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  • Moving TargetsRisk, Security, and the Social in Twentieth-Century Europe
  • Julia Moses (bio) and Eve Rosenhaft (bio)

According to the sociologists Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, modern societies have become increasingly preoccupied with the future and safety and have mobilized themselves in order to manage systematically what they have perceived as “risks” (Beck 1992; Giddens 1991). This special section investigates how conceptions of risk evolved in Europe over the course of the twentieth century by focusing on the creation and evolution of social policy. The language of risk has, in the past twenty years, become a matter of course in conversations about social policy (Kemshall 2002). We seek to trace how “risk” has served as a heuristic tool for understanding and treating “social problems.” A key aim of this collection is to explore the character of social policy (in the broadest sense) as an instrument (or technology) that both constructs its own objects as the consequences of “risks” and generates new “risks” in the process (Lupton 2004: 33). In this way, social policy typifies the paradox of security: by attempting literally to making one “carefree,” or (without) curitās (care), acts of (social) security spur new insecurities about what remains unprotected (Hamilton 2013: 3–5, 25–26). Against this semantic and philological context, we suggest that social policy poses an inherent dilemma: in aiming to stabilize or improve the existing social order, it also acts as an agent of change.1 This characteristic of social policy is what makes particularly valuable studies that allow for comparisons across time, place, and types of political regime. By examining a range of cases from across Europe over the course of the twentieth century, this collection seeks to pose new questions about the role of the state; ideas about risk and security; and conceptions of the “social” in its various forms.

The essays in this special section derive from a conference held at the University of Sheffield in the summer of 2012 that brought together historians and sociologists from the United States, the United Kingdom, and continental Europe. We sought to share insights across disciplinary boundaries in order to understand better the diverse assumptions about and languages of risk and security that informed twentieth-century European social policy and, indeed, continue to echo into the twenty-first century. Europe in the twentieth century provides an ideal optic for exploring changing semantics of risk and their individual, social, and political consequences. Europe has not only been a locus of innovation in social policy, as evidenced by the early adoption of social insurance in the late nineteenth century and work-life balance policies at [End Page 25] the end of the twentieth century, but it has also been a site of social engineering, exemplified by “moral reform” campaigns in the Weimar Republic and the “racial hygiene” projects carried out under National Socialism, as well as by the eugenics movements espoused by the Eugenics Society in the United Kingdom and by Alva and Gunnar Myrdal in Sweden. Not least, “Europe,” and continental Europe in particular, has often served as an ideal type for risk management through social policy (Pontusson 2005).

To be sure, Europe has witnessed a long evolution in thinking about risk, going back at least as early as fifteenth-century Italian policies for agricultural and transport insurance, and perhaps dating as early as late medieval accounting practices (Bernstein 1996: 41–44, 92–96). By the twentieth century, therefore, “risk” had already come to experience a complex history, with origins that lay primarily in commercial insurance and gambling rather than social policy. Moreover, various words have been used interchangeably for the concept of “risk” over the last several centuries, and continue to be employed into the present. Nonetheless, in its manifold formulations, from sixteenth-century insurance policies to twentieth-century hygiene laws, the idea has been understood as the potential future outcome—either positive or negative—of a conscious decision, for example, to set sail or to place a bet. In this respect, “risk” differed from “hazards,” “dangers,” and “misfortunes,” which were seen as unavoidable—even if concepts of risk have often been articulated using these alternative nomenclatures. In contrast to “dangers,” therefore, one...


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