Aesthetics of Risk: Culture or Context

  • Michael Thompson
Part of the General Motors Research Laboratories book series (RLSS)


High standard Himalayan climbing is, quite probably, the riskiest business there is: the chances of being killed are around 1 in 8 or 1 in 10 per expedition. So Himalayan mountaineering provides an ideal (if dangerous) laboratory for the investigation of how and why people come to accept a very high level of risk. By a fortunate coincidence, such discussion of risk as exists in the anthropological literature is centered on the phenomenon of Himalayan trade, and some of these traders (the Sherpas) are now heavily involved in mountaineering.

The conventional anthropological theory is that individuals are guided in their choice between risk-avoiding and risk-accepting strategies by their world views - their culture. A more radical hypothesis accepts this but goes on to suggest that both chosen strategy and culture are, in turn, closely related to the social context that an individual finds himself in. Since an individual’s social context can be changed, either by his own efforts or by the actions of his fellows, it follows that his culture and his chosen strategy may also change. On this hypothesis, it is a waste of time trying to discover which is the correct (or best) strategy. Strategies are not right or wrong; they are appropriate or inappropriate. At this point, the anthropology of risk begins to acquire practical implications. But just what these implications are is not (as yet) too clear.
  1. 1.

    Complex industrial societies are likely to generate a wide variety of social contexts and, at the same time, the social policies that such societies adopt are likely to alter the distribution of those contexts - increasing the number of individuals in some and decreasing the numbers in others.

  2. 2.

    Each context will generate its own strategy, its own appropriate pattern of behavior... its own rationality. The interesting question then becomes: how do these different rationalities impinge upon one another — what does the risk avoider stand to gain as well as lose, from the activities of the risk accepter, and vise versa?


Could this mean that there is some optimum configuration of social contexts — some particular mix of contradictory rationalities — at which the welfare of the totality will reach a maximum? If the answer is “yes” then public policy can take an oblique approach to risk; advocated policies can be assessed simply according to whether they are likely to bring the mix of rationalities nearer to, or further from, this optimum. There will be no need for anyone to say how much a human life is worth.


World View Financial Risk Risk Taker Physical Risk Himalayan Mountaineering 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1980

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael Thompson
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute for Policy and Management ResearchBath, AvonEngland

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