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The International Political Sociology of Risk

Summary and Keywords

Conceptions of “risk” have permeated different forms of governance in both developed and developing countries. Many scholars have theorized how societies, states, organizations, and economic actors cope with uncertainty, giving rise to an international political sociology (IPS) of risk. A major concern of the IPS of risk is how uncertainty has become a central problem for governance. The ways in which risks are assessed and managed are taken as problematic spaces from which to question the roles of states, societies, economic actors, and individuals in coping with uncertainty. The origin of risk research as a disciplined field can be traced to Chauncey Starr’s article “Social Benefits versus Technological Risks” (1969), which offers a way of measuring the social acceptability of risks associated with technological development. Starr’s argument exemplifies what is known as the problem of “the ethical transformation of risk.” Risk as an ethical problem is central to modern debates on the distinction between “risk” and “uncertainty.” International Relations (IR) as a discipline has slowly begun to incorporate theoretical developments in risk theory arising from sociology, economics, and anthropology. Beyond rational choice theory implementations of threat-based conceptions of risk, IR scholars began to be influenced by three main currents of thinking risk: the risk society thesis, the governmentality of risk, and modern systems theory. A host of challenges remain with regard to the development of an IPS of risk, foremost of which is theorizing the ways in which power proceeds through practices of uncertainty.

Keywords: uncertainty, international political sociology, risk, governance, Chauncey Starr, ethical transformation of risk, International Relations, risk society thesis, governmentality of risk, modern systems theory


The international political sociology (IPS) of risk is generally concerned with understanding the governance of uncertainty. As economists Bodie and Merton (1999) have classically described it, risk is uncertainty that matters. Risk is a rationality of governing the uncertain that affects the ways in which individuals and collectivities live, organize themselves, and exercise power. However, there is no single rationality of risk, and, as illustrated in this essay, rationalities of risk change as a function of the knowledge that informs them.

A major concern of the IPS of risk is the ways in which uncertainty has become a central problem for governance. The ways in which risks are assessed and managed are taken as problematic spaces from which to question the roles of states, societies, economic actors, and individuals in coping with uncertainty.

International Relations (IR) as a discipline has slowly begun to incorporate theoretical developments in risk theory arising from sociology, economics, and anthropology. This is a recent development that begins mainly with the end of the Cold War, although there are traces of risk theory having been applied to security analysis prior to this period.

This essay contextualizes the introduction of risk as a problem for analysis within IR and explores three main approaches: the risk society thesis, the governmentality of risk, and modern systems theory. However, it does not intend to offer a linear history of the evolution of “risk” as an intellectual problem. Neither does it intend to trace risk debates present in nonstate entities. It aims at offering a general analysis of the introduction of risk as a research problem within IR, and resort to previous periods is only used for contextualization purposes. The essay should not be approached as an inventory of scholarship on risk within IR. Due to limitations of space and typological design, it seeks to give a general idea of the different debates, their intellectual traditions, and some of its main exponents. Any classification will, by definition, exclude elements that do not correspond to its design.

Risk as an Ethical Problem

Various theorists coincide in arguing that a marker of the origin of risk research as a disciplined field was the publication in the journal Science of Chauncey Starr’s article “Social Benefits versus Technological Risks” (1969). As Mary Douglas (1985:19) noted, this article provoked great controversies that gave rise to journals and research institutes. Moreover, she argued, this moment marked the foundation of a new subdiscipline.

These quickly gave rise to a new profession and to a considerable literature. The new subdiscipline is not only a defined historical entity. Its restrictive assumptions and preferred methods provide it with structure and reinforce its internal channels of communication. Like any other discipline it is equipped with screening devices which exclude methods or information incompatible with the knowledge which it has already processed.

Ian Hacking (2003) and Michael Power (2003) both agree with Douglas’s observation. Regardless of the controversies around the idea of risk as an independent academic discipline and profession, the fact is that it arose out of heightened concern with the idea of accidentality and its impact on social and economic development. Starr (1969:1232), for example, offered “an approach for establishing a quantitative measure of benefit relative to cost” for accidental deaths “arising out of technological developments in public use.” These technological developments, as Douglas (1985:19–20) details, were mainly nuclear and electric, developments which started to create a considerable negative concern in the welfare of society.

In the 1950s the nuclear community and electrical industries expected to be thanked for creating new energy sources which would ensure productivity, wealth, and health for the world. Gradually, through the 1960s they were the target of increasingly articulate, hostile public criticism. Government, recognizing its policy dilemmas, and industry, trying to justify itself, asked what could be known about public attitudes to risk.

Starr’s contribution is concerned with offering, from an engineering perspective, a way of measuring the social acceptability of risks associated with technological development. He argues that it is scientifically possible to identify the optimum level of risks derived from technological developments that society would be willing to accept. The way to achieve this is to translate risks into costs. What follows is an informed cost–benefit analysis that could fertilize political decision making.

However, Starr (1969:1232) made it clear from the outset that his work relied on two assumptions which were later used to criticize the proposal: first, that the “historical national accident records [used in his analysis] were adequate for revealing consistent patterns of fatalities”; and, second, that “such historically revealed preferences and costs [were] sufficiently enduring to permit their use for predictive purposes.” Of course the adequacy of accident records and the politics and culture involved in their collection affected Starr’s findings. Who counted, what counted, how was the counting done, and when? All these issues, as well as the rationality justifying the collection and the way information would be recorded and made available in the future affected the collection of data.

Starr’s methodology, deeply influenced by the neoclassical economics of the Chicago School, seeks to reconcile technological rationality and the social acceptability of adverse consequences. In other words, his problem is how to ascribe a “value” to risk in order to be able to manage it through technological and organizational logic. Starr’s endeavor exemplifies what Peter Burgess has called the problem of “the ethical transformation of risk.”

Burgess (2006:571) notes that “typically, the management of risk consists in translating the logic of technological and organizational governance into the logic of human contingency, and vice-versa.” “Central to the evaluation of risk,” he argues, “is the question of value. The potential for loss as a result of any given policy decision is weighed in correlation to the cost of what that loss would be.” In Starr’s proposal, there are two kinds of value at stake: the assessed economic value deriving from a potential loss or gain, and value as a social foundation for morality expressed by Starr as “social acceptability.” The problematic character of this duality exceeds the technological rationality employed by Starr. As Burgess (2006:571) notes, “the translation of loss estimates into human costs rests upon the assessment of gain and loss at the meeting place of two different spheres of value, characterized by two different foundations altogether.” The impossibility of reducing the problem of value in risk assessments and risk management practices into a technological and organizational logic is what opens up the consideration of risk as an ethical problem. Hence Burgess’s (2008a; 2008b; 2008c) call for a politicization of risk as an ethical problem.

Risk as an ethical problem is central to modern debates on the distinction between “risk” and “uncertainty.” In 1921 the economist Frank Knight (1921:233) argued that

[t]he practical difference between the two categories, risk and uncertainty, is that in the former the distribution of the outcome in a group of instances is known (either through calculation a priori or from statistics of past experience), while in the case of uncertainty this is not true, the reason being in general that it is impossible to form a group of instances, because the situation dealt with is in a high degree unique.

This concept of risk, as described by Knight, is embedded within a wider Enlightenment tradition. Albert Bernstein (1998), for example, has described how between 1700 and 1900 a quest for developing systems for measuring uncertainty developed. Probability theory emerged as a result of that quest and the seventeenth century has been marked as its origin. There is a growing literature arising mainly from the history of ideas and science and technology studies that traces and explains the emergence of probability as a way to measure the uncertain (e.g., Porter 1986; 1995; Krüger et al. 1987; Gigerenzer et al. 1989; Kohn 1999; Poitras 2000; Gigerenzer 2002; Godin 2005; Kalthoff 2005).

However, the development of probability theory is in itself the result of a longer process that can be traced to the thirteenth century at least and that lies at the core of the development of the incipient capitalist system. Since the Renaissance, Western societies have struggled to transform uncertainty into something measurable, tradable, and governable – in other words, into something fungible (Lobo-Guerrero 2007b). Many issues have contributed to this possibility, for example the adoption in the thirteenth century of the Hindu-Arabic numerical system, including the zero, and the incorporation of algebra into the Western world. These numerical systems introduced by the demands caused by the growing complexity of commerce were in deep conflict with the existing Christian order of governance and were indeed a challenge to the economic ethic of the Church (Langholm 1992). Attributing a fungible character to “the uncertain” through adopting or developing systems of measurement has always constituted an ethical problem and a challenge to the prevailing order of governance.

Risk and International Relations

Naturally, the ethical problem posed by the idea of risk has been a concern for social scientists and intellectuals ever since the idea of a disciplined science of society came into being (Douglas and Wildavsky 1982; Wynne 1982; 1987; 1996; Adams 1995; Lupton 1999; Adam and Van Loon 2000; Boyne 2003; Althaus 2005; Zinn 2008). The need for devising ways of measuring uncertainty as a means of constituting risks relates to the different ways of being in the world. The idea of risk is therefore intrinsically related to the wider problematic of governing individuals, collectivities, and lifestyles. However, until recently, risk had been a concern for sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, economists, engineers, accountants, management scientists, and philosophers but had hardly influenced thought within IR as a discipline.

From World War II up until almost the end of the Cold War, the idea of risk within IR was restricted to applications of rational choice theory to protecting the nation-state and strategic analysis of the bipolar confrontation. However, toward the end of this period, when the problem of global politics began to incorporate a wider referential than that of the monolithic idea of state power, conceptions of risk present in the social sciences started to be employed by IR scholars for analyzing power relations around the globe.

Throughout the Cold War, risk was a concept employed in security studies almost as a synonym for threat in relation to the urgent need to quantify the enemies’ intent and capability of aggression. The measurement of risk was therefore a strategic priority for informing policy making. Many believed there was a risk that management of the bipolar balance of power would end up in a direct superpower nuclear confrontation. Such understanding dominated strategic considerations. The consequences of such a situation were thought to be catastrophic. Risk management strategies such as bilateral arms control agreements, as well as unilateral efforts, were employed. However, some of these measures, such as anti-missile defenses, had the paradoxical effect of increasing risk in their efforts to minimize it. Enhanced missile defenses would encourage enhanced missile systems and so the security dilemma would only contribute to exacerbating the risk of a nuclear confrontation. In a similar fashion, alliance politics potentially compromised the security of member states. Joining NATO could mean a reduction of a country’s risk of being attacked by the USSR, but at the same time, its potential as a target increased without a clear guarantee that allies would assist its security in case of an aggression. This was of course partly as a consequence of the nature of nuclear weapons (I. Bellany, personal communication, Aug. 1, 2008).

In the post-Cold War environment strategic analysts began to understand risk as a justification for the existence of collective defense. Ian Bellany’s article “Insuring Security” is illustrative of this move. He presents alliances for collective defense as “mutual insurance arrangements” and argues that

external attack is seen as a risk in much the same way that illness is a risk to a bread-winner, who will often want to insure against it by combining with other persons in similar circumstances to pool the risks involved (usually mediated by an insurance company).

(Bellany 1996:882)

Security operated under a principle of mutuality and insurance, as the quintessential technology for pooling risks, is Bellany’s ideal analogy: “Alliance members’ defence budgets became insurance premiums entitling them to group protection against attack” taking advantage of the economies of scale resulting from risk sharing (Bellany 1996:882).

Beyond rational choice theory implementations of threat-based conceptions of risk, International Relations scholars began to be influenced by three main currents of thinking risk: the risk society thesis, studies on governmentality, and modern systems theory.

The “Risk Society” Thesis

By the mid-1980s the work of Ulrich Beck began to materialize into the risk society thesis. Beck’s concern was to overcome the intellectual limitations of social theory in accounting for what he described as a crisis of modernity. Such a crisis was manifest in the erosion of modernity’s markers of certainty such as the European welfare state, the life-long employment character of postwar corporate environments, and the insurability of accidents and assets, characteristic of the 1980s. For Beck, the crisis involves three types of global threats (1999b:109–32). First, ecological destruction and technological-industrial dangers such as climate change, the Chernobyl nuclear accident, Bhopal, and the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, which he describes as wealth-driven risks. Second, poverty-related ecological destruction like the endangerment of the rainforests, which affects the natural balance of the planet and the production of oxygen (Griner 2002:150). And third, the development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which have become a major concern of our times. The catastrophic and global nature of these threats constitutes a global ethical challenge that exceeds Enlightenment techniques for measuring uncertainty and managing risks. Risks cannot be rendered as socially acceptable simply because of their catastrophic nature. On this basis, Beck argues for the need for a paradigm shift that can overcome the tenets of “enlightened modernity.”

The new paradigm would understand risk as a systematic way of dealing with the insecurities and hazards introduced by modernization itself, as Beck expresses in his book Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (1992). It is necessary to reconceptualize “the modern” not in terms of the markers of stability developed during the industrial age but rather in a “reflexive” manner.

The idea of “reflexive modernity” is Beck’s conceptual solution for an ethical dilemma posed by a crisis in the modern way of accounting for “the uncertain.” Attempting to summarize and characterize it, Beck (1999a:2) clarifies the distinction between modernity and “reflexive modernity,” a distinction that has underpinned the cosmopolitan political project emerging from his idea

where social relations, networks and communities are essentially understood in a territorial sense. The collective patterns of life, progress and controllability, full employment, an exploitation of nature that were typical of this first modernity have now been undermined by five interlinked processes: globalisation, individualisation, gender revolution, underemployment and global risks (as ecological crisis and the crash of global financial markets). The real theoretical and political challenge of the second modernity is the fact that society must respond to all these challenges simultaneously.

“Reflexivity,” as he later explained, “is not simply a redundant way of emphasising the self-referential quality that is constitutive of modernity.” Instead, it refers to a “distinct second phase: the modernisation of modern society” (Beck et al. 2003:1):

When modernization reaches a certain stage it radicalizes itself. It begins to transform, for a second time, not only the key institutions but also the very principles of society. But this time the principles and institutions being transformed are those of modern society.

The role of reflexive modernity, as the following analogy suggested, is therefore to develop the markers of certainty in a “postmodern” world. “Just as modernization dissolved the structure of feudal society in the nineteenth century and produced the industrial society, modernization today is dissolving industrial society and another modernity is coming into being” (Beck 1992:10; emphasis in original). However, as Lash and Wynne (1992:6) explain it, “postmodern” is here understood in a strategic manner.

Whereas post-modernism implies the wholesale abandonment of scientific-instrumental modes of thought, and modernism grants them grotesquely inflated and unconditional power, reflexive modernisation confronts and tries to accommodate the essential tension between human indeterminacy – as reflected in the incessant but always open attempt to renegotiate coherent narratives of identity – and the inevitable tendency to objectify and naturalise our institutional and cultural productions.

The strategy is therefore premised on the basis of the requirement of a globally encompassing ethic. As the bipolar world “fades away,” Beck (1999a:4) explains, there is a shift “from a world of enemies to one of danger and risks.” Risk as “the modern approach to foresee and control the future consequences of human action, the various unintended consequences of radicalized modernization” is fading. Risk “is an (institutionalized) attempt, a cognitive map, to colonize the future.” It “is rather intimately connected with an administrative and technical decision-making process.” Since decisions have been “undertaken with fixed norms of calculability connecting means and ends or causes and effects,” the challenge of reflexive modernity is to develop an alternative form of government.

Based on this distinction, risk society theorists formulate the idea of a “world risk society,” an intellectual frame of reference that seeks to tackle the “unforeseen consequences of the victory of the first, simple, linear, industrial modernization based on the national state.” Because in their opinion “the very idea of controllability, certainty or security” collapses, the development of a new kind of capitalism, economy, global order, society, and personal life demand a paradigm shift that allows “for the re-invention of society and politics” (Beck 1999a:2).

The new political and economic ethic required for the risk society is explained in the “Cosmopolitan Manifesto.” Beck (1999a) presents the project of world risk society as a simultaneous response to the multiple challenges of reflexive modernity. The global nature of threats puts all countries of the world on a similar standing since non-Western societies “share with the West not only the same space and time but also – more importantly – the same basic challenges of the second modernity (in different places and with different cultural perceptions)” (Beck 1999a:2).

The world risk society project is therefore concerned with “the politics and sub-politics of risk definition” (Beck 1999a:4). Risks, as a major force of political mobilization, “demand an opening up of the decision-making process, not only of the state but of private corporations and the sciences as well” (Beck 1999a:5). The proposal is a new cosmopolitanism that “draws attention to the limited controllability of the dangers we have created.” Its main question asks “how to take decisions under conditions of manufactured uncertainty, where not only is the knowledge-base incomplete but more and better knowledge means more uncertainty” (Beck 1999a:6). Beck and his followers go on to elaborate on the details of the risk society cosmopolitanism at great length (cf. Beck 2002a; 2002b; 2003; 2005a; 2005b; 2006; Beck et al. 2003).

Reflexive Security Studies

One of the most prominent applications of risk society theory to International Relations is what Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen has called “reflexive security studies.” In 2001 he launched a discussion about the relationship between the constructivist approach to security and that of reflexive security studies as a research program. In 2004 he began to map what he called the “emerging research program that seeks to apply the insights on risk and reflexivity to the study of security and strategy.” A particular concern for this program is to be able to “explain what is missing in the debate between soft and hard security” (Rasmussen 2004:388). In a context in which policy constantly challenges theory, the risk society thesis offers an alternative explanation of the security environment under which governments and societies face, for example, the heightened terrorism of 9/11 onwards. As noted by Rasmussen (2004:388–9),

[t]he focus on risk society turns the “broad conception of security” inside out. It is not only the case that security policy needs to take more issues into consideration, it is argued, but, along with many other policy areas, the way security issues are being handled politically is being transformed.

He identifies the foci of reflexive security studies as developing three research themes (Rasmussen 2004: 390). First, a focus on globalization, where the idea of a global risk community is beginning to develop. Christopher Coker’s (2002) work, for example, indicates a move “from the transnational level of analysis to the level of international governance” in the analysis of post-2001 NATO, which is presented as a “risk community” in contrast to the “security community” that Karl Deutsch wrote about in the 1950s (Coker 2002:71). Alyson Bailes (2007:1) suggests that “a risk-based analysis can give new force to the arguments for a global cooperative framework for response based on shared human vulnerabilities and the consequent shared interests.” In this respect, Shlomo Griner (2002:150) indicates “how Beck’s notion of ‘communities of danger’ might add to Emmanuel Adler’s reformulation of Deutsch’s notion of security communities” (see Adler 1997) and is related to Adler and Haas’s (1992) idea of epistemic communities. Martin Shaw (2001) argues that because contemporary sources of danger not only cross social divisions but also political borders, military institutions develop in what he calls “a common risk society.”

Second, Rasmussen (2004:390) notes an increasing concern about a change in the levels of analysis represented by a shift from the global to the regional. This is indeed one of the characteristics of his latest work on the analysis of strategy and the risk society (Rasmussen 2006). Finally, he suggests that a third theme in reflexive security studies was “the analysis of specific strategies” (Rasmussen 2004:391). Coker’s (2001:51–66) study of how the risk aversiveness of Western military forces in the 1990s has influenced the conduct of war is a case in point, as it is Rasmussen’s (2001; 2004:391) analysis of NATO’s enlargement as a strategy for managing post-Cold War risks in Europe. Gearóid Ó Tuathail’s (1999) work is another example where he presents a case for redefining grand strategy in terms of geopolitical analysis taking account of “the reflexive nature of the politics of risk society.” Yee-Kwan Heng (2006) writes on the effect of the risk society on an understanding of war as risk management.

A notable application for reflexive security studies, as noted by Michael Williams (2008:57), is its purchase for analyzing post-1991 NATO’s conceptual shift to the management of “security challenges and risks” as a central organizational task. This shift is evident in UK, EU, and US strategic policy documents, as described by Williams (2008:57–8):

The language of risk in Western policy documents, both explicit and implicit, is hard to miss. This conceptual shift started in 1991, when NATO began to focus on the management of “security challenges and risks” as a key organization task. The 1998 UK Strategic Defence Review noted that “stability based on the active management of these risks” was the challenge at hand. In 1999, NATO revised its strategic concept to incorporate the new mandate of “crisis management” that would stop “uncertainties” and “risks” from developing into acute crises and manage those that could not be prevented. The 2003 European Security Strategy implicitly addresses the fact that large-scale aggression against EU member states is unlikely and instead the chief concern is that terrorism, weak states, organised crime and weapons of mass destruction come together to form a dangerous nexus of insecurity and risks. The most recent United States Quadrennial Defense Review also reflects this trend away from state-based threats to more abstract risks: “The enemies we face are not nation states, but rather dispersed non-state networks […] dispersed, global terrorist networks.”

The new conceptual strategic security shift towards risk management, however, falls into what Rasmussen (2006:4) calls “the risk management security predicament,” and he argues that

[a] risk is a scenario followed by a policy proposal for how to prevent this scenario from becoming real. For this reason, a success cannot be measured with any degree of finality because success depends on creating a reality different from what one feared would happen. However, if one prevents a scenario from becoming real, the result will probably be to create new risks, which then rise to the top of the agenda. The theoretical outcome of this process is that risks are infinite because they multiply over time since one can always do more to prevent them from becoming real.

In this way strategizing security through risk management acquires an ontological character inasmuch as security is “written” through the very practices that make it possible (Campbell 1998). Oliver Kessler and Christopher Daase (2008:212) refer to a similar situation in terms of a “security paradox” as a situation in which a condition of possibility is also the condition of impossibility. “So while security policy provides security, it also creates insecurity.”

Nonetheless, reflexive security studies has become a prominent framework for analysis in the context of the war on terror. Beck (2002a) has argued on this particular point that 9/11 evidenced the collapse of language in expressing the fundamental situation of living in a world risk society. This collapse resulted from a methodological problem: a focus on “methodological nationalism” understood as equating societies with nation-state societies and focusing analysis on states and their governments (2002a:51). The alternative to this problem is to develop the foundations of a cosmopolitan social science able to account for the global nature of risks. The challenge is then “the transnational reinvention of the political through networking and cooperation” (Beck 2003:255). Efforts by Coker, Rasmussen, Williams, Ó Tuathail, Heng, and Spence, in however multiple and diverse ways, aim at consolidating the idea that communities of risk can be achieved as the preferred institutional front to face the global risk society.

The Governmentality of Risk

A second broad development in the contemporary intellectual history of risk draws heavily on the work of Michel Foucault and his concept of governmentality (Foucault 1994). Governmentality theorists have developed an understanding of risk as a rationality of governance. There is no such thing as risk in itself, it is argued through this perspective, but risk is operated as part of complex power ensembles through which the conduct of individuals, collectivities, and populations is acted upon (Ewald 1991:199). The significance of risk, as Mitchel Dean (1999:177) argues, “lies not with risk itself but with what risk gets attached to.” Risk has therefore been conceptualized as “a way of representing events in a certain form so they might be made governable in particular ways, with particular technologies and for particular goals” (ibid.).

Risk as a rationality of governance, in contrast to the risk society thesis, is not constrained by systems of measurement or calculative strategies. As noted by Pat O’Malley (2004:181):

[r]isk ceases to be a literal depiction of the world that provides objective indicators of future harms. Instead it emerges as a diverse family of ways in which certain choices are presented to us, and through which practitioners of particular kinds of expertise define the future. Risk assigns us to categories, creates divisions among us and incorporates us in diverse solidarities of fate.

Because risk is part of a “calculative rationality for governing conduct,” Dean (1999:177) argues,

it is thus not possible to speak of incalculable risks, or of risks that escape our modes of calculation, and even less possible to speak of a social order in which risk is largely calculable and contrast it with one in which risk has become largely incalculable.

What is important about risk, Dean (1999:178) adds, are “the forms of knowledge that make it thinkable, such as statistics, sociology, epidemiology, management and accounting.” When the science that informs these forms of knowledge changes, so will understandings of risk.

A particular feature of this understanding of risk relates to the temporalities involved in making risk imaginaries possible. Nikolas Rose (2001:7) defines risk as a “family of ways of thinking and acting, involving calculations about probable futures in the present followed by interventions into the present in order to control that potential future.” The temporal dimension of risk, also present in the risk society thesis although in a different form (cf. Adam 2003), is therefore a crucial aspect of the governmentality theorists’ claim on the indeterminacy of risk. Risk is about making calculations on the future but such calculations proceed through governmental technologies which are explicit exercises of power (Deleuze 2006:59). Power, as argued by Foucault (2007:61), is intrinsically related to knowledge inasmuch as “nothing can function as a mechanism of power if it is not deployed according to procedures, instruments, means and objectives which can be validated in more or less coherent systems of knowledge.” Within this conceptual apparatus it is necessary, then, to understand the expression of risk as a rationality of government through the idea of technologies of government.

The concept of technologies of government has been advanced as an attempt to theorize the conjugation of knowledge and power into strategies to govern conduct. As Rose (1999: 52) explains, technologies of government are an

assemblage of forms of practical knowledge, with modes of perception, practices of calculation, vocabularies, types of authority, forms of judgment, architectural forms, human capacities, non-human objects and devices, inscription techniques and so forth, traversed and transected by aspirations to achieve certain outcomes in terms of the conduct of the governed (which also requires certain forms of conduct on the part of those who would govern). These assemblages are heterogeneous, made up of a diversity of objects and relations linked up through connections and relays of different types. They have no essence. And they are never simply a realisation of a programme, strategy or intention: whilst the will to govern traverses them, they are not simply realisations of any simple will.

Governmentality theorists analyzing risk as a rationality of government deploy the concept of technologies of government to understand the ways in which risk has been technologized as a power/knowledge complex. This has given rise to the idea of technologies of risk which François Ewald (1991:199), Castel (1991), and Defert (1991) began to develop out of Foucault’s original work (cf. Rose et al. 2006:95). Insurance (e.g., Defert 1991; Ewald 1991; 1999; Ericson et al. 2003; Ericson and Doyle 2004; O’Malley 2004), accounting (Miller and O’Leary 1987; Miller and Rose 1992; Power 1994; 1997; 2004), and policing (e.g., Ericson and Haggerty 1997), among other themes, are beginning to be explored as technologies of risk which affect the conduct of individuals and populations and instantiate moral economies (e.g., Baker 2000). Governmentality theorists and their followers explore technologies of risk as political materializations of a rationality of governance premised upon the concept of risk.

The Governmentality of Risk and International Relations

The application of governmentality theory in relation to risk in International Relations is not concerned with the re-inscription of traditional disciplinary boundaries but broadly relates to the assumption of power as a problem space. Deeply inspired by continental philosophy, risk is explored as a rationality of governance in relation to the problematics of power that arise when government is seen not as an all-encompassing normalizing technique but as an art of calculations. Governance is therefore assumed beyond a technological and organizational rationality and observes otherness as both a challenge and an opportunity. Risk, as Michael Dillon (2007a:16) argues from this perspective, is as much an occasion for danger as an opportunity for profit.

Because of the particularities and empirical detail of studies on governmentality, it is incredibly difficult to classify scholarship in this area into wide analytical containers. A very general feature, however, stands out. Studies on risk and governmentality are generally concerned with understanding the underlying strategies employed in promoting and protecting specific ways of species life. Species life is already the result of complex overlapping biopolitical practices of classification. For this reason it is possible to approach the study of governance through risk discourses and practices as biopolitical research.

Biopolitics is understood here in its wider definition of the politics of life itself. It is a concept related to the power relations and forms of knowledge that, when brought together, constitute what “life” and forms of life are taken to be. The immediate political relevance of this intellectual problem, and its assumptions, is that only when “life” and forms of life are specifically defined can decisions and strategies on how to govern, promote, and protect them, be made. Biopolitical research is therefore concerned with investigating the ways in which conceptions of life are brought into being, the regimes of knowledge involved, their related orders of governance, and the strategies devised to promote, protect, and govern forms of life.

Two broad and necessarily arbitrary classifications of biopolitical research on the problem of risk will be used below to characterize the growing IR scholarship on this area: the global biopolitical economy of risk, and the biopolitics of security.

The Global Biopolitical Economy of Risk

Studies constituting a global biopolitical economy of risk have emerged in contrast to mainstream studies on International Political Economy (IPE). In the edited collection International Political Economy and Poststructural Politics, Marieke de Goede presents an overview of what can be considered an entry point for a biopolitical critique of the tenets of IPE. Although not all of its contributors identify themselves as “poststructuralists” and not all of the work is biopolitical, the volume offers a discussion of four main problems that can help to fertilize debate on a biopolitical economy of risk: the challenging of boundaries, the politics of representation, power and agency, and the politics of resistance (De Goede 2006:1–20).

In relation to the challenging of boundaries, De Goede (2004:198), for example, makes an argument for the repoliticization of modern financial risk management by offering a genealogical reading of its contested religious and cultural history (De Goede 2004:198). By means of genealogical analysis, she showed how the cultural and political contingency of finance constitutes a technology of risk which supports the development of capitalism (De Goede 2005). Michael Shapiro (2002), in his challenge to the Smithian theory of value, prepares the ground to imagine risk not as a measure of value but as a marker of desire that drives capitalist economies.

Research on the biopolitical economy of risk has shown that discourses and practices of risk are both instruments and instrumentalizations of power. The politics of representation through practices of risk, as can be seen for example in the work of Louise Amoore (2004), indicates how discourses of risk and uncertainty in relation to labor have become central to programs of risk flexibilization typical of contemporary capitalism. The instrumentalization of power through risk can be explained in contrast to the question posed by Mathias Albert and Peter Lenco: what would a “so-called Foucauldian analysis of the international” look like? (2008: 265), to which Barry Hindess (2008:169) replied:

Foucault’s view that power is a matter of acting on the actions of others is likely to prove more revealing in the findings it is able to generate and considerably more demanding in its use than […] the conventional view that power is simply domination.

By analyzing global maritime insurance in relation to the way global circulation is secured, Lobo-Guerrero (2008) showed how the micro-practices of power of a technology of risk, operating through Lloyd’s of London, illustrate a problematic interaction of the agency of power through the instantiation of a global biopolitical economy of risk.

The politics of resistance both to established power structures within the global political economy and the way International Political Economy has evolved as a disciplining area of knowledge are represented, for example, in Robert Deuchars’s The International Political Economy of Risk (2004). Tim Sinclair’s work on credit ratings, although arising out of a neo-Marxist perspective, is also representative of a disciplinary resistance to silent forms of governance constituting a global biopolitical economy of risk. Resisting silent environmental politics, Matthew Paterson (2001) offered a critique of relations between insurance and global warming politics.

The Biopolitics of Security

As a second general classification, the biopolitics of security has developed out of the problematic of studying risk as a rationality of governance in relation to the protection and promotion of species life (Dillon and Lobo-Guerrero 2008). Central to its development has been the elaboration and application of Foucault’s idea of securité dispositif, translated into English as security apparatus. A dispositif, as described by Gilles Deleuze (1989:159), “is a tangle, a multilinear ensemble.” As read by Rose (2000:146), dispositifs are

lines of connection among thought, technique, judgement, persons, forces, actions [which] make it possible for centres of calculation and deliberation to translate themselves into places and activities far distant in space and time, to events in thousands of operation theatres, case conferences, bedrooms, classrooms, prison cells, workplaces, and homes.

The concept of securité dispositif was employed by Foucault in the lecture series Security, Territory, Population, where he demonstrated the use of analyzing the interactions of micro-practices of power to understand the rationalities of governmental strategies (Foucault 2007: lectures 2 and 3). Security apparatuses are complex ensembles of power through which particular forms of species life are promoted and protected. This concept is increasingly being used by International Relations scholars who seek to overcome the discipline’s traditional attempt to develop theory at the grand scale (e.g., Amoore 2006; 2007; Amoore and De Goede 2007; Dillon 2007b; Lobo-Guerrero 2007a; Aradau and Van Munster 2008b; De Goede 2008; Salter 2008a; 2008b).

As a direct application to the analysis of neoliberal governance through a rationality of risk, a growing body of literature has begun to investigate what is being called, following governmentality theorists, “technologies of risk” (Ewald 1991:199). As argued by Aradau et al. (2008:148) in a Security Dialogue special issue on “Security, Technologies of Risk, and the Political,” “identifying the referent of protection in terms of risk has important implications for thinking security and politics.” Risk “entails a qualitative difference of the present in relation to the problem of security” and, as a rationality, it contrasts clearly with threat-based approaches to governance:

Risk-based perspectives to security differ considerably from their threat-based counterparts in how they approach the question of security and in the policy prescriptions and governmental technologies they instantiate. Whereas the latter tend to emphasize agency and intent between conflicting parties, risk-based interpretations tend to emphasize systemic characteristics, such as populations at risk of disease or environmental hazard. Moreover, threat-based interpretations rely on intelligence in an attempt to eliminate danger, while risk relies on actuarial-like data, modeling and speculations that do not simply call for the elimination of risk but develop strategies to embrace it. In short, whereas the concept of threat brings us into the domain of the production, management and destruction of dangers, the concept of risk mobilizes and focuses on different practices that arise from the construction, interpretation and management of contingency.

Thinking about the role of technologies of risk as part of wider security apparatuses in the post-9/11 world has led to a growing body of International Relations scholarship in relation to the War on Terror. De Goede (2008), for example, examines the relation between the politics of risk and “premediation” as a security practice. Benjamin Muller (2008) criticizes the “biopolitical state” by looking at the mobilizations of popular culture through “an obsession with technologies of risk and practices of risk management” (2008:199). Mythen and Walklate (2008:221), from a wider sociological perspective, argue that the offensive and preemptive strategies that the war on terror legitimates “are wedded to a creeping shift in risk assessment from retrospective estimations of harm to an outlook based on futurity.” Mark Salter (2007; 2008b; 2008a:243), while analyzing aviation security, argues that the invocation of risk has allowed “for new and expanding security practices” and is leading towards a greater depoliticization of security. From an interdisciplinary perspective, Diprose et. al. (2008) incorporate debates on the precautionary principle (e.g., Ewald 2002), preparedness (Collier and Lakoff in press), and preemption (Derrida 2003; see also Cooper 2006) and argue that a new “paradigm of prudence” is playing out political imaginaries. Mark Lacy (2008) studies relations between technologies of risk and design by looking at cultural practices in the context of terror.

There is also a growing interest on the visualities of terror and risk (e.g., Shapiro 1997; Amoore 2007), and borders and space (e.g., Adey 2004; Aradau 2004; Bonditti 2005; Amoore 2006; Amoore and De Goede 2007; Larner 2007; Muller 2008; Salter 2008b). There are also analyses of insurance as a specific security technology (Lobo-Guerrero 2007a; Aradau and Van Munster 2008a; Dillon 2008; Lobo-Guerrero 2008; Petersen 2008). The relationship between health and security through risk practices is also an ongoing concern (Elbe 2008).

Modern Systems Theory

The work of Niklas Luhmann and his formulation of “modern systems theory” presents a third general problematization of risk. Luhmann’s work arises out of concern with society’s inability to ascertain a future. In Risk: A Sociological Theory, he asks “how does a society in the normal performance of its operations cope with a future about which nothing certain can be discerned, but only what is more or less probable or improbable?” (Luhmann 1993:ix). Central to this concern is the concept of “system.” For Luhmann, system means mutually interconnected events. He describes social phenomena like interactions, organizations, or societies as “systems.” This way of seeing reality implies a move from the analysis of the “object” to a focus on the role of “difference.” As argued by Luhmann (1997:60),

we are no longer speaking of objects, but of differences and furthermore that differences are not conceived as existing facts (distinctions), going back instead to an imperative to execute them, since one could otherwise give nothing a name, thus having nothing to observe, and would thus also not be able to continue anything.

As noted by Bechmann and Stehr about Luhmann’s system-theory approach, the world is a “horizon of possible descriptions” which is “expressed by means of a network of contingent distinctions and labels that always have to be understood in context” (2008:12). This approach distinguishes itself from Talcott Parsons’s work (Luhmann’s mentor) since the idea of a system concept can only be shaped in relational manner and is not determined by existing norms and value patterns. Luhmann seeks to explain the social not as a result of structural determinations or of Parsonian functionalism. The social cannot be taken as a given or determined factor but should be observed in its complexity and as contingent. In this sense, and as noted by Bechmann and Stehr (2008:xiii), “the contingency and complexity of the social is the starting point of all his theoretical work.”

Luhmann bases his system-theory on three premises (cf. Bechmann and Stehr 2008:xv). First, “society does not consist of people. Persons belong to the environment of society.” Second, “society is an autopoietic system consisting of communication and nothing else.” Autopoiesis is a concept that Luhmann borrowed from Maturana and Varela (1980:78), and which refers to the definition of a unit as a network of processes of production which through their interactions and transformations regenerates continuously, realizing the network of processes that constitutes them. And third, “society can only be adequately understood as world society.” For Luhmann, an understanding of the world is premised upon the understanding of communication as the practice of relationality. For him the world is a system in the form of a closed communicative complex. A world society can only therefore be understood in terms of a world in communication. However, for him “world” cannot be understood monolithically: “[w]orld, as the total horizon of sensory experience is not an aggregate, but rather a correlate, of the communicative operations occurring in it” (Bechmann and Stehr 2008:xviii–xix).

Modern Systems Theory, Risk, and International Relations

In stark contrast with the previous two perspectives of risk permeating discussion within International Relations, Luhmann’s modern systems theory, although not completely absent from IR debates (e.g., Brown 2004; Buzan 2004), has scarcely affected the way risk is understood within the discipline. Regardless of efforts to incite enthusiasm for modern systems theory within the English-speaking IR academic community (Albert and Hilkermeier 2004), intellectual scholarship in this area remains limited mainly to German scholars.

A notable illustration of the incursion of modern systems theory into the use of risk with IR has been the work of Oliver Kessler and Christopher Daase. For modern systems theory, as Kessler (2009: 89) explains, “the international presents itself as an internal differentiation of world society where world society is defined as the sum of all possible communications.” Semantics in this respect plays a crucial role. Kessler and Daase (2008) argue, for example, that since the end of the Cold War there has been a shift from the avoidance of threats to the management of risks. They also argue (2008:211) that a transformation in the conceptualization of “uncertainty” and “probability” has “(re)introduced ‘unstructured’ uncertainty as the rationale for security practices.”

This has had consequences in the way governance is taking place since 9/11. By looking at the problem of extrajudicial killing in the context of the war on terror, Kessler and Werner (2008) claim that through recourse to semantics of risk and precaution, governments have transformed the political and legal categories of public and private, peace and war, combatant and civilian. Extrajudicial killing of individuals “becomes a form of risk management” that exceeds “established mechanisms of accountability” (Kessler and Werner 2008:289). Autopoiesis in the context of a sociology of the international in relation to risk can therefore be used to explore the constitution of discourses and practices of security through risk management.

Outside of the typology offered in this essay there is another general implementation of systems theory developing around the problem of political risk analysis. This emerging body of literature distances from Luhmann’s sociological approach and resorts to rational choice theory as developed within mainstream political science. For reasons of space this work has not been discussed in this essay (cf. Carment et al. 2007; Germain 2007; Handmer and James 2007; Jarvis 2007; Jarvis and Griffiths 2007a; 2007b).

Toward a Theorization of a Politics of Uncertainty

Conceptions of “risk” have rapidly permeated different forms of governance in developed and developing economies around the world. As indicated in this essay there is a growing scholarship concerned with theorizing the different ways in which societies, states, organizations, and economic actors cope with uncertainty. These concerns begin to constitute what can now be described as an international political sociology of risk. Common to these perspectives is the belief that the markers of certainty emerging out of the Enlightenment conception of modernity, considered by some to provide solid structures for governance, have eroded. Indeed, at the center of the intellectual anxiety in conceptualizing risk lies the urgency to devise ways of understanding governance under conditions of uncertainty.

The three general perspectives exposed here coincide in arguing that risk is not a technological or organizational issue but an ethical problem. Different ways of understanding the uncertain underlie different ways of being in the world. Whatever referent is chosen as the center for analysis, be it the state or society, to name but two, its very possibility of existence will be influenced, if not determined, by understandings of uncertainty. The appropriation of the concept of zero and the adoption of the Hindu-Arabic numerical system by the West in the thirteenth century, indicate a transition from a theologically inspired order of governance based on the omnipotence and omnipresence of God to a way of life premised on the possibility of living with uncertainty. The development of science and an excessive faith in the human capacity to calculate and measure the world has brought along imaginaries that seem to forget that the very condition of possibility for freedom is precisely the opportunity to think the uncertain.

Theorizing the ways in which power proceeds through practices of uncertainty is therefore the greatest challenge for the development of an international political sociology of risk. Assuming uncertainty as an ontological condition for liberal governance, and not as a constraint, would allow for understanding the possibilities of theorizing practices of power beyond the operation of norms and standards. In this respect, the challenge posed by the IPS of risk to the wider International Relations body of knowledge becomes an opportunity to develop a theorization of the politics of uncertainty.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      CHALLENGE: Liberty and Security. At, accessed Aug. 6, 2009. CHALLENGE is a research project funded by the Sixth Framework Research Programme of DG Research (European Commission). The website offers multiple sites of risk research in action. The publications section is especially relevant.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Data Wars: New Spaces of Governing in the European War on Terror. At, accessed Aug. 6, 2009. This project offers a notable example of risk research of great interest to International Relations. The research, publications, and links sections offer great resources for further research.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Risk and the Biopolitics of Security. At, accessed Aug. 6, 2009. This website offers several references on the use of risk in relation to the governmentality and biopolitical literature. It is part of an international research network and it is constantly updated.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      The Evolving Social Construction of Threats: Security, Technologies of Risk and the Political. At, accessed Aug. 6, 2009. This website offers a description of interdisciplinary work developed around the problem between security, technologies of risk, and the political. It links to an earlier event on this topic.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      The Social Determination of Risk. At, accessed Aug. 6, 2009. This is a website of a major research initiative funded by the Norwegian Research Council on the social determination of risk. The project presented here relates to a specific case of critical infrastructure protection in relation to the aviation industry in Norway.