Over the last fifteen years, an expanding social science and popular literature has examined social institutions in terms of the way in which they manage and allocate risk of various kinds. Traditionally, the social-democratic welfare state has been viewed as a set of institutions for the social management of risk. State funded unemployment benefits and public health systems, for example, have been seen as ways of sharing or pooling risks that may affect members of society over the course of their lifetime. Extending this analytical framework, measures to redistribute income and wealth have been seen in similar terms, as sharing the risks associated with accidents of birth. There is considerable discussion in contemporary social theorizing and in social commentary about a profound change in these institutional arrangements, in particular the individualization of collective responsibility for managing risks and insecurities (Beck, 1992 and Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002).

The main thrust of the ‘individualisation’ thesis is that the social order provided by the post-war welfare state, the traditional family and stable and secure work is in decline (Jamrozik, 2005) and is being replaced by an ethos of ‘leading a life of one’s own’ where risks and responsibilities are borne by individuals (Bessant, Hill and Watts, 2002). The central neo-liberal economic argument in favour of such a transfer is that individuals are best qualified to judge their own circumstances and should therefore be free to choose their own risk management options. Critics of the neo-liberal approach have argued that, in practice, corporations and their senior managers have avoided risk by transferring it to individual workers and households. The institutionalisation of individualism through contemporary social and economic policies raises interesting and important questions for the social sciences.

Some writers (Beck, 1992 Hacker, 2006) have seen this ‘great risk shift’ as heralding a fundamental transformation of society. Others (Pierson, 2002) have pointed to the resilience of the welfare state, noting the persistence of most of the main institutions developed during the social-democratic era (public health and education systems, pensions and other forms of income support and so on) and the absence of any sustained decline in the ratio of public expenditure to national income. Finally, a variety of new proposals for risk management have been put forward, often seeking to combine the strengths of social-democratic and neo-liberal approaches. These include schemes based on loans with income-contingent repayment (Chapman, 2006), grant-based proposals and financial innovations (Ackerman, 1999).

The proposed workshop would explore these and related issues. Specifically, the objectives of the workshop objectives are to:

  1. Critically examine the thesis that Australia is undergoing a ‘great risks shift’ from collective responsibility to individual risk management;
  2. Explore the social and political consequences of institutionalising individualism in various social and public policy fields;
  3. Consider the value of alternatives to individual risk management approaches;
  4. Foster public debate and interdisciplinary engagement among social scientists about the dynamics of economic and social risk; and
  5. Plan and publish an edited book with the working title: ‘Critical reflections on the individualisation of economic and social life in Australia’.