Cultural Theory of Risk


Morgan Duchesney: 2003

This paper is a critical examination of Mary Douglas’ cultural theory of risk featuring relevant examples from the world of today’s politics. The first and main example is the campaign by the United States to arrange for an invasion of Iraq to depose and replace the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. As well, I will refer to Ulrich Beck’s ideas on risk and the governmentality notions of truth claims and the governmentality interpretation of the lay-expert knowledge versus Douglas’ version.

I chose the case of the US versus Saddam Hussein for a number of reasons that I drew from Mary Douglas. Of particular interest to me was her notion of risk, where risk is culturally defined. The case of the US versus Saddam Hussein is a clear example of a culturally defined risk. American President George W. Bush is fond of portraying himself as the noble cowboy determined to rid the world of an outlaw from another culture who threatens world peace. The complexities of Middle Eastern politics are beyond the attention span of the average citizen of Canada or the US and our politicians use this ignorance/apathy to establish what the governmentalists call truth claims. Thus we have leaders like President Bush attempting to arrange the conduct of conduct (sic) by declaring the world a place of stark choices: in his words, “ You are either on our side or with Saddam Hussein and the other terrorists.” These truth claims declare that the US is right and good and that Saddam Hussein and Al Queda are evil and must be eliminated and replaced. Such truth claims also spawn organizations like The Middle East Forum founded by Harvard’s Daniel Pipes. This organization’s main purpose is to expose the supposed anti-West bias rampant among Western academics. Pipes and the powers behind him would consider such a bias to be a risk, at least for the Bush administration; so the conduct of renegade academics must be conducted or directed.

The literal danger here defined is the much-discussed threat of Saddam Hussein either assisting Islamic fundamentalist forces like Al Queada to attack the US or attacking US proxies in the Middle East. The citizens of the US have been trained to accept this idea by the mainstream media. As Douglas writes in Lupton, “ When faced with estimating probability and credibility, they come already primed with culturally-learned assumptions and weightings.” (1. Douglas, Mary, in Lupton, D. pp. 37.) I agree with Noam Chomsky’s idea that the mainstream media manufacture popular consent or at least apathy in regards to the requirements of those who own society.

The US government has gone to considerable trouble to establish what Douglas refers to as the notion of otherness. It is a situation where a group, in this case Islamic fundamentalist forces and Saddam Hussein are identified as members of an alien culture that holds lower moral values and thus must be dealt with after it is blamed for the problems of the day. These problems are actually generated by the phenomenon of globalization where there is no certainty about anything but the continuation of uncertainty. Here Douglas’ thinking resembles that of Ulrich Beck because she writes about risk rather than danger, a modern trend that is linked to the dominance of science over religion. In this materialist, secular world, there is portrayed a struggle between the rational, scientific West and as Edward Said has posited, the Orientals.

Douglas also uses the idea of expert versus lay judgement in a limited way that seeks to create a division between those with scientific knowledge, the experts, and the rest of us, who are merely stumbling around in the dark. This specialization of knowledge is also one of the ramifications of globalization. The situation is complicated because the constant expansion of science and technology has created endless ranks of experts in myriad specific areas of expertise. Brian Wynne and others dispute Douglas’s notion of expert versus lay knowledge by insisting that such a stark and dichotomous approach does not reflect the diverse reality of knowledges that may be applied a given problem. Wynne, as a governmentalist, claims that the uncertainties of modern life under the guidance of complex bureaucracies has given rise to dissent and resistance to expert knowledge.

As he writes, “… expertise is widely and openly contested as a result of the choices that have to be deliberately made by people exposed as they are (on this view) to a new dimension of insecurity…” (2: Wynne, B. pp. 48.) The insecurity in this case is the globalization-generated expansion of neo-liberalism that has been sweeping both the developed and the developing world. Many scholars and pundits are of the opinion that the US has brought terror attacks upon itself. In nations like the US and Canada, lay people are actively discouraged from voicing any ideas about the culpability of the US government in the destruction of the World Trade Towers. It is heresy to suggest that the US brought this horror upon itself by its quasi-colonial economic and military activities.

Here Douglas would say that blame must be assigned and it must not be assigned to members of the ingroup. It must be projected outward to protect group boundaries. The idea of boundaries appears to be an anomaly is this ostensibly borderless world but it really isn’t. The modern world still has plenty of borders or obstacles, however, the most harmful ones are mostly invisible. I speak of impoverished people’s lack of access to insurance and credit, the two commodities that now increasingly polarize the populations of Western nations.

This polarization occurs along the lines of those who can aggressively participate in a regime of accumulation and those who are trapped by the necessity of managing their own risks. Under Beck’s theory of reflexive modernity, capitalists succeed by managing uncertainty. Those who fail have failed to properly manage their risks. This cold and rationalistic view is a exemplified by the post-modern trend of neo-liberal governance where the bureaucrats who once managed the welfare state now shift to manage systems of increased surveillance of the few people remaining on the welfare or unemployment rolls.

Finally, I turn to Mary Douglas to understand this shift from the traditional wealth re-distribution role of the welfare state to a more insidious role where the welfare state bureaucracy plays the role of enforcer and exposer of the criminal activities of the poor. In this way they shift the blame for the uncertainty-based problems caused by globalization to a convenient scapegoat that is a large, relatively powerless and voiceless mass of humanity. Beck would say that we simply assign people to categories and govern through them but it not that simple. There is a judgement implicit in the assignation of categories because they will invariably take a hierarchical form and will require some form of organizational criteria and framework. People will not simply agree be considered first or last or biggest or smallest and not assign value and a sense of identity to these arrangements. As Douglas writes, all risk is culturally defined and people are increasingly sensitive to the danger’s inherent in whatever social strata they occupy.


1. Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society, New York: Sage, pp. 19-50.
2. Beck, U. (1994) ‘Toward A Theory of Reflexive Modernization’ in U. Beck et al (eds.) Reflexive Modernization, London: Polity Press, pp. 1-16.
3. Lupton, D. (1999), ‘Risk.’ London: Routledge. Chapter 3. Risk and Culture.
4. Marshall, G. (1994) Oxford Concise Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
5. O’Malley, P. (1996) in Barry A. et al (eds.) Foucault and Political Reason. London: UCL Press pp. 189-207.
6. Wynne, B. (1996) ‘May the Sheep Safely Graze? A reflexive view of the expert-lay knowledge divide.’ In Lash, S. (ed.) Risk, Environment and Modernity. New York: Sage.


1. Globe and Mail (2002, Oct. 8) Toronto: Thompson.
2. Ottawa Citizen (2002, Oct. 3,5,6,8) Ottawa: Canwest Global.
3. Xpress (2002, Oct. 2) Ottawa: Communications Voir Inc.