Digital risk society

An excerpt from a chapter I wrote for The Routledge Handbook of Risk Studies (2016). This is the introduction to the chapter. The pre-print of the full chapter is available open access here.

As social life and social institutions have become experienced and managed via novel forms of digital technologies, and as both public and personal spaces as well as human bodies have become increasingly monitored by digital surveillance devices and sensors, a new field of risk inquiry has opened up in response to what might be termed ‘digital risk society’.  The intersections between risk and digital technologies operate in several ways. First, the phenomena and individuals that are identified as ‘risks’ or ‘risky’ are increasingly configured and reproduced via digital media, devices and software. These technologies act not only as mediators of risk but frequently are new sources of risk themselves. Second, various uses of digital technologies are often presented as posing risks to users. In a third major dimension, members of some social groups are positioned in the literature on the ‘digital divide’ as at particular risk of disadvantage in relation to communication, education, information or better employment opportunities because they lack access to or interest or skills in using online technologies.

These three dimensions of digital risk society require new sources of theorising risk that are able to understand and elucidate the ways in which digitisation and risk intersect to create risk representations, mentalities and practices. This chapter addresses each one of these major dimensions in turn. Before doing so, however, it is important to introduce some of the perspectives that may be productively employed to theorise digital risk society. This involves moving away from approaches that traditionally have dominated risk sociology and embracing the ideas of writers in such fields as digital sociology, internet studies, new media and communication and surveillance studies.

My new book: Risk, 2nd edition

My latest book was published recently. It is the second, fully revised edition of  Risk, a volume I contributed to Routledge’s Key Ideas in Sociology series. The first edition appeared in 1999, so it was interesting to see how much had changed in the theoretical and empirical landscape of the sociology of risk in the ensuing years.

In the first edition of Risk, I identified three major theoretical perspectives on risk in social and cultural theory. The first approach draws upon the work of Mary Douglas to articulate the ‘cultural/symbolic’ perspective on risk. The second approach is that of the ‘risk society’ perspective, based on the writings of Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens. The third approach covered is that of the ‘governmentality’ perspective, which builds on Michel Foucault’s work.

No major theoretical perspectives have emerged since the first edition, but there have been some extensions of these established perspectives. The second edition adds discussion of new work by Beck and Giddens and governmentality writers in relation to the newly emerging threats of the twenty-first century, such as climate change, extreme weather events, terrorism and global financial crises. Beck’s recent writings on cosmopolitanism and world risk society are incorporated, as are those by Giddens on fundamentalism in relation to terrorism, and climate change politics.

New thoughts by governmentality scholars such as Mitchell Dean on precautionary risk are also covered. Precautionary risk is an approach that has recently emerged in neoliberal societies to deal with apparently incalculable and unpredictable risks. This strategy attempts to deal with great uncertainty about how to calculate and manage catastrophic risks, to govern the ungovernable threats of this new century that challenge neoliberalist ideals of progress, rational management and control.

As well as these theoretical directions, the book also includes discussion of many empirical research studies on risk published since the first edition, undertaken by researchers in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and Scandinavia. One change in the second edition is that I place more of a focus on the notion of risk and suffering, an aspect that did not receive much attention in the first edition. Scholarly and policy representations of risk often tend not to acknowledge the emotional dimensions  of feeling threatened by risk: the anxiety, fear and despair that  may accompany such experiences.

The new edition also includes discussion of the writings of my colleague and co-author John Tulloch (see Tulloch and Lupton, 2003), who was a victim of the 7 July 2005 London bombings. John has written about his unique position as a well-known scholar of risk and as someone who became the ‘face of the London bombings’ in the news media. He found himself in the difficult position of being used by Tony Blair’s government to support its anti-terrorist legislation even though he trenchantly opposed it. As such, John was able to critique political attempts to contain and control risk and media conventions of portraying risk.


Risk, concepts of space and place and the Other

"Notice! Closed Circuit Television" ...

“Notice! Closed Circuit Television” Sign (Rockville, MD) (Photo credit: takomabibelot)

Fears about risk tend to be projected onto certain social groups: those that are defined as the dangerous ‘risky’ Other, requiring control and intervention. As Mary Douglas’ (1969) writings have shown, the Other — that which is conceptualized as radically different from Self — is the subject of anxiety and concern, particularly if it threatens to blur boundaries, to overtake the Self. These anxieties and fears tend to emerge from and cohere around the body, which itself is a highly potent symbolic object.

Knowledge and meaning, as cultural geographers emphasise, are inevitably spatially as well as socially, politically and historically situated. Spatial metaphors and binary oppositions are central to notions of Self and Other. When we refer to the boundaries of the body/society, to the distinction between inside and outside, to the marginalised or excluded, we are relying on spatial metaphors and binary oppositions. Notions of space themselves are cultural objects, constructed through social, political and historical processes. But the importance of space and place in relation to concepts of riskiness lies not simply in their value as metaphor, but in their materiality. The members of ‘risky’ marginalised groups are viewed by the dominant group as polluting public spaces, and they shrink from contact, physical or otherwise, with them. Strategies of exclusion directed at ‘risky’ individuals or subgroups are often explicitly concerned with maintaining bodies within certain geographical limits.

In western societies there are many strategies directed at policing public spaces and attempting to remove members of threatening marginalised groups from areas designated as appropriate only for the privileged. The figure of the criminal is frequently positioned as risky and requiring exclusion from others. As part of the strategy of dealing with the risk and uncertainty of crime, people develop a ‘mental map’ of places, defining some as likely to be ‘safe’ and others as ‘risky’. This ‘mental map’ does not simply rely on geographical aspects of a space or place, but also draws on ideas and assumptions about social relations and the kinds of people who inhabit or pass through these spaces and places at specific times of day and night. Fear of crime tends to be located within public rather than private space, as the criminal is considered to be an ‘unpredictable stranger’ rather than someone known to oneself, and thus as inhabiting public space rather than being encountered in one’s home (Lupton 1999).

Members of such social groups as young working-class men, the unemployed and injecting drug users are typically nominated as potential criminals because of their assumed simmering resentments against society and lack of capacity for self-control. Those spaces in which they move about — the inner city, the shopping mall, the housing estate — are considered ‘dangerous’ in terms of the risk of crime and therefore as requiring increased surveillance, police presence and caution on the part of those who transverse them.

Since the early 1990s surveillance technologies such as closed circuit television (CCTV) and biometric identity documents for use in traversing national borders have increasingly been deployed in the attempt to monitor and protect public spaces, particularly those deemed ‘risky spaces’ because of those individuals who move through them. Such technologies involve not only social monitoring but also social exclusion of individuals considered to be undesirable, posing a threat in some way. These people tend to belong to defined social groups: young people (particularly young men), homeless people, street traders and black men. In the wake of September 11, men of a Middle-Eastern appearance have also been singled out for special surveillance, particularly in airports and in border surveillance. It has been argued that such measures are a way of dealing with the fear, anxiety, panic and trauma that events such as September 11 and July 7 have incited. National border security controls are a means of providing a figurative as well as literal barrier between the threatening Others and Us at a time at which terrorist attacks have rent open notions of containment between inside and outside. These measures are never able to fully control the unexpected or guarantee improved security, but they function at an unconscious level to help reassert feelings of safety and security (Salter and Mutlu 2011).

Strategies of exclusion exerted on the part of the most powerful in a society in their attempts to avoid risk often serve to incite fear and anxiety in those they seek to exclude or intimidate. The bodies of white, heterosexual, bourgeois men tend to claim public space as a right, and frequently seek to dominate and exclude others through exerting an aggressive gaze or through violence. Other bodies must fight to establish their place in this space. Feminists have written about the ways in which women, as one of the Other categories of bodies within public spaces, are positioned as vulnerable to confrontation or attack and therefore tend to lack the self-possession of privileged men in the same space. Moving in public space, for women, is constantly problematic, making them feel uneasy or anxious, exposed to the gaze, evaluation and imminent threat of (masculine) others (Whitzman 2007).

Strategies of spatial exclusion, therefore, are typically employed by members of dominant social groups to exert control over marginalised groups for which they hold hostility, contempt or fear of contamination. Such groups may be constructed as posing a risk to the dominant group through behaviour that is deemed to be too ‘different’ or potentially polluting and therefore confronting. The spaces these groups occupy are commonly singled out as dangerous and contaminating to the dominant groups. Alternatively, marginalised groups may be constructed as being vulnerable and ‘at risk’ from the greater power of the dominant group. For marginalised groups, constructed by dominant groups as the Other, requiring regulation or exclusion or both, this domination of space leads in turn to feelings of enhanced fear and anxiety, of being ‘at risk’ of intimidation, violence or coercion.

This is an edited excerpt from the second revised edition of my book ‘Risk’ (Routledge, in press).


Douglas, M. (1969) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Lupton, D. (1999) Dangerous places and the unpredictable stranger: constructions of fear of crime. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 32(1), 1–15.

Salter, M. and Mutlu, C. (2011) Psychoanalytic theory and border control. European Journal of Social Theory, 15(2), 179—95.

Whitzman, C. (2007) Stuck at the front door: gender, fear of crime and the challenge of creating safer space. Environment and Planning A, 39(11), 2715—32.

June 2012 highlights on ‘This Sociological Life’

Last month was the first full month in the life of this blog, and it was a busy one. One of the most popular posts of the month looked at the debate provoked by the obesity sceptics who challenge the orthodox medical view that (non-extreme) obesity is detrimental to health. Many interesting opinions were posted in response to the post, including clinicians and health promotion academics working in obesity treatment and prevention and activists advocating for the Health at Every Size Approach, as well as my own comments providing details about other work in this area and in fat studies. There were quite a few relevant sources cited to back up commentators’ arguments, so these comments would be a good place to look for those interested in the debate between anti-obesity exponents and obesity sceptics.

Other posts published last month looked at topics such as how women engage in voluntary risk-taking (‘edgework’) and how this differs from men’s edgework; pregnancy and loss of control of the body/self; the concept of the ‘good mother’ in relation to the ‘fat child’; the Australian government’s controversial introduction of a mental health check for three-year-old children; the new mobile device technologies and how they are being used for health promotion; and the concepts of the ‘milkmother’ and the ‘Yummy Mummy’ in contemporary understandings and experiences of motherhood.

Another popular post in June looked at how sociologists and other social scientists can use the social media platform Pinterest as part of their research and teaching. This post was republished on the LSE Impact of the Social Sciences website. I noted in the post that I have made my own Pinterest boards on my current research interests. They include ‘Medicine as Culture’, ‘Fat Culture’, ‘The Sociology of Infancy’, ‘The Sociology of the Preborn’, ‘M-health and the Digital Cyborg’ and ‘Public Health Campaigns’ (you can view the boards here). I was also interviewed for The Australian newspaper’s Higher Education section about using Pinterest in academic work.

In June I also wrote a guest blog for ‘Croakey’, the health section of the ‘Crikey’ discussion website on making an app as an experiment to see how easy being an ‘app developer’ is (). To view or download the app itself (which explains over 25 key concepts in medical sociology) go here. I continue to be fascinated by the capabilities of social media for academic work and have been busy experimenting with Twitter (@DALupton), Delicious and Storify.

Meanwhile, in other academic writing my article ‘”Precious cargo”: foetal subjects, risk and reproductive citizenship’ was published in Critical Public Health. Last month I continued work on the revisions for the second edition my book Risk, originally published by Routledge in 1999, and plan to submit the final manuscript to the publishers at the end of July. I am bringing the book up to date by including, among many other issues, discussions of Ulrich Beck’s and Anthony Giddens’ latest writings on risk and new governmentality approaches on ‘prudential risk’ in the context of the catastrophic events that have occurred since the turn of this century and which have resulted in different ways of understanding and dealing with risk.

Edgework 2: going beyond the white, middle-class male perspective

In my previous post ‘Edgework: the fun of risk-taking’, I discussed the emotional dimension of voluntary risk-taking. Edgework research has predominantly focused on male risk-takers, the vast majority of whom are white and middle-class. These men are able to afford to engage in ‘adventure holidays’ or such ‘extreme sports’ as skydiving, BASE jumping or white-water kayaking. Other research suggests that such individuals engage in voluntary risk-taking for different reasons than do people who are less socially and economically privileged. Gender also influences why people take risks and how they feel about risk-taking.

In her study of young Scottish women imprisoned for engaging in violent behaviour and other criminal activities such as stealing and illicit drug use, Bachelor (2007) argues that these women were initially drawn to engage in this behaviour because of the shared adrenaline ‘rush’ or ‘buzz’ they felt, a desire to escape boredom and to feel as if they could foster friendships and belong to a group. Some of these young women displayed an attraction towards traditionally masculine behaviour such as violence and the feeling of power and toughness engaging in afforded them. However the women increasingly came to undertake such activities as a means of blocking out powerful emotions such as grief and rage caused by life experiences of abuse, family dysfunction and institutional care, or by eliciting more pleasurable emotions. They remarked that they often felt ‘emotionally numb’ and ‘detached’ and that risk-taking was a way of making them feel more alive.

For these young women, violent behaviour, self-harm and drug use were ways of feeling different, either by helping to avoid conscious thoughts which were distressing, evoking feelings of power and control when feeling helpless or venting feelings of anger and hurt by hurting others. These young women were not taking risks to escape the alienating world of work and to achieve a sense of authenticity and hyperreality, as do privileged white men. They were attempting to achieve a sense of control over a world in which they felt increasingly disempowered and looking for a way of feeling close to others (their peer-group) in a context in which their families had not provided intimacy and caring and a sense of belonging.

While men may experience feelings of exhilaration and omnipotence in their edgework experiences, this research showed that when reflecting on their behaviour young women were more likely to feel ambivalent about it. They viewed such risk-taking activities as irrational and expressed feelings of guilt and shame about the violent and criminal activities in which they engaged. They may have felt in control at the time of the behaviour, but when they looked back at what they had done viewed it as being ‘out-of-control’ and as ‘going too far’. In interpreting their behaviour in this way, the young women are drawing on discourses of normative femininity, which position such behaviours as abnormal and inappropriate for women.

As this research suggests, edgework has many different nuances. It is not simply about evoking and controlling intense emotion. It is not simply about engaging in risk-taking as part of legally sanctioned and expensive leisure pursuits. Edgework also incorporates criminal behaviour, perhaps one of the few avenues for members of the underclass to seek out risky pursuits. It may not represent an escape from the banality of the safety and routines of a privileged life, but may also be a way of escaping the misery of a life including experiences of abuse, poverty and family dysfunction.


Bachelor, S. (2007) ‘Getting mad wi’ it’: risk seeking by young women. In Hannah-Moffat, K. and O’Malley, P. (eds), Gendered Risks. Milton Park: Routledge-Cavendish, pp. 205—28.

Edgework: taking risks for the fun of it

Español: persona que salto

Español: persona que salto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a very large literature on the sociology of risk-taking these days. Much of this writing focuses on risk as a negative concept, something dangerous or hazardous which must be avoided. One important aspect of risk-taking however, is the pleasures and emotional intensities some people may experience when voluntarily taking risks.

The work of Stephen Lyng using the concept of ‘edgework’ explores the reasons why people take risks as part of leisure activities. The concept of edgework incorporates the notion that voluntary risk-taking activities are about exploring the edges that exist along cultural boundaries. These boundaries may include those between sanity and insanity, consciousness and unconsciousness and life and death.

Edgework involves skilful practices combined with emotional intensity. But the emotional dimension of voluntary risk-taking is more complex than simply involving the desire to incite intense emotions. Emotions such as fear, excitement and anxiety are central to edgework, but so are their control. Mental toughness, the ability to master and control the fear that one is experiencing and keep calm so as to avoid physical harm or death, is an integral aspect of edgework. When risk-takers are able to exert mastery over emotions that are viewed as negative, they experience heightened feelings of control.

Smith (2005) gives the example of white-water kayaking, in which it is important to maintain control over fear so that the kayak will stay afloat and will be able navigate the hazards of the water it is traversing. Smith claims that it is the individual’s awareness of maintaining this control despite the almost overwhelming embodied sensations of fear and excitement, which produces the sense of elation that risk-takers seek.

Lyng and Matthews (2007) similarly note that what is deemed important for voluntary risk-takers is not to override fear but to acknowledge its presence and convert it into something that is sensually appealing. This involves an acceptance of fear combined with confidence that one can act skilfully to avoid accident or death. This combination of intense emotional arousal and focused attention leads to edgeworkers experience alterations in perception of time and space, feelings of hyerreality which leads to a sense of the experience as deeply authentic, as feeling truly alive. Edgeworkers commonly describe a sense of blurring of the boundaries between themselves and the technologies under their control (kayaks, climbing ropes, parachutes, racing cars, motor cycles and so on), so that they have a sense of ‘being one with their machines’.

Edgework can represent both a challenge to limits, everyday routines and social expectations, but paradoxically, may also be an expression of dominant institutional demands and imperatives. To be entrepreneurial in the business world, for example, people are expected to voluntarily take risks to increase productivity and profits. Thus there may be said to be a degree of synergy between the skills, competencies and symbolic resources engendered via participation in edgework practices and the demands of late modernity. Edgework is simultaneously part of efforts to transcend institutional imperatives in some contexts (dangerous leisure activities, for example) and in others a vital dimension of conforming to these imperatives. As Lyng (2005) notes, while these two sides of edgework may seem to be contradictory, they may also be viewed as complementary. The skills and expertise derived from leisure-based risk-taking practices may be employed to win success in the workplace.


Lyng, S. (2005) Edgework and the risk-taking experience. In Lyng, S. (ed), Edgework: The Sociology of Risk-Taking. New York: Routledge, pp. 17—49.

Lyng, S. and Matthews, R. (2007) Risk, edgework, and masculinities. In Hannah-Moffat, K. and O’Malley, P. (eds), Gendered Risks. Milton Park: Routledge-Cavendish, pp. 75—98.

Smith, C. (2005) Financial edgework: trading in market currents. In Lyng, S. (ed), Edgework: The Sociology of Risk-Taking. New York: Routledge, pp. 187—200.