HIST455 - The History of Risk and its Management

While the concept of the "risk society" developed in sociology and economics in the late-1980s, historians have been writing about risk and how individuals and societies choose to deal with it since Herodotus. In this course we historicize the concept of the risk society to understand how risk became a central organizing force in modernity and how it came to be seen as manageable. As we pull the contours of the risk society into focus, we will see a history of knowledge that intertwines religion, the future, the past, accounting, mathematics, biology, trade, business, gambling, and even life itself. In this course's first unit, we read the foundational materials of the theory of the risk society—Beck and Giddens' early work. Then, in unit 2, move to selections from historians of knowledge who trace the epistemic shifts that developed modern concepts of risk and eventually opened the possibility for its management through the use of statistical probabilities. While the most critical developments in the conception of risk took place in Europe across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, unit 3 moves across the Atlantic to investigate the ways in which risk and, especially the desire to mitigate it, shaped the United States. In this unit (our largest of the course), we will see how risk assessment and management grew into the largest business in the world. Here, we will look at statistics, actuarial science, insurance, speculation, and financial capital. Along the way, we will see many instances in which categories of identity—race, class, gender, sexuality, ability—are tied deeply into the business of discriminating risk. Finally, the concluding unit reassesses the concept of the risk society through the recent past and the possible future as it considers catastrophic threats that remain pressing—nuclear war, chemical waste, genetic engineering, global climate change, and systemic financial collapse.
Day and Time: 
T 0600PM-0900PM
Cross Listings: