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Risk Acceptability According to the Social Sciences

Mary Douglas

Publication Year: 1986

In this provocative report on the study of risk, anthropologist Mary Douglas exposes a pervasive neglect of the social bases of risk perception. Researchers have concentrated on the individual's perceptions and choices, ignoring the social influences that direct them. The result is an inability to explore certain crucial questions—how standards of acceptable risk reflect moral judgments, for example, and how the acceptable distribution of risk is an aspect of social justice. Douglas' findings offer a challenge and a new agenda to all who are interested in the way risk is defined and managed in our society.   "An altogether brilliant piece of writing--far-reaching and a joy to read." —Amartya Sen, Oxford University

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Title Page

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About the Series

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pp. 1-4

Originally this was intended as a review of the literature on social influences on risk perception. However, it proved difficult to achieve the usual form of a literature review. When there is a large, focused body of work to be abstracted, various outlying areas and innovations can be related within a single framework...

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1. Moral Issues in Risk Acceptability

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pp. 5-18

In every generation one or another branch of the social sciences is put on the witness stand to be interrogated about drastic problems- famine or economic recession, the causes of war or crime. For the last decade and more, such urgent questions have been about the risks of new technology. The fears and conscience of...

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2. The Emergence of a New Subdiscipline

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pp. 19-28

Historians and philosophers of science are interested in the origins of distinctive sets of ideas. The subdiscipline of risk perception affords an interesting contemporary case. Its emergence can reasonably be dated to 1969 when Chauncey Starr's article "Social Benefit Versus Technological Risk" in Science provoked controversy...

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3. Perception of Risk

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pp. 29-40

The best established results of risk research show that individuals have a strong but unjustified sense of subjective immunity. In very familiar activities there is a tendency to mimimize the probability of bad outcomes. Apparently, people underestimate risks which are supposed to be under their control. They reckon they...

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4. Choice and Risk

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pp. 41-52

The theory of choice applies logic to the act of choosing. The rational argument is one that is not self-contradictory and likewise the rational choice. To be rational, one choice does not negate another. Rational behavior implies some ordering of alternatives in terms of relative desirability. The logic of choice concerns noncontradictory or ordered preferences. In science, probabilities are...

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5. Naturals Risk

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pp. 53-64

There is a current misleading assumption about how dangers from nature are perceived. Physical signs of the typhoon or earthquake appear first as small spots on the horizon; interpreting them is full of uncertainty; as they approach, misperceptions pile up and the final disaster comes as a surprise-stochastically foreseen...

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6. Credibility

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pp. 65-72

According to research on public perception of risks, people regularly underestimate risks in familiar situations and low-probability risks. They get worried by media-reported events that seem dramatic (air crashes with film stars on board) and less worried by undramatic losses (such as deaths from asthma)...

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7. Risk-Seeking and Safety First

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pp. 73-82

Rational choice needs to take into account the working of a principle that sets the lower limit for acceptable risks. Utility theory allowed for outcomes being so undesirable as to fall outside of the individual's schedule of preferences. Engel's law (Houthakker 1957) recognizes a kind of safety-first concern. According to this...

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8. Institutional Constraints

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pp. 83-90

"The organizational and social environment in which the decision maker finds himself determines what consequences he will anticipate, what ones he will ignore. In a theory of organization, these variables cannot be treated as unexplained, independent factors, but must be determined and explained by the theory" (March...

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Risks Encoded

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pp. 91-102

This volume pivots on a central contrast. On the one hand, the analysis of risk within the theory of choice, as we saw in chapter 4, clears away all adhering real world considerations; understandably, a pure theory of risk separates its topic from prejudices entertained by the decision-maker and from institutional and historical contingencies...


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pp. 103-114


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pp. 115-122

E-ISBN-13: 9781610441582
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871542113
Print-ISBN-10: 0871542110

Page Count: 128
Publication Year: 1986