The Social Roots of Risk
Producing Disasters, Promoting Resilience
Kathleen Tierney


The Social Roots of Risk: Producing Disasters, Promoting Resilience

Author(s): Kathleen Tierney

book abstract

Rather than being acts of God or random acts of nature, risks and disasters are produced by the social order itself—that is, by the activities of institutions and organizations that push for economic growth, oppose risk-reducing regulations, and succeed in transferring disaster losses to other parties. The forces that drive the social production of risk at the community level include influence wielded over governmental entities to permit development in hazardous areas and patterns of environmental injustice that make some groups more vulnerable than others. At the organizational level, risks proliferate as a result of organizational cultures that prioritize production over safety; regulatory capture; and factors such as organizational size and complexity, which inhibit effective risk management. The profits that come from risk-producing activities are privatized, while the costs are borne by disaster victims, taxpayers, and future generations. Like risk, disaster resilience also emerges from the social order. Inherent resilience, or the ability to resist disaster-related damage and disruption, is a property of both physical and social systems. Adaptive resilience comes into play after disasters, as social systems improvise and adapt. Social capital is an important contributor to both inherent and adaptive resilience. Groups that otherwise would be considered vulnerable to disasters can become more resilient when they develop networks of support and when they can access needed resources, including political power. However, intervening in the processes that generate risk and produce disasters will be difficult because powerful political and economic interests drive those processes.

1 Risking More, Losing More: Thinking About Risk and Resilience
chapter abstract

This chapter begins with the observation that major disasters are becoming more frequent and severe worldwide, particularly since the dawn of the twenty-first century. In the last few years, the world has experienced a proliferation of disasters of catastrophic proportions, including Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the BP oil spill disaster, and the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant meltdowns in Japan. The organizing principle of the book is introduced, which is that the forces driving the production of ever-larger disasters are embedded in the social order itself, rather than in nature or technology. The chapter introduces the concept of disaster resilience, noting that like risk, resilience is the outcome of social structure and social processes.

2 Looking Back: The Evolution of How We Talk About Risk
chapter abstract

The chapter opens with a discussion of three key concepts: risk, hazard, and vulnerability. It moves to a discussion of trends and themes in risk research, which has focused mostly on risk perception. The study of risk perception has gone through several stages. Research on the cognitive heuristics that play a role in risk perception was followed by studies on attributes of different risks that affect public perceptions, such as their unfamiliarity and the fact that some risks are imposed, rather than voluntarily assumed. Later, researchers focused on social factors that affect risk perception, such as race and gender, as well as on the manner in which emotions influence views on risk. Flaws have been identified in this "psychometric" approach. While concentrating extensively on the perception of risk, earlier scholarship has neglected the important question of how risk is socially produced.

3 A Different Perspective: The Social Production of Risk
chapter abstract

This chapter moves from considering how risks are perceived to how risks are produced. Discussions first consider Ulrich Beck's "risk society" thesis, which ties the expansion of risk to societal conditions associated with late modernity. Beck's research has invited criticism, in part because of his assumption that present-day risks are historically unique and construed as the consequence of human decision making, while earlier disasters were seen as attributable to God or nature. The idea that disasters are socially produced—as opposed to being caused by natural forces—is a foundational principle of contemporary disaster research. Risk buildup resulting in disasters is the consequence of social forces that operate at global, national, institutional, network, and smaller-scale levels of analysis. Cultural factors are also important in shaping both views on risk and subsequent behaviors. Explaining how disasters occur requires attention to factors that operate at interrelated levels of analysis.

4 Culture and the Production of Risk
chapter abstract

Scholars from various fields have analyzed the cultural dimensions of risk. Social constructionism provides a lens through which to view how societies perceive and deal with risks, as do analyses of frames. Pierre Bourdieu's scholarship also offers insights into how taken-for-granted cultural systems operate, which can be applied to the study of risk. Cultural assumptions contributing to risk buildup include taken-for-granted ideas about the importance of growth and job creation—ideas that are virtually impossible to challenge. The role of cultural assumptions in promoting risky behavior is discussed in case studies focusing on massively tall skyscrapers in different cities and on financial engineering.

5 Organizations, Institutions, and the Production of Risk
chapter abstract

This chapter focuses primarily on organizations, networks, and their contributions to risk buildup. Following sociologist Charles Perrow's work, risks expand in part because of concentrations of various kinds: of hazardous activities; of populations in hazardous areas; and of political and economic power that enables those who possess it to operate with impunity. Forces that contribute to the occurrence of disasters include regulatory capture and rent seeking. Following Perrow's "normal accidents" theory, the chapter highlights the role of structural features like tight coupling and interactive complexity in disasters. The immense complexity of many industrial and bureaucratic organizations and the distortion of communication processes it engenders militate against sensemaking in everyday operations but especially during crises. The production pressures that characterize industrial operations in contemporary societies constitute another source of danger. Organizational size and complexity make it difficult to detect precursors of impending disaster.

6 Communities and Societies at Risk
chapter abstract

This chapter focuses on risk production at the community, societal, and global scale. At the community level, sources of escalating risks and disasters include "growth machine" politics; rent seeking; lax enforcement of building codes; and efforts to lift restrictions on development in high-hazard areas. At all levels of analysis, political and economic forces shape levels of disaster vulnerability. Such forces include poverty and income inequality, social marginalization, and lack of political power. Socially-structured vulnerabilities within the world system are responsible for large-scale life loss in less developed countries. Such vulnerabilities are the result of political-economic forces that include rapid urbanization, the growth of slums, poverty, environmental degradation, and governance failures. Discussions focus on risk buildup in various settings: South Dade County (FLA), Natomas (CA), Caracas, Manila, and other communities.

7 Defining Resilience in Relation to Risk
chapter abstract

The concept of disaster resilience has achieved prominence and has been incorporated into discourses on disaster loss reduction, international and national policies, and research agendas. With origins in diverse academic disciplines, the concept of resilience is applicable to natural, physical, and social systems. The chapter reviews the concept's origins and efforts to measure it within the disaster arena. Resilience is generally conceptualized as including both properties that create resistance to disaster, and such that enable affected structures and systems to bounce back or adapt following disasters. Those properties are termed inherent and adaptive resilience, respectively. The chapter discusses sources of inherent resilience, emphasizing it can be measured, and its contribution to "community capitals," particularly social capital. The community of Grand Bayou, LA is discussed as an example of how otherwise vulnerable communities can build up social capital and enhance their resilience.

8 Adaptive Resilience in the Face of Disasters
chapter abstract

Adaptive resilience represents a blending of planned and unplanned activities that seek to overcome the surprises disasters generate. Disasters always contain unexpected elements, calling for agility and innovation. Resilient social responses include the convergence of personnel and resources into stricken areas, structural and task-related changes in organizations responding to disasters, and the emergence of new groups and networks. The chapter discusses the activities of emergent groups and networks in a number of major disaster events. Also discussed are post-disaster improvisational activity and the conditions that make it possible for organizations to improvise. Insights into the roots of adaptive resilience also come from research on jazz improvisation and on high-reliability organizations. The chapter closes with discussions on the ways in which social capital contributes to resilient disaster recovery, the importance of the ability to adapt following disasters, and how the "critical civic infrastructure" contributes to disaster resilience.

9 Looking Ahead: A Move Toward Safety, or More of the Same?
chapter abstract

This chapter recapitulates arguments made in preceding chapters. It also explores a conundrum that risk researchers must consider: while efforts are made to increase resilience to hazards, the forces that cause risks to proliferate are also resilient. It asks whether efforts to increase disaster resilience are too incremental and come at the expense of the genuine societal transformations. Risk and power are related; powerful actors have the ability to create and exacerbate risks with impunity. Because disaster-related risks are produced by broader societal dynamics, efforts to reduce disaster impacts originating from within the disaster loss-reduction establishment will ultimately have little effect. Confronting hegemonic power will necessitate changes in legislation, stronger sanctions against entities that contribute to disasters, the application of economic sanctions against those responsible for risk buildup, naming and shaming violators, and action on the part of social movements.