Risk, Safety and Security in an Anthropological Perspective

Course date and time

Tuesday the 6th of September 2011 from 9.30 am to 17.00 pm, University of Aarhus  

Recent academic and international debates about ‘risk’ have mainly revolved around ideas of ‘global security’ (Duffield 2002) and ‘securitization’ (Buzan et al. 1998). Even though anthropologists have begun to concretize these abstract notions with reference to practice, it may be fruitful also to explore risk in relation to another related yet contrasting term namely ‘safety’. ‘Safety’ as well as ‘security’ assume the protection from some kind of ‘harm’, ‘threat’ or ´risk´, but where security refers to measures attempting to avoid or alleviate violent and criminal activity (including terror), safety relates to how we act in ‘normal life’. It is our own every day practices (in traffic, at work, in what we consume etc.) that are construed as potentially presenting ‘risks’ to our lives, our health and our emotional well-being. Not only securitization but also ‘safeticization’ (if such a term can be invented) has generated an entire industry of regulations, rules and practical measures grounded in a mixture of economic calculations, fears and values of bodily integrity, human life and  citizenship.

Yet, what ontological, cultural or social assumptions lie behind this development of security and safety as discourses and practices? What kind of ´life´ is envisioned when safety is set up as a mirror of this life? How do people relate to safety and/or security under different cultural, social and economy circumstances? What is perceived as ´the threat´? And what are people´s strategies (of safety and security) for avoiding or mitigating threats? And concerning the concepts themselves; how far is it possible to separate safety and security in practice? How are the two notions interconnected or intertwined?

We would like to invite contributors to reflect on the topic of risk, safety and security, which could involve a wide range of theoretical and analytical perspectives including (but by no means limited to) agency, causality, bureaucracy, communication, categorization and typification, work ethics, politics of control and regulation, control of the self, performance and public image management, leadership and management, objectification and knowing, habit, futures and potentialities, emotional (un-)certainty, the ‘unknown’, legal discourses (incl. insurance), gender, value, health and illness.

In addition, it is pertinent to ask how anthropologists can approach safety and security analytically and methodologically, and not the least what the methodological consequences are of thinking safety and security in relationship to work practices in the field, where one learns through one’s own experiences. Even though insurance companies have not traditionally categorised anthropology as ‘a hazardous sport’ (Barley 1989), safety and security is, not just methodologically speaking, deeply relevant to anthropologists as an inherent part of what it is to do fieldwork. One of the fundamentals of fieldwork is to subject oneself to something foreign and unknown and to transcend the boundaries of the ‘comfort zone’ where one feels safe and secure. But what consequences does it have for one’s findings and for one’s interaction with informants that one at the same time must be ‘guarded’ or ‘looked after’? How do experiments with one’s role create knowledge but also (un-)certainty? There are many tales within the discipline of the daredevil explorer, who risks ‘going native’, of the scholar who has to run from the police after witnessing illegal cockfights, and of fieldworks, where the anthropologist subjects him- or herself to danger, disease and disaster (see Howell 1990). But how far is this subjecting oneself to danger necessary, and what are the consequences for what one can learn or not? We thus also invite participants to reflect on how the negotiation and/or mitigation of ‘risk’ either hinder or facilitate the generation of anthropological field data.

Guest lecturer

Matthew Desmond (University of Harvard). Matthew Desmond has written extensively about risk and safety practices in work-related contexts. Particularly he has been concerned with exploring how risk practices and the practical logic behind these are intertwined with issues of hierarchy, class reproduction, and social order.


The course is a one-day workshop. Each participant must submit a paper or a thesis chapter of maximum 15 pages. All papers will be distributed to the participants and are expected to be read in advance as these will serve as points of departure for discussions and feedback from resource persons and other PhD participants.

Number of participants

As this is a one-day workshop maximum 6 participants will be accepted.


Please register with Line Diemer Lyng Jørgensen (ldlj@samf.ku.dk) no later than August 1.th 2011Til toppen