Monday, November 16, 2009

Risk & Society

The concept of risk society describes a modern worldview where tradition has broken down and scientific advances, rather than nature, are dominant. The consequences of human actions as a function of modernity and industrialization across a range of areas have introduced a wide array of risks and uncertainties, which exacerbate the risk of the everyday. A central paradox of risk society is that risks are generated by the very methods of modernization that are trying to control them. In this way, the traditional certainties and securities of the pre-modern society can no longer be relied upon. Fundamental to an understanding of risk society is the breakdown of the expert systems of trust in science, which has implications for how children and families function.

Beck (1992) focuses on this breakdown in the expert systems of science by drawing attention to the fact that science often draws different conclusions about the same thing, thus creating mistrust in a society that relies upon certainty and security. For example, as an element of traditional childrearing, there have been conflicting messages about breastfeeding throughout the world, with contradictions coming from both science and the media. On the one hand, this had disastrous consequences for many children in developing contexts, as many mothers chose the financially unsustainable method of formula feeding. Mothers were not able to sustain the expensive modern method of formula feeding, and therefore the baby’s nutrition and subsequent growth suffered. On the other hand, in some developed countries such as the United States, there have been breastfeeding advocacy campaigns aimed at mothers that have relied upon scare tactics rather than evidence-based advice. Mothers who use formula are portrayed as “bad mothers” who are actively harming their children, because they are not using “natural” methods to raise their children. Strong attitudes towards such childrearing practices are driven by ideology and politics and framed by blame, rather than concern for the individual. There are multiple examples of contradictions like this present in risk society.

This example proves that risk society has fundamentally changed the modern worldview, including the way children are raised. Claims about the risks to children’s health and well-being continue to proliferate and revolve around debates about what it means to be a “good parent”. This concept is more often linked to common perceptions of risk than to scientific evidence.

Similarly, Castel (1991) argues that many discourses on risk dissolve the notion of a subject or concrete individual, and put in its place risk factors. He critiques this modern view because it excludes any face-to-face relationship between the carer and the cared, the helper and the helped, the professional and the client. It clusters people as groups of risk factors, and only intervenes in cases when the risk factors produce dangerous combinations within individuals. Castel uses the example of the 1976 GAMIN system in France, when children were screened at a few days, a few months, and two years after birth. The combination of predetermined factors triggered automatic alerts, which prompted a social worker “to confirm or disconfirm the real presence of danger, on the basis of the probabilistic and abstract existence of risks” (p.287-288). Though Castel makes his distaste for such a system known, one must wonder if we are heading towards a global, and perhaps more intrusive, surveillance system such as GAMIN. The main question, however, is whether or not risk society or surveillance of risk factors, can account for the accidental and unpredictable nature of unique human beings.

Beck, U. (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage Publications.
Castel, R. (1991). From dangerousness to risk. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon, and P. Miller (Eds.), The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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