Since at least Herodotus, historians have been writing about humanity’s attempts to predict dangers and control futures. But while a concern for the future and strategies to mitigate accidents have existed for much of recorded time, the concept of risk is a relatively young construction, emerging only in early modernity. In this course, we investigate the concept of the risk in order to understand how it became a central organizing force in the modern period—perhaps even the defining characteristic of modernity—and, importantly, how it came to be seen as manageable. In the course’s first unit, we read the foundational materials of the theory of the “risk society”—Ulrich Beck and Anthony 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 possible futures as it considers catastrophic threats that remain pressing—nuclear war, chemical waste, genetic engineering, global climate change, and systemic financial collapse.
Day and Time: 
W 0200PM-0500PM


Cross Listings: 
  • PPE 475402