OECD Reviews of Risk Management Policies

1993-4106 (en ligne)
1993-4092 (imprimé)
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This series presents a series of books examining the management of risk by governments in such areas as natural disasters, climate change, information security, nuclear energy, biotechnology and financial services.
Social Unrest

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Aleksandar S. Jovanovic, Ortwin Renn, Regina Schröter
10 août 2012
Pages :
9789264173460 (PDF) ; 9789264173453 (imprimé)

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This report develops a framework of social unrest within a complex understanding of systemic risk.  The goal is to  try to identify triggers (events that lead to social unrest) and drivers (causal roots) for the emergence of social unrest and, based on this functional analysis, to design policy options on how to avoid, mitigate or handle unrest. The framework should enable a better understanding of the circumstances that may trigger social unrest, how intensely that unrest is likely to materialize and what interventions promise  to de-escalate the conflict or even prevent social unrest in the first place.   Since social unrest is more a process of escalation than a finite state of the world, the term has been conceptualized in a step-by-step escalation scheme.   Each step makes social unrest more severe. It is a gradual framework that identifies the different stages that make social unrest more and more probable. In order to identify relevant drivers and cluster of drivers, three case studies are investigated:  pandemics, cyber-related risk and financial crises. The main question is how did or could these events cause social unrests.  In a second step, an analytic model is used to capture the combined effects learned from the case study analysis. In a third step,the IRGC risk governance model for explaining the risk of social unrest or predicting the consequences of social unrest is applied. Finally , guidelines for normative governance with respect to social unrest are developed.

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  • Foreword

    The report Social Unrest is part of a series of five case studies published within the framework of the OECD Project on Future Global Shocks (2009-2011).

  • Abbreviations
  • Risk of social unrest

    Risks can generally be understood as the potential for experiencing harm (Rowe, 1979; Renn and Zwick, 2008). More specifically it denotes the likelihood of a scenario leading to adverse effects caused by an activity, event or technology. The causal chain is not always one-directional. In ordinary terms, a risk agent (hazard) impacts on a risk object that is of value to individuals or society as a whole. The impacted risk object can then be the cause of further risks to other objects or even trigger a feed back to the source of the hazard. A good illustration of this two-way relationship can be found in technologies that pose risks to the environment. If this risk materializes and harms the environment it may pose new risks to others, for example persons who eat contaminated food. Finally, once the risk is acknowledged the technology causing that risk might be abandoned or changed. Moreover, the developer of that technology may face legal actions or other forms of social sanctions. In this way risks are part of an interaction between humans, technology and natural environment. Natural causes (such as earthquakes), technologies such as nuclear power plants but also human activities (such as clearing the rain forest) are good illustrations for this interaction (Beck, 1986; Luhmann, 1985).

  • Characterizing social unrest as systemic risk

    The focus in this chapter will be on the connection between systemic risks and social unrest. The question is in what way social unrests can be seen as systemic risks or at least as a part a systemic risk and what analytical consequences will follow from this analysis. For this purpose we will use a typology of risks that has been developed by the IRGC for their framework of risk governance. The model has been explicitly designed to apply to systemic risks and seems to be one of the most articulated models within risk research (IRGC, 2006; IRGC, 2008; Renn et al., 2007; Renn, 2008). Within this concept risks are ordered according to their dominant characteristics. Systemic risks show the following characteristics: complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity and spill-over effects.

  • Case histories

    In this chapter we will have a closer look at four cases of risks or catastrophes that have caused or could have caused social unrest. We are interested to explore why social unrest has occurred and what secondary impacts have produced what kind of expressions of social unrest. The four cases we selected are the outbreak of H1N1 in 2009, the unrests in Greece related to international financial crises, cyber related risks and the hurricane Katrina. First, we will describe the case histories and distill the main structural elements that characterize the dynamics of each case. Second, we will compare the cases and identify their common elements. These common elements form the building blocks for our own model.

  • Basic model

    Our literature review revealed that the term social unrest is not frequently used in scientific research. Most definitions rely on operational descriptions, that means the term is explained by using indicators of their measurement. Such definitions are not conceptual but empirical (Drury and Olson, 1998; Zhang et al., 2005). Our own argumentation will start with these operational definitions. These will give us a hint about the activities that can be grouped under the term social unrests. In a second step we take the indicators as a heuristic tool to explore additional literature on theoretical or empirical studies dealing with activities connected to these indicators. In particular, we refer to studies on political participation, social movements, conflict and crisis, and collective violence. We will discuss the intersections and boundaries between these concepts and social unrest which will lead us to a nominal definition and a specific frame that characterizes our approach. The aim here is to make theoretical and empirical thoughts coming from other fields of research accessible to an audience primarily interested in social unrest.

  • Basic model vs. case studies

    From the case studies we derived that dissatisfaction occurs in the first stage of social unrest. With the help of rational choice theory we could outline five motives that people strive for (stimulation, comfort, status, behavioral confirmation and affection). The theory helps us to explain why people decided to act, but not which specific ways they preferred to express their dissatisfaction. We assume, in accordance with the scientific literature, that dissatisfaction originates in a misfit between personal expectations and perceived reality. The expectations as well as the perception of how these expectations are met in reality depend on social and cultural norms and values.

  • System for modelling, mapping and monitoring of social unrest

    System for modelling, mapping and monitoring of social unrest are essential elements in the process of improving preparedness and resilience of the society to possible social unrest of the future. In this context, the model proposed by the OECD for enhancing the key capacities for governance with respect to future global shocks (OECD 2011, p. 112, and Figure 6.1) can be applied to social unrest by emphasizing the following main elements...

  • Normative governance

    Risk governance denotes both the institutional structure and the policy process that guide and restrain collective activities of a group, society or international community to regulate, reduce or control risk problems. Risk governance has shifted from traditional state-centric approaches with hierarchically organized governmental agencies as the dominant locus of power to multi-level systems, in which the political authority for handling risk problems is distributed to distinct public bodies with overlapping jurisdictions that do not match the traditional hierarchical order (cf. Skelcher 2005; Hooghe and Marks, 2003). This implicates an increasingly multilayered and diversified socio-political landscape in which a multitude of actors, their perceptions and evaluations draw on a diversity of knowledge and evidence claims, value commitments and political interests in order to influence processes of risk analysis, decision-making and risk management (Jasanoff, 2004). Institutional diversity can offer considerable advantages when complex, uncertain and ambiguous risk problems such as social unrest need to be addressed because, first, risk problems with different scopes can be managed at different levels, second, an inherent degree of overlap and redundancy makes non-hierarchical adaptive and integrative risk governance systems more resilient and therefore less vulnerable, and third, the larger number of actors facilitates experimentation and learning (Renn, 2008). Disadvantages refer to the possible co-modification of risk; the fragmentation of the risk governance process; costly collective risk decision-making; and the potential loss of democratic accountability (Charnley, 2000).

  • Concluding remarks and recommendation

    The study has made a preliminary assessment of several case studies, developed a basic theoretical approach to understanding and analyzing social unrest, and laid the foundation for an agent-based system showing how the model could be used to monitor and, possibly, predict social unrest in the future. The case studies provided hints about what kind of issues could be of interest to explore for "social unrest related to future global shocks". A non-exhaustive list could contain the following issue...

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