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)

Ideology in Safety Management

Ideology, a term coined by French philosopher Antoine Destutt de Tracy in 1796, was meant as a science that could reshape societal norms by analyzing prevailing ideas and human motives. But then Napoleon associated it with Enlightenment ideals, and critiqued it for lacking practicality and action-oriented thinking. Over time, ideology became a tool used to undermine opposing viewpoints by focusing on surface statements rather than underlying thoughts.

So the meaning of ideology shifted toward concealing truth through deception or driven by personal interests. Philosophers like Francis Bacon and John Miller stressed critical reflection to counter this trend. They wrote that factual knowledge often loses ground to myths, and labeled statements as ideological when they rely on personal beliefs rather than universally accepted truths.

Theodor Geiger explored the subjective nature of value judgments; they rely on feelings rather than objective measures. Due to varying societal values, establishing an objective moral system is – softly put - challenging. Societal conditioning influences our logic and thinking, and this affects how we perceive knowledge claims. Recognizing these biases is crucial to grasp reality without ideological influence.

Paratheory combines empirical evidence with beliefs about scientific theories. Influential theorists wield significant influence, but then their theories are used without critical examination. Or no empirical evidence is gathered or critical analysis employed.

What does this mean for safety management? When fixated on accidents or an elusive “safety culture”, it tends to overlook everyday work processes. Observing normal work goes beyond accidents; it helps comprehend the complexity of daily operations in which people adapt to get the job done.

We have to acknowledge the influence of societal frameworks on the perception of ‘safety’. We must distinguish between genuine theory and paratheory, and avoid biases that may play a role in decisions about dealing with risk. The subjective nature of value judgments poses a risk of blaming victims and operators, and of prioritizing reactionary measures over understanding regular operations.

Beware: Accusing and rejecting ideology in debates could itself become an ideological stance, so we need to accurately describe the theoretical ideas and then test the predictions they lead to, before dismissing them.

- More about Geiger's "Ideology and Truth":
- Drew Rae and colleagues’ Manifesto for Reality-based Safety Science
- Illustration: Social Science Research Council