4.2 A short introduction to risk
Some definitions of risk incorporate the possibility of good outcomes as well as bad. For example, if you buy a lottery ticket, you might say that you are taking a ‘risk’ because there is a chance of a bad outcome (you might lose your money) or a good outcome (you might win some money back). An argument has been proposed in the mental health literature that we need to return to this way of thinking about risk. This would mean seeing risk assessment as a way of balancing the possibility of good outcomes against the possibility of bad ones (Davis, 1996).
However, a number of commentators have argued that risk is not really thought of in terms of balancing good and bad outcomes any more. They argue that in western societies, risk now generally refers only to the possibility of a bad outcome and there are important reasons why it has taken on this meaning. Mary Douglas (1992) argues that risk in modern western societies now equals danger: ‘the word risk now means danger; high risk means a lot of danger’ (Douglas, 1992, p. 24).
‘Danger’ is clearly a word associated with negative outcomes. For Douglas, one of the reasons that the word ‘risk’ is more prominent is that it implies a rational, scientific capacity to measure danger accurately. It is therefore well-suited to modern industrialised societies where there is rapid technological change. This is because risk is associated with words like ‘probability’, where an estimate can be given for the chances of something occurring in mathematical terms. The appeal of risk is that it gives us the sense of dangers being measurable scientifically and therefore manageable. Blame is primarily centred on the failure of someone to assess risk accurately and then to take the steps necessary to prevent a tragic incident; so the concept of risk enables people to look back at tragic events and attribute blame for them to someone else.