Risk in Society: Perspectives from the Social Science and Humanities

Winter Semester 2021/22

Time: Tuesdays, 09:00 - 10:30

Begins: 19.10.2021

Location: 1229, Seminarraum (0502.01.229)


Lecturer: Dr. Stefan Esselborn

By its very nature, risk is an inherently interdisciplinary concept. Not only does its calculation and management require the input of a wide variety of scientific and technical disciplines – ranging from engineering to economics, and from medicine to mathematical modelling. Because dealing with risk necessarily refers back to the perceptions of individual humans and the social structures of which they are part, risk also inevitably comprises a subjective, mediated, social, and cultural dimension. This latter aspect is especially crucial to the public perception, societal discourse and political decision-making concerning risks of different varieties.

The seminar will explore the social, cultural and historical dimension of risk. It will introduce students to some of the concepts and approaches developed in the social sciences and humanities, drawing on a number of (historical and contemporary) case studies from different technical and scientific fields, such as industrial safety, chemicals, nuclear energy, genetics, food safety, consumer protection, environmental protection, law enforcement and digital technology.

What do we mean by “risk”, and how did the concept develop and change over time? How does risk differ from to other, related concepts such as probability, chance, danger and uncertainty? What are the strengths of the concept, what does it show us, and why did it enjoy such a successful “career”? What are, from a social science and humanities perspective, the major problems and challenges inherent in it? How does risk translate to fields such as the media, law, regulation and politics? How can we find a more participatory, responsive and responsible way to deal with risks, while at the same time minimizing the risk of overreactions to imaginary threats? These are some of the questions we want to address and discuss during the course.

Recommended reading:

  • Burgess, Adam, Alberto Alemanno, and Jens Zinn, eds. Routledge Handbook of Risk Studies. Routledge International Handbooks. s.l.: Taylor and Francis, 2016.
  • Zachmann, Karin. ‘Risk in Historical Perspective: Concepts, Contexts, and Conjunctions’. In Risk: A multidisciplinary introduction. ed. Claudia Klüppelberg, D. Straub and Isabell Welpe, 3–36. Cham, New York: Springer, 2014.

Assessment / Examination:

Oral presentation during the seminar plus essay (4,000-5,000 words).

Registration www.campus.tum.de.