Aesthetics of Risk: Culture or Context
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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.
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.
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.
KeywordsWorld View Financial Risk Risk Taker Physical Risk Himalayan Mountaineering
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