The Character of Harms: Operational Challenges in Control

The Character of Harms Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England; New York, USA, 2008.

Publisher's Description

How should we deal with societal ills such as crime, poverty, pollution, terrorism, and corruption? The Character of Harms argues that control or mitigation of 'bad' things involves distinctive patterns of thought and action which turn out to be broadly applicable across a range of human endeavors, and which need to be better understood. Malcolm Sparrow demonstrates that an explicit focus on the bads, rather than on the countervailing goods (safety, prosperity, environmental stewardship, etc.) can provide rich opportunities for surgically efficient and effective interventions - an operational approach which he terms 'the sabotage of harms'. The book explores the institutional arrangements and decision-frameworks necessary to support this emerging operational model. Written for reflective practitioners charged with risk-control responsibilities across the public, private, and non-governmental sectors, The Character of Harms makes a powerful case for a new approach to tackling the complex problems facing society.

Featured by the HKS Virtual Book Tour

Malcolm Sparrow's Character of Harms, published in April 2008 by Cambridge University Press, is featured on the Harvard Kennedy School's Virtual Book Tour.  Professor Sparrow introduces the book in a short video

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Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Part I. The Nature of the Control Task
    1. Which way up, and does it matter?
    2. A different kind of work
    3. Defining problems: setting the scale
    4. Defining problems: picking the dimensions
    5. Patterns of thought and action
    6. Puzzles of measurement
    7. Structures, protocols and interactions

  • Part II. Special Categories of Harm
    8. Invisible harms
    9. Conscious opponents
    10. Catastrophic harms
    11. Harms in equilibrium
    12. Performance-enhancing risks

  • Conclusion.


'I was amazed, reading Malcolm Sparrow's book, at how powerfully a careful, focused definition of a problem can open the way to novel solutions. Sparrow makes clear that we often need to reverse direction, shifting the focus from promoting the general good to addressing specific harms. He shows how to do that, and how to proceed from there. It is a joy to read someone who, through practical experience, really knows what he is talking about.'
Professor Tom Schelling, University of Maryland, Nobel-Laureate in Economics

'Sparrow uses his skill in blending the academic and practical to help us decode the complexity and multi-dimensional character of risk and harm reduction. This inquiry is both broad and deep, and yet meticulous, full of great advice and replete with relevant examples. The analysis of organizational culture, structure, functions and processes hits the reader between the eyes. An indispensable read for practitioners, public administrators, CEO's, political advisors, and anyone else with a serious interest in the art and science of harm reduction.'
Tony Dean, Cabinet Secretary, Ontario, Canada

'A fascinating, timely, and important study of risk, harms, and regulatory interventions, with a wonderfully broad range of topics and examples, and a great deal of common sense. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the topic of precautions.'
Professor Cass Sunstein, University of Chicago.

'Harms have an intricate character that must be studied, Malcolm Sparrow tells us. This is a remarkable book for people whose job is to control harms. It supplies nuanced reflection on how to pick problems apart and fix them. Sparrow is one of our great public policy thinkers. Here he advances the art of being evidence-based in public policy with wisdom about just what kind of artistry is involved.'
Professor John Braithwaite, Australian National University.

'Sparrow's ideas have inspired profound change at AFM. Increasingly we organize our expanded toolkit around the tasks - specific supervisory and compliance issues - rather than vice versa. Early results show the Authority becoming more effective in influencing financial institutions' behavior in the Netherlands. I expect this book will inspire other organizations to similar transformations, which will be neither easy nor straightforward, as Sparrow warns; but the prize is demonstrably better harm control.'
Hanzo van Beusekom, Netherlands Authority for the Financial Markets.

'Today's environmental problems, as Sparrow teaches, really do come in a daunting array of shapes and sizes. At the EPA we have discovered that organizing our compliance programs around specific problems, analyzing their causes and contours and developing customized strategies for each, the way Sparrow proposes in this book, represents a profoundly difficult but highly rewarding departure from traditional operations. The Character of Harms will deeply affect anyone working to make the world safer, better, and more secure.'
Michael Stahl, Director of Compliance, United States Environmental Protection Agency.

'Malcolm Sparrow provides a clear, readable account of approaches to controlling harms, threats and risks in modern society. His skilful combination of academic literatures and practical examples presents a strong argument for evidence based action. In particular his cross domain approach should attract a wide readership ranging as it does from issues of world poverty to harm reduction in individual organizations. It will appeal to academics and practitioners alike.'
Professor Bridget Hutter, London School of Economics.

Published Reviews

In "Contemporary Sociology," by Mathieu Deflem: Review
In "Journal of Policy Analysis & Management," by Heather E. Campbell: Review
In "Criminology & Criminal Justice," by Nicholas Lord: Review

Online Reviews

Savannah Reid, Epidemiologist [on]: 'I wanted to add something here about a book I would like to recommend, it is available on kindle, the title is The Character of Harms, the author is Malcolm Sparrow. In brief, Malcolm Sparrow raided the epidemiology toolkit for critical thinking and problem solving tools to teach people working in the executive branch of government how to pick important problems and solve them. How to pick a complex problem apart into 'moving parts' and tackle the components of the problem from within a bureaucracy. I think anyone working on this challenge and/or similar data science problems outside this challenge area would benefit from having this book as a desk reference. As an epidemiologist, I consider this book my bible. It is very well written and has topical chapters with excellent bullet lists.'

In "Future Energy": Review

In "Security Management," by Thomas Engells: Review