Giddens – Fate, Risk and Security

A Summary of Anthony Giddens’ Modernity and Self Identity, Chapter 4 – Fate, Risk and Security

Fate, Fatalism, Fateful Moments

To live in the universe of high modernity is to live in an environment of chance and risk. The future is seen as a place which can be shaped by human intervention, and thus, within limits, can be regulated by risk-assessment. However, notions of fate and destiny have not entirely disappeared.

As a sweeping generalisation, there is no non-modern culture which does not have at its centre notions of fate and destiny – an individual’s future is not seen as chaotic, but rather as part of some cosmic plan, specified by a person’s fate, or destiny.

Unlike in the past, the idea that we can control the future is central to modernity, and thus the notion of risk becomes central. Today, fate has been replaced with the idea of Fatalism – which is refusing modernity – a refusal to control the future, to let events come as they will (and, to an extent, this is seen as morally abhorrent). In other words (I think he’s saying) – attempting to colonise the future is now the norm, rejecting this is Fatalism – which is a perceived inability to colonise the future, and is still thus future-oriented, rather than seeing the future as determined by the past as would have been the case in pre-modern times. NB I also think this can’t be universally applied!

The future is new terrain, a place to be colonised by risk assessment, but the calculation of risk can never be fully complete.

The intrusion of abstract systems and the dynamic nature of knowledge means that risk seeps into the actions of almost everyone. We live in a society when most of us will face what Giddens calls ‘fateful moments’ – such as what A levels to do, whether to get married or divorced, or to start a business – these are moments which carry significant consequences, moments when then protective cocoon of business as usual is threatened, risky moments for the individual – at these times we will typically draw on experts to help us engage in risk assessment.

In contrast to fateful moments, stands ‘dead time’ – time which has no consequence.

The parameters of risk

Since risk, and attempts at risk assessment, are so fundamental to the colonising of the future, the study of risk can tell us much about the core elements of modernity.

Preoccupation with risk in modern social life has nothing to do with the actual prevalence of life-threatening dangers. We live in one of the most risk-free societies in history. The list below records some of the most important risk-reducing advances relevant to health which occurred during the years 1907-77:

  • Safe drinking water

  • Sanitary sewage disposal

  • Hygienic food preparation

  • Pasteurised milk

  • Refrigeration

  • Central heating

  • Scientific principles of nutrition widely applied

  • scientific principles of personal hygiene widely applied

  • Eradication of major parasitic diseases, including malaria

  • Rodent and insect control

  • Continually improving parental and postnatal care

  • And so the list goes on!

Against such risk-reducing changes, we have to place a number of negative influences – two world wars, more car crashes, more drugs which have been inadequately tested, increased consumption of alcohol and tobacco, environmental pollution, food additives, exposure to natural disasters, chemical fertilisers.

Nonetheless, in terms of basic life security, the risk-reducing elements seem to substantially outweigh the new array of risks. There are various ways this can be assessed – the strongest piece of evidence being that of increased life-expectancy.

Risk concerns future happenings – as related to present practices – and the colonising of the future therefore opens up new settings of risk, some of which are institutionally organised. Today, institutionalised systems of risk affect virtually everyone, regardless of whether they are ‘players’ within them.

Two very different areas of risk are the stock market and health profiling – both involve expert systems, and both involve ‘laymen’ having to make decisions about their futures based on their judgement of what competing experts advise them to do.

In addition to these ‘everyday risk arenas’ there are more high-profile risks associated with new technologies and globalisation – such as the threat of nuclear melt-down – and here we don’t know necessarily how bad the consequences of an accident could be.

Thus, living in the world today is not riskier than in the past, but thinking in terms of risk is more part of our day to day experience, and there is a certain uncertainty to this. Hence we have developed a kind of ‘risk consciousness’.

This is an inevitable part of modernity – the more we try to colonise the future, the more expert systems there are, and the more competing voices – and the greater one’s consciousness of risk – this risk climate is unsettling for everyone, no one escapes.

NB – Sixth form education today is increasingly about socialising kids into this risk consciousness and providing them with the tools to ‘colonise the future’.

The Active Courting of Risks

Not all risks are voluntarily undertaken – for example some of us have no chance but to drive to work, while even activities such as smoking and drinking can develop a compulsive character and so may not be entirely a matter of free-will.

People do not tend to evaluate the risks associated with individual events, but rather do risk assessment in terms of the package of events associated with their overall life-plan.

Although much risk assessment is not conscious, but rather takes place at the level of practical consciousness (certain avenues being blocked off by the ordinary assumptions of day to day life), being ‘at ease’ in late modernity is much more difficult because so many of our relationships have been reflexively achieved – that is, they are a matter of choice.

Risk, Trust and the Protective Cocoon

The uneventful character of much of our day to day life is only the result of long schooling and skilled watchfulness – this is why things such as using a knife and fork or walking have no ‘fateful consequences’ in our adult life.

These phenomena can be usefully analysed using Goffman’s concept of the Umwelt – a core of accomplished normalcy with which individuals surround themselves – in the case of humans the Umwelt extends beyond immediate physical surroundings. It extends over indefinite time and space, and corresponds to the system of relevancies to the individual’s life.

In terms of risk – the Umwelt orders events in relation to risks, and tells us which we should be alarmed about – there are generally two types of future event – those over which we have control, and those which we don’t (designed and adventitious happenings).

As mentioned earlier, the protective cocoon (developed through childhood) enables us to bracket out the bulk of what ‘goes on’ as non consequential, with little chance of anything bad happening – however, as the abstract systems (of time and money and experts) have penetrated more into our Umwelt, the capacity for developing trust becomes seriously reduced.

‘In modern social conditions, the more the individual seeks reflexively to forge a self-identity, the more he or she will be aware that current practices shape future outcomes. Assessment of risk becomes the core element of the personal colonising of future domains.

Of course we do not always calculate risk using purely quantitative methods – people are generally more afraid of flying than travelling by car even though the risks of dying in a car accident are far greater, because the idea of the magnitude of an air disaster is so much more horrifying, and distance in terms of time and space can affect risk assessment in relation to action too – as with young people smoking – the thought of a cancer related death is so far in the future you can ‘discount it’ in your youth.

Notions of fate do not disappear altogether – most of us trust governments and scientists to steer us through global problems, such that we can forget about them in regards to our day to day lives.

Fatalism is part of our lives – two coping mechanisms at the level of identity are ‘pragmatic acceptance’ – taking one day at a time and ‘Cynical Pessimism’ – world weary humour about how bad everything is. However, Fatalism is only likely to be reserved for select areas of our lives (a Blasse attitude?) given the social importance of being creative and innovative.

Our lives are frequently punctuated by fateful moments – some are not called for, in which case we have to draw on a range of strategies to cope, some are deliberately cultivated, and allow us to demonstrate some level of skill and resourcefulness in shaping our future.

As to the later of these, the risk takers, it is the capability more and more people now have to engage in risk in order to disturb the ‘fixity of things’ that is part of modernity’s unsettling character.

Risk taking is an experiment with trust – it goes back to the ‘power to be’ which we first encountered with early childhood – it has consequences for our self-identity, and the costs or benefits may not be felt for years afterwards.

Risk, Trust and Abstract Systems

‘The abstract systems of modernity create large areas of relative security for the continuance of day to day life. Thinking in terms of risk certainly has its unsettling aspects, but it is also a means of seeking to stabilise outcomes. The more or less constant and rapid momentum of change of modern institutions couples with structured reflexivity mean that on the level of everyday practice as well as philosophical interpretation, nothing can be taken for granted. What is acceptable/ recommended behaviour today might be different tomorrow in the light of new knowledge. Yet at the same time, many activities are successfully routinised across time-space (on a scale never achieved before).

Two examples of abstract systems Giddens now provides are those of money and the division of labour, using the food supply as an example of the later…. so long as an individual invests a level of trust in money and the division of labour, these allow for greater security and predictability than at any previous time in history. He also provides the examples of the provision of food, water, power and lighting and travel.

However, the penetration of abstract systems into day to day life also open up the individual to high consequence risks (because of the system of which we are a part). Giddens also points out the fact that the control of nature has been a key part of the above, to the extent that we can even talk of the ‘end of nature’, which is what adds to the potential for high-stakes negative outcomes. Just some of these which we face include>

  • The vagaries of the global economy

  • Prolonged droughts caused by centralised water systems

  • Power outages

  • Global warming

Security, Deskilling and Abstract Systems

Abstract systems deskill – not only in the workplace, but in all aspects of life they touch. This is an alienating and fragmenting phenomenon. It is alienating because expert systems undermine pre-existing forms of local control. It is not just lay people who lose power in this sense, but also experts, because experts are only experts in one narrow field, in all other fields, they are also lay-people.

Against Braverman, this is not a one-way process, but rather a dialectical one. Some people gain from the process of deskilling and reskilling, and in so doing reinforce new (dynamic) structures (NB this is part of structuration, I think!). In an important way, the invasion of expert systems into day to day life can be empowering, increasing the quanta of power. Loads of new spaces open up between the realms of lay and expert knowledge.

Empowerment and Dilemmas of Expertise

Here Giddens uses the analogy of seeking a solution to a back problem to show how there are numerous available diagnoses available as solutions – which means no one expert in the field can be said to have a universal solution to everyone’s back problems.

Summary: authority, expertise and risk

No one can disengage completely from the abstract systems of modernity. An individual experiences these most acutely in the form of expert systems when going through fateful moments when identity needs to be reconstructed – here, when an individual comes into contact with counselling or therapy we find expressed some of the central dilemmas to which modernity gives rise.

Related Posts 

Chapter 1 – The Counters of High Modernity (includes introduction)

Chapter  2 –  Ontological Security and Existential Anxiety

Chapter 3 – The Trajectory of the Self

Giddens’ Modernity and Self-Identity in 14 bullet points

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