chapter  6
38 Pages

Risk and high modernity

It has been suggested that a focus on risk might help locate the shifting place of accidents in our classification of misfortune. From being mar­ ginal misfortunes at the boundary of rational classificatory systems, acci­ dents have become the paradigmatic outcomes of risk; they are at the centre of late twentieth-century concerns. That an accident has happened demonstrates that risks have been inadequately managed, and the epide­ miological study of these outcomes thus provides a key arena for demon­ strating the effectiveness of risk technologies. The accident can no longer be taken for granted, invisible unless missing as it was in the 1930s; it becomes visible as the marker of the success of risk management tech­ niques. A key arena in which the accident has become visible is public health. Targets of reductions in accident rates justify ever more sophisti­ cated techniques of risk assessment, and also, in O ’Malley’s (1992) phrase, “privatize” risk management. Managing accidents becomes the concern not of the state or the health service, through the provision of improved trauma treatment or more stringent traffic speed legislation, but primarily of the individual who potentially suffers them. The implications for the victim of a discourse in which the accident should not happen are per­ haps even bleaker than those of modernist rationality. Rationality could provide no solace, or opportunities for revenge for such misfortunes, but it implied (at least ideally) no blame either. Victims of the failure of

risk management may not be seen as malicious, but they are in a sense culpable, in their ignorance. Installing stair gates to prevent childhood falls, wearing cycle helmets to reduce the effects of head injuries, or fitting window guards may have a negligible effect on the amount of “safety” in the universe. Such actions do, however, demonstrate perhaps a belief in the possibility of managing risks, and signify responsibility, as a parent, a cyclist or a householder. As one book, aimed at educating the parents of small children about preventing accidents, notes, accident prevention is largely about good parenting and: “As a new Mum you should already be feeling that surge of responsibility that comes with bringing a new life into the world” (Smith & Smith 1991: 16).