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Types of risk transformation: a case study

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article

Published

Journal publication date2012
JournalJournal of Risk Research
Journal number1
Volume15
Number of pages18
Pages67-84
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

There has been a long-standing concern in the literature with the idea of countervailing risks, risk trade-offs and risk migration, reflecting our experience of risks as typically being transformed rather than eliminated. Our aim has been to combine this with the similarly long-standing treatment of risk as a social construction, producing a view in which risks become transformed from one kind
to another, over time, as both the world and our understanding of it change. We
investigated the risk transformations that have taken place around a specific
group of flame retardant compounds, analysing how these transformations had
occurred and how they were interpreted by actors such as scientists, regulatory
staff and advocacy group members. The study used a series of key informant
interviews and observations in technical meetings. This was followed by the
application of qualitative template analysis, involving the categorisation of risk
transformations according to: (1) whether they were interpreted as involving
physical change or interpretational change and (2) whether they were translational, replacing one risk with another, or diffusional, merely adding to a stock of risk. One finding was that, whereas risk transformations were sometimes
understood as being accidental or emergent, often they were seen as deliberate
and functional from the standpoint of certain actors. A second finding was that
risk transformations were often understood as being relative to the commitments
we are prepared to relinquish. For example, replacing risk associated with one
flame retardant chemical by risk associated with another involves trade-offs that
only arise because we retain a commitment to chemicals as flame retardants.
The main contribution of the study has been to show how transformability, as
well as uncertainty, is central to problems of managing risk – and to show that
this transformability is as much social as physical in nature.