Research

The Centre is aimed at developing a better understanding of the two-way relationship between risk and inequality. Simply formulated we seek to investigate risk as inequality and inequality as risk.

The Centre seeks to generate findings that will help inform real world risk management, with particular regard to the challenges, consequences and implications of rising inequality across three primary areas: finance; environment; and public health.

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The understanding of inequality we adopt in the Centre is necessarily broad to fit with the agendas of individual researchers: 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’. The Centre understands risk in broad terms as the potential ‘relative losses’ arising from the hazards and insecurities induced by human behaviours and their interactions with complex social and natural science systems, that are by their nature unforeseen and uncertain. Risk perception and calculation is a human behaviour that involves efforts to inform actions and decisions by reaching judgements on the potential for losses and detrimental consequences of particular actions. 

Governments, companies, international organisations and public service providers spend huge budgets on the analysis and assessment of known risks and seek to develop new risk management technologies and techniques in an effort to manage risk. In our view, the three primary challenges posed by an exploration of the inter-relationship between risk and inequality are:

1) A better understanding of the ‘riskscape’ in each area.

The concept of a riskscape considers a given domain to consist of multi-layered and interacting risks, which is in turn shaped by the action and behaviours of people acting within the riskscape. Risks are rarely fully removed or eradicated within a complex interconnected riskscape, but are simply re-allocated and re-distributed. The task is to identify some of the inter-relationships and transmission mechanisms, through which risks interact and are re-distributed, within particular riskscapes, and with what effect for patterns of inequality and vulnerability. Latest interdisciplinary research also indicates that inequalities intersect with and reinforce each other in many complex ways. Locating this ‘inter-sectional’ approach to inequality within the riskscape frame will help us to formulate a better understanding of the relationship between risk and inequality, across three broad areas where efforts to measure and manage risk have been most prominent and in which Queen's already has considerable existing expertise:

  1. Finance)
  2. Environment
  3. Public Health

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2)Collect and generate quantitative and qualitative data that will help us to 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? QUB research is already looking at how measures of top incomes, Gini income inequality, and the capital-labour share of GDP are related to other social phenomenon such as lifestyle induced health problems, access to credit, financial inclusion and instability, and access to low-impact technologies such as clean and affordable energy. An initial challenge for the Centre is to consolidate secondary data sources and share them amongst researchers from different disciplines, with a view to identifying data gaps and data needs that can inform future research and applications for funding. 

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3) Produce practically useful normative theory informed by empirical data collection and an enhanced understanding of riskscapes.

A primary aim is 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. We are particularly interested in exploring what ‘acceptability thresholds’ might look like and how the concept could inform the distribution of risk across our three areas in a fashion which would respect the principle of 'non-domination'. The aim is to produce an ethics of risk governance, in different domains that is normatively informed and sensitive to the problem of rising inequality.

The aim of the Centre is to develop a better understanding of the evolving relationship between risk and inequality, as well as offering an empirically informed normative analysis of how risk can be managed in ways which are sensitive and responsive to rising inequality.

  1. How do different risks, risk decisions and technologies, interact within the specific fields of finance, public health, environment to distribute risk burdens and costs across various groups and sections of society?
  2. Is the net impact of these approaches to risk in the various fields increasing or reducing inequality and how is any concern with inequality incorporated into decision making about risk in each field? 
  3. How should we seek to measure the dynamic two-way relationship between risk and inequality and what kind of data do we need to collect to enable us to do this to better effect?
  4. What normative principles could inform approaches to risk in each field, why would they be ethically justifiable and how could they be applied in ways which take account of ethical concerns about rising inequality and the protection of the most vulnerable?

In addressing the first question, we aim to lay the foundation for answering the three further research questions. Risk is used and understood in many different ways in different domains and we are interested in exploring the dynamic interactions within each domain and hoe they in turn distribute costs and burdens across society.  cross over and learning. For example, the emergence of the concept of systemic risk (particularly after the financial crash of 2008), has already brought some notable collaboration between ecologists/ zoologists and central bankers. How understandings of risk impact upon the precise techniques for managing risk across domains requires further investigation, as does the potential for learning and experimenting with techniques across domains. Systemic risk remains a contradictory and incoherent concept and a better understanding of the uses and interpretations of this concept is required across domains. One of the primary aims of the PRP is to ask whether it is possible to arrive at broad normative, ethical and distributional principles that could be applied across the different domains, in what ways and with what effects?  

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At the same time, rising inequality is not only an economic and social risk but also a multiplier and corroborator of existing risks and vulnerabilities. This growing problem needs to be incorporated into contemporary systems for risk management across our three domains. How this is happening is a key empirical question. Inequality is a major factor for risk governance, whether it is in the realm of finance where access to funds, credit and rising indebtedness can pose significant problems, or in public health where inequality causes strains on the provision of services, or with regard to the environment, whether in terms of environmental injustice and the unequal distribution of environmental risk (including climate risks), or with regard to access to clean, affordable and sustainable energy. Because risk management is inherently distributional in its consequences, it has the potential to exacerbate or ameliorate inequality. We need a clearer sense of existing patterns across these three domains. Finally, and most crucially we will consider the potential for doing things differently, and ask whether and how normative concerns with protecting the most vulnerable and reducing inequality can or should inform risk management techniques in useful and fruitful ways, and the practicalities of doing this. 

These questions are designed with a view to their potential wider impact. Programme participants already have strong links with end-users and stakeholders outside academia, but will cultivate these further, through a PRP that poses challenge based societally relevant questions. One of the ultimate aims of the PRP is to offer up normative prescriptions that while derived from ethical and moral analysis/ theory, are also grounded in and derived from rigorous empirical inquiry in ways that are appreciative of the technical complexity of the various approaches to risk management across the three domains. The target of the Centre is to make significant contributions to on-going efforts to master the challenges of risk management under conditions of growing inequality and vulnerability.