Risk in social science

November 06, 2006

A new book by Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby and Dr Jens Zinn explains how the break-neck speed of technological innovation, coupled with a collapse of confidence in public authorities, "experts" and corporations has pushed 'risk' to the top of the research agenda.

Risk in Social Science, which is intended primarily as a text-book for students of sociology, psychology and social psychology, brings together the work of major researchers in the Economic and Social Research Council Social Context and Responses to Risk Network (SCARR) at the University of Kent. It is designed as an introduction to the field of risk research and includes contributions from a wide range of academic disciplines, drawing on international research literature as well as UK material from the leading authorities in the field.

Academic research is increasingly inter-disciplinary, and there has been a shift in focus to trying to understand how ordinary people perceive and respond to risk and including these aspects when modelling risk scenarios. 'Research shows that extreme responses may lead to a "culture of fear" in which anything new is suspect, or "edgework", where people deliberately take risks in extreme sports, sexual behaviour and relationships,' they say.

The recognition of the complex nature of risk, as well as its high profile in public debate and in the media has led to richer approaches and more hybrid methods of social science research and analysis, as well as more interaction between government, academia and business. 'Risk reduction is now a policy objective in a number of areas, but risk is also recognised as an important ingredient within policy, as the management of continuing risks replaces risk elimination as the major important policy concern,' say Peter Taylor-Gooby and Jens Zinn.

In their introduction, Peter Taylor-Gooby and Jens Zinn explain how failures of technology and innovation, such as the Thalidomide tragedy, the BSE outbreak and Chernobyl, increased public distrust of institutions. 'When risk issues become politicised they are difficult to resolve by technical means alone,' the authors state.

'A whole range of innovations, including nuclear power, GM food, motorway building and the Ilisu, Namarda and Yangtse dam projects all provoke vigorous and determined political protest and we know that political pressures can prevent the diffusion of new technologies, despite a lack of scientific evidence,' they say.

The book looks at the topic of risk from many different angles, with chapters on Crime, the Environment and Technical Development, Everyday Life and Leisure Time, Family and Partnerships, Health and Illness, Lifecourse, Youth and Old Age, Media, Social and Public Policy, Risk Regulation and Social Inequality (Gender, Ethnicity, Disability and Class).
Dr Jens Zinn on 01227-824165 or email: J.Zinn@kent.ac.uk Alexandra Saxon or Annika Howard at ESRC, on 01793 413032/413119


  1. Risk in Social Science Edited by Peter Taylor-Gooby and Jens Zinn. Published by Oxford University Press. The authors include, Professor Hazel Kemshall, De Monfort University, Professor Nick Pidgeon, Cardiff University, Professor John Tullock, Brunel University, Professor Jane Lewis, London School of Economics, Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby, University of Kent, Professor Sarah Vickerstaff, University of Kent, Professor Jenny Kitzinger, University of Cardiff, Professor Andy Alaszweski, University of Kent, Professor Bridget Hutter, London School of Economics and Dr David Abbott, University of Bristol.

  2. The Social Context and Responses to Risk Network (SCARR), based at the University of Kent brings together sociologists, psychologists, economists, experts on social policy, the media, socio-legal studies and law and other social scientists from 14 universities in nine linked projects. The research examines perceptions of and responses to risk in a range of areas, including sexual behaviour and partnering choices, pensions and financial planning, industrial pollution, crime, transport and environmental hazards. The network will contribute to public policy by focusing on risk in everyday life settings, rather than the hypothetical contexts to which social science theories often refer. It will also promote academic work, particularly through the sharing of insights and approaches across disciplines. Core finance is from a grant of £2.8 million from ESRC. http://www.kent.ac.uk/scarr

  3. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2006-07 is £169 million. At any one time the ESRC At any time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

  4. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research (formerly accessible via the Regard website) and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

Economic & Social Research Council

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