Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001


Deborah Lupton and John Tulloch (2001) 'Border Crossings: Narratives of Movement, 'Home' and Risk'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 4, <>

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Received: 8/9/2000      Accepted: 31/1/2001      Published: 28/2/2001


Despite the extensive sociological literature commenting on the 'risk society', surprisingly little empirical research has explored the ways in which notions, narratives and knowledges concerning risks are developed, understood and embedded in personal risk biographies. In particular, this is true of some of the most vulnerable people in the risk society: those who have migrated for reasons of personal, religious, economic, material or ideological persecution. This article addresses risk perceptions of immigrants to Australia, using data from a larger project on Australians' perceptions and negotiation of risk. The emphasis of the research is on dimensions of risk biography that highlight matters of multiple identity and subjectivities. Drawing on three such risk biographies, we pose and begin to answer a number of specific questions: How have people come to construct their knowledges on risks? Which risks do people find most threatening or important? Whom do people see as causing or having responsibility over risk? How do people posit solutions for dealing with risk? In doing so we critique Beck's notion of the 'cataclysmic' and 'democratised' notion of risk within 'risk modernity'.

Biographies; Border Crossings; Diaspora; Modernity; Risk


Recent sociocultural theory has turned its attention towards the importance of risk as a theme in contemporary western societies (Lupton, 1999). Mary Douglas has commented on the apparent pervasiveness of risks and disputes over risks, contending that risk has become a central cultural concept by which societies are organised (see, for example, Douglas and Wildavsky, 1982; Douglas, 1985; Douglas, 1992). In his influential book Risk Society (Beck, 1992; see also Beck, 1994), Ulrich Beck described the constant state of concern, anxiety and even dread people in western countries feel in relation to such environmental risks to human health as air and water pollution, ionising radiation and food contamination in the context of the breakdown in industrialist production following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism and socialism in Europe. He argues, therefore, that such countries are in process of transformation from `industrial society' to `risk society'.

Central to Beck's theory of risk society is the notion of reflexivity. He asserts that the risk society is also potentially a self-critical, or self-reflexive society, because anxieties about risks serve to pose questions about current practices. For Beck, the naive certainties of early modernity and its claims to human progress have disintegrated, resulting in individuals' need to seek and invent new certainties for themselves. Anthony Giddens (1990, 1991) has also written at length on the uncertainty that individuals have about life in late modernity. Like Beck, Giddens sees this uncertainty as springing from the realisation that the claims of modernity for human progress have been shown to be not quite as utopian as once was thought. Giddens also argues that the world in late modernity is fraught and dangerous; thus modernity has been shown to have a `double-edged character', no longer simply promising human progress. As an outcome of modernity there are now far greater uncertainties than ever previously existed. Greater knowledge had led in turn to greater uncertainty and people's subsequent turn to alternative expertise and knowledge claims. Both theorists agree, therefore, that `risk' is closely linked to reflexivity, accountability and responsibility. Risk is thus a central feature of a society that has come to reflect upon itself, to critique itself.

Lash and Wynne (1992: 7) further comment on the multi-layered response to risk on the part of lay people as a form of `private reflexivity' which, they argue, `must be the basis for its more public forms'. As this suggests, the development of a questioning of expert knowledges blurs the boundaries between the `private' and the `public', for while risks may be debated at the level of expertise and public accountability, they are dealt with by most individuals at the level of the personal. This raises the question, for Lash and Wynne, about where and how the reflexivity that challenges modernity arises, and how it is expressed; that is, what are `the sources and social dynamics of forms of reflexivity'?

Current sociological writings on risk have much to say about such risk phenomena as environmental and health risks and those associated with the family and employment (all of these risks are covered, for example, in Risk Society). But they have made little comment on the results of the major conflicts and warfare in such areas as Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor, which have led to mass migrations, poverty and identity displacements on such a scale as to become symptomatic features of what Beck would call 'risk modernity'. At a slightly less dramatic level, the diaspora associated with other persecutions - of Jews in the Soviet Union, dissidents in South Africa, small business people in South Vietnam, and so on - have become a key feature in the cosmo-multicultural stories (Hage, 1997) in their new host societies.

In Australia, new, popular (and multicultural) broadcasting channels and genres, promotion of 'exotic' foods and the rise of a new racist political party, together with stereotyped tales of migrant invasion and crime, are simply some of the circuits of discourse which promote the economics of both tourism and risk associated with this massive immigration. Our own research into Australian perceptions of risk suggests that the aspect of Beck's notion of the risk society that emphasises the 'cataclysmic democracy' of environmental risk may be too Eurocentric, despite the broad usefulness of his sociology of risk (see Lupton and Tulloch, in press). The immigration/tourism/risk dimension of risk consciousness, which is both global and densely local at the same time, might well be examined much more fully. Further, while the notion of the risk society is a potentially useful and interesting one, much of the debate over the extent to which it adequately describes the ontology of contemporary life has taken place at the level of what Beck (2000) calls 'bold theories' rather than being explored empirically. Surprisingly little has been written about the ways in which notions, narratives and knowledges concerning risks are developed, understood and embedded in the social world, or the different meanings it has for those using the term `risk'.

In this article, we draw on data obtained in a larger study looking at Australians' perceptions and negotiation of risk1 to address the question of how immigrants might construct their risk knowledges via their experience of `border crossing' between nations, identities and cultures. From at least World War II onwards, Australia has traditionally and symbolically been a place of 'escape' from various political and economic risks for large numbers of people from, successively, Europe and the Middle East, South America, South Africa and Asia. With much tighter immigration control in recent years and yet with increasingly articulated and politicised racism in Australia surrounding the emergence of a new political party, One Nation, with overtly racist and anti-immigration views, how would 'Australia' look now - from the inside (including on the part of those who have immigrated to Australia) - as a relative haven? In part, we tried to address this question in our study by including migrants from a variety of countries in its analysis of different `locations' of risk based on individuals' gender, sexual preference, socioeconomic status, age, occupation, education level, place of residence and so on. This article is therefore concerned to explore one - out of a number - of 'border crossing' narratives of risk as people construct biographies across a broad range of perceived risk activities. 'Border crossings' of geographical movement (including diaspora) are thus seen here as a heuristic device for engaging with an individual's multiple identities and complex biographies of risk. Diaspora in itself is not our focus (as, for example, in examining 'first' or 'second' generation migrants) - though our group of interviewees does include 'later generation' migrants.

Our Study: Details of Methods and Participants

The study, carried out in 1997--98, involved interviewing 74 people living in four regions of New South Wales: metropolitan Sydney, Wollongong (an industrial city close to Sydney), the Blue Mountains (a tourist area on the outskirts of Sydney) and Bathurst (a small country town some 210 kilometres west of Sydney). Each participant was interviewed individually using a semi-structured interview schedule and the interviews were later transcribed for analysis. The interview questions were directed at eliciting participants' views and experiences of risk in the context of their individual biographies, so as to contextualise risk in their everyday life.

The participants were recruited and interviewed by research assistants who in each research location were local residents. They used pre-existing social networks and snowball sampling for recruitment, but were asked to seek as heterogeneous a group as possible to interview (including roughly equal numbers of women and men and a spread of ages and occupations). As such, our interviewee group could not be described as representative. Rather than aiming at a representative sample that could be generalised to a broader population, we were interested in exploring the meanings that risk knowledges and experiences had within individuals' lives. We assumed that every individual has multiple risk identities which (certainly) will shift in definition and narrativisation across their life course.

The group was reasonably diverse in demographic and socioeconomic makeup. Of the participants, 32 were living in the Sydney and Blue Mountains area, 28 in Wollongong and 14 in Bathurst. Forty-two of the participants were female and 32 male. More than half (44) had at least some university education and a further seven participants held a trade or technical qualification. Of the remainder, two had only completed the final year of high school, 16 did not complete high school and two were still school students. Fifty-six participants were of British ancestry. Of the remainder, 15 were of continental European ethnicity, two were of Lebanese ethnicity and one was Aboriginal. In terms of age, the group was concentrated around early and middle adulthood: 8 were aged 20 or less, 20 were aged between 21 and 30, 19 aged between 31 and 40, 13 aged between 41 and 50, 7 aged between 51 and 60 and 6 aged 61 or over (one unknown).

In our discussion of the interview data here, we are primarily interested in each person's personal `biography of risk': the ways that they describe risks as having affected them across the time/space coordinates of their lifespan. If risk is, indeed, an organising cultural concept of late modernity, and if it is greater knowledge itself that has led to a turning to alternative areas of expertise, then what is the effect on individual subjectivities of a wide range of risk fields? How do different people who have migrated to Australia actually conceptualise risk as an organising social principle, given its variety of knowledge claims? What are the narratives, epistemologies discourses, rhetorical moves, choices of 'rational arguments' and courses of action which people use to organise 'risk' as a cultural concept (or concepts)? The 'private reflexivity' of lay people may be multi-layered, as Lash and Wynne say, but what principles of coherence, counterpoint, blurring or contradiction do people draw on in order to 'go on' with risk in their everyday lives?

In exploring these questions, we will discuss a series of case studies of 'risk biographies' to begin our comparison of the nature and experience of risk for individuals from different socioeconomic, ethnic, age, gender and sexual preference backgrounds. We will focus our attention on Lash and Wynne's interest in the blurring and crossing of boundaries between the layers of the `private' and the `public'. By focusing on narratives of risk here, we are not aiming at a structuralist taxonomy of 'risk narratives' (as presented, for example, in Mary Douglas' grid-group model of organisational responses to risk). On the contrary, ours is a poststructuralist emphasis on the many different subjectivities and situated identities of risk. Border- crossing narratives or stories about risk are thus seen as an important feature of the 'risk modernity' reflexivity that Beck et al. are emphasising. Not necessarily continuous and coherent, these stories are ways of organising risks of different kinds in different time/space coordinates (from the 'translation' from country to country, to the 'translation' in the research interview itself (see Threadgold, 2000). It is, then, with the issue of narrative as reflexivity (not taxonomy) that we are interested.

Narratives of Movement: Australia as 'Multicultural' Plenitude

The 'border crossing' of risk upon which we will focus in this article is one that lies at the heart of the Australian myth in international currency: the 'lucky country', the 'young society' the focus of continuing immigration and end-point of diasporas from more 'dangerous' countries of the 'Old World'. 'Going to Australia' has for long been constructed as the narrative closure of other people's 'lack'. The early colonialist target for unruly sons of English gentry had its own narrative hermeneutic and closure around the pastoral ('country') taming of a wild ('bush') land (Tulloch, 1981). But Australia had become, by at least the time after World War II -- for economic, political and domestic reasons (of either choice or displacement) -- a new home for an `international' community. Rhetorically and governmentally Australia presents itself as a multicultural society. The paradoxes of having been both a white colonising power and a multicultural 'immigrant' society have been widely articulated recently within Australia in relation to Aboriginal land rights legislation. Still, Australia continues to be perceived from many places outside as a relatively safe haven. As social breakdown and momentous social changes occurred during the early 1990s in Europe (the breakdown of the Soviet Union followed by warring nationalisms, ethnic cleansing etc) and Africa (the breakdown of apartheid in South Africa followed by continuing poverty and social unrest) Australia continued to attract migrants from these areas.

Some of the self-same social breakdowns, then, that Beck includes the origins of the risk society, have added to the 'going to Australia' narrative. However, because of significant tightening of immigration laws, there has been a strong tendency recently for only people with middle-class, professional backgrounds to enter. This issue of class and profession is very evident in our first two risk biographies: of Eric from South Africa and Sasha from the Soviet Union. In comparison, our final biography, of Rosanna, a Spanish migrant, will make it very clear indeed that all comers to Australia do not share Beck's 'risk society' equally and democratically. Only one of these migrants (Sasha) can be counted as part of a diaspora; yet each can be considered in terms of hybridity: where 'the struggle for the meaning of "home" is intimately connected to embodiment and identity. Home is rarely a "place" in fact, but a series of memories and imaginings about 'the way the places we think we have left have shaped us' (Threadgold, 2000). Each of our migrant interviewees needs to be seen in the context of Threadgold's (2000) interest in 'how bodies and spaces are made through the geographies of places, how they come to be perceived in and from other places, how bodies and spaces are made in relation to relations of power and in relation to political economies of place and time.'


Eric is a 44-year-old, university-educated executive officer. He is of Anglo ethnicity, born in South Africa. He describes moving his country (twice) as the biggest risks he has taken in his life. But in South Africa he already felt at risk. 'It was all tied up with the indoctrination that I'd had as a kid and it was a political situation at the time -- 1974.' His study of Marxist theory at university, opening his eyes to the repression identified in left-wing thought, was the catalyst for deciding to leave South Africa for Britain, where he joined the anti-apartheid movement. In his new country Eric's grand narrative of Marxism instantly encountered another appropriate 'other': Thatcherism. Both these 'political' geographies of place were 'memories and imaginings' shaping his current sense of Australian embodiment and identity.

But Thatcher's Britain also offered him a much more personal embodiment. It was 'then' (the early 1980s) and 'there' (in Britain) that Eric crossed another border: by coming out as gay. Eric took many risks at this time: multiple, unprotected sexual partnerships, drink driving, petty theft when drunk after parties, and once he was chased by two men after leaving a gay bar. But Eric is a big man. 'I don't feel I am at risk from crime. I'm fortunate in that I am very tall and very able bodied and I have a personality [that] is sort of deflective of risks against me.' Eric is reflexively confident about his body ('I'm six foot two or three, and it's something that I've often thought about, that sheer presence'); but no less is he reflexive about his political and gay narratives. What mark his many stories of risk experiences while living in London are their sheer quantity, and also the exuberance of their telling. A reflexive recognition of this positive lifestyle in addition to Eric's continuing Marxist-influenced narrative is also symptomatic of his Australian stories. He says:

I don't believe that Australians are at great economic risk compared with Africa, compared with countries in south east Asia, compared with some countries in South America. Compared with the sort of global economy, Australia is not at risk. I think within Australian society though, the biggest threat to stability is happening to the division of society created by extremely unfair and very prejudicial economic systems. They favour rich people and they don't favour the disadvantaged poor people. I think that's probably the biggest threat that faces Australia now. We lack vision in our leadership. I wouldn't say society is controlled, but politics is controlled by selfishness, by politicians' desire to be in power and they will do anything, including putting people's lives at risk, for the sake of retaining power.

As with many of our other interviewees, issues of class and inequality have by no means fallen off Eric's agenda (as Beck might suppose in his society of individualisation). Indeed, they dominate it. But they are also inter-woven with a range of other (especially lifestyle) risks.

Compared with victims of displacement, immigrants to Australia like Eric have made what Beck would call a chain of rational arguments and courses of action. These are embedded, as he describes them to us reflexively in the interview, in a series of positive narratives: grand narratives of Marxist epistemology, gay pleasures and knowledges, and his confident observations about his own hefty and powerful male body. But among our other interviewees we also found very different 'movement' narratives: negative narratives of fearful and exhausted migrant women; and the positive/negative hybridity narratives of diaspora.


Knowledge through geographical movement can make interviewees especially aware of global similarities and differences (as we saw in Eric's case). Diasporic knowledge, though, is not simply a matter of switching from one culture to another - of leaving (as in Eric's case) the 'lacks' of first South Africa and then Britain behind. Diasporic knowledge is frequently compositely 'balanced', hybrid knowledge: knowledge with a foot in two camps, knowledge that aspires to different (even opposing) sets of moralities. These hybrid memories and senses of embodiment set, as Threadgold (2000) says, in relation to political economies of place and time, are particularly evident in the narratives of our next case study. Sasha, a 40-year-old Jewish interpreter/translator, came to Australia from Russia in 1991. His personal biography of escaping religious persecution thus merges with Russia's momentous transition from the Soviet Union, via glasnost, into Yeltsin's corrupt and economically fraught 'modern' Russia. But Sasha has no experience of this later Russia. His Russia is the Soviet Union, and he compares this Russia with his experience of Australia.

There are, he argues, different risks associated with the different cultures. The main social risk in the Soviet Union was the lack of freedom and the kind of democracy that he looks for in Australia. The main personal risks associated with this authoritarian regime were associated with the police (one incident concerned drunkenness in the streets after a party) and the army. In the latter case Sasha speaks of conscription and the very real risk of being killed or brutalised during those years when the Soviet Union was involved in the military expansionism which helped bring the system down. Unlike Eric, Sasha is not a physically strong man. Because he loved to study, and knew that university education was a way of avoiding the army, he followed a tertiary career, and eventually became a university lecturer. In contrast, his brother (who Sasha describes as a `much tougher' man), did army service, was lucky enough to serve in central Asia and survived, though undergoing some dangerous experiences.

On the other hand, Sasha now misses in Australia many of modernity's 'goods' (Beck) - the social welfare system and the free education - which were automatic rights in the Soviet Union. Despite the 'comrade' propaganda in the Soviet Union, there was also, he argues, a much more genuine sense of community in Russia than in Australia. `Solidarity' was not just propaganda. It meant 'real friends and open relationships. Whereas people here [in Australia] are more reserved, you know. They don't share as much here, so maybe they're afraid to lose more [material things] here'. People in the Soviet Union 'were not spoilt by material possessions, whereas here you could be forgotten quite easily'.

Clearly, then, Sasha sees a very different set of risks in Australia: to do with individualism, materialism, political corruption (like Eric, he mentions politicians' 'corruption' and 'travel rorts'), and the difficulty for immigrants of starting from scratch. 'In Soviet Union I was not afraid of falling ill, whereas here I try to avoid it at any cost because every day of sickness means loss of income'. The 'most recent risk situation' he remembers is to do with the cost of a tooth extraction, and he suffers the gap in his mouth because he cannot afford to get it replaced. 'So the tooth is not there and I might not have it for several years maybe. It's a small risk of course. [But] it has some implications that affects some [personal] aspects of my life.' Interestingly, this fear of illness has made Sasha more careful with his body in Australia. He is healthier and fitter now, because he has moderated his alcohol consumption considerably. On the other hand, from these personal risks which he can manage by careful choices, there are the macro 'Western' risks - to do with cloning, genetic engineering, and science and technology which he feels he can do little about.

Sasha is a religious person, and this both moderates and mediates his `goods' and 'bads' in relation to the different 'risk societies' of the Soviet Union and Australia. In Australia, there is always the chance (unavailable in the Soviet Union) of more discussion of scientific and environmental risks, and thus, potentially, of democratic decision-making to change them. 'So I value freedom very much and the responsibility as well.' But he is very aware of how the mass media in Australia are manipulated by powerful interests. Sasha feels that people wielding power and media propaganda are not so different in the Soviet Union and Australia. He hopes, nevertheless, that individuals in Australia can make small changes: 'to do little things, good things in their life which you know, would just make their life and life of people round them nice.'

But Sasha is not just a 'spiritual' being. He is also a diasporic being. He describes himself as 'unfortunately an ambitious person. There is something inside me which would push me to work and to buy things. So I don't know. Sometimes I want to stop but I can't.' This is the 'very high emotional price' of taking

different risks in Australia, so you enjoy your car, you enjoy your computers, emails, CDs. I have two computers, I have all sorts of things, but I think financially my life is full of worries. And it's quite serious. It's quite real because banks are quite ruthless, you know. And those financial companies, they're ruthless. You don't pay them for two months and they come and repossess everything, whereas in the Soviet Union it was quite different.

This is risk reflexivity, not nostalgia. Sasha is very aware of the good things in Australia. Indeed, if he is nostalgic for anything, it is the 'old' Australia. He says:

Australia's a wonderful country, a nice place and generally friendly people, and in provinces people are friendlier than in Sydney - while the opportunities are fewer there. But, anyway, there's still you know, sense of community and in some neighbourhoods people are not so alienated and they socialise. And also of course there's a lot of freedom on the street compared with many other countries.

This was the 'Australia' that was the plenitude at the end of Sasha's rainbow, a memory among other Australians that he feels he can now only share via their narratives. But the actuality is different. In Sasha's view, technological change is bringing an end to this 'pure Australia', which is being replaced by Beck's world of 'temporary jobs' and 'risky underemployment'.

The education system has, I think, worsened and instability, I think, in some aspects of downsizing and lots of temporary jobs are created. So some people like it, some don't like it and I sometimes like it, sometimes I don't like it. So there are advantages and disadvantages. But of course it's a very sudden and rapid change and sometimes it's not really justified by technology. I think sometimes it's just desire to introduce something new at whatever cost without thinking about human consequences. And also I think that employers now, particularly in large organisations and institutions, not value much their staff so they just sack them and there's not enough recognition for many people so you're on your own, you know, just surviving the jungle. So you have more freedom, of course, but at the same time we're losing the sense of community.

'Freedom' but no 'community' -- `I sometimes like it, sometimes I don't' - these are the hybrid narratives arising out of Sasha's border crossings. He is a risk taker, because 'without those risks you can't move'. Without a risk-taking attitude he would never have given up his stultifying job in the Soviet Union (against all the advice of family and friends), which enabled him, by good fortune, to get part-time university work and thence a regular academic career in Russia. Without a risk-taking attitude he would not have left the Soviet Union, thus losing that academic career. But according to Sasha 'there are risks in your life every day', and his main strategy in dealing with them is to draw on his own diasporic (positive and negative) narratives in order to distinguish culturally the rationalities of risks.

You understand what is risky here and what is not, and some Russians who come here of course could do some stupid things because they don't understand the Australian situation, and it's quite acceptable there but it's not here, so it's a risky behaviour here. And vice versa I suppose, an Australian coming to Russia. So much depends on the cultural and social setting.

Sasha takes care to 'learn about different risks differently', via family upbringing, university education, real life situations, different life experiences in different cultures. `So different experiences, life experiences and sometimes you have to make a mistake in order to learn. Then you understand it's a real risk because before you didn't realise it was a risk.' Sasha's reflexive sense of the hybridity of his risk perception is perhaps a timely counter to the homogenising European ethnocentrism of Ulrich Beck's account. And yet of all our interviewees it is Sasha who is most aware of the gulf between knowledge and decision, which for Beck is the central symptom of the risk society. But, as always, Beck's concept of identity is too universal and unspecific. Threadgold's (2000) comment on hybridity, diaspora and memory understands Sasha's anxieties much more closely when she speaks of the 'multilayered subjectivities and the traces left by time and space on bodies'.

Probably Sasha does not 'truly remember' either. But from his embodied drunkenness then to his sobriety now, from his fears for his life in army training then to his missing tooth now, from his comparison of Soviet and Australian regimes of media power, Sasha's understanding is thoroughly embedded in what Threadgold calls the hybrid 'folding of bodies and the material world into one another' as a matter of diasporic translation.


Rosanna is 70 years old, a retired cleaner who was born in Spain, where she left school early. Unlike Eric, she did not choose to leave her original homeland for political reasons. Unlike Sasha, there is no element here of the historical Jewish diaspora. Rosanna is one of those many post-World War 2 migrants to Australia who faced the difficulties of being from a non-English-speaking background in a predominantly monocultural society. Rosanna vividly recounts the poverty she left Spain to escape:

We are very poor. We have no house. We have no clothes. We were not gipsy because we come from really high, but when you have everything and you lost everything, nobody wanted to know anything. We couldn't pay our rent; we had to live in the street. My mother coming very sick and die from there. No medicine or nothing. My father, he always work in the oil factory, and he paid with blood because he never stop. I working very hard, I have to broken the water with a hammer, ice, to wash the baby of my brother's children, and my sister-in-law and I working so hard.

In Australia, Rosanna has found life little better, again facing hard physical labour in harsh environmental conditions, family illness and trouble with her adult children:

From then I have work all my life, I have been in the asbestos mine and in the north where is very, very hot. I'm ironing for the people clothes and then you are so hot. We're living in the little room like a hut with the bed like the grass, and the copper one pipe with the water and then the only place we can live in. And was terrible. And then from beginning I think my son have like the meningitis. For the heat I have to come back six months after. We come back from Perth and my son is already very sick. And from then I have trouble, I always have trouble with Johnny [her son]. And my daughter Maria is beautiful person, I love her very much, only she's temper, so temper. And she make me cry, really does. But my reason I thought, she one of these like to hurt. Very cruel. [Rosanna is crying increasingly as she talks]. So I have no family. Oh my health is big mess now. But I worry about my son, think you know, he's gone worse. My husband is sick too with diabetes.

Rosanna's life-course narratives have been almost entirely around the closed-off risks of a woman exploited both at work and in domesticity. In all her time in Australia, Rosanna has had few friends and little leisure. Like the similarly aged Vietnamese-Australian women that Threadgold (2000) describes, she yearns for a new community now that the traditional family community (provided especially by the children and grandparents) has been destroyed. Rosanna looks back at her life in Australia as little but long years of hard labour, unhappiness and worry:

I think through the years past in Australia many, many terrible for jobs. For I work for nearly 27 year now -- cleaner in the nighttime. My husband come and do a little bit. I been working so hard all my life. And they were going pictures, dancing, dinner, and me never. All the while I'm working, keeping the money for the family. If we're improving, I think they give respect, very respect. But I think I should enjoy more my life and I can be more healthy because I been too hard for myself, and now is too late. Hard to work all time.

As we hear, Rosanna's Spanish and Australian stories have both been very negative, and her current impression of Australia is negative also as she observes, and suffers, socio-economic disadvantage and the crimes of violent young people (including, it seems, her son). Nevertheless, as we also hear, Rosanna is reflexive in her later years, wondering about what 'better' might have meant for her personally, and for her family. This is a familiar kind of reflexivity we found among many of our older women interviewees; and like them also Rosanna is especially aware of the way others have made narratives out of her life. 'It feel like my life -- look if you now want to make a book to sell it, it could be really drama'. But (again like others among our older female interviewees) she also believes that her suffering has made her stronger, and that it is on this strength that her family depends. This 'family responsibility' discourse is her central narrative; and Australia is the place where she situates its resolution. 'If somebody say to me are you going to Spain now, you sell everything you have and you going over there and you live there and I say no. No, this is my country and this is where I stay.'


Our strategy in this article has been to focus on dimensions of risk biography that highlight matters of multiple identity and subjectivity: hence 'border crossings', which in the case of the people in our case studies is both literal and metaphoric. This is a symptomatic rather than representative approach to risk biographies, in so far as we assume all biographies (including Rosanna's) are composed of the 'partial perspectives' of knowledges that are 'insider' and 'situated', and whose 'truths' are contingent on differences of time, space, age, gender, class, sexual preference and other aspects of 'culture' and 'context'.

Moreover our focus here on narratives that are considered in terms of 'lack' and 'plenitude' is not intended to privilege certain concepts within a particular (structuralist) narrative account. These terms were used simply because they seemed appropriate to the commonsense myths about leaving 'other' places (which were also originally 'home') for 'Australia': the Australia that once 'I read about'. These 'Australian plenitude' myths have been circulating in a range of communication forms over many years (any local film festival, for example, will be sure to generate, either seriously or parodically, a number of European films which promote this 'lack to plenitude utopia' of 'Australia'). On the other hand, quite different narrative devices and concepts may be appropriate for analysing other kinds of 'border crossings' of risk biography.

In other work, for example, we are examining the particular time/space coordinates and 'stories' relating to sexual preference and to ageing. Many of our gay or bisexual interviewees 'came out' in the early 1980s, prior to the 'truth' of HIV/AIDS being revealed. Like Eric, they speak of some years of joyous and (in their perception at the time) risk-free sexual experimentation. Here the politics (of being gay) and the pleasures of sexual plenitude (the 'permissiveness' of a gay life-style) preceded the 'lack' that knowledge of AIDS brought. This was then followed by the experience of close friends dying, so that by the time our interviews were conducted, the very particular time/space coordinates of 'coming out' (saunas and bath houses in the early 1980s) were framed in different experiential and epistemological frames. This led to very different narrativisations of 'border crossings' of risk than are discussed in this article.

It is apparent from our research not only that different forms of risk biography are associated with different 'border crossing' (and these themselves will vary and be inflected according to an individual's life projects within the frames of gender, class, ethnicity, sexual preference and so on), but that in any one 'risk biography' these different kinds of narrative will intersect and negotiate. Hence Eric's 'dual risk' immigration narrative had embedded within it a set of exuberantly risky sexual preference stories (taking up a full third of the long interview); and Rosanna's 'make a book to sell it drama' is perceived from a sense of harsh geographical journeying and familial loss, but also from a strength due to ageing. Our first conclusion, then, is that by bringing together different genres of risk narrative (migration, sexual preference, age and so on, each as 'border crossings') with multiple areas of perceived risk, we can begin to explore the time/space dimensions of situated risk biographies more intimately and more systematically.

Second, it will be apparent that Beck et al.'s generalisations about 'risk modernity' need considerable refinement in terms of situated research. Modernity's narratives and epistemologies certainly continue to be mobilised within the risk society. By no means all the 'claims to human progress' have disintegrated in the risk society. Beck of course accounrs for this via his understanding that 'class society' is still a (residual) feature of 'risk society'. But for Beck it is a residual category in a much more confident development towards a 'cataclysmic democracy' of risk than our own research can support. Whereas we found that this utopian morality was a strong one across our whole interviewee group. Moreover, the 'moral judgments' about risk that Beck speaks of are nationally/politically inflected (Eric's and Sasha's rejection of Australian materialism) and also ethnically inflected (Rosanna's judgment about the family 'respect' her long term work, risk exposure and suffering should bring her). In all these cases, reflexivity, accountability and responsibility are associated with older and not 'alternative' knowledge claims.

Third, there is a need to be reflexive about the research process itself. Because of our particular focus on 'border crossings' (of time/space coordinates, and between different kinds of risk: a selection itself generated by the post-structuralist intent of the research), the risks we analyse as perceived by our interviewees are particularly those of multiple subjectivities: the racist then Marxist then gay Eric; the hybridity of the part Soviet, part Australian Sasha; the different styles of oppression and exploitation suffered by Rosanna in Spain and Australia across changing dimensions of age and culture. In this particular analysis, border crossing for some is a mix of 'catalysts for change' (lack) and 'nervousness and trepidation' (the possibilities of plenitude). For others, like Sasha, there is a continuing diasporic/spiritual dimension, which make him dissatisfied with each of his countries in turn. For Rosanna, shifting her country has been more a matter of desperation than choice.

But across these continuities and inflections of enforced geographical movement, chosen (repeated) migration and diasporic biographies, people experience (or recognise) a wide range of risks - health, lifestyle, economic, interpersonal, work-place, criminal - with very often Beck's own focus of environmental risk being the least articulated within individual risk biographies (Lupton and Tulloch, in press). Naturally, this is to some extent an effect of the research focus. Had we focused centrally on environmental risk, we undoubtedly would have generated more interviewees' narratives about them. But by seeking a more situated methodology via long interviews which began with interviewees' own general anxieties before discussing 'any risks which personally worry you', we were able to engage much more directly with their own priorities. Nor can the remarkable lack of stories about environmental risk which we found across our whole sample be simply because environmental risks are seen as 'beyond individual control'. Economic and informational risks (eg. Sasha's comments on the media) were often also seen as beyond personal control, yet those deemed responsible were articulated and named in the risk biographies and were regularly subject to moral opprobrium.

Fourth, how have people come to construct their knowledges on risks? We have seen that constructing risk knowledges is invariably a life-project, varying from Eric's modernist 'enlightenment' about apartheid and his exploratory 'jouissance' in his new sexuality, through Sasha's continuing (unfinished) spiritual diaspora, to Rosanna's contemplation in old age of `what you could do better'. What is important for research here - theoretically and methodologically - is to draw on approaches, which can tease out the relationship of different time (personal and historical) and space movements. One of the major problems of Beck's 'risk society' account is that it is reductionist in ignoring the risk histories carried in personal memory, where many of the grand narratives of modernity (and perhaps even earlier) certainly still survive.

Fifth, which risks do people find most threatening or important? Risks associated with intimacy loom very large for our interviewees, even when they nominate changing their country as the greatest risk they have faced. For those like Rosanna, driven to Australia in desperation and living there in extreme hardship, the various 'hard' risks (medical, work place, economic, criminal) are all negotiated via her sense of interpersonal risks. It was her son Johnny who got sick, for whom she could not afford regular doctors, and it was Johnny at the end who (with other young men) seems to have smashed up her home. Her daughter treats her poorly and with little respect. For her, above all, it is this trouble with her children that Rosanna calls 'very cruel'. Interpersonal risks are also very important for other interviewees. Sasha has lost his wife, and it is the process of looking for a new partner that makes his recent 'small risk' of not being able to afford another tooth have much larger 'implications' for him.

Each one of the people in our case studies is looking for 'community', and although they seek it in different places, the risks around intimacy are very important. To some extent we can see this as Beck's and Giddens' profoundly insecure site of `intimate relationships' within risk modernity. Yet this is too simple. In most cases our interviewees continue to look much wider than the family for their 'ontological security'. In cases where this is not so (Rosanna), the `implicit moral judgments' are very traditional indeed. While all of our interviewees do make some 'ontological security' demands of a marital, domestic or personal relationship, most of them embed these relationships in something broader: Rosanna's family 'respect', Sasha's Soviet 'sense of community', Eric's gay 'embryonic community'.

Sixth, who do people see as causing or having responsibility over risk? Which of these risks do they perceive themselves as having personal control over and which not? Many of our interviewees believed that they (or their partners or children) have significant responsibility for certain kinds of risk (medical, lifestyle, intimate); but they also tend to nominate and blame others for broader risks like economic risk and even crime. In particular, Australia - the 'lucky country' or 'safe haven' - is seldom found to be such. And even Eric recognises his good fortune in Australia in 'having a job and living in a nice eastern suburbs flat close to the beach' while observing 'the risk to society [of] the increasing inequality, the increasing power and wealth of the "haves" and the increasing poverty of the "have nots".' Again, our point is that people perceive risk biographically and historically (Eric's South African indoctrination, Sasha's Soviet experience). Even the relatively unreflexive Rosanna is reflexive at the end of her life, and in doing so digs deep into the moral values of her childhood and her Spanish culture.

Finally, how do people posit solutions for dealing with risk? Whom do they `trust' in seeking information on and negotiating risk? For Rosanna, the only 'solution' is if she could live over her life again, but it seems she would do little that was different. It would be nice to 'enjoy more my life', but never at the cost of the hard work that means 'they give respect, very respect'. Her tragedy has been - and this is the risk she feels most deeply - that none of this seems to have gained her children's respect. Indeed, it is her children who have driven away the one (Spanish, female) friend she can trust. Heavily built, middle-class, professional men deal with risk very differently from Rosanna. She cannot afford to be like Eric when facing risk, in expending 'huge amounts of thought, weighing up all the options and procrastinations'. Nor does she, of course, have Eric's or Sasha's familiarity with socialist thought to recognise her place in the 'Australian government slave labour' system of immigration (as one of our interviewees, an immigrant from Scotland, describes it). Still less, though, does she (or any other person we interviewed) find the solution to her problems in Beck's 'community among Earth, plant, animal and human being' in a 'solidarity of living things' (Beck, 1992: 74). Nothing in our research findings suggests that the familiar ('modernist') categories of gender, age, class, region or sexual preference are any less potent in understanding people's perceptions and memories of risk, even though it is important also to see the hybrid and multi-perspectival nature of these different positions.

Most end-of-century risks (as seen in Australia) are neither 'cataclysmic' nor `democratised' as Beck would have it, or organised around the gap (in scientific expertise) between theory and decision-making. Sasha was rare among our interviewees in being reflexive about genetic engineering (one of Beck's concerns). But all our interviewees were reflexive. They were reflexive, however, within their own biographies of risk (which were sometimes also sociohistorical stories of risk): which is why 'my own experience' (or the experience of close and intimate others) was nearly always nominated as the 'source of risk information most trusted' (before media, for example). As we observed earlier, for most interviewees expert systems were sometimes valued; for example in the face of health risks. But this was seldom uniformly or unthinkingly. At other times 'expert' knowledge is challenged or abandoned for more experiential, embodied and `grounded' knowledges (women interviewees, for example, frequently took advice from mothers or close women friends who had 'experienced' a particular medical condition). At yet other times the offerings of both 'expert' and 'lay' knowledge were valued in combination. Undoubtedly, though (and this is why we have focused here on Rosanna) risks are still not 'democratised', but are unevenly spread according to all the factors of class, gender, age, ethnicity, sexual preference and so on that make up Rosanna's biography. Nor is this, in many interviewees' perceptions, something of the past, since a significant number of their risk biographies spoke of a `widening gap' between 'haves' and 'have nots', and of the loss of a 'fairer' Australia (Lupton and Tulloch, in press).

Beck's `social surge of individualisation' is, arguably, recognised as a specific historical phenomenon by many of our interviewees (many, like Eric and Sasha, speak of it as 'economic rationalism'), and very strongly rejected by them. Eric and Sasha both criticise the growing individualism of Australian society, and Rosanna weeps as her children's behaviour drives away the very small friendship group she has managed to build up in Australia. Certainly subjectivities are multiple, mutable and reflexive (Sasha's hybrid 'Soviet' and 'capitalist' identities are both very clear to him, not to mention his critique of both these identities via a religious/spiritual subjectivity). But as our interviewees perceive and manage the risks facing them, social inequalities are far from being viewed as individualised - at least by people of this age group.

People's response to risk is certainly multi-layered, as Lash and Wynne suggest. Our methodology, which explores a range of fields of risk within personal biographies, has helped us access this layering of risk perception. Further work on our research data will explore 'the sources and social dynamics of forms of reflexivity' within this blurring of 'private' and 'public' boundaries that Lash and Wynn postulate. But thus far, on the basis of the interviewees we have discussed here, very 'traditional' modernist concepts - of age, gender, sexual preference, class and ethnicity - seem perfectly appropriate to explain why Rosanna (who begins the interview by saying that she knows nothing about 'politics') contains her stories of risk almost entirely within the private sphere, whereas Eric and Sasha embed their own risk narratives routinely within the 'macro' discourses of left and gay politics. While most of our interviewees believe that responsibility for risk is, to a significant extent, in individual hands, there is no question at all that these two educated men from the Soviet Union and South Africa construct their ultimate 'other' among the politicians, corporate controllers and media moguls: in Australia as much as in their 'home' countries. It is these who are the targets, ultimately, of their blame and stigmatisation. Despite their hybrid identities and embodiments around memories of 'home', they tend to perceive - clearly and coherently - how 'bodies and spaces are made in relation to relations of power and in relation to political economies of place and time' (Threadgold, 2000).


The study was funded by an Australian Research Council Large Grant.


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001