, Volume 26, Issue 3, pp 283-312

Odds and Ends: Risk, Mortality, and the Politics of Contingency

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Medical anthropology's cogentrethinking of conventional biomedicalcategories has largely overlooked the coreproblems of one key concept of both biomedicaland social scientific analysis: risk. Inparticular, the use of the term in medicalanthropology (and the social sciences moregenerally) frequently rests on two assumptions:(1) that contingency necessarily constitutes athreat to individual experience or socialorder; and (2) that a risk management paradigmthat relies on a model of statisticalprobability is the ontologically preeminent wayof engaging chance. Other approaches which donot take risk as the starting point forunderstanding contingency also have problems;they too assume that contingency is necessarilycause for crisis. These problematic rootassumptions lead social analysts to miss howindividual actors and local communitiesvariously engage, rather than minimize,contingency. I suggest a new approach thatinstead aims to treat contingency asnormatively neutral and as arising in fourdomains of experience. Conventional approachesalso miss how attempts to account forunexpected events themselves involve strugglesbetween competing paradigms (or tropes) ofchance. This contest over accountability I callhere the politics of contingency, and Iseek thereby to signal the need to renovate ourlanguage of uncertainty in order to address itspolitical dimensions. I trace the literature toidentify some sources of these terminologicalproblems, and through an examination of thelife and death of a close contact in Chania,Crete, I explore his own approach to chance andthe different, competing interpretations of hisdeath. I thereby demonstrate the importance ofrevamping the conventional approach tounderstanding the contingent nature of humanlife.