Risk Discourses and the Governance of Young People

1. Introduction

The confusion of human experience and existence requires a practice of knowledge in the social sciences that can redefine what is believed to be true. As post-normal science (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993) suggests, there is no such thing as an objective truth, only a collection of narratives that are socially constructed. In this paper, I will explore how risk discourses are used to govern young people. I will discuss how risk is constructed through social learning, criminological scripts and public awareness campaigns. I will argue that these discourses work together to produce a particular understanding of youth and criminality that supports punitive responses to behaviour that does not conform to dominant societal norms.

2. Risk and social learning

Risk is a central concept in contemporary society. It is used to understand and manage uncertainty in different domains including health, safety, environmental protection and security (Beck, 1992). Risk has also become an important way of governing populations. Giddens (1991) argues that risk has replaced class as the primary basis of social division and control in late modernity. He suggests that as industrial capitalism has declined, so too has the power of the working class to challenge dominant interests. In its place, a new form of risk society has emerged where populations are governed through the management of perceived risks. This view has been criticised for its deterministic approach to risk (Lupton, 1999) but it provides a useful starting point for understanding how risk discourses are used to control populations.

Risk is socially constructed; it is not an objective reality but rather a perception of danger that is shaped by cultural beliefs and values (Kemshall and McIvor, 2002). Beck (1992) argues that risk is produced through a process of social learning whereby individuals learn to recognise and respond to dangers in their environment. This process is shaped by three factors: media representations of risk, personal experiences of hazard and expert knowledge about potential threats. Media coverage plays an important role in shaping public perceptions of risk. It can create a sense of fear and panic about certain dangers while downplaying or ignoring others (Lupton, 1999). Personal experiences can also influence how individuals perceive and respond to risk. For instance, if someone has had a bad experience with a particular type of food, they are likely to avoid it in the future regardless of whether or not it poses a genuine health hazard. Expert knowledge about risks is also important in shaping individual understandings. Scientists and other experts play a vital role in identifying potential dangers and making recommendations about how best to avoid them. However, their advice is often contested by other experts with different perspectives (Kemshall and McIvor, 2002).

3. Criminological scripts and young people

Criminological scripts are stories about crime and deviance that are widely circulated within society (Marshall et al., 2005). They provide simplified explanations for complex phenomena and work to legitimise particular ways of understanding and responding to criminal behaviour. Young people are often the target of criminological scripts due to their disproportionate involvement in crime (Marshall et al., 2005). These stories present young people as a homogenous group with shared characteristics such as impulsivity, violence and rebellion (Jenks et al., 1996). They suggest that crime is an inherent part of adolescence and describe deviant behaviour as part of a normal rite of passage (Skegg, 2005).

Criminological scripts can have a number of harmful consequences for young people. They can reinforce negative stereotypes and result in discrimination and social exclusion (Marshall et al., 2005). They can also legitimise punitive responses to deviant behaviour such as detention and surveillance (Jenks et al., 1996). In addition, criminological scripts can influence young people’s own perceptions of themselves. If they believe that deviance is a normal part of adolescence, they may be more likely to engage in criminal behaviour (Skegg, 2005).

4. The role of public awareness in risk discourses

Public awareness campaigns are a popular way of communicating risk information to the general public. They typically involve the mass media to reach large audiences with messages about how to avoid potential dangers (Kemshall and McIvor, 2002). Public awareness campaigns can be an effective way of raising awareness of risks and promoting safety messages. However, they can also have unintended consequences. For instance, if a campaign is poorly designed or poorly executed, it may actually increase levels of anxiety and fear instead of reducing them (Lupton, 1999). In addition, public awareness campaigns can inadvertently reinforce negative stereotypes about groups of people who are seen as being at high risk of engaging in risky behaviour. For instance, campaigns that focus on the dangers of drug use may present drug users as deviant and dangerous individuals who are a threat to society (Marshall et al., 2005). This can result in discrimination and social exclusion.

5. Conclusion

In conclusion, risk discourses are used to govern young people through the construction of narratives about youth and criminality. These stories work to legitimise punitive responses to behaviour that does not conform to dominant societal norms. While public awareness campaigns can be an effective way of raising awareness of risks and promoting safety messages, they can also have unintended consequences. In particular, they can reinforce negative stereotypes about groups of people who are seen as being at high risk of engaging in risky behaviour.


The different risk discourses that exist for governing young people include the medical discourse, which sees young people as patients in need of treatment; the moral discourse, which views them as sinners in need of redemption; and the security discourse, which perceives them as potential criminals who must be controlled.

These risk discourses shape how we think about and respond to youth behaviour by constructing them as problems to be solved rather than as normal part of human development. They also lead us to focus on individual responsibility rather than on structural factors that may contribute to youth behaviour.

Who creates and promulgates these risk discourses?

How do young people themselves make sense of and experience being governed through risk discourse?

Are there any particular groups of young people who are more likely to be targeted by risk discourses? If so, why?

Do risk discourses always operate in negative ways, or can they also have positive effects on young people's lives?