Of Risk and Pork: Urban Security and the Politics of Rationality

Lakoff, A., and E. Klinenberg
Theory and Society, Vol. 39, no. 5, pp 503-525. doi: 10.1007/s11186-010-9123-3

This article focuses on the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) controversy as a case study in the politics of risk assessment. It examines struggles among diverse actors–think tank experts, journalists, politicians, and government officials–engaged in the contentious process of establishing a legitimate definition of risk. In the field of homeland security, the means of conducting rational risk assessment have not yet been settled, and entrepreneurial officials from urban and regional governments use different techniques to identify local risks and vulnerabilities. In this contentious process, federal bureaucrats are responsible for determining how to allocate resources fairly and rationally to different cities and metropolitan regions, given that local officials have clear incentives to request funds and little cause to refrain. Although “rationality” is supposed to replace “politics” in making bureaucratic decisions over the allocation of resources, what we find instead is a political struggle over how to define, measure, and manage risk. For political actors, victory in debates over urban security comes from codifying one’s interests within the technical practice of risk assessment.

Wagner Faculty