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41.1 - Risk & Social History

HSR Vol. 41 (2016) No. 1: Risk as an Analytical Category: Selected Studies in the Social History of the Twentieth Century, Peter Itzen & Simone M. Müller (Eds.)

Risks, their construction and mitigation are characteristic for the twentieth century. Enhanced science and technology carried with them not only new opportunities and possibilities, but also created new risks. The contributions of this HSR Special Issue demonstrate that a history of risk can contribute substantially to our understanding of modern societies in general and to a social history of the twentieth century specifically. Risks, risk perceptions and attempts to mitigate them or their effects, are influential in many social fields during the twentieth century. These range from the reaction to social injustice and attempts to avert the threat of poverty, to the debate on health hazards like HIV or the search for solutions to environmental threats.

The articles show that a history of risk can deepen our understanding of these various fields of historical research. Sometimes they may even challenge established readings and make clear that our conventional historical chronologies may be flawed, for instance because they ignore important societal developments that a history of risk can illuminate. Everyday risks often have a much more intense effect on individual lives than do great political debates. How a society reads these risks and how it reacts to them is therefore a legitimate and highly important research topic in its own right. Research on risks sheds light on the different processes of learning and adaption that led to the establishment of new risk regimes and helps us understand why and to which degree societies were resilient against the challenge of risks and under which circumstances an adaption seemed necessary.