No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

The Sociology of Risk

Risk as decision

We see countless reports of “disasters” and constant warnings against “risky behavior” around us. The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann writes in his ‘Sociology of Risk’ (1991) how these themes are chosen: risks are discussed when it becomes clear that damage that has occurred or threatens to occur is directly related to decisions to do or not to do something.

Even your decision not to decide is a decision. Of course, this goes for organisations as well. Organisation systems stabilize forms of action and behaviour by means of decisions about more or less strong conditions of membership (roles and positions) and their repeatable practices and redundant procedures. By these decisions, they also try to manage risks, that however cannot be fully avoided.

Organisations, through their decisions, develop a self-constructed view of the world and a self-constructed certainty about and confidence in the world (Nassehi, 2005). After some damage has occurred, everything is suddenly crystal clear. Investigations might conclude “human error” after causal attribution on some chain of events- but technical high-risk systems are rarely linear systems with expected consequences. The use of additional safety technologies also makes the system more complex and introduces new interactions and risks. Maximum safety is not possible. So we trade risks off, exchange certain risky technologies for hopefully slightly less risky ones or design risky systems to be more error-forgiving.

Distinctions used when dealing with risk

Luhmann examines how modern society observes the risk problem. Every perception works by making a distinction. Luhmann observes that when dealing with risk, usually the distinction between risk and safety is used:

“The idea that the concept of risk should be defined as the opposite of safety is widespread. This has the advantage in political rhetoric that when you speak out against overly risky ventures, you also appear as someone who cares about the universally held value of safety. This quickly (and too quickly) leads to the idea that people actually want safety, but in the given world circumstances had to take risks. The risk form thus becomes a variant of the distinction between unpleasant and pleasant.” (Luhmann, 1991a, p. 28)

The distinction between risk and safety suggests that given the right decisions, risks could certainly be avoided by taking appropriate measures. However, because the future remains unknown, safety is not a given and remains a risk. This can be obscured, but then you expect more from the technology or the right information than it can achieve given the still unknown future.

Luhmann confronts the observations of society through the code safe/risk with other observations, using the distinction risk/hazard. He looks at the process of social attribution:

- The possible damage can be seen as a consequence of the decision; the risk of the decision;

- The possible damage can be seen as caused by the environment (external); we then speak of hazard.

Risks affect society not only in the form of technical calamities. People can die from what we see as a risky way of life, which we then attribute either to decisions, to Western civilization or Western culture. Of course, people can also die as a result of legal, economic and political decisions. For example, criminal law may be risky if it prohibits abortion and then finds that abortion is still taking place, but in a medically more risky way.

The social aspect of risky decisions

What matters is how a decision is perceived. Whoever decides politically, legally, medically, or economically makes himself observable: You can blame him/her for the consequences of his/her decision and see that his/her risky behavior puts others at risk. The distinction between risk and hazard focuses mainly on the social aspect of risky behaviour: for whom (decision maker) is the decision a risk and for whom (person exposed) a hazard?

The protest movements of the risk society focus on rejecting situations in which one could become a victim of the risky behavior of others. Protest movements see hazards and thus make the problem of accountability for decisions visible. Ideally, decision makers see that the cause of the hazard is attributed to them, and those affected see that risks are inevitable where decisions are made. Risk perceptions however are ultimately not reconcilable through understanding, or better insight. Decision-makers and stakeholders see things differently, but they must at least learn to see that they see things differently, thus paving the way for mutual observation of their observations. That cannot bridge the gap, but maybe make it manageable (Kneer and Nassehi, 1993).

Safety and the pointing finger

When it comes to hazards and risks, moral judgement lurks around the corner: explicitly or implicitly, views or actions are morally qualified with the distinction good/bad or good/evil, according to whether human respect or contempt is expressed. With the help of the moral code good/bad one can observe and judge everything in society, including risk. However, morality often ends in stubborn disputes, or even violence or terror.

Morality is a risky business

Morality, according to Luhmann, is a risky business:

“Morality . . . tends to create strife or arise from strife and then tends to aggravate the strife.” (Luhmann, 1989, p. 370).

In our society, the binary code is used everywhere for moral reasons. This includes the risk-safety and the risk-hazard forms. These binary codes, according to Luhmann, in critical cases can not assume consensus at the program level (Luhmann 1991, p. 498). The use of binary codes creates paradoxes: "One cannot decide whether the distinction between good and bad is itself good or rather bad" (Luhmann, 1990, p.27).

"In view of this state of affairs, perhaps the most important task of ethics is to warn against morality." (Luhmann, 1990, p. 41)


Kneer, G., Nassehi, A. (1993), Niklas Luhmanns Theorie sozialer Systeme: eine Einführung, München: Fink.

Luhmann, N. (1989), Gesellschaftsstruktur und Semantik. Studien zur Wissenssoziologie der modernen Gesellschaft, Band 3, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Luhmann, N. (1990), Paradigm lost: Über die ethische Reflexion der Moral. Speech by Niklas Luhmann anläßlich der Verleihung des Hegel-Preises, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Luhmann, N. (1991), Politik und Moral. Zum Beitrag von Otfried Höffe, in: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 32, pp. 497-500.

Luhmann, N. (1991), Soziologie des Risikos, Berlin: De Gruyter.

Nassehi, A. (2005), Organizations as Decision Machines: Niklas Luhmann's Theory of Organized Social Systems, in: The Sociological Review, Vol. 53 (1), pp. 178-191.

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