9th Conference European Sociological Association

RN22 Sociology of Risk and Uncertainty

2009-09-03 13:30:00 2009-09-03 15:00:00 Thursday, 3 September 13:30 - 15:00 Theory II Building I, 2E2

The Riskiness of Some Persistent Taxonomies: A Methodological and Ethical Note


Why does the widespread use of some highly dubious social category systems persist? How to explain their resilience? Even when essentialist definitions of gender, race/ethnicity, age, weight, etc. have long been scientifically and often politically discredited, such classifications are still commonplace in much scientific research and policy-making as well as in everyday private usage. The paper argues that a major explanatory factor is that such systems are widely assumed to facilitate the analysis and regulation of many important social patterns and to reduce social risks. At t the same time the systems themselves contribute to other, unintended risks.
The paper's concluding discussion emphasises that risky category systems are established and applied not only to distinctions in populations and groups of individuals but to distinctions in situations, objects, technologies, actions/behaviour, and development patterns. It is argued that there are practical and unavoidable reasons for such persistent usage in modern "calculative rationality." On the other hand, improvement in the design of category systems must take into account the impact(s) on people's lives (legally, administratively, socio-economically, medically, etc and everyday life) and related ethical issues. The paper concludes that from an ethical perspective, social and bio-medical category systems have to be continuously and critically assessed in order to minimize the risks of reification, stigmatization, and negative unintended impacts on people's lives. At the same time, developing better alternatives to such social taxonomies should be an enduring priority.