31 functions to describe a Tale [Propp, 1927] and the relationship to modern Risk Assessment.

31 functions to describe a Tale [Propp, 1927] and the relationship to modern Risk Assessment.

Dec 17th, 2015

As we were discussing the Uncertainty taxonomy I remembered a book by Vladimir JA. Propp (1927). The title was “Tales’ Morphology”. This was certainly not part of my scientific background. But there are people out there that delve with delight in such treaties. We will look below at functions of Tale and the relationship to modern Risk Assessment.

Tales' Morphology

Where is the link with Risk Assessment? Well, if you read the book you will see in the Preface a long discussion. It starts with the definition of morphology. Morphology is the study of the shapes and parts, for example in botanic.

Propp then states that it is possible to do that on Tales. In particular the Fairy tales are a small subset. Propp then elaborates on the difficulty and complexity of the task.

In Chapter 1 he laments that prior scholars examined Tales from a genetic point of view. That is without a systematic description. He concludes that it is fruitless to discuss Tales’ genetics (the idea behind a tale) without having a clear (functional) description of the tale.

This is a known problem in Risk Assessments:

This known problem occurs when people name risks without a proper description. Hence, adds Propp, the need for proper taxonomies. The meaningfulness of the study depends on them. I am moved to tears to see a 1927 Tales’ Morphology treaty address issues we are still fighting against today, in Risk Assessment.

Propp adds that other researchers start from a taxonomy instead of deducing it from the dissection of the Tale. Same sorrow with risk assessors shooting-from-the-hip “names of risks”.  Let’s not even call their action a taxonomy. The result are names such as “financial risk”, “terrorism risk”, “fire risk”. After a while they find themselves entangled by risk registers that do not even come close to depict a corporate/business/project situation.

  • Isn’t a potential fire included in a terrorism action scenario?
  • Isn’t there a strong financial component in terrorism and fires?

Do you see how things get confused, impossible to properly analyze if one proceeds that way?

That, unfortunately, happens everyday with common practice risk assessments following a ontological rather than epistemological approach.

He also states that at the end any study on Tales should explain why Tales seem to be universal and transcend borders, cultures and religions? This is a question that seems easier to answer in Risk Assessment (risks of same nature exist “everywhere”) until we introduce the human factor and we see that we, Humans, are apparently obeying to similar reactions to hazards despite significant cultural, religious and socio-economic differences.

What Propp suggests and develops in his book is first to describe the components. Then the way they are linked to build a Tale. Same as what we have been doing for now two decades in risk assessment.

Not just “defining the context” as proposed by ISO 31000, but describing the functional relationships of every component of the system (which, by the way, was a requirement of original FMEA’s approaches, soon to be forgotten).

Propp states that functions are only a few, namely 31, whereas characters are many; something we find in Hazop as well, where guided words are a few, in comparison to the many components of the considered system.

We will stop the comparison between Tales and Risk Assessment here. Anymore would be pedantic and we would run into trouble at the 31st function: “Hero marries the Princess”, aka as Happy Ending.

It is difficult to measure success for a Risk Assessment and related decision making:

probably, if you do not have to talk about it, it means it was successful. No flashy marriage, just corporate long term sustainability.

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Category: Consequences, Crisis management, Hazard, Probabilities, Risk analysis, Risk management

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