Risk has come to dominate individual and collective consciousness in the twenty-first century. Although global insecurity has been created by terrorism, pollution, global epidemics, and famine risks involved in aspects of everyday life such as food, sunlight and travel have become major preoccupations. The book under review deals with interrelationship between risk and society. According to the author, ‘The term “risk” is a concept which was developed in the 16th and 17th centuries and was first coined by the early western explorers. . . The term was . . . widened to refer to other situations of uncertainty . . . the founding fathers of Sociology were, in their own ways, concerned with questions related to risk. Marx drew attention to the instabilities and miseries created by the capitalist mode of production.
The consequences of the Industrial Revolution brought new risks as the population became urbanized and worked with often dangerous machinery. Durkhiem was concerned with the danger of society disintegrating as an over-emphasis on economic development led to the breakdown of moral regulation. Weber analysed risks that were associated with the growth of bureaucratic organizations which emerged as a result of industrialization’ (p. 9).
In contemporary society one can easily define risk associated with chance, hazard, probability, eventuality and randomness on the one hand, and loss and damage on the other. Further, ‘Risk . . . is concerned with the likelihood of mass exposure to physical or psychological harm, as distinct form of danger and hazard to an individual’ (p. 10). However interestingly the author evaluates risk not only as negative but also as positive force which, ‘is a core element in the relation of a dynamic and innovative society . . . the driving force behind capitalist development . . . and a prerequisite to participation in technologically based global era’ (p. 11). That is why the author says that the anticipation and prevention of risk has taken the form of an industry.
The writer critically examines the social construction of risk by considering a range of social theories, addressing the literature and providing an authoritative guide to the key issues related to the notion of risk in every day life. That is why the book under review has a multidisciplinary appeal. Hence students from sociology, international relations, media, culture and communication will find this book meaningful for their respective disciplines.
Along with a small introduction the book contains fourteen chapters which have been broadly divided into three parts. The three parts are ‘Understanding Risk’, which examines the different meanings and ideas ascribed to risk; ‘Living in Risk Society’ combines a consideration of major life events and risk within everyday aspects of living; and ‘International and Global Risk’ which enquires into the risks posed by terrorism, global regulation, governance and developments within international relations. The successful introduction of a very new, off beat and otherwise boring theme in the academic world in an absorbing manner mark this book. Along with its easy and lucid language the book has been made reader friendly with different tables and boxes giving the book almost a text book shape. Each chapter starts with an outline and finishes with a conclusions and ready reference of further readings on that particular topic. There is an extended bibliography, which will help the general and specific readers to select further readings related to the different aspects of the topic.
An interesting aspect of book is ‘Risk and Everyday Experience’ (pp. 43–54) which highlights the fact that, ‘from birth to death, the experience of risk is becoming individualized and complex’ (p. 54). The author shows particular concern over the collapsing of family as a source of social cohesion and order. For instance in USA in the year 2000, 50 percent of all first marriages ended in separation or divorce within 15 years.
Divorce has led to major changes in the structure of the family resulting in greater risk that children will experience. The author laments that in the US, more than 70 percent of children affected by divorce are under 10 years of age (p. 44). Further, divorce and separation are closely associated with the risk of increased poverty. On the other hand some couples take the risk because they go for infertility treatment in a belief that it can lead to pregnancy. Some social scientists have shown that ‘American women take risks in connection with infertility in order to fulfill the “cultural norm of motherhood”’ (p. 54).
In this era of globalization a new dimension has been added to the existing list of risks and that is ‘the risk associated with new terrorism’. This form of terrorism crystallized specifically following the attacks on the World Trade Centre and other strategic targets on 11 September 2001 which has created new dimensions of insecurity and global risk. The worrisome part of this terrorism is that it is performed ‘by a well-resourced global organization, operating at times in a sophisticated manner, and harnessing modern technology’.
The book critically examines the role of the media in the construction of risk related topics. The chapter acknowledges the importance of the mass media in identifying and developing risks in every day life. The author records the impact of television within the ‘risk society’ and argues that, ‘The power of television to create and define what constitutes risk has taken on a new significance, as it has become the leading form of news’ (p. 95). However the author is concerned that the media instead of playing a positive role in risk management, has transformed many risks into ‘world panics’. That is why all arms of the media are concerned with risk and the presentation of risk as a potentially profitable form of activity.
Although the author has tried to record and analyse the constituents and functions of risk in everyday life, he is candid enough to accept the fact that ‘still, there is no consensus as to what constitutes risk’. Yet the book successfully sensitizes a reader about the existential and experiential realities of risk in every-day life.
Vivek Kumar is Associate Professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.