Events: Concordia University Risk Research Working Group


Keynote Address: Dr. Mark Andrejevic (Professor, Chair of Media Studies, Pamona College, USA)

“I’m not sure if something is wrong with the sensor. Is there a way to reset or recalibrate the device?”—Recently this question was posted on Reddit in a forum for people who use mobile self-tracking devices. These devices, usually worn on the wrist, sense the wearer’s movements and, depending on the device, heartbeat. The question was asked by the husband of a device user, who noted that his wife had “logged 10 hours in the fat burning zone, which I think would be impossible,” given that she was working at her desk all day. It turned out that his wife was pregnant, and the self-tracking device had, by sensing her elevated heart-rate, provided the first clue to this possibility.[1] This example is just one instance in a much wider range of circumstances where always-on sensing devices are producing new forms of knowledge about everyday risks. It suggests that data produced by always-on sensors is automatically and algorithmically processed in ways that may be obscure to users.

Sensors yield rafts of information about everyday events and risks. When decontextualized, this data may be meaningless; when correlated with other information, however, it can quickly take on new meaning. A key question that arises in such circumstances has to do with how people are made subject to diverse forms of risk detection and management via what has come to be known as the “sensor society”. Andrejevic and Burdon define the sensor society as one in which “the interactive devices and applications that populate the digital information environment come to double as sensors”. The concept of the sensor society directs analytic attention to “the costly infrastructures that enable data collection, storage, and processing as well as to the advantages that flow to the institutions that own, operate, and access them”.[2] It highlights the fact that people are commonly enrolled into diverse forms of risk management, often without their knowledge or consent.

The purpose of the Sensing Risk Symposium is to explore the implications of emergent and pervasive forms of risk management in the sensor society. Drawing on, and contributing to, the activities of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture’s Risk Research Working Group (CISSC RRWG), the Symposium will bring together risk researchers from across Concordia University and beyond with the aim of developing new conceptual frameworks for analyzing the dynamics of risk in the sensor society. A core focus will be upon the implications of risk sensing techniques for citizens as they transit through urban spaces of consumption.

[1] News, February 9, 2016, online at:

[2] Andrejevic, M. and Burdon, M. 2015. “Defining the Sensor Society,” Television & New Media 16(1): 19-36.

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Today, a post-theoretical, collect-it-all mentality seems increasingly pervasive. For example, organizations like the Canadian Communications Security Establishment sift through massive amounts of communications metadata in an effort to identify and neutralize national security risks. Insurance companies now offer preferential rates to clients who equip their cars with trackers that gather detailed data about their driving habits. New forms of mobile entertainment gather geolocational data and merge it with data on user behaviour to try to make mobile games more enticing (and profitable), potentially creating new risks for users who may struggle with addictive gaming and gambling habits. In these and many more examples, big data analytics promise to yield novel insight. They enable new understandings of risk, yet they may also generate new risks for individuals and organizations. They may disadvantage some who run afoul of algorithmically shaped decisions about who or what is risky. And they may make
organizations appear as privacy-violating players in a broader surveillance-industrial complex.

How, then, do big data analytics mediate risk? This is a key question taken up in the events promoted on this website. Supported by several stakeholders across Concordia University, as well as by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, these events build on the activities of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture’s Risk Research Working Group (CISSC RRWG)

We had the great privilege of welcoming globally renowned scholar, Dr. Deborah Lupton for our opening keynote.

For more information visit here.



From the very beginning of the epidemic, AIDS was linked to punishment. Calls to punish people living with HIV – mostly stigmatized minorities – began before doctors could even name the disease. Punitive attitudes towards AIDS prompted lawmakers around the country to introduce legislation aimed at criminalizing the behaviors of people living with HIV. Punishing Disease explains how this happened and with what consequences. Now that the door to criminalizing sickness is open, what other ailments will follow? With lawmakers moving to tack on additional diseases such as hepatitis and meningitis, the question is more than academic.


Alexander McClelland, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture Concordia University

Léa Pelletier-Marcotte Avocate & Coordonnatrice – Programme Droits de la personne et VIH/Sida COCQ-SIDA


Why does a significant part of the general population intentionally and repeatedly hurt themselves? What are the reasons certain people resort to self-injury as a way to manage their daily lives? In Why Do We Hurt Ourselves (published in English and French), sociologist Baptiste Brossard draws on a five-year survey of self-injurers and suggests that the answers can be traced to social, more than personal, causes. Self-injury is not a matter of disturbed individuals resorting to hurting themselves in the face of individual weaknesses and difficulties. Rather, self-injury is the reaction of individuals to the tensions that compose, day after day, the tumultuousness of their social life and position. Self-harm is a practice that people use to self-control and maintain order—to calm down, or to avoid “going haywire” or “breaking everything.” More broadly, through this research Brossard works to develop a perspective on the contemporary social world at large, exploring quests for self-control in modern Western societies.

Biography—Dr. Baptiste Brossard
Dr. Baptiste Brossard is a Lecturer with The Australian National University (ANU) School of Sociology. He completed his Ph. D. in Sociology at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) and the École Normale Supérieure de Paris and worked as a Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Montréal before taking up his current position with the ANU.

Discussant—Professor Valérie de Courville Nicol
Dr. Valérie de Courville Nicol is a Professor with Concordia University’s Department of Sociology & Anthropology. Her risk-related research examines the social processes by which collective fears and desires come into being, with a focus on processes of emotional socialization, forms of emotion management, popular forms of literature on moral and emotional danger, and psychological and other therapeutic discourses and practices pertaining to emotional health. She is interested in what is socially construed as emotional risk, in how emotional risk is collectively experienced, in what affective signs are attached to emotional risk, and in how emotional risk orients individual and collective action through its association with particular capacities and solutions.


Zika Virus Cross-Section

Marcelo GarciaThe Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) & Visiting Scholar (2018-2019), Sociology & Anthropology, Concordia University

Risk, rumors, and production of senses about 2015/2016 zika and microcephaly epidemics on social networks (Garcia and colleagues)
The epidemic of zika and microcephaly occurred in the summer of 2015/2016 was one of the most critical public health emergencies in Latin America in this century and had as a striking feature the wide circulation of virtual rumors, impacting the public policies and actions. We analyzed the main narratives that circulated in Whatsapp during the acute phase of the epidemic, from November 2015 to February 2016.  After that, we studied how three Facebook’s page registered the epidemics (of a national distributed journal, of a local newspaper of the state most affected by the epidemic, and of one of the public health institutions that were most prominent in the episode). We also studied the public participation in comments on posts published by these pages and related explicitly with hoaxes. We observed that the production of an environment of high uncertainty was related with three main factors: 1) the lack of knowledge about the disease, 2) the imaginary of risk related to the development of science, and 3) the political and institutional crisis in Brazil. Two points served as fertile substrate for rumors: why an epidemics of microcephaly like that were never registered before and why the microcephaly cases were concentrated just in the Northeast of Brazil. Our findings raised some issues, for example, about the ambiguous relationship with the scientific authority established in the rumors and about the different temporalities between the science under construction, the press routines and the population immediacy. As final reflexion, we highlight that the confluence of an era of mediatization and risk culture, where science loses its status as truth and the truth itself becomes more fluid, post-truth, the social networks kind of “institutionalize” diffuse and confusing places of speech, where comments circulate almost in equality with more qualified discourses, that`s proper for the dissemination of hoaxes.

Ketra Schmitt—Associate Professor with the Centre for Engineering in Society in the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science

Communicable Diseases and Vaccine Hesitancy (Schmitt and colleagues)
It is well established in the epidemiological literature that individual behaviors have a significant effect on the spread of infectious diseases. Agent-based models are increasingly being recognized as the next generation of epidemiological models. In this research, we use the ability of agent-based models to incorporate behavior into simulations by examining the relative importance of vaccination and social distancing, two common measures for controlling the spread of infectious diseases, with respect to seasonal influenza. We modeled health behaviour using the result of a Health Belief Model study focused on influenza. We considered a control and a treatment group to explore the effect of education on people’s health-related behaviors patterns. The control group reflects the behavioral patterns of students based on their general knowledge of influenza and its interventions while the treatment group illustrates the level of behavioral changes after individuals have been educated by a health care expert. The results of this study indicate that self-initiated behaviors are successful in controlling an outbreak in a high contact rate location such as a university. Self-initiated behaviors resulted in a population attack rate decrease of 17 % and a 25 % reduction in the peak number of cases. The simulation also provides significant evidence for the effect of an HBM theory-based educational program to increase the rate of applying the target interventions (vaccination by 22 % percent and social distancing by 41 %) and consequently to control the outbreak.

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