Living with uncertainty :
The Construction of ‘Risk’ and the Belief in Luck
par Gerda Reith
We live in a universe of chance. The fact of being born at all is the most improbable event any of us will ever experience, but from the moment of our birth, the fact of our death - if not the time or manner - is the most certain. In between, we are forced to live between these two extremes of contingency and fate, and what makes up the flavour of our lives depends on how we deal with this.
This is why our understanding of uncertainty, in concepts like ‘chance’, ‘risk’ and ‘luck’ are crucial. These ideas have preoccupied humanity for centuries, and they act as a microcosm for the major themes of existence - free will and determinism, reason and unreason, knowledge and belief. So, the way that we deal with uncertainty is central for understanding how societies operate and organise themselves, and indeed, for revealing within those explanations the nature of entire worldviews (Luhmann 1993).
Recently, these preoccupations have been understood in the concept of risk. Since roughly the late 1970s, there has been a massive increase in its application and popularity, until it sometimes appears as though we can understand the entire world in terms of the calculation of risks - in politics, science, medicine, the environment and technology. To paraphrase Ulrich Beck (1992), it does sometimes seem as though we are living, not so much in a ‘risk society’, but in a society saturated by risk discourse. ‘Risk’ has become the explanatory paradigm of the 21st century.
In the grand scheme of things, this is a relatively recent move, and one that is specific to the culture of rationalist modernity. The following sections aim to examine the construction of this concept of risk as a means of making sense of uncertainty ; tracing its emergence out of the older notion of chance, considering its effectiveness as an explanatory discourse, and considering the efficacy of alternative interpretations of uncertainty.
The Magical-Religious Worldview : Chance
For most of its history, the idea of unpredictable future events was articulated in the notion of chance, from the Greek aos meaning ‘the first state of the universe, a vast gulf or chasm, the nether abyss, empty space’ (Oxford English Dictionary 1991). Strikingly however, in its earliest formulations, events whose causes were unknown were regarded as hidden signs within broadly religious worldviews, so that, in effect, there was no such thing as ‘chance’ ! Rather, unexpected events were explained away with reference to external forces - whether spirits, magical forces, or a divine creator - that caused them to happen.
Such ideas are intimately connected to the material and social conditions of existence, and are usually associated with societies where technological control over nature is limited (Malinowski 1948 ; Dewey 1930). Racked by material insecurity and bound by a static social hierarchy, medieval Europe was an instance of such a society, and was characterised by a system of beliefs that explained the individual’s place in the world and the unfolding of the future as part of a divine plan that was not amenable to human intervention.
According to the religious doctrine of providence, every earthly event and every supposedly random or trivial occurrence was imbued with symbolic meaning as an expression of God’s will. This extended to the fate of the individual, whose destiny and position in the ‘great chain of being’ (Lovejoy 1960) was mapped out from birth. The hierarchy was based on heredity and tradition, established by God, and therefore backed by divine will, meaning there was no possibility of social mobility and little opportunity for the exercise of individual free will. In such a cohesive worldview, everything happened for a purpose, and what looked like so called ‘chance’ was simply human ignorance of the underlying reality of God’s intentions (Crombie 1994 ; Huizinga 1990).
The idea of providence was based on a view of the world as a just and moral order that was sensitive to the conduct of individuals. It was believed that, in the long run, virtue was rewarded and vice was punished, so that adversity was a sign of punishment for sin, while good fortune was a reward for virtue (Le Goff 1980 ; Thomas 1997). Such a link between behavior and fortune was common in many pre-modern societies, where the first reaction to misfortune would be to identify its moral origin by checking what someone did to ‘cause’ it. Indeed, it continues in the modern world where, as Mary Douglas (1992) has pointed out, the identification and labeling of risks can be interpreted as a means of attributing blame and creating scapegoats.
As well as the formal doctrine of providence, a less formal set of beliefs in luck and magic were widespread, and were especially popular amongst the peasantry. Medieval life was surrounded by magical techniques, particularly in the areas of agriculture, relationships and health, where an arcane and complex system of rites, blessings and charms were performed to ensure the fertility of the soil, the health of animals and the yield of crops. Divination was used to forecast the weather and foresee the course of illness, while spells and potions were used to ward off witchcraft and ensure health and good fortune (Thomas 1997).
The notion of luck, as an expression of providential favour, was often used to explain good or bad events, and was closely connected to the idea of lucky times. Since ‘time’ was regarded as heterogeneous in nature, certain days were thought to be luckier than others for major undertakings, and for particular individuals, so that an individual’s personal good fortune was understood to depend on the time they chose to do something, and was planned around accordingly (Le Goff 1980).
These beliefs and practices were used in situations that were not amenable to human expertise or technical control ; an application that the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1948) has described as a pragmatic technique for relieving tension and providing a basis for action in situations of uncertainty. When no other way to influence an event exist, rituals give the individual an active role in proceedings, and lessens their anxiety. As such, it converts them from passive bystander into active agent, and gives them a sense of control - as Malinowski put it, ‘it ritualises optimism’. The concept of luck played a similar role. In an unequal and insecure society, where there was little space for individual agency, belief in powerful external forces explained the discrepancy between merit and reward, and so helped people reconcile themselves to their environment without jeopardizing their self-esteem.
Although it could be argued that they reinforced an unmeritocratic social hierarchy, it can be seen that such beliefs played a vital role by providing a sense of security and imposing a moral order on the world. In a harsh, unpredictable climate, they gave individuals the comfort of knowing that life was not a lottery : there was no such thing as chance, the future was planned, and things happened because God had made them happen.
The Emergence of the Modern World
Around the 17th century, the development of a system of mercantile capitalism and the rise of scientific rationality transformed the western world. This was the move from traditional society where limited control over nature was accompanied by magic, ritual and religion, to one where the world was increasingly controlled by science and technology (Freudenthal 1986). The shift also revolutionized ideas about uncertainty and chance, most crucially, introducing the idea that it was something that could be calculated and controlled. Out of this, the notion of risk was born.
The Enlightenment emphasized the primacy of formal reason as the supreme method of knowing the world, and held out the hope that, through its application the mysteries of nature would be subject to human control, and ideas such as ‘fate’ and ‘luck’ would be banished as symptoms of irrationality and ignorance of scientific causes. The vanguards of this new way of thinking were the new entrepreneurial and merchant classes, who embodied what Weber (1904) called the ‘spirit of capitalism’ - an active, dynamic orientation to the world that regarded reward and fortune, not as an outcome of providence or luck, but as the result of their own skill and effort. Their commercial exploits demanded a new temporal orientation based on foresight and planning, which engendered a vision of the future as something that was neither fixed nor static, but as something that could be shaped and colonised by human action.
Such concerns were reflected in the development of a way of reasoning that embodied a new way of looking at the future and human agency, which was in turn articulated in the emergence of a new scientific disciple - the birth of probability and statistics (Daston 1988 ; Hacking 1975). Up until then, the focus had been on individual, unconnected events in the present that were seen as signs of higher meaning. Now, however, a system of capitalist enterprise provided a compelling new motivation for looking at the future in more (secular) detail - the creation of profits - which accurate predictions and forecasting could greatly encourage. The focus of probability reflected this new concern : it looked ahead for patterns and regularities over the long term, so that it could make reasoned guesses about what might happen in the future based on odds, expectations and likelihoods. It was a case of moving from the short to the long term and from the individual case to the general rule. Jacob Bernoulli’s Law of Large Numbers articulated this, and proved that although phenomena may be unpredictable in the short term, over an extended period, they fell into regular and predictable patterns. So, for example, although it was impossible to say whether the result of a single spin of the roulette wheel would come up red or black, as the number of spins was increased to infinity, the result would even out over the long term to 50 : 50.
These disciplines made chance calculable, and could be applied to a wide range of situations where the future was uncertain, from the chances of getting sick to the likelihood of commercial profit (Ewald 1991). It was here that the concept of risk emerged as an expression of calculative uncertainty - quite simply, the risk of an event is the probability of it happening over a stated period of time.
This new concept of risk can be seen as the vanguard for a whole new way of thinking as the West became more secular and individuals were freed from the strictures of tradition to regard themselves as self determining agents of their own destiny. The expanded time frame of risk assessment expressed a new world ; from something fixed and limited and static, it became open and full of possibilities to the rational individual : the move described as being ‘from the closed world to the infinite universe’ (Koyré 1982). Unexpected events were no longer seen as acts of Divine providence, but as calculable risks that could be estimated.
The Secular, Rationalist Worldview : Risk
Once the concept of risk had appeared it soon expanded to rationalize uncertainty in a variety of areas. It quickly found application in the social realm when, in the 19th century, transformations in the structure of capitalism saw its meaning changed to encompass a wide range of economic and social factors. The rise of modern bureaucratic states, industrialisation and political unrest made western societies increasingly complex and created a climate in which the insights of probability and statistics came to be used for the measurement of uncertainty within the social world (Daston 1988 ; Dean 1999).
Social thinkers such as Auguste Comte, Adolphe Quetelet and Emile Durkheim found that the law of large numbers could be applied to populations as well as to natural phenomenon, where it showed that, although individual behaviour may be unpredictable and chaotic in the short term, larger social groups were actually amenable to stability and regularity over the long term. The statistical calculation of populations revealed patterns in crime, sickness, marriage and even suicide rates, and so made it possible to calculate and predict risks and so to govern and control society itself. The aggregate and the long term demonstrated order : ’for chance disappeared in large numbers’ (Gigerenzer et al 1989 : 270).
As the science of uncertainty, the notion of risk was recognized as a crucial tool with which to quantify, express and so, to an extent, control the effects of unpredictable phenomenon in human affairs. From the 1970s, it became particularly influential in the social sciences, where it expanded to inform many different perspectives from economics, politics and psychology, to sociology, health sciences, and anthropology, each with its own areas of study and its own set of epistemological assumptions.
Although the subtleties of its meaning have changed over time and vary across disciplines, in this argument, the continuities are more important than the differences : the point is simply that today understanding the world in terms of risks has become an ongoing feature of everyday life that is practically synonymous with reason itself. It is a long time since any one concept - and one borrowed from science, at that, - has been so influential.
At this point, we have to look at the social context of such widespread popularity. Just as the concept of chance was embedded in its social conditions, so risk is embedded in its cultural climate, and it is in this that we find the reasons for its appeal.
The culture of late modernity
Late modern society is highly complex and differentiated, based on sophisticated science and technology, and an interdependence between abstract, global systems. Within it, the social and cultural practices and institutions that used to provide security, such as family, work and religion, are much less stable, while traditional formations like class and gender are more fluid and open to interpretation (Giddens 1991 ; Bauman 1992). In the post-Fordist era, western economies are characterised by recession and unemployment and working relations are increasingly insecure and impermanent. The result is a culture that is highly individualistic, although paradoxically, individual identity itself is increasingly malleable and open to transformation through a variety of consumer choices on the marketplace (Bauman 1992).
The idea of ‘truth’, and ‘objective’ knowledge has been replaced with relativism, pluralism and constantly shifting values, and the ideal of certainty has been replaced with an ongoing exercise in probability calculation. It has become clear that not only does increasing knowledge not bring certainty, but the advances of science can actually make the world a more dangerous place, by introducing new problems, such as the risk of nuclear contamination and environmental disaster (Beck 1992).
In this climate, the negotiation of uncertainty and insecurity is an ongoing exercise. True, this was always the case, but today, it is an individual enterprise ; and rather than reasons being expressions of divine providence or magical forces, today there are no ‘reasons’ - only assessments and likelihoods. To a greater extent than ever before, the individual is left to face risk alone, for there are fewer sources of comfort and security to turn to in times of uncertainty. Instead of the rules and prohibitions of traditional society, today’s citizens are faced with an endless array of choices, so that decision making becomes an anxious process of weighing up more or less possible outcomes. No longer in the hands of the gods, people are free to shape their own future - in fact, not only are they free to act, they have to act ! Responsible citizens of neo-liberal societies have a duty to govern themselves rationally and to safeguard themselves against risk by keeping themselves informed about potential dangers, weighing up risks and probabilities, and protecting themselves by, for example, safeguarding their health and protecting themselves against crime and material insecurity (Dean 1999 ; O’Malley 1996). Ill fortune is no longer seen as a punishment from God, but as a personal failure to do these things, attributable to laziness, ignorance or irresponsibility. All of the choices and responsibilities that accompany the freedoms of late modernity are double edged sword, for they can be a source of constant anxiety that lead to the state of what Giddens (1991) calls ‘ontological insecurity’ - a state of radical uncertainty that goes to the heart of the individual.
All of these concerns are articulated in the concept of risk, which is founded on the image of independent individuals shaping their own destinies, based on rational scientific understanding of an indeterminate world. It can be seen from this that the notion of risk is highly culturally specific, mirroring the concerns of the society around it (Douglas 1992). This explains its rapid incorporation into so many branches of social science, and also the dominance of realist models (such as Beck’s), that make ‘objective’ risk the definitive feature of an era.
Just as ideas about providence and magic reflected the static, religious society they existed in, so the notion of risk reflects its cultural climate : it is our modern way of explaining uncertainty and as such, it can be seen more as a symptom of its times than an impartial commentator or scientific measure of them.
Moreover, not only does the notion of risk express this cultural climate, it also provides a framework for acting within it. The weighing up of relevant factors, expected outcomes and knowledge of past events that is involved in the calculation of risk can provide a sense of security in an uncertain world : armed with the appropriate information, individuals can go about their business knowing that they are taking active steps to protect their well being and shape their future. By providing the tools for the calculation of uncertainty, it provides individuals with a guide for how to behave, and so empowers them to determine their own actions and construct their own futures. Although risk calculation cannot negate uncertainty or make the future certain, it can, Luhmann says ‘immunise decision-making against failure’ (Luhmann 1991, 13). In this, it both frames the problem, as well as providing the means for its resolution
However, having said this, we have to question how effective the formal calculation of risk really is in creating a secure basis for action in modern society, and to answer this, we must examine the lived reality of risk - or perhaps, more accurately, the lived reality of uncertainty.
The Limits of Reason
On one level, we do govern risk by rational calculation, prediction and planning. We try to live healthy lifestyles, we wear seat belts, and, just to be safe, we buy insurance. But - and this is more pervasive - on a subjective level, we hold a range of assumptions and beliefs that are not conventionally rational, and are not bound by this discourse.
Decades of economic, social and psychological research has found both an over- and under- estimation of risks depending on the subjective interpretation of the situation. Kahneman and Tversky’s (1984) extensive studies of the heuristics and biases - common sense explanations and rules of thumb - that people utilise when thinking about risk led them to conclude what most lay observers had suspected, namely, that most people ‘are not probabilistically rational utility maximisers’ (Kahneman and Tversky 1984, 392).
Perception of risk does not mirror the so-called objective measurement of it, and a massive disjuncture exists between expert calculations of risk and lay interpretations of those risks. Although we have to acknowledge that risk perception is always grounded in specific cultural contexts, it is nevertheless the case that, in terms of the rationalist criteria of risk discourse itself, individuals do not calculate risks rationally in their everyday lives. Over and over again, social science research finds evidence of people doing things they should not be doing, and not doing things they should be doing.
Generally, individuals tend to underestimate risks they feel they can control by downplaying the chance of a bad outcome in a familiar situation, while also underestimating the risks of events they do not expect to happen. This means that the extremes of risk are ignored - both common, everyday dangers as well as rare, low-probability ones. Individuals also feel differently about some risks than others, with the result that they are more likely to accept risks taken by themselves - such as smoking - than ones imposed by others - such as putting up with sub-standard safety on public transport. This creates a sense of the individual’s immediate world being safer than it is - as Douglas puts it, it creates a strong, but unjustified sense of subjective immunity (Douglas 1986, 29)
At the same time, emotions often intervene in assessments of risks or uncertainties. People tend to make moral connections between actions and outcomes, where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. This ‘just world’ hypothesis (Lerner and Miller 1978) denies the operation of chance, and assumes the operation of some kind of higher moral authority that oversees actions. Also, the tendency towards the belief in an ‘illusion of control’ (Langer 1975) describes a belief that desirable outcomes are caused by internal factors such as skill and ability, while failures are attributed to external factors like bad luck. In both of these misapprehensions, aspects of older beliefs in factors such as providence and luck can be discerned ; the idea that everyone gets what they deserve, and the belief that factors beyond one’s control are responsible for a poor lot in life.
It is clear that subjective belief is not the same as ‘rational’ knowledge, and that the avoidance and embrace of various experiences is not determined by rational calculation of their potential dangers or opportunities. In terms of the standard definition of ‘rationality’ that we have inherited from the Enlightenment, there is no way we can say that modern beliefs in risk are ‘rational’, in the conventional sense.
The problem with probability
This is not a problem of individual thought, but rather a problem with the entire edifice of calculative rationality that the notion of risk is based on. On one level, there exists a problem with this form of reasoning itself ; on another, a problem with the calculation of risk as a reflexive process.
Probability was too ambitious - what it tried to do was no less than predict the future. In a way, it does predict the future, but only in a very abstract sense. It makes mechanical predictions about uncertainty in the future based on aggregates over long periods of time. But technically, there is no such thing as an individual risk - risk is only calculable across populations (Ewald 1991). So, for example, probability can estimate the likelihood of motorists being involved in a car crash or the odds of smokers contracting lung cancer. But it cannot tell a motorist whether they will have an accident on a particular journey, or a smoker whether or when they will fall ill. And this is the problem, for people do not see themselves as ‘motorists’ or ‘smokers’ : rather, they want to know what will actually happen to them at a particular time. The calculation of risks cannot do this, however. It can only advise on how to behave - drive carefully, stop smoking - and of course, it can do nothing about the counter-case that disproves its advice : the heavy smoker who lives to be 100, and the careful but unlucky driver who is killed in a freak crash. In the real world, risk analysis is ultimately useless, since it cannot tell you whether anything you do will actually save your life.
There is a gap between the long term and the short term, between the general and the specific, and the collective and the individual : in other words, between the abstract, theoretical world of risk dispersal, and the concrete, individual experience of the world, and it is this which makes the calculation of risk subjectively unsatisfying. The disjuncture between the so-called objective calculation and the subjective perception of uncertainty reflects the inability of probability to provide a subjectively satisfying account of risks themselves, at the level of the individual.
The other problem with risk is based on the reflexivity of the world itself. The world does not exist ‘objective’ and independent of human consciousness. By being in the world, we affect it, and by knowing it, we respond to it in ways that change it. Similarly with the case of risk - our perception of what might constitute a risk affects how we act which in turn alters the nature of the ‘objective’ world in which the ‘risk’ is situated (Adams 1995 ; Ewald 1991). By having a reflexive relation with risks, we alter the distribution of them, and so, as long as human actors who perceive and think and respond are involved in the probability equation, there can be no such thing as ‘objective’ risk. As Luhmann puts it, ‘The outside world itself knows no risks, for it knows neither distinctions, nor expectations, nor evaluations, nor probabilities.’ (Luhmann 1993, 6).
This leads to another problem, based on our definitions of terms. The concept of risk is essentially a temporal one, that does not relate to something that has happened or is happening, but something that might happen in the future. In this sense, it is not possible to talk of ’experiencing’ risk directly - by definition, risk is simply a calculation of future uncertainty, and so cannot be experienced at all. Once something that was previously defined as a risk has occurred, then it is no longer a risk, but becomes a past event, an occurrence, a fact. Risk vanishes as soon as the anticipated event occurs. Strictly speaking, we should not really write of ‘lived’ risk or the ‘experience’ of risk at all, but only of ‘risk calculation’, since in Kantian terms, risk is fundamentally an epistemological category - it exists as a feature of knowing ; not an aspect of being.
So, not only are the semantics of ‘risk’ misleading, but it is also inadequate as an explanatory discourse. True, it can act as a formal guide for behaviour, but it does not provide security or meaning for the individual. And this has implications for human action, for how can you act if you do not believe in what you are doing ?
The discourse of formal reason freed the individual from the strictures of tradition to become agents of their own destiny, but it left a vacuum at the level of meaning, which the cold calculations of risk cannot fill. We may have gained control of the world through science, but we have not assuaged the anxiety we feel at the continued presence of uncertainty.
Luck, or, the Governance of Uncertainty
The main challenge for the individual is how to reduce uncertainty and maintain a sense of control in an unpredictable world. And indeed, running alongside the discourse of reason is another set if ideas altogether, that work to explain uncertainty in a way that has immediate, personal resonance. These can be broadly referred to as ‘beliefs in luck’, although they can be difficult to define, and are often dismissed as ‘irrational’ misunderstandings of probability. In anthropological literature, they are often associated with witchcraft and magic, as in Evans-Pritchard’s (1991) classic study of the Azande, where he described witchcraft as a belief that explained misfortune, similar to our idea of luck ; and Malinowski’s (1948) writing on magic, which he analyzed as a pragmatic system of belief. In a more theoretical approach, Marcel Mauss (1972) utilised the notion of mana to describe luck, referring to it as a power or influence that has a ‘quantitative potency’, and is partially supernatural. The notion has received far less attention in contemporary social research, however, which is generally concerned with explaining notions such as ‘luck’ away, or conflating it with ideas about chance or fate, as though it were some kind of inexplicable, random occurrence.
Given the dearth of theoretical or empirical study, the most fruitful line of enquiry here is simply to investigate a situation in which such beliefs are to be found, and the activity of gambling provides an ideal opportunity for this.
In an arena of ritualised uncertainty, various types of games embody chance and control to different degrees, although uncertainty about their outcome is constant. Further, the calculation of risk in terms of odds and probabilities is crucial to the return on a wager in games of chance, and so, if there is any group who should assess risk through probability, it is gamblers. But - remarkably, there are in fact few groups less likely to use it ! Although many do calculate odds and work out handicaps, in general, the outcomes of games are regarded as being determined by luck or fate, rather than being neutral probabilistic dispersals (Reith 1999).
On a personal level, players have a deep conviction in the power of their own luck. Although they know that the laws of probability are stacked against them, on another level, they are also convinced that their good fortune can overturn them. This has been described by gamblers as an ‘inner power’, or a ‘conviction’ ; a belief in some kind of mystical, inner force they possess that makes them omnipotent, and allows them to overcome the odds and determine the outcome of a game (Wagenaar 1988).
Many gamblers possess lucky mascots or charms : items that have some kind of personal significance and whose presence provides a source of comfort and inspires the owners with the confidence and certainty of success. Lucky times are viewed as crucial, with certain days or moments seen as more favourable than others. Most gamblers have a strong sense of when it is ‘their time’, expressed in terms like the ‘lucky streak’, ‘run of luck’, and being ‘on a roll’. Places, too, can be considered lucky, and many players have ‘their’ regular seats in casinos and bingo halls. Numbers can also be meaningful, especially those that have some association with the player’s life, such as ones derived from their age, their children’s birthdays or their telephone numbers, which are believed to be especially propitious (Kaplan 1978 ; Reith 1999).
As well as these ideas about luck, gamblers are also concerned with external power, variously conceived as fate, destiny, or even God, that oversees and determines the outcome of games. Luck is closely associated with these ideas as an expression of higher meaning ; a sign that fortune is favourable. The ultimate expression of luck is winning, and, in something of a tautology, winning is also seen as a sign of luck. Gamblers frequently report experiencing feelings of empowerment and control, even states of transcendence, when winning - as though their self worth and their very existence - is validated and confirmed when they are lucky in this way (Auster 1990) Here, winning is no longer seen as the impersonal outcome of a probabilistic equation, but an expression of an individual’s power and status.
Such beliefs have been described as irrational, superstitious, or evidence of ignorance of the laws of chance. But are they ? On the one hand, gambling is an arena where theoretically at least, probability should be useful, but on the other, gambling is actually an area where probability is least useful. As we saw earlier, probability theory only makes generalizations about long term sequences, but not about what gamblers really need to know : the outcome of the roll of the dice ; of the next round of cards ; which lottery numbers are going to come up !
Risk assessment can provide a rough guide for behavior, but it cannot provide certainty or security. So, as well as calculating odds, gamblers trust in their luck and hope fortune will be kind - beliefs that provide individual meaning and personal significance.
It is not the case that gamblers misunderstand the rules of the games - they know how to play, but they also know that there is nothing they can do to predict or influence the outcome. However, the desire for a specific result encourages certain ritualized activities and beliefs that work as though they could make it happen. Malinowsk’s (1948) study of the Trobriand islanders demonstrated that magical beliefs can exist alongside more conventionally scientific or ‘rational’ ones, and that recourse to magic was only made in situations where there was little control over the environment and where knowledge and skill were of limited use. In the same way that magical beliefs provided an emotionally satisfactory way of dealing with uncertainty, so gambling beliefs in luck create feelings of, if not control, then at least security, that inspire players with the confidence of success. Such beliefs are essentially pragmatic : they provide a guide for action, create a sense of security and explain the outcomes of games in a meaningful way. And more, for it can be seen that actively cultivating chance rather than trying to banish it has positive features that lead to feelings of empowerment, self realisation and control.
Although these beliefs are confined to a specific situation, they can at least give us some ideas about how uncertainty is dealt with in the everyday world, and perhaps prove suggestive for further research on the notion of luck.
Throughout this discussion, certain similarities between aspects of beliefs in luck and those relating to earlier ideas about chance and uncertainty seem to have emerged. It is not intended to suggest here that there may be any straightforward correlation in the form or function of these beliefs, since each operate as responses to quite different sets of cultural, historical and environmental factors. However, in a far more general way, what emerges from all this is that the need to explain uncertainty at a level that is meaningful to the individual appears to be constant. The urge to find reasons and attribute causes is pervasive, and, at the limits of reason, these beliefs appear in pragmatic notions of luck.
In an individualised, secular form, we can see beliefs in luck as a way of dealing with the uncertainty of modern life. Late modernity is characterized by an insecurity that goes to the heart of the self : with the traditional axes of identity in decline, the individual is increasingly formed through unstable relations with abstract institutions in a global economy, and the self is in a constant state of flux and transition.
In this context, ideas about luck can be seen to express a strong sense of personal agency ; an intensified sense of the self as an influential power ; an essential core being, that provides a sense of continuity and wholeness to the fragmented ego.
It appears as a sense of subjective immunity that protects the integrity of the self, as if the sheer power of their own ‘good luck’ innures the individual against the vicissitudes of the world. Such a conviction can account for different attitudes to positive and negative risks ; for example, the apparent oblivion of many to negative, yet highly likely, risks, such as cancer through smoking, and the optimistic confidence of those same individuals to highly unlikely but positive scenarios such as winning the lottery. The optimism, invincibility and empowerment revealed in the simultaneous beliefs that “It won’t be me !”, and also “It will be me !” is an expression of this belief in one’s luck.
These ideas of personal power and agency can be seen as an aspect of the extreme individualization characteristic of late modernity. However, they run counter to the insecurity and anxiety usually associated with this feature, and are not an expression of ‘ontological insecurity’, but rather an expression of the individual’s ‘ontological presence’ and being in the world. Far from being recourse to a fatalistic belief in external agency when ‘reason’ fails, the belief in luck can be seen as a modern explanation for uncertainty. In the fragmented world of late modernity, uncertainty still needs to be explained, but now the explanation lies within the self, and in this role, luck is an instance of the most supreme agency.
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© Gerda Reith / Organdi 2000-2007