Jonas Hagmann – Risk registers and the measurement of everything: Security scientism and the reassertion of modernism


Event Date: 21 February 2011
The River Room
King’s College London, Strand Campus
London WC2R 2LS

Problematising Danger

ESRC Seminar Series- Contemporary Biopolitical Security


Co-sponsored by the Biopolitics of Security Network,
and the Emerging Securities Research Unit @ Keele University

Jonas Hagmann
ETH Zurich





1. In the early 2000s, the production of national risk registers emerged as a novel element of Western security practice. National risk registers aim to assess, locate, compare, and rank all kinds of possible public dangers, ranging from natural hazards to industrial risks and political contingencies. With their thematic breadth and systematic approach, risk registers are unparalleled attempts at comprehensive and secure construction of danger knowledge.

2. Risk registers are directly linked to national security strategies, for which they formally set out central knowledge bases. The assembly of risk registers is also popular: Risk registers have already been produced in Germany, in the Netherlands, in Norway, in Switzerland (twice), and in the United Kingdom, while other countries, but also the European Commission and the US Department of Homeland Defense plan on constructing danger inventories.

3. Risk registers are coming to occupy central places in the production of danger knowledge in Western countries. By laying out comprehensive maps of public dangers, risk registers define national danger realities, and in doing so instruct Western security practice both directly and indirectly. Nevertheless, the actual rationales and methodologies guiding risk register production remain largely intransparent: How do risk registers determine dangers? How do they define dangerousness, and which endangered objects are identified?

4. The assembly of national risk registers follows a peculiar syllogism. First, it is asserted that the national security dispositif must be made more efficient and effective as a whole. Second, it is argued that for such reform to be successful, full danger/situation awareness is necessary. Third, it is suggested that danger awareness can be achieved through comprehensive risk assessments, i.e., calculations of the likelihood and impact of danger.

5. This syllogism is politically efficacious. At a higher level, it moves security politics away from grand political determinations of danger towards technical assessments of object vulnerabilities. Effectively, the focus no longer rests on the actual sources of danger, but on the ‘endangered’ status of objects as it is conditioned by that object itself. Rather than focusing on the causes of danger, the primary focus of security policy comes to rest on the inherent strength and resilience of objects, whether they be technical infrastructures, elements crucial for the functioning of the economy, or political structures. This larger shift affects how security policy is organised more practically: a. First, the shift entails a bureaucratization of security policy. The determination as to what is a danger is made not so much by presidents or prime ministers in grand statements, but by civil servants or specialists working for public administrations. In risk registers, engineers determine the vulnerability of infrastructures to flooding and rockslides, physicists determine the technical redundancy of power grids, and doctors assess and determine how dangerous a pathogen is. b. Second, the formulation of dangerousness becomes object-centric. It is not the subject of danger, but the potentially endangered object that lies at the heart of political action. The focus is not on the terrorist, but on mitigating the blast effects of a potential bomb. The focus is not on the polluting company, but on the mitigation of environmentally adverse effects on the human body. Such a focus on objects dispenses with an analysis of the actors responsible in creating dangers. c. Third, risk registers empower a managerial security agenda, and they project a state of permanent public insecurity: Risks are not evaluated in terms of whether they exist or not – they are assumed to exist and merely differentiated according to likelihood and impact. With this, security politics becomes a matter of simply managing an existing situation. Everything is aimed at prevention and object-hardening in what is considered to be a perpetually insecure risk context that constantly remains in a state of potentiality. d. Fourth, the focus on vulnerabilities, and the absence of grand identifications of enemies, empowers administrative decisions about the referent object. What is held to be vulnerable – and thus also judged to have legitimate claims to protection – follows from the risk maps drawn by engineers and civil protection experts. There is no conscious political agenda that posits, for instance, that the general population or individual human beings should be the primary referent objects of security – a decision that has obvious disempowering consequences for such actors. e. Fifth, the mapping of dangers as established by risk registers relies on, and also projects, scientist sources of danger knowledge. By employing scientific and scientist assessment methodologies – from engineering in particular, but also by drawing on expert validation systems more generally -, risk registers draw their authority from ‘science’, i.e., the notion of science as objective arbiter of truth. In doing so, risk registers effectively advance science as an authoritative and supreme source of knowledge about danger, rivalling both grand political and democratic, participatory sources of danger determination.

6. The emergence of risk registers is a remarkable novel element of Western security practice. Risk registers not only provide comprehensive systematizations of public danger. They also advance a managerial, vulnerability- and object-centred security agenda that draws its legitimacy from efficiency concerns and scientist inquiry.

7. This shift not only challenges more subject-centred and reflexive security agendas. It also challenges established research foci and critical security scholarship: Risk registers suggest that the production of danger knowledge largely resides within public administrations rather than with the declarations of presidents and prime ministers. Also, risk registers direct attention towards the mobilization of science as source of truth in security affairs, as opposed to other forms of influence and/or capital and processes of convincing. Last, but not least – whether we like it or not -, the popularity of managerial risk registers also challenges the political impact of reflexive security studies on government practice.


<== back to main conference page


share this entry: