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From town planning to intimate sex: understanding the risks in our lives


The recently formed Social Contexts and Responses to Risk network (SCARR) will be launched at a conference in Canterbury 28 - 29 January.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and co-ordinated by Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby and Dr Jens Zinn from the University of Kent, the SCARR network brings together social scientists from a wide range of backgrounds, including sociologists, psychologists, and media, law and social policy experts. Risks are at the centre of virtually every choice we make in life, but a clear assessment of how psychology, economics and sociology can help governments manage new ones is overdue, according to researchers in a major new ESRC-funded programme.

The ESRC Social Contexts and Responses to Risk network brings together sociologists, psychologists, economists, and experts on social policy, the media, the law and other disciplines from 14 universities in nine linked projects. They will examine perceptions of risk and responses to it in areas from town-planning to intimate sexual behaviour, from children’s schooling to pensions, from house-purchase to social care, and from the food we eat to buying on the Internet.

The network is launched on January 28 by its Director, Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby, of the University of Kent, at the start of a special two-day international Learning about Risk conference at Canterbury, to be addressed by leading European and US experts on various aspects of risk. More than 70 academic papers will be presented. It comes at a time when risk is a major theme in public policy-making and debate, as well as in academic research. There is recognition of risks as threats, especially the high-profile ones associated with political, social and technological changes, such as terrorism, greater flexibility in the labour market and in family patterns, nuclear power, GM foods and nanotechnology.

And there is increased attention by government to the question of how risks are to be handled in a complex and changing context, and the greater use of policies which emphasize individual responsibility and pro-activity in a range of areas from social welfare to education, and the regulation of the media to retirement.

Projects in the network include:

  • studies of sexual relations and intimacy;
  • how ideas about risk are transmitted between parents and children or through game shows and soap-operas;
  • the part played by emotion in influencing risky choices;
  • how successful new arrangements are for regulating private pensions and the Internet;
  • the way governments and planners find out about what people want when decisions about the environment, transport or health care are being made; and
  • differences between ethnic or gay groups in the way they think about risk.

Professor Taylor-Gooby said: “Life is more uncertain. No one has a job for life - the average length of marriage grows shorter all the time, and the opportunities that our children take for granted were simply unknown a generation ago.

“We have made considerable progress in understanding risk and how people respond to it, but much of our knowledge is divided up between different academic disciplines. There is also a need to make sure that the latest developments are spread as widely as possible among researchers. “Our research investigates how people understand and respond to risk and uncertainty in their everyday lives and how this relates to the broader field of public policy decisions.”

He added: “A clear assessment of what the social sciences can contribute to understanding all this, and to government planning to manage new risks, is overdue. This conference will help to provide that.”

Becky Gammon | alfa
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