built against the rivers act against the natural gradient of the drainage flow, which thus impedes the drainage of lands adjacent to the river, resulting in water-logging. Furthermore, land drainage systems that have been encouraged since the gradual industrialisation of agriculture combined with the large scale urban settlement means that rainfall that would previously take hours or days to reach the drainage system can now flow in seconds. The greater the area of concrete, therefore, the faster the river will flow in a time of high rainfall.

From this point of view, it is unsurprising that flash floods should occur in times of high rainfall. The immediate environment is structured to effectively encourage flooding. The extent to which flooding occurs cannot simply be ascribed to natural causes such as freakishly high rainfall, although there is an extent to which in recent years, flooding has occurred because of much higher than average levels of rainfall. However, the building on floodplains and the construction of embankments has been seen to provide a short-term alleviation of most floods and previously a particularly high rainfall did not occur more than once every generation or so. This means that the risks could be seen as calculable and manageable. If the risk of flooding is limited to once every century or so, then this might be seen as a risk worth taking for most developers. However, what is not included in the calculations, and what is not taken into account is that these events are not necessarily spread out over time. They are not necessarily more predictable than the throw of a dice each time, and so periods of high rainfall can repeat each year with monotonous regularity. As this occurs, this produces an aversion to taking on the risks of flooding. Developments are moved to higher ground and low risk activities such as pasture can be placed on the flood plains. However, there is also to an extent that the cycles of weather and their effects on the environment work on a much greater time scale. Therefore, disasters such as flooding can easily be dismissed as one-off, or freak events, such as Boscastle in 2004. Therefore should in happen twice in a small period of time, questions will be asked more severely. Thus the flooding in parts of Gloucestershire on the Severn flood plain in 2007 were treated almost as a one-off.

Even if they did demonstrate the problems of embankments, drainage systems and the fallacy of building on flood plains, there was every chance that they would not repeat for a number of years and such concerns would fall into the background. The reason for the repeat of such disasters can therefore be ascribed to two factors. First, the relative low occurrence of such disasters and the low likelihood of repetition can lead to the assumption that it represents a unique event. Second, the vested interests in terms of the value of the property that would be squandered were the dangers of placing housing developments on flood plains be fully recognised mean that there is significant pressure to avoid widespread recognition of the structural causes. Therefore, where disasters are causes essentially by human activity, it is expedient to ascribe them to natural causes, and thus uncontrollable, wherever possible.

The issue of flooding brings to the fore the element to which what has hitherto been considered as natural disasters may actually be anthropogenic. This underlines precisely the difficulty in the nature of scientific proof when dealing with the intersection between the natural and the man-made. Global warming is a pertinent example of this kind of relationship, where the relationship between what is perceived as natural, and the human influence on it, is a problematic element. First, this is a global issue and the problem between the ways in which the private individual acts and the cost on society is mitigated by the fact that it does not come under the control of any one government makes cooperative action difficult to arrange. Second, the difficulty of establishing cause and effect between elements of weather is difficult enough, before seeking to include the notion of human effect on it. This can be seen in the frequent derision placed on the notion of global 'warming' when the reality is that the carbon emissions in the atmosphere and its effect on the retention of heat from the sun can result in a number of changes to weather patterns that could result in some areas becoming much cooler that usual, or increasing rainfall in previously dry areas. This can be brought to bear on a third element, one which is not considered closely by Beck or Giddens, that the difficulty of scientific research is that communication to the public is usually required to take the form of a simple set of facts or arguments. Any appraisal of what is a very complicated aspect of cause and effect can lend itself too easily to uninformed dismissal when it is compared to the larger basis of vested interests in the continuance.

The fact that modern society has become greatly individualised offers some solution to these issues. When faced with the potential problems that are provided by global warming, no one individual wishes to contribute to the adverse consequences of their actions. However, when these are placed against the notion that individual action would simply result in individual cost, with the benefits of not driving, or reducing emissions in other ways, accruing to the general world population at a very low level of contribution, there is limited incentive for this to occur. For example, the spreading of slurry on fields contributes to a great extent of coastal pollution. Not spreading slurry on fields would inconvenience an individual farmer, but should the practice be continued by others then the net contribution of the one farmer would be negligible. This has been dubbed the tragedy of the commons and it can be used in this context to explain the situations that occurs by incremental practices rather than one simple and obvious source. For example, overfishing is a key example of the tragedy of the commons: not fishing by any one boat would cost the boat more than it would benefit each member of society. Conversely, fishing would profit a fisherman more than it might cost society in the short term. As a result there is a greater incentive to structure the arguments around maintaining the status quo as much as possible. For example, the benefits of abandoning settlements on flood plains would be marginal when compared to the benefits of maintaining these settlements. It is supposed that the risk can be managed effectively, but the problem is that the vested interests means that scientific advice can be considered against other factors, such as the cost of abandoning such settlements and building settlements on much more topographically sound sites. Therefore, disasters repeat themselves because they are essentially weighed up in a cost-benefit analysis, which would tend to consider a small risk to be well weighted against the value to private interests (and therefore, as is usually considered, to society) (Toke, 2000). This way of thinking is not new; agricultural systems have always encroached on the highlands during longer-term periods of warmer weather. It has been considered that a harvest failure in seven successful harvests is a reasonable ratio for traditional agriculture, and any greater ratio would tend to result in migration. Therefore, contrary to Beck's association, much of the calculations regarding disasters and their mitigation have developed from a similar weighing of probabilities. In this sense, it is inevitable that disasters repeat themselves; what is ignore in this question is their frequency, which can often be considered to be of an acceptable level in many cases.

The reason behind this can also be ascribed to the relationship between the short-term aims of many in many developed societies and the long term nature of disasters. (Pelling, 2000) Although governments may make long-term commitments, the nature of the detail on disasters are focused more on mitigating their effects than changing the structural strategy employed that would result in the cost of short and medium efforts for a benefit that would not be realised for some time. Given in Britain, each government may last for up to five years this can produce a focus on the short rather than the long term. Therefore, disaster mitigation may only take place when there is significant public pressure or the dangers are perceived as high in certain areas.

Therefore, disasters may be more readily treated as one-off, given that policies for their mitigation may require a much longer term policy management than many governments are willing to take. For example, it may be more expedient for a government to argue that flooding is a freakish act of nature rather than attempt to move settlements away from flood plains which would not only cost the government, but also cost them support from the vested interests involved who would find a large proportion of their unmoveable wealth declared useless. Public apathy might also add to this, given that the proportion of a population who are significantly affected by flooding may be limited. This can be connected to what Beck dubs the social stratification of risk, where the individuals most likely to reside in risky areas are the most socially and economically vulnerable as well as the most exposed to risk in terms of a disaster. Therefore, the politics of a risk society would go to suggest that such risks would likely accrue to those least able to exert political influence in order to change their situation. Government action, to a greater or lesser extent, is affected by what will bring in votes, and the politics of a risk society in this case means the least likely to affect the outcome of an election would be the most likely members in a society to be exposed to disasters. This can most clearly be seen in one sense in the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, where government inactivity in alleviating the disaster was almost certainly related to the fact that the areas that received the greatest damage were the poorer neighbourhoods, leading to charges of covert racism owing to the fact the economically marginalised were also predominately populated by black people. Therefore it is not enough for government activity to be intended to take stock of the risk situation and make policies for the future, the learning engendered by each disaster may be mitigated by the fact that it will likely affect the politically less able, and thus it may be politically expedient to ignore the possibilities based on the probability that, firstly, such population groups would be unwilling or unlikely to vote against a government, and secondly, the probability of disasters repeating in as short space of time as a government term means there is little incentive to prompt massive government expenditure or a structural shift in policy for what may turn out to be limited political capital.

A final element that might explain why disasters do not lead to greater opportunities for learning can be seen from the extent of the predictability of future disasters. A disaster, almost by definition, is a relatively unique event. Therefore learning from one disaster may not lead to the implementation of tactics that would avoid it in the future because they are often seen as localised events, prone to the particular context in which they occur. For example, whereas it might be seen as poor policy to situate settlements in flood plains, the fact that flooding occurred in one part of the country is not seen as an overriding reason why it might be prudent not to locate a settlement in a flood plain in another. Each volcano has its own peculiar set of localised behavioural patterns, with what appear to be long-dormant mountains suddenly springing into life, and other apparently active volcanoes never erupting; the comparisons between the two mean that it is often impossible to do what is often required, and reliably assess the risk without any error of the wisdom of locating human settlements upon their sides or in their vicinity. Likewise, with earthquakes, there can be many methods of assessing that an earthquake is likely, but the fact that it is impossible to assess the precise timing means that they inevitably appear as arbitrary and therefore it is impossible to gauge the extent to which seismic activity will affect human activity. As such, the opportunities for learning are not how to avoid disasters, which would essentially entail locating settlements in different regions and avoiding any risky location at all, but how to deal with disasters once they occur. From this argument it may be seen that the lessening of the extent of a disaster mitigates its definition as a disaster, and as such a greater earthquake can strike in a developed country where the appropriate structural arrangements have been made and have little effect, but in less developed areas can be completely decimated by the same magnitude. As a result, there is an argument that a disaster occurs owing to the variety in which they can occur, and thus the reason for their repetition is the fact that the learning opportunities are limited for each case.

The repetition of disasters, despite the opportunities that each provides for learning, can therefore be summarised as follows. First, despite the contention of Beck and Giddens, disasters are not all manufactured and there exists a duality between the extent to which it is often expedient to ascribe 'natural' disasters to unpredictable causes. Therefore human activity is limited to mitigating the effects of such disasters. Second, mitigation is hindered by vested interests; the only failsafe method of reducing the effect of disasters would be relocation of human communities away from a region, and the private and public cost makes it expedient to improve the infrastructure of existing settlements. Three, likewise, the political expediency of high expenditure on marginal communities is low, so protection would only be likely to politically active areas. Finally, short term benefits tend to override longer terms costs, and the structure of democratic governments, capitalist social structures and society means that planning for a cost that will only accrue to future generations means opportunity for profit is lost. The short-term will almost always lose out to the longer term, and therefore, for as long as public policy is structured as such, the probability is that disasters will continue to repeat, though their effect should incrementally become less as infrastructural improvements gradually develop.


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Hugely disappointed. I am deciding whether to pursue the matter. I guess I just have to be more careful next time. Wallet gonna be tight for the next few weeks.

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