Book review: The Character of Harms

Mathieu Deflem

This is a copy of a book review published in Contemporary Sociology 38(5):481-482, 2009. Also as pdf file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2009. Review of The Character of Harms: Operational Challenges in Control, by Malcolm K. Sparrow. Contemporary Sociology 38(5):481-482.

In this book, Malcolm Sparrow establishes a model for the reduction of various harms that confront the world today. The work is specifically focused on the operational challenges practitioners face in controlling harms. Rather than trying to develop a theoretical and/or policy-oriented perspective on the regulatory strategies to promote goods, such as safety, security, and well-being, Sparrow seeks to suggest ways to sabotage harms. The harms Sparrow’s work is intended to pertain to are of multiple kinds indeed, including problems associated with hunger, war, genocide, terrorism, crime, and environmental problems, amongst others. The suggested model is focused at tackling harms by developing a method to pick important problems and find ways to fix them head-on. Ideally, the model would be applied within various agencies involved with harm-reduction to more adequately fulfill their respective missions.

Sparrow develops his arguments for an approach of sabotaging harms from an analysis of prior methodologies to deal with harms, such as terrorist attacks, diseases, and poverty. From an organizational viewpoint, this focus implies that harm-reduction agencies would have to develop specific ways to tackle particular problems, rather than be merely driven by legislative prescriptions or policy manuals. It is the development of the practical specificity of this approach that is innovative to most existing agencies. In terms of size and scale, the problems that are to be tackled would have to be neither too big nor too small and tackled neither exclusively at the highest nor the lowest levels of intervention. From the viewpoint of estimating the success of organizational behavior, it would become necessary to measure the performance of organizations in effective harm reductions. The practical lessons that are to be drawn from the viewpoint of harm-reduction agencies concretely involve various specific steps, such as the selection and definition of specific problems, the development of solutions, the implementation of a plan, and the monitoring and possible adjustment of a chosen strategy.

In the final chapters of this book, Sparrow draws separate attention to a number of special categories of harms. Rather than grouping harms in substantive terms based on the kind of problem involved (e.g., crime concerns, health issues), Sparrow chooses to focus formally on different types of harm in terms of their character. Invisible harms are those which are difficult to discern and analyze because they tend to be underreported. In cases of harms involving conscious opponents, agencies are confronted with individuals or groups of individuals who are engaged in creating a harm. Catastrophic harms are relatively unlikely harmful events that produce enormous levels of victimization. Because of this dual characteristic, the control of catastrophic harms often runs the risk of being neglected. Harms in equilibrium are those where small intervention efforts do not disturb the harmful condition. Elaborate well-developed integrated plans are needed to tackle such harms more fundamentally. And, finally, performance-enhancing risks involve harms that ironically originate from agencies involved in harm control. Such cases typically involve unlawful behavior by control agencies, such as torture by interrogation personnel and bribery by police officers.

Even from the above brief summary of the key elements in Sparrow’s book, it should be clear that this work is not a treatise in sociology or, more generally, in social science. Instead it is a practically oriented work that is rooted in an analysis of various practices of organizations involved with harm-reduction. A former officer in the British Police Service, Harvard Government professor Sparrow is also clear that his work is primarily written for the reflective practitioner engaged in risk-control activities. As a result, this work is concerned with finding efficient ways to control harms, while not adopting a constructionist viewpoint on the nature of those harms. The ideas developed in this book are also not grounded in any specified theoretical framework. Sociologists, therefore, may at first sight not find this book particularly helpful, yet they would also be amiss to simply reject its scope and aims. With most examples in this book drawn from practical experiences in dealing with various harms by multiple agencies, it cannot be denied that Sparrow offers an excellent insider’s perspective, a window into the soul of harm-reduction agencies and their actors, which the sociologist would do better to take into account than not. As such, this work forms an interesting part of the reality of organizational behavior (much like too large a part of the literature on organizations developed by sociologists, albeit unintentionally). Yet, treated as part of the object of sociological analysis interested in organizations and harms, Sparrow’s study can be meaningfully approached as a manifestation of the continued focus on efficiency in modern organizations and the accompanying pragmatism of the organizational actor who claims expertise over and against the dilettantes outside the administration.