Risk, Uncertainty and Transition 2015

Save favourite 7 Mar March 2017
 ESA-konferensen i Stuttgart

The mid-term conference "Risk, Uncertainty and Transition" was held at University of Stuttgart, Germany, 8-10 April 2015.

The European Sociological Association’s (ESA) Risk and Uncertainty network (RN22) plays a major role in the ESA’s general conferences, held every four years. In between these events we also convene ‘mid-term’ events of our own

Keynote speakers

JENS O ZINN is Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Melbourne. His research activities include a number of studies on people's management of risk and uncertainty during the course of their life.

Ulrich Beck’s contribution to the Sociology of Risk and Uncertainty
Ulrich Beck has been one of the most outstanding contemporary German sociologists who inspired scholars worldwide. He challenged common views of the reproduction mechanisms of the social world and introduced a number of key concepts to describe social change and develop methodology. From The Risk Society to World at Risk he inspired research with concepts such as a new thrust of individualisation, organised irresponsibility, the coalition of anxiety, zombie categories, subpolitics, relations of definition, methodological nationalism and cosmopolitanism among others. From the beginning the Risk Society was in the centre of his theorizing on the self-transformation of modern societies. It placed questions of the social management of risk and uncertainty firmly in the centre of sociology. This keynote will recognize and discuss Beck’s contribution to sociology and the sociology of risk and uncertainty.

GABE MYTHEN is Professor of Sociology at University of Liverpool, and has published on the relationship between risk, security and control based on research in the intersection of sociology and criminology.

The Legacy of Ulrich Beck: Transitions and Transformations in Risk Research 
In a recent obituary written in memory of Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens paid homage to his friend and colleague, referring to him as ‘the greatest sociologist of a generation’.  As the wave of tributes written by academics from around the globe begins to subside, it is time to reflect on the scope and magnitude of Ulrich Beck’s contribution to the Social Sciences in general and the study of risk in particular. This keynote explores the catalysing impact achieved by Beck, focusing on specific conceptual advances and key transitions in risk research. The pioneering role of Ulrich Beck’s oeuvre in shaping the contours of the sociology of risk and uncertainty is illuminated through vignettes. Finally, the transformative value for risk studies of his last writing project on the metamorphosis of the world is considered.

ORTWIN RENN is Professor of environmental sociology and technology assessment, Dean of the Economic and Social Sciences Department and Director of the Stuttgart Research Center for Interdisciplinary Risk and Innovation Studies (ZIRIUS) at the University of Stuttgart, and President of the Society for Risk Analysis. He has published extensively on risk, risk governance, risk assessment and management.

Communicating Complex Risks: How to address uncertainty and ambiguity
One of the major challenges in risk communication is the problem of how to deal with complex, ambiguous and uncertain features of risk information. The characterization of a particular risk depends on the degree of difficulty of establishing the cause-effect relationship between a risk agent and its potential consequences (complexity), the reliability of this relationship in terms of confidence in the claims of causal or sequential relationships (uncertainty) and the degree of controversy with regard to both what a risk actually means for those affected and the values to be applied when judging whether or not something needs to be done about it (ambiguity). Examples of each risk category include, respectively, known health risks such as those related to smoking, the failure risk of interconnected technical systems such as the electricity transmission grid, atrocities such as those resulting from the changed nature and scale of international terrorism and the long-term effects and ethical acceptability of controversial technologies such as nanotechnologies.

The characterization of risk knowledge in three major categories has been informed by interdisciplinary research drawing from sociological and psychological research on risk.  It is closely linked to the notion of risk governance which pertains to the many ways in which many actors, individuals and institutions, public and private, deal with risks. It includes formal institutions and regimes and informal arrangements. It thus pertains to the complex whole of what traditionally has been called -and treated as separate activities- “risk assessment”, “risk management” and “risk communication”.

Risk communication is hence an integral part of risk governance. It cannot be conceptualized as an add-on to risk assessment or risk management but as a building block for all interactions among the various actors involved in risk governance and between the main actors and those who will be affected by the implications of both the risk itself and the risk management measures. The most important insight is that complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity should not be seen as objective characteristics of the respective risk or the risk source (although objective features may promote or reduce the likelihood of the presence of three components ) but are created and co-created through risk communication.  If we invest more time or effort even simple relationships start to become more complex. If we expand our horizon in time, space and impact dimensions even fairly certain consequences of an activity or a technology tend to become more fuzzy and uncertain.

The invited paper will be structured as follows. After a short summary of the roots of risk governance, key concepts, such as simple, uncertain, complex and ambiguous risks, will be discussed. These major terms are then applied to risk communication among the risk handling chain (Internal communication) and then to the communication efforts directed towards stakeholder groups or the general public (external communication).  The paper will then show how complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity are partially constructed in the communication process but also deconstructed and reconstructed in the course of a societal debate. The paper will use empirical illustrations drawn from research regarding electromagnetic fields (mobile phones), genetically modified organisms and food safety. It will also demonstrate of how different instruments and models of communication affect the treatment of these three components and how conflicts arising from different frames about the risk can be interpreted in the light of these three components.


Research Network co-ordinators
Anna Olofsson 
Adam Burgess

Local organizers
(in case of inquiries of the local organization)
Juergen Hampel