The Politics of Risk Management and the Culture of Risk Taking

Title: The Politics of Risk Management and the Culture of Risk Taking
Authors: Lamoureux, Patrick
Date: 2012
Abstract: Risk has become a key concept in social theory and has had a significant impact across academic disciplines including criminology. On the one hand, several criminologists argue that the rise of risk has fundamentally reconfigured the operations of courts, corrections, and policing. Many claim that, over the last few decades, crime control has moved away from the old rehabilitative and retributive approaches of the past and towards more actuarial approaches based on risk management – crime has become a risk to be managed in aggregate terms rather than a moral transgression in need of rectification. On the other hand, while risk-based approaches to governing crime have grown significantly, cultural criminologists and sociologists of sport have noted a heightened emphasis on risk-taking by urban graffiti writers, illegal street racers, extreme sports enthusiasts, and illicit drug users. For these people, the risk-averse logic of actuarial governance – risk as potential harm to be avoided – is inverted such that risk is positively embraced for the excitement it affords. What is particularly characteristic about the present, then, is that a politics of risk management is colliding with a culture of risk-taking. In attempts to make sense of this puzzling paradox, in this thesis I offer a primarily theoretical investigation of the dominant approaches used in the study of risk management (chp. I) and risk taking (chp. II & III) in sociology and criminology. After exploring how the rise of risk has reconfigured crime control over the last quarter century in Chapter one, in Chapter two I develop the argument that orthodox criminology provides two dominant images of criminal risk-taking. While dispositional theories explain criminal risk-taking as the pathological behaviour of individuals with particular body types, low-self control, or of lower-class origin, situational theories conceive of criminal risk-taking as the (ir)rational decisions of necessarily risk-averse actors. Despite differences between dispositional and situational theories, both leave no room for risk-taking that is controlled and intentional. In Chapter three I enlist the work of Jack Katz on the seductions of crime and of Stephen Lyng on the sociology of risk-taking to develop a third, cultural approach to risk-taking that is voluntary and cross-class. I illustrate how, for Katz’s and Lyng’s actors, risk is approached as a challenge rather than seen as a deterrent. Lastly, I add to the historicity of the cultural approach to risk-taking by tracing its roots in a romantic worldview that arose out of 19th century disenchantment with the bureaucratic rationalism and alienation of capitalist modernity. In conclusion, I summarize the main argument of the thesis and outline some potential avenues for future research.
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