Organisational Encounters with Risk

May 2002

In May CARR held a major workshop within programme 1, organisations and risk, with the theme of 'organisational encounters with risk'. The purpose was to address aspects of risk management in organisational settings which are not easily captured by technocratic or engineering disciplines. While these approaches work well for stable environments and routine errors events, they work less well in situations where there is radical uncertainty, where risk description, interpretation and communication are ambiguous but vital, and where actors incentives may be problematic. In these contexts, the smooth re-production of institutional facts and ways of doing things can be shattered. The discussions were inevitably punctuated by many references to September 11th and Enron as examples, although Bhopal, Challenger and Barings were also evident as important reference points.

Papers were presented by an internationally distinguished group of speakers: Diane Vaughan (Boston College), author of The Challenger Launch Decision spoke on her latest work on air traffic control under the title 'Organisational rituals of risk and error'; Donald Mackenzie (Edinburgh) addressed the co-production of markets and pricing tools from a science and technology studies perspective in 'Models, risk and crises: the global financial system in 1998 and 2001'; Sheila Jasanoff (Harvard) analysed aspects of public processes of explanation in the face of risk, what she terms 'civic epistemology', in 'Restoring reason: good explanations for bad events'; Howard Kunreuther (Wharton School) addressed the possibility of 'tipping points' for organisational investments in risk management systems in 'Risk management in an uncertain world'; and Carol Heimer (Northwestern) examined the diverse sources of legalism in the management of medical risk in: 'Risk and Rules: the 'legalisation' of medicine in AIDS treatment and research.

The proceedings of the workshop will be published as a monograph, with additional contributions from Brian Wynne (Lancaster) and the editors, Bridget Hutter and Mike Power.