Questioning World Risk Society: Three Challenges for Research on the Governance of Uncertainty

The concept of the World Risk Society (Beck, 1998) is often associated with major disasters and accidents. And indeed, safety from the forces of nature can no longer be taken for granted even by the population of industrialised countries, as an increasing number of floods, hurricanes and winter storms over the last two decades demonstrates. Similarly, industrial accidents, such as Chernobyl, Sandoz and Bhopal, cause severe and lasting damages to human health and the environment (Perrow, 1999). In view of accelerating technological change and increased competitive pressures, as well as climate change, it is reasonable to expect that such disasters will continue to undermine the safety of the population and commentators will keep on referring to the idea of a ‘risk society’.

While the association of the concept of a risk society with disasters is not wrong, it is incomplete. Developed by the German sociologist Ulrich Beck in the mid-1980s (1991, 1995, 1996, 1998), the idea of an emergent risk society refers to a fundamental transformation or modernisation of industrial societies. More specifically, increasingly individualised and disembedded citizens question – partly in view of the devastating consequences of industrial production – the very foundations of the society, most notably the belief in economic growth, and political, technological and scientific control of production. This ‘questioning’ of the foundations results in ‘reflexive modernisation’.

Questioning science, politics and economic production has implications beyond the governance of natural and industrial disasters. Battles over the adverse consequences of every-day technologies such as mobile phones, controversies over the safety of food, tensions in the relations between medical doctors and patients, and public outrage after failures in social care underline the fundamental character of the transformation of society. 

Above all, this transformation implies multiple uncertainties. Individuals – in the absence of trust (Warren, 1999; Löfstedt, 2009) in the elites and institutions – are concerned about their health and safety when consuming, working, and moving; they voice their concerns in the form of new social movements rather than through the traditional interest mediation channels of political parties and the like; they demand greater transparency, participation and accountability from risk managers, scientists and government officials. The flipside of these demands and political responses are the particular uncertainties that elites and institutions face, namely those associated with institutional or reputational risk (Hood et al. 2001; Power, 2007). Scientific experts are challenged by NGOs (O’Neill, 2002; Montpetit and Rouillard, 2008). Medical doctors face complaints and litigation (Calnan and Rowe, 2008). Political and bureaucratic elites fear the blame in the aftermath of mismanagement and underperformance (Hood and Rothstein, 2001).   

More than two decades have passed since Beck published his seminal work. 

This raises, on the one hand, the empirical question as to whether and, if so, how such a transformation has exactly been happening. More specifically, these questions include how the uncertainties associated with adverse events and institutional risks have practically been managed, whether new forms of alliances have emerged (e.g. including social movements and various organisations), to what extent institutions of the ‘simple modernity’ (as opposed to ‘reflexive’ one) continued to operate and/or be adapted, and which new roles and identities for citizens, experts and bureaucrats have evolved. On the other hand, Beck’s transformation of industrial society needs closer scrutiny by empirical studies. Are there universal patterns in the governance of uncertainty? Or do institutions shape the path of transition in a way that prevents universal patterns from emerging? Can we identify global trends or at least regional patterns (e.g. advanced economies versus developing economies) or are there particular national path-dependencies that cement national variance in the responses to uncertainty? 

All of these questions are of fundamental importance to policy-makers that are concerned with institutional design: How can trust be re-established? What forms of accountability and participation can ensure the sustainability of democracy in an era of uncertainty? How can collectively-binding decisions be made when expertise lacks credibility and long-term implications of their decisions are unknown and seem highly complex? They are also relevant to academics, ranging from political scientists to social theorists. Research into uncertainty and risk could question and examine visions of society/democracy such as ‘communicative action’ (Habermas, 1972) and ‘emancipatory politics’ (Giddens, 1991). Big questions for social scientists would be ‘how can critical social science facilitate the transformation?’ and ‘how legitimate is social science expertise (Baert et al., 2010) in risk management?’ With the aim of discussing these questions and challenges, an international workshop “New Partnerships on the Horizon? The Governance of Uncertainty, Participation and Accountability” was held in Brussels on 9 February 2010.

New Partnerships on the Horizon? The Governance of Uncertainty, Participation and Accountability

This essay seeks to highlight the extent to which uncertainty has affected the issues of policy, politics and polity, and also elucidate further key global democratic challenges and theoretical issues for future research agendas by thematically summarising the participants’ papers. 

The Groupe de Recherche sur l’Action Publique (GRAP) of the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) teamed up with the Hazard and Risk Group and the NIHR Patient Safety & Service Quality Research Centre at King’s College London (KCL), as well as the journal Global Policy, to host the workshop. The following review sections will focus on three themes that emerged from the papers and discussions during the workshop. Interestingly, many papers and discussions centred upon the implicitly ‘universalist’ assumption underlying the ‘world risk society’ hypothesis; highlight the emergence and limitations of, and/or need for, institutional mechanisms for accommodating voices of the individualised, disembedded, distrustful citizens (Lyons, Lowery and De Hoog, 1992); and take the reflexive modernisation to its logical conclusion, by reflecting on the role of social sciences in uncertainty governance models and debates. These are:

(1) Boundaries matter. There are differences in the governance of uncertainty and risk across countries, and for various sectors and policy fields. To what extent do these boundaries matter? Why do they matter? Are these boundaries temporary or stable and characteristic of a wider political/institutional settlement? How do uncertainties reframe compartmentalisation of conventional policy issues, blur the boundaries of expertise, and influence both local and global actors? 

(2) Voice matters. Questions of citizen participation and inclusion are key to new forms of governance. Where citizens are excluded, actors face challenges and legitimation problems. However, how can citizens make use of their political rights? Do we notice some emerging forms of citizenship and innovative models of democracy? Do (and if so, why do) rights and forms of participation differ in different contexts? To what extent are power relations at stake? How has the citizens’ role evolved in relation to those of other actors? Do we observe asymmetries?

(3) Reflexivity matters. Recent models/institutional designs for governance increasingly seek input by social science. However, the way social scientists contribute to this debate and design stage can vary. This issue has not been given sufficient scholarly attention thus far. There is a case to be made for critically reflecting on the different governance models proposed by social scientists (and roles actually played by social science within those frameworks). 

The following three sections discuss each of these themes, based on the workshop papers and discussions, as well as the wider debate within governance literature. 

Boundaries matter

While ‘risk society’ arguments often emphasise the trans-boundary and ubiquitous nature of risk, risk is in fact often distributed across the population in a way that it affects different parts of the world or only particular industries, at one time. Therefore, patterns of governance through space and time are worth further research. This section looks primarily at two issues: (i) tension between globalisation of uncertainty governance and local/regional solutions; and (ii) differences among industries/sectors.

Some of the most prominent theoretical accounts concerning uncertainty and its governance point to the significance of a global dimension for tackling challenges and finding solutions. As noted, Ulrich Beck suggested the emergence of a ‘world risk society’ (1998) but he is not alone. Another example is Michael Power who discusses the ‘risk management of everything’ (2004), warning against the ‘targets culture’ and the ‘audit explosion’ that have become a prominent feature of many industrialised economies; and Rothstein and colleagues observe the ‘colonization’ of different issue areas by risk (Rothstein et al., 2006) and an international trend towards risk-based regulation in various policy sectors (Rothstein et al., 2006b). O’Malley (2004) interprets risk-based governance as a tool for expanding neoliberal control mechanisms that shift responsibilities for dealing with future harms from the protective state to individuals and markets.

While these authors understand the shifts in governing risk and uncertainty in different ways and driven by different dynamics, the underlying assumption is that the shifts reflect universal trends in governance, such as ‘reflexive modernisation’, ‘neoliberalisation’ and ‘audit explosion’. This idea is also echoed in Olivier Borraz’ workshop paper on ‘open-source risk governance’ (2010). In this article, he argues that risk governance concerning the siting of antennas for mobile phones is transformed from science-based technocratic solutions to risk issues into more deliberative, inclusive forms of ‘open-source risk governance’. 

While Borraz’ study is explorative, the underlying assumption appears to be one of a general shift towards this model. However, Helena Jerónimo’s workshop paper (2010) on the Portuguese government’s top-down siting decisions for a waste incinerator (and the subsequent local protests) indicate that there are some countries in which ‘progressive’, open forms of governance are not being applied. She underlines important variables that shape these ‘non-progressive’ forms, such as an authoritarian legacy and state-led decision making with little input from civil society. Arguments stressing cross-country/cross-cultural variance in risk governance are not new (see Douglas and Wildavsky (1980) and Jasanoff (1986)), although questions remain as to whether these differences will disappear, as each democratic polity matures and particular risk governance ideas diffuse more widely.

Sectoral differences are also worth highlighting. As Bert De Graaff (2010) argues, EHS (electrohypersensitivity) remains only partially ‘governed’ in the Netherlands due to the lack of strong clinical evidence and difficulty of mobilising interests. Consequently, (everyday) practices of the sufferers are hugely neglected by government and medical authorities. On the other hand, Anne Katrin Schlag (2010) illuminates a contrasting case of aqua-farming in several European countries, in which conflicting multiple interests (e.g. business, food safety and protection of natural resources) result in a more cautious approach to constructing risk governance regimes. Previously, sectoral differences in nine regulatory regimes have been analysed in the UK context by Hood et al. (2001), examining interest groups, public opinion and market failure as explanatory variables for variance.

The workshop papers brought up two more, intriguing spatial issues: On the one hand, the issue of multi-level governance was highlighted (Bernauer and Caduff, 2004). This features strongly in papers by Ariani (2010) and Schlag (2010) in particular, with an emphasis on global economy. Papers by Borraz (2010) and Jerónimo (2010) also touch upon the aspect of supranational polity (the European Union in this case) and its impact on local risk governance. Jerónimo (2010), for instance, points to the impact of EU regulation, funding, and risk management models on the national risk governance approaches. 

On the other hand, there are some policy areas where national jurisdictions matter most. Several papers on the British case demonstrate how risks and uncertainty are governed and perceived by stakeholders in fields such as urban planning (Hillier and Gunn, 2010), health care services (Bennett, 2010) and social care (Brown, 2010). Britain is a particularly interesting case that has attracted a lot of scholarly attention. Authors have highlighted the limitations of risk-based diagnostic toolkits and targets prescribed by regulatory bodies. These targets have been argued to de-motivate frontline staff, stifle innovation and create an environment where gaming can be exercised (Bevan and Hood, 2006). Similarly, Lloyd-Bostock and Hutter (2008) critically views the appropriateness of risk-based regulation in policy sectors such as health care, as questions of public trust and confidence are crucial in those service areas. Jean Hillier and Zan Gunn (2010) present urban planning as a case whereby the UK government expects local authorities to take on limited risk through experimentation. Louise Brown (2010) also emphasises the need for a more open and analytical debate about risks involved in social care which could promote a risk-taking, innovative, approach. This echoes discussions about risk and uncertainty, reaching back to contributions of Frank Knight (1922) and recently reiterated by Peter Bernstein (1996). Uncertainty is described as an opportunity for creating innovation and entrepreneurialism, as reflected in the plan to turn local authorities into ‘laboratories of risk management’. In contrast, risk in its current form signifies the ‘prison of numbers and the past’, mirroring arguments about an emerging ‘target culture’ and ‘audit explosion’. The questions here are how much risk-based approach permeated other countries and to what extent and under which conditions the UK experiences can be transferrable.

This section highlighted that proposed transformations of society and governance is uneven, that ideas of governing uncertainty do not easily transcend national, institutional, sectoral, and/or scalar boundaries. While there is an emerging global polity with concerted effort by international organisations in this area, there are plural models and plural narratives on governing uncertainties. It is therefore imperative to study the institutional and cultural conditions under which certain forms of uncertainty governance emerge (Lodge and Hood, 2001; Black, 2005).

Voice matters

Traditionally, only few sources of voice mattered, namely those of experts that would – through scientific assessments – reduce uncertainty, converting it into governable risk. However, as Olivier Borraz (2010) has pointedly summarised, this approach has been challenged in industrialised countries over the past decades, with the rise of social movements and the decline of deference to authorities. Moreover, old and new media and information channels have increasingly enabled citizens to act as voices of counter-expertise in spite of the often highly technical dimension and its supposedly non-political character. Some scholars have pointed out that lay people’s knowledge is as valid as that of experts (Wynne, 1996; Callon, Lascoumes and Barthe, 2009; Fischer, 2009); others have highlighted the biases and problems of scientific assessments (Demeritt, 2001). As voices’ diversity and the venues for raising concerns expand beyond formal institutions, questions arise as to the ways in which voices are being heard within existing governance arrangements, how these are amended to accommodate the plurality of voices, and what implications do these processes have for the notions of democracy and citizenship (Poluha and Rosendahl, 1992). 

One way of rearranging governance of uncertainty to accommodate a plurality of voices and the uncertainty of issues has been observed by Olivier Borraz (2010). He labelled these emerging forms of governance ‘open-source risk governance’. These allow for open-ended deliberations including multiple types of knowledge beyond scientific expert knowledge, and serve as on ongoing resonance body for risk perceptions and governance requirements. This reflects a broader trend in literature on more deliberative forums, participative policy instruments and programs has been pointed out (Barber, 1984; Fung, 2004; Fischer, 2009).While Borraz’ observation offers some insights into possible and potentially effective mechanisms of integrating voice into governance, many accounts in workshop papers and the general literature are less optimistic.

The lack of receptiveness of governments, established sciences and the media provide some evidence for this pessimism. For instance, the public may reveal new sources of harm, blame those responsible, and even embark on litigation processes (Felstiner, Abel and Sarat, 1980). It is also important to take note of the moral dimension of risk (see Ewald, 1986, 1991), linking substantive issues such as responsibility, moral judgement, principles of justice and equity, as well as accountability. This concern about public controversies and their impact on legitimacy is sometimes addressed by government through paying lip-service to open-ended, participatory processes (e.g. Britain’s nuclear waste debate through CORWM, see Wallis, 2008; see also Boyte and Riessman, 1986). 

Empirically, the case of EHS, as described by de Graaff (2010), is the strongest example of the ‘blindness’ of institutions vis-à-vis non-scientific/expert voices. Through ethnographic research, De Graaff’s paper (2010) shows that victim’s voices are largely unheard – even though the victims have organised extra-institutionally. De Graaff suggests that the neglect is mainly due to the inability of experts to measure and detect the causes and presence of pain. Another empirical case is the top-down decision-making by the Portuguese government with regard to waste treatment, discussed in Jerónimo’s workshop paper (2010), through which victim’s voices are marginalised. In this case, the Portuguese government ignored citizens’ voice, which led to local protests. Nevertheless, the government only heard expert voices in their final decision. It was only after years of sustained protest and the successive change of government that voices from local citizens and dissenting experts were finally recognised and reflected in a policy shift, without however resulting in a new, more participatory institutional mechanism for future environmental conflicts. One of the hypotheses proposed by Jerónimo is that the authoritarian legacy of the Portuguese state implies a limited receptiveness to voices from outside. The two case studies illustrate that new forms of integrating voices from outside and alternative expertise, as suggested by Borraz’ ‘open source risk governance’, face significant institutional barriers that favour scientific expertise and prevent the democratisation of risk governance. 

Beyond these case studies highlighting the continuation of dominant voices in the system, the paper by Schiffino and Jacob (2010) raised a conceptual dilemma of the definition of political citizenship. The authors point out potential problems affecting political agency of citizens once citizens become part of the process. When citizens are invited to voice their concerns and integrated into the decision-making process, they feel constrained to hold policy-makers accountable for the results, as they formally participated in the decision making. This raises an important question as to the function of citizens in a democratic polity: Are they to co-design policies or are they merely to serve as an ex-post control/sanction institution? Are these two roles mutually compatible or exclusive? This is a particularly relevant question in the context of complex governance decisions concerning uncertainty. The emerging ‘open source’ approach seems to emphasise the former function – but what about holding decision-makers accountable?

Finally, in contrast to a sole reliance on voices of politicians, bureaucrats and experts, integration of competing voices, especially from citizens, seems desirable. However, the workshop discussions also highlighted that as there are no ‘innocent experts’, nor are there ‘innocent citizens’ (“virgin citizens/virgin experts”). This illustrates the importance of situating different voices within specific socio-economic, cultural and institutional contexts. Ariani’s workshop paper (2010) directs our attention to the role of corporations and other institutionalised participants in governance. Inspired by Callon (1986) and Latour (1987) approach, her research shows the interplay between many players, such as ordinary citizens, non-governmental organizations (NGO), businessmen involvement, and private companies. 

This section highlighted that while uncertainty and reflexivity means that more voices need to be heard to ensure effective and legitimate governance of uncertainty, a cautious view on the potential contributions to governing uncertainty of a plurality of voices in governance is necessary because of institutional barriers, trade-offs/dilemmas concerning other democratic values resulting from increased participation, and the possible lack of ‘innocence’ of the involved voices. While all government in one way or another subscribe to more participation, this does not necessarily imply an adequate response to the transformation of society.

Reflexivity matters

Reflexivity is at the very heart of the transformation of industrial society to a risk society, which Beck suggests. In this context, reflexivity means that individuals become aware of the contradictions and limitations of the industrial society, their institutions and instruments. One of the most important institutions/set of instruments contested is scientific expertise and their assessments.

Critical reflections have been mostly concerned with expertise originating from hard sciences. One example is the case of Portugal’s waster disposal (Jerónimo, 2010). Jerónimo’s paper shows how the scientific assessments by two committees were contested, on the one hand, on the basis of localised, lay people knowledge, on the other hand, by competing assessments from scientists of a nearby university. Another line of contestation originates from social sciences. Sociologists such as Latour (Latour and Wolgar, 1979) have underlined social and institutional embeddedness of science, implying biases and reductionism in scientific presentations. A third line of criticism – again from social sciences - focuses on hard sciences’ ignorance of public perception (Slovic, 2000) and social amplification of risk (Pidgeon et al., 2003). These scholars point to the gap between expert and lay people’s assessments of risk that can have adverse consequences in terms of acceptance of new technologies, preparedness of the population, and trust in institutions. 

It is the latter part of criticism that had the greatest implications for the ways in which risks were managed. One type of research resulting from this analysis was the field of risk communication in order to overcome some of the challenges mentioned above (Fischhoff, 1995). Another type of research was the development of templates for risk governance (Renn, 2005) that take into account input from social sciences. 

Schlag’s paper (2010) is a good example for the integration of social science into emerging risk governance activities. It studies media and public perceptions of risks and benefits of aquafarming in several European countries. The purpose of this research is to anticipate food safety concerns and devise an appropriate risk communication and governance strategy to avert these contestations, reflecting insights from risk perception and amplification studies. 

Nonetheless, it is this kind of social science research that requires the expansion of reflexivity to include the social sciences. Is the design of a risk communication/governance strategy truly a move towards a more reflexive and ‘voice’-receptive governance? Or is it a sophisticated form of manipulating public opinion/perceptions and implicitly belittling public opinion/perceptions in comparison to science? For Lash and Wynne – in their preface to Beck’s Risk Society (1992) – the answer is clear: “The modern sub-field of risk communication exemplifies this baneful defence against reflexivity” (1992:4).

Moreover, the way in which social sciences are being integrated into emerging templates for risk governance is marginal: Rather than using critical social sciences to question the scientific input and the political normative implications systematically, the use of social sciences is often instrumental and acceptance-ensuring. 

Sciences – whether it is soft or hard– function as a mechanism by which ‘voices’ can be integrated into risk governance. However, it is merely a mechanism, which can be used for good and bad purposes. In Jerónimo’s paper (2010), the ‘bright’ side was found in the scientific activism of university academics, while the ‘dark’ side was that the scientists were ‘instrumentalised’ by the government. It is for this reason that reflexivity matters – and needs to be thought through.


As we have seen above, the Brussels workshop turned out to be a great venue for discussing in details several contested issues surrounding risk and uncertainty. As a UK-Belgian joint project, it served as an important forum for having a dialogue between the sometimes co-existing but not interacting English-speaking and French-speaking scholarly communities. Unsurprisingly, and as a result of the differing background and approaches, the workshop papers questioned many assumptions underlying the universal nature of ideas/concepts and use of risk instruments and called for caution against uniform panaceas for complex problems related to governing uncertainty. 

While a closer look at papers reveals national or sectoral variations, the questions that emerged from the papers and discussions were of a ‘universal nature’: One set of questions they asked concerns policy practice and solutions that can be facilitated through critical, reflexive social sciences. How can a democratic polity (including transnational bodies such as EU and UN) better design its responses to uncertainty? This is a question on the global dimension, as many of the policy issues are multifaceted and trans-boundary, requiring a global policy response and coordination. Before resorting to traditional ideas of objective, rational risk-based governance of these universal policy challenges, this workshop has highlighted the importance of ‘boundaries’ and the need for ‘reflexivity’. Is the rise of individualism and lack of trust in elites and science a global phenomenon and, if so, how do different institutional arrangements, in different sectors, nations, on different governance levels, deal with this change? How can we design-in reflexivity and respect for variations as we face similar societal transformations and policy challenges? And how can we ensure ‘voice’, transparency and democratic legitimacy? 

Critical social science has the potential to observe, analyse and propose new designs, especially if it continues to disclose the underlying assumptions. Studying emergent forms of uncertainty governance can also advance social theory, by questioning old concepts associated with democratic governance and identifying gaps in research and practice.  

Most importantly, reviewing Beck after 20 years demonstrates that we are still more or less where he left us, with some selected areas of progress (e.g. the institutional dimension of risk). However, we have yet to understand how we can collectively organise societies in the long term in a way that material and institutional challenges associated with uncertainty can be resolved in a way that is sustainable and ensures citizenship. While a world risk society may not be here today, yet, the issues arising from risk and uncertainty provide us with abundance of important questions for global policy and governance research 

It is therefore highly intriguing, and perhaps necessary for social scientists now, to re-examine governance frameworks for dealing with uncertainties in different policy domains and countries/regions. Questions to be revisited include the following. What would be the (cross-boundary, boundary-respecting) evaluation criteria for effective framework for governing uncertainty (e.g. procedural or outcome oriented measures)? Who should be the representative ‘voice’ of lay people, and what would be the criteria for qualifying people as experts (“virgin citizens/virgin experts”)? How can social science at the interface between research and practice play a constructive role without being instrumentalised? These and other questions have become increasingly relevant everywhere and on all governance levels, posing further challenges both empirically and theoretically to academics and practitioners. 


We would like to thank Dr. Eva-Maria Nag and her Global Policy editorial team for their support, and all the participants for their contributions to the workshop. 


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Author information

Fabrizio Cantelli, Ph.D (, Researcher, Groupe de Recherche sur l’Action Publique (GRAP), FNRS-Université Libre de Bruxelles

Naonori Kodate, Ph.D (, Research Associate, Risk Programme. NIHR Patient Safety and Service Quality Research Centre, King’s College London 

Kristian Krieger, MSc. (, Ph.D candidate, Hazard & Risk Group, King’s College London