Risk Culture and Cultural Risk

Risk Culture and Cultural Risk

risk cultureWhen the risk and safety industry defines culture it doesn’t consider critical aspects of culture. The most common definition is that culture is ‘what we do around here’ which fits in nicely with the behaviourist-cognitivist worldview that dominates the sector.

So people in the risk industry role up to training programs thinking they are discussing culture but they are not. They assume that they are being informed about the social psychology or risk, but they are not. So much is missing from the common approaches to risk culture that these approaches themselves have become a cultural risk.

Neither the SIA Body of Knowledge (SIA BoK) nor the Security Risk Body of Knowledge (SRMBoK) nor any of the common approaches to risk culture in either sector discuss critical social-psychological factors in defining culture. Indeed, such critical knowledge about the ‘collective unconscious’, semiotics-semiosis, semiosphere, personhood, the embodied unconscious, transdisciplinarity, transcendence, religion-faith-belief, social politics and ethics are completely missing. This means that the common assumptions of the risk and safety industry about risk culture are inadequate. A behaviourist-cognitvist paradigm of risk culture poses a significant culture risk for those in the risk industry who are led to believe they are tackling risk.

For the purpose of this discussion let’s consider just one example, but there are many examples, of massive gaps in the risk industry’s approach to culture.

The work of Juri Lotman (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuri_Lotman) is foundational to any discussion of risk culture. Lotman’s work The Unpredictable Workings of Culture should be foundational reading for anyone in the risk industry. You won’t find Lotman mentioned anywhere in the risk and safety sector. Neither will one find anywhere in risk and safety any mention of Lotman’s (1990) Universe of the Mind, A Semiotic Theory of Culture. Why is this critical? In 1991 Lotman received the Gold Medal of Philology, the highest award for philologists and developed the idea of ‘the semiosphere’.

So, here is the risk and safety industry caught up in a behaviourist-cognitvist paradigm, wondering why things happen unconsciously and unpredictably and yet have no concept of the collective unconscious or how semiotics informs unconscious decision making. Astounding! Culture from the behaviourist-cognitivist paradigm simply becomes the causation of inputs and outputs.

It is through Lotman’s work that we consider the idea of ‘cultural memory’ (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282886466_Semiotic_theory_of_cultural_memory_In_the_company_of_Juri_Lotman/download). Lotman departs from the basic premise that culture and semiotics and not mutually independent. Semiotics is the semiotics of culture. Lotman’s concept of culture emerged out of the 1960s under the new sciences of cybernetics and information sciences. The behaviourist-cognivist paradigm that dominates risk and safety is still wedded to the 1930s. Lotman proposed a preliminary definition of culture as ‘the sum of all nonhereditary information and the means of its organization and information’. In this way culture is primarily conceived as a sign system subject to structural rules. Culture then is a language/text and sum of languages. Ones semantics-language cannot be separated from one’s semiosis (constructed symbolic meaning).

Culture includes all semiotic systems and the sum of all historically existent messages in all languages. For Lotman, text is the basic element of culture and culture itself. Lotman developed the idea of the semiosphere in the 1980s to claim that all space was semiotic space outside of which semiosis cannot exists. He states (1990, p.44):

‘The function of the trope as a mechanism of semantic indeterminancy explains why it appears openly on the surface of culture in systems which hold that truth is complex, polysemic and inexpressible’.

Of course, without considering culture as a semiosphere one easily falls victim to the nonsense semantics of zero and the absolutes of binary opposition. All this isolated idea that zero is just a goal or a target totally ignores the reality that zero is a trope and language that conveys social-psychological reality. The more one speaks the language of zero the more one denies the realities of infallibility and makes such denial a cultural norm. In this way zero becomes a metaphor for brutalism and dehumanizing because its symbolism becomes the semiosphere for risk. None of this happens consciously.

So, if one wants to influence and affect culture, then one needs to be far more holistic in one’s definition of culture otherwise one is going to wonder why the behaviourist-congitivist strategies paraded as leadership don’t work.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

11 Replies to “Risk Culture and Cultural Risk”

  1. Dear Rob,

    I admire this autecological thinking, which offers a refreshing and alternative approach to the mechanistic and rigid PDCA systematic approach. It seeks to explain the distribution and abundance of species by studying the interaction of individuals and groups with their environments.

    The systemic reflection is analogous with dendrology and the concept of rhizome. It tackles the frog and bike metaphor without the sharp boundaries that curtail imagination, destroy communities of practice and extirpate learning. Indeed, the concept of rigid checklists in the aviation sector failed quite spectacularly on the morning of 9/11.

    Our current positivist and structuralist approach is overly mechanistic and merely involves development and implementation of an OHSMS based on ISO 45001/ BS 18001/ AS/NZS 4801/ Z10 and supplementing it with BBS in an otiose attempt to square the circle and make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Moreover, there is no empirical evidence that OHSMSs are effective in reducing workplace injuries and disease, which is reflected via the recent resurgence of occupational lung diseases such as black lung and silicosis.

  2. Well said, the autoecological approach is far more an accurate motif for how human systems operate in reality. It now appears that the closed-culture definitions of the behaviourist-cognitvist paradigm have become their own cultural risk as a form of cultural blindness. Fascinating that all secular cultural experts acknowledge the centrality of religion-belief to culture yet no-one in safety includes such matters in their definition. This is why the industry fails to see its own religiosity in how it constructs its worship of zero and other faith-based aspects of ‘saving lives’. Interestingly, none of the standards approach anything remotely to do with culture. This is why we see the re-emergence of various issues because there is simply no definition within the industry that enables it to look for them.

  3. I should also add the recent tailings dam collapses involving BHP at Samarco and Vale at Brumadinho in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. I suspect both organisations have certified safety and environment management systems to recognised standards and are now busy using their access to superior legal resources to circumvent their common law duty of care with customary delay, deny and die tactics.

  4. Just curious – 9/11 was one dramatic instance when checklists failed and i’m sure there are other instances too. I can’t help but wonder on the flip side how often checklists succeeded in preventing harm that would otherwise would have occurred?

    Seat belt use in cars can save lives in accidents, but can also take lives and lead to fatalities e.g. by restraining people in submerged vehicles that leads to drowning. I suspect that evidence proves that seat belt use saves far more lives than otherwise.

    What about checklists

  5. James, I don’t think there is any problem with checklists, they are so helpful and i use them every day. However, there is a problem with ‘checklist thinking’ which is a mode of thinking that trusts the checklist as an end in itself. There are of course other factors with checklists that are unhelpful such as; desensitization, bounded rationality and naive belief. There are many social psychological factors that often render checklists unhelpful, even a cultural risk. When checklists are infused with all the clout of the behaviourist-cognitvist paradigm (BCP) that infuses safety then they become a huge problem. The BCP creates a naive sense of trust in checklists so that once they are done in comes ‘set and forget’, that olde dynamic that deludes people to think they have actually done a risk assessment.
    I think people tend to think the checklist is an end in itself when at best it could be a trigger to something else. A checklist that becomes meaningless and lacks purpose it is a waste of time. This is why in the SEEK Program we propose a completely different model than the checklist stuff that dominates the market. You see, a checklist is only as good as the bias of the checklist designer and most in safety are engineers or technical people. All you get when you complete their checklist is the outcome of their undisclosed philosophy, usually behaviourist-cognitvist stuff. Checklists are certainly not neutral and certainly hide a philosophy/anthropology in design which is why most safety checklists only help people focus on objects not subjects. Much more to this but no place to discuss here.
    I could turn this whole discussion into a binary question: ‘do checklists save lives’? Either way your answer to the question traps you, because the assumption of the question is undisclosed. The paradox is some checklisting creates cultural risk and is dangerous, sometimes they save lives. One thing is for sure, if we keep asking binary questions in safety nothing will mature or improve.

  6. Checklists often generate lazy and clunky Ikea logic with a this goes with that mechanistic cause-effect ideology.

    It frequently occurs with authority or permit to work processes and form over substance eventually prevails and Piper Alpha certainly springs to mind.

  7. Checklists are usually intended to be a thinking tool but have been made a dumb down tool. I bet the busiest part of this blog site is the downloading of checklists. Noone in safety seems to stop to ask who designed it or what its bias is.

  8. Dear Rob,

    One need only look at the pejorative descriptors on behavioural safety observation checklists, which are invariably designed to achieve a predetermined outcome, which inevitably blames the victim via noncompliance with standard operating procedures or personal protective equipment requirements.

  9. Hi Rob,
    When you refer to the centrality of religion-belief to culture, is this comparable to Schein’s basic assumptions?

  10. Hi Joelle, Schein does mention religious belief but only in passing in his framework but it’s not as central to Schein as if you were to study anthropology, archeology, literature or sociology of culture for example.

    The safety industry is caught up in the scientist-materialist/behaviourist construct and tends to dismiss faith-belief issues when they talk about ‘beliefs and values’.

    The classic sociological text on religion in culture is by Peter Berger The Sacred Canopy (http://web.pdx.edu/~tothm/religion/Summary%20of%20Peter%20Berger,%20The%20Sacred%20Canopy.pdf). Then others like Eliade ‘The Scared and Profane’ or anything by Mary Douglas eg. ‘Risk and Culture’, ‘Purity and Danger’ and ‘Risk and Blame’ is worth reading. All of Douglas’ work is freely downloadable.

    Schein’s focus is more on a narrow sense of organisational culture not culture in general and so he has next to no focus at all on some critical aspects of culture such as semiotics, faith-belief and so on, which is central to Lotman, Yelle, Jung etc.

    When safety uses language like ‘saving lives’, ‘zero’, ‘cardinal rules’ etc it enters religious discourse and cosmology/soteriology and so here enters the work of theology/hermeneutics in understanding culture. Dekker’s theology on suffering is a classic example of safety-science attempting to understand these things like harm and pain, with little capability to understand it which of course he admits in his book, and then floods the book with biblical theology.

    I don’t think many in safety even define religion/theology well and so know little about it and so don’t recognise their own religious discourse and semiotics. With the roots of safety coming out of engineering there isn’t going to be much capability to tackle the issue either.

    You might like to read what i wrote about popular culture, Hollywood and modern films and the merging of faith-belief in all of the most prominent movies of our time in my book Fallibility and Risk which is a free download.

Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below