Masters of Uncertainty: Social Scares and the Politics of Change in Energy Policy

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Langlois-Bertrand, Simon




Social scares are periods triggered by a spectacular, deadly, traumatizing, or otherwise disruptive event. The event produces a sudden, broadly shared perception of insecurity that brings an area of activity to the forefront of public and political attention. In these instances, leading political figures must strike a balance between two objectives: appearing as good leaders to temper the insecurity felt by large segments of their population; and obtaining a policy outcome they are comfortable with. This balancing act is no easy task, as the context forces government actors to “do something”, which may lead to policy changes unattractive to them. Nevertheless, leaders who perform well regarding the first objective win a prize consisting of a bulk of symbolic capital, by being perceived as reducing the perception of insecurity. This is how social scares differ from the policy process during other periods: actors who capture a large such prize in the first days and weeks of a scare possess a formidable resource in the battle over potential policy changes, as this bulk of symbolic capital can tilt the balance to their favor, even if other coalitions and actors have substantial resources. Hence the form that the policy process takes in the aftermath of a scare results from the combination of the obligation for actors in power to act convincingly, of the constraints that this obligation imposes on them, and of the clashing sets of interests that the different groups have regarding the policy options. Focusing on scares related to the energy sector, this dissertation shows how this two-dimensional battle is shaped by four aspects: the triggering event and the first prize that emerges from it; the strategies and actions of the actors regarding the two objectives; the framing of uncertainty and risk, and the role played by experts; and the impact of contextual factors, in particular the election timing and the regime type. By using these as broad investigative questions within the method of structured, focused comparison, the model allows for a better understanding of the political battles that occur while societies progressively return to a more normal state of affairs.


Political Science
Public Administration




Carleton University

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International Affairs

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Theses and Dissertations

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