Charting a risky business

Journal of Risk Research
February 12, 1999

Yet another journal?" This question was posed by editor Ragnar Lofstedt in the first issue of the Journal of Risk Research , which has just celebrated its first birthday. A survey ten years ago turned up more than 600 journals about risk and safety. There are almost certainly many more now. So why another one?

One answer is that the growth of risk literature mirrors the growth in concern about risk. An article in issue three of the journal, by Lennart Sjöberg, Anders af Wählberg and Pernilla Kvist, notes that over the past three decades the number of bills relating to risk submitted to Sweden's parliament increased fourfold - an increase that I suspect is typical of most European and North American countries. But this answer evades the chicken-and-egg question - has the growth of writing about risk generated the concern, or vice versa?

Sjöberg et al conclude that the question merits further investigation. The increasing regulation of the minutiae of life in the name of safety is a phenomenon difficult to explain in affluent countries with growing life-spans. This journal promises to lead this inquiry.

Most of the longer established journals in this field show little interest in such questions. They are oblivious to the rewards of risk. They are assiduous in their search for new risks. They assume the need for ever-greater institutional control over them, and are preoccupied with the search for ways to manage risk more efficiently. Most of them treat risk scientifically, as a phenomenon that can be measured and manipulated in the same way as the material subjects of conventional science. Admittedly their measurements are often presented as probabilities, but this mainstream risk literature is imbued with the ethos of positivist, reductionist science.

In recent years a new literature has emerged, claiming that risk is a social or cultural construct. Relations between these two camps - realist and constructionist - have been strained. An attempt by the Royal Society to bring them together in 1992 was a conspicuous failure. On display in this journal is the same mutual incomprehension that bedevilled the Royal Society's efforts in 1992. In issue one, Sir Frederick Warner, who chaired the Royal Society's risk group, characterises the Seveso dioxin escape as a sociological disaster - a relatively innocuous event blown up into a catastrophe by scientifically incompetent and alarmist sociologists. In issue four we have a constructionist defence by Bruna di Marchi, highlighting the limitations of Sir Frederick's view.

But more helpful are the attempts by di Marchi and others to bridge the realist-constructionist divide. Where the science is unresolved - as in, for example, arguments about global warming or low-level radiation - what you believe depends on who you believe, on whose hypothesis you find most plausible.

Risk, usefully quantifiable as probability, merges, without any clear boundary line, into unquantifiable uncertainty. It is about this non-existent boundary that the most interesting, and acrimonious, debates occur. A reading of its first-year's offerings suggests that this is the territory that the Journal of Risk Research intends to occupy. If it continues as it has begun, it will establish itself as the most important journal in an overcrowded field.

John Adams is professor of geography, University College London.

Journal of Risk Research: (four times a year)

Editor - Ragnar Lofstedt
ISBN - ISSN 1366 9877
Publisher - E and F Sponfour
Price - £50.00 (individuals); £130.00 (institutions)
Pages - -

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