The experience of ‘risk’

Genealogy and transformations

Authored by: Claude-Olivier Doron

Routledge Handbook of Risk Studies

Print publication date:  April  2016
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138022867
eBook ISBN: 9781315776835
Adobe ISBN: 9781317691662


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The word ‘risk’ is widely used today to refer to a multiplicity of phenomena, from the very materials from which financial institutions or insurances make their profits to the various dangers that can affect any sector of our lives (health, environment, unemployment, crimes). ‘Risk’ has become a category of our experience, a way we perceive and understand our lives and the world around us. But this category – and the very experience it conveys – is deeply historical and specific. Some scholars, such as Beck (1992), have used the terms ‘dangers’, ‘risks’ or ‘threats’ interchangeably, whilst others such as Giddens (1999), Luhmann (1993) and contributors to ‘governmentality studies’ (see Chapter 9) have rightly stressed that ‘risk’ should be distinguished as a specific way of understanding and governing uncertain events. As Ewald states in relation to risk and insurance:

the term designates neither an event nor a general kind of event occurring in reality (the unfortunate kind), but a specific mode of treatment of certain events capable of happening to a group of individuals – or, more exactly, to values and capitals possessed […] by a collectivity of individuals: that is to say, a population. Nothing is a risk in itself; there is no risk in reality. But on the other hand anything can be a risk; it all depends on how one […] considers the event. As Kant might have put it, the category of risk is a category of the understanding.

(Ewald, 1991: 199)

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