The everyday experience of living with risk and uncertainty

Alaszewski, Andy and Coxon, Kirstie orcid iconORCID: 0000-0001-5480-597X (2008) The everyday experience of living with risk and uncertainty. Health, Risk & Society, 10 (5). pp. 413-420. ISSN 1369-8575

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This editorial provides an overview of the articles included in the Special Issue of Health, Risk & Society on living with risk and uncertainty. The papers were originally given at the 2006 BSA Risk and Society Study group and the authors were invited to revise them from this Special Issue. In this Editorial, we identify several important themes within the papers. While it has become a commonplace that modern society is a ‘risk society,’ in which individuals have become responsible for managing an increasing range of potentially life threatening risks, it is not clear how and in what circumstances individuals frame their situation in terms of risk. Henwood and colleagues draw on evidence from three interrelated studies which form part of the Economic and Social Research Council funded network on the Social Contexts and Responses to Risk (SCARR). These authors concluded that ‘risk’ is not ubiquitous within respondents' accounts but is rather one frame amongst many that can be used. The articles in the Special Issue indicate that a situation is framed as a risk if individuals are aware of the presence of danger which if not correctly or skilfully managed could result in harm, even death. Harries' article on flood risk emphasises the shock and trauma of being flooded and relates how some flood victims experience long term insecurity and anxiety. Gjernes' account of Sami reindeer herders describes the ways in which a combination of external forces threaten the continued existence of Sami culture and their social relations, and Tulloch documents the impact of being directly affected by a bomb attack as well as his resistance to the media accounts and construction of risks. As Zinn indicates, when individuals frame a situation in terms of risk, it does not follow that they will rely upon experts with their cognitive rational approaches to risk management, and they may instead use approaches which are neither rational nor irrational but have elements of both, such as trust. Indeed, in this issue, only Tulloch describes using experts to manage the personal consequences of his post-bomb trauma. There is generally more evidence in these papers of resistance to expert definitions of risk and to expert prescriptions for managing it, whether this is the explicit resistance which Lee describes amongst her bottle-feeding mothers or the transformation of public health messages to fit with lay beliefs which Gjernes describes amongst women reindeer herders in Northern Norway. As Zinn notes, individuals use a variety of approaches to managing risk including those which are apparently irrational such as the denial described by Harries or the ‘enduring’ described by Honkasalo in her study of women in Northern Karelia in their response to the perceived certainty of a negative outcome; in this case, death from heart disease.

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