Pioneer Research Programme
Centre for Sustainability, Equality and Climate Action (SECA)

Risk as inequality and inequality as risk

The Centre for the Study of Risk and Inequality brings together researchers from across the University to investigate the two-way relationship between risk and inequality; that is risk as inequality and inequality as risk. The Centre is comprised of three strands across which the relationship between risk and inequality will be assessed:

  • finance and the economy;
  • environment;
  • public health.

Risk as inequality can be broken down into a series of generalizable testable propositions: i) both known and unknown risks (in the areas of finance, environment and health) pose the greatest threat levels to low income and socially disadvantaged groups; ii) the greatest capacity to process and project risk lies with high income groups; iii) techniques and technologies for managing risk, distribute costs and burdens in ways which can exacerbate, or reduce levels of inequality. Inequality as risk is the proposition that rising inequality in wealth (including related social disadvantage) and growing concentrations of wealth, simultaneously increase systemic risk. Complex social and natural systems become more unstable and are more susceptible to sudden emergencies and crises as a result, with the effect of diminishing wealth and well-being. Rising inequality can therefore be conceived of as a growing risk in its own right. This creates a need for a much better understanding of these potential risks, the challenges they pose, their inter-relationships and how we should seek to measure and respond to them.

With Queen’s researchers in many different areas and disciplines working on elements of risk and/ or inequality our Centre focuses and bundles these efforts, enabling a programme of consistent collaborations and communications across disciplinary boundaries oriented towards interdisciplinary research collaboration. The Centre adopts broad definitions and understandings of ‘risk’ and ‘inequality’ in an effort to be inclusive of researchers from across the university. Risk is understood as the potential ‘relative losses’ arising from the hazards and insecurities induced by human behaviours and their interactions with complex social and natural systems. Inequality is understood as an increasingly uneven distribution of social, natural and economic resources, and a resulting variation in access to public goods, that often intersect and reinforce one another through ‘functional interdependencies’. A key objective of the Centre is to identify some of the inter-relationships and transmission mechanisms through which risks interact and are re-distributed, and how these affect patterns of inequality and vulnerability. A second key objective is to collect and generate quantitative and qualitative data that will help better understand the relationships between risk and inequality. For example, what kind of data can help us to understand the impact various risk management techniques have on patterns of inequality? To what extent do differing patterns of rising inequality increase calculable risks in different fields and by what magnitude? How do people adjust behaviour to perceived risks in different domains and how is this linked to wealth, income and social status? The PRP also aims to bring normative theorists together with more empirically driven social and natural scientists, with the aspiration of generating practically applicable normative principles that can inform the design of risk institutions and instruments in a way which is sensitive to the technical realities of risk calculation in each field.

Risk and inequality are both at the very forefront of funded challenge-led projects in the UK and world-wide, and this is reflected in their being major themes for research funders. The ESRC and AHRC have both had recent highlight notices on the theme of ‘risk’, while the related issue of uncertainty plays a major role in all UK research councils. The Wellcome Trust is very much concerned with both risk and inequality, in particular with regard to health and human well-being. The European Union’s Horizon 2020 framework has identified risk across various domains (including the environment/climate change, energy, and health) as one of the key challenges our societies face today. Inequality is going to grow as a funded theme, because it is one of the major challenges of the 21st Century. Aligning these two areas and placing them in an institutionally recognised interdisciplinary research programme is intended to give members of the Centre a strategic advantage in future funding competitions.


Twitter: @centre_risk