TP5: The Risk Industry

Evidence for safety as a new field of research and enterprise (1960s to 1980s)

Prof. Dr. Karin Zachmann, Dr. Stefan Esselborn

This project investigates changing evidence practices for technical safety in Germany during a key period from the 1950s to the 1980s. Whereas the first project phase focused mainly on the two technological domains of nuclear and automotive technology, the second phase will concentrate on the emergence of what we call the risk industry. We use this term to describe the new field of academic as well as commercial activity arising since the late 1960s, which used the concept of risk as a central category in order to produce and apply knowledge on and evidence for (technical) safety – in an engineering, political-discursive, as well as entrepreneurial sense. The project aims to describe the historical development of this new field of knowledge in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and to analyze its role in the establishment of a new evidence regime for technical safety since the 1970s.

We will first turn our attention to the emergence of risk as a new field of research within the context of the increasing destabilization of existing evidence practices for technical safety since the late 1960s. Against a backdrop of spreading societal criticism of nuclear and other large-scale technologies, probabilistic methods of risk analysis became increasingly prominent. Through quantification and ‘scientification’ of uncertainty, they promised a re-stabilization of evidence for safety, albeit at the price of abandoning the idea of “absolute” safety. This technical approach was soon complemented by a psychological-cognitive and a sociocultural branch of risk research, seeking to bridge the quickly apparent gap between risk assessment and public risk perception. We will then proceed to analyze the establishment and institutionalization of the risk industry in the wider socio-political context of the FRG. Using relevant case studies, we will pay specific attention  to the implementation of risk knowledge into administrative legal and regulative procedures, to criticism and participation on the part of civil society organizations, as well as to the role of risk in  the private sector.

We argue that the risk industry was as consequence as well as a driver of increasing reflexivization of evidence practices for technical safety. With its multiple, simultaneous dynamics of epistemic de- and re-stabilization, the case of risk research can serve as a prime example of the emerging knowledge society becoming aware of the permanently provisional nature of evidence. Trying to  restabilize lost certainties with the soaring production of risk knowledge, it could not help but to create new uncertainties in the process. An in-depth historical study of the risk industry will not  only close a gap in the literature on the history of science and technology in the 20th century, but also promises to open up new perspectives on contemporary diagnoses on the emergence of a new “risk society” and the 1970s as a turning point in German and European history.