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Sociological approaches to risk: strong in analysis but weak in policy influence in recent UK developments

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Sociological approaches to risk and uncertainty are well-developed. These approaches have played an important role in analysing the significance of risk and uncertainty in modern social life. However, it is approaches based on rational actor perspectives in New Public Management that have become pre-eminent in handling social risks in recent UK policies. This paper tackles the puzzle of why sociology is strong in critique but much weaker in policy influence by pointing to the institutional and contextual standing of approaches which offer a natural home to individual rational actor approaches within UK government. Approaches that understand and analyse risk in statistical terms have been particularly influential in many aspects of modern life. A second stream, that has tended to attract less attention, stresses linkages between these approaches and the growth of particular institutions. The challenges faced by modern states in a post-industrial and globalised world are widely discussed. An important response, particularly prominent in the UK and especially in social policy-making, has been New Public Management, associated with an individual rational actor paradigm. Sociological approaches to risk have contributed a number of critiques of this development, however these critiques have failed to gain much purchase on policy-making. One reason is the extent to which approaches which rest on an individual rational actor paradigm are entrenched within the institutional framework of policy-making. This paradigm rests on a different approach to agency than that which is most influential in sociology.
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Keywords: governance; policy; rational action; risk; uncertainty

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: SSPSSR, CoNE, University of Kent, UK

Publication date: 01 January 2008

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