Problems with the orthodoxy of risk

6 Oct

The concept of ‘risk’ has become a central organising principle in social policy and welfare interventions.  Risk is used as an all-encompassing term to refer to possible harm and/or negative consequences and to those individuals who may be susceptible to causing or indeed experiencing these harmful consequences. In the criminal justice arena risk is the lens through which individuals are viewed. The assessment of risk of re-offending and risk of harm are two central components of this orthodoxy. This means that people are viewed as risks to be managed and in the rather crudely phrased but nonetheless apt description – ‘resources follow risk’.

Some of the difficulties with this risk paradigm and the evidence base that underpins it have been well elucidated in a range of critiques.[1] Much of what is termed risk factor research or the risk factor prevention paradigm is underpinned by the findings of the longitudinal studies, most prominently the Cambridge Study of Delinquent Development (West and Farrington, 1973), which aim to identify the particular characteristics of ‘delinquency’. The manner in which such research is interpreted at a policy and practice level for example by ironing out a range of caveats is problematic. Characteristics seen in a population of young people who have been involved in delinquency or offending, rather than been viewed as correlates come to be viewed as causal. So clusters of factors such as low self-esteem, poor academic performance, living in a low income household and experience of poor parental control are often viewed as causes of youth offending rather than correlates.

This risk-based orthodoxy must be viewed within a broader sociological context. For one, the emphasis on risk within personal social services, including interventions within the criminal justice system and specifically with young people is focused on strategies of curtailment and responsibilisation. Here the young person with these ‘risky’ attributes or viewed as a ‘cluster of risk factors’ is seen both as an entity to be managed (to reduce the putative risk) and also as a person who is responsible of curtailing their own risk behaviours to the satisfaction of those who view such behaviours as problematic in the first instance. The question of how young people themselves view and interpret such logic or indeed how they may differentially experience ‘risk’ – e.g. as life-affirming and agentic – is one that the canon of risk, at least in certain research domains, has not afforded adequate attention.

Listen to a discussion on risk between Lauren Graham, Researcher Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) at University of Johannesburg (UJ) and Dr Nicola Carr QUB, here. 

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