How do you define risk?

Defining the word “risk” is an essential first step to understanding the public risk prevention policies that are shaped based on Ineris’ work.
But the concept of risk can be tricky to pin down, due to debated etymology, duplicate definitions and confusion of similar terms used in multiple contexts.

There doesn’t seem to be much in common between the risk a gambler takes and the risk of an industrial accident. Yet at the heart of Ineris’ expertise, is a transversal vision of risk across all aspects of private and public life.
One of the first analyses of the growing importance of the notion of risk in contemporary culture, was conducted by German sociologist Ulrich Beck in his work Risk Society, published in 1986: Towards a New Modernity.
Beck’s theory is based on his observation of a “rupture within modernity” manifested by a questioning of the “religion of progress.” The notion of progress, which has driven the development of industrial societies since the 19th century, is still considered a wealth creator.
But it is now also viewed as a generator of threats, dangers, and damage to health and safety, all of which Beck identifies as the components of the concept of “risk". The predominant question underlying "managing risk" is “sharing wealth”. This is becoming a central focus of modern societies, in which we are seeing a loss of confidence in science and technology - risks are not seen as being under control.


The difference between “risk” and “danger”

The most commonly suggested synonyms for the term “risk” carry connotations that may be negative (danger, peril, threat, drawback), neutral (contingency, hazard, liability, challenge), and in only a few cases, positive (luck, fortune).
In common speech, “risky” and “dangerous” are used interchangeably, but risk is not a synonym of danger: risk is the combination of danger with a factor of uncertainty.
It is surely no coincidence that the modern notion of “risk” became widespread in France in the 17th century, historically at around the same time that the theory of probability was developed.

A debated etymology

The word “risk” comes from the Italian “risco.” Its etymology is the subject of controversy: there’s the Latin (risicum), Byzantine (rizikon), Roman (rixicare), or Arabic (rizq). Not all the experts agree. The most widely accepted theories trace the Italian term back to the medieval Latin “resecare,” which means “to cut,” or the Arabic “rizq,” meaning “gift from divine providence.”

Risk: “Potential danger, inherent in a situation or activity which may be anticipated to some extent.” “Probability that a future event, of undetermined duration, may cause the loss of an object or other damage which does not depend exclusively on the parties involved"

Meaning behind the meaning

In its modern sense, the word risk has two distinct meanings: it can mean both the possibility of danger and simultaneously its potential consequences. The first definition emphasizes the source of the risk, while the second focuses on the target exposed to the risk. The concepts of danger and of exposure are both inherent in risk.
This double meaning has influenced the construction of contemporary approaches to preventing and managing risk. A potentially dangerous event only presents a risk if it is likely to cause human, environmental, economic or cultural damage.
For example, a natural risk stems from the convergence of a random natural event (hurricane, volcanic eruption, etc.), its potential effect on the immediate surroundings, and the presence of people, goods or activities. Nuance is extremely important. A high-intensity storm in a deserted area carries a low risk, but it’s a very different story if the same storm occurs in a densely populated zone.

Mediterranean origins

The word “risco” or “rischio,” used by Italian notaries and merchants since the 13th century, had a specific meaning in the context of insuring commercial shipments which referred to “the risk incurred by a commodity transported at sea.”
The word “risque”, which entered into use in France in the mid-16th century, initially in the feminine form, had this same meaning.
The meaning given to the term in the first half of the 17th century, “peril including the notion of possibility,” (Littré), associates the notion of “danger” with “probability,” which forms the basis of the modern conception of risk.

Thus, the technical concept of risk is based on two components: danger, and its potential effect on the target.