I am an organizational and comparative historical sociologist studying risk and social change. I am interested in how actors construct perceptions of the future, how those perceptions shape actions in the present, and how this work of anticipation influences macro-level social change. My current research draws on observations of disaster risk managers in New York City as they planned for hurricanes, cyber-attacks, disease pandemics and nuclear terrorism, among other future dangers. In earlier, historical work I investigated the conditions under which agents of the state alternately encouraged, accommodated, or intervened in lynch mob violence in the post-Reconstruction U.S. South. My primary methods are ethnography and archival research. My work contributes to the literatures on organizations and work, urban sociology, and science, knowledge and technology.

Disaster Anticipation

If disasters are failures of foresight, how do organizations productively anticipate them? Since the establishment of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1979, a new professional field has emerged with the task of preparing for and responding to disasters both "natural" and "man-made." My dissertation is a relational ethnography of disaster anticipation by risk management professionals in New York City. Typically when sociologists study disaster and organizational failure as phenomena, they examine specific historical events to determine their causes and map their consequences. Such “social autopsies” provide vital windows into routine social processes by examining how they break down and recover. How actors anticipate disaster before it erupts, however, is much less well-studied. This is a strange oversight because we know that disasters are characteristic of the conditions in which they emerge, and the ongoing projects of individuals and organizations to ward off disaster play an important role in shaping those conditions. So I take a different approach: I study professionals who work in settled times to manage disaster risk for large, complex organizations. By examining the work of avoiding or limiting future danger my research provides insights into how risk and structural stability are produced and maintained.

This project is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and from the PIIRS Global Systemic Risk research community at Princeton University.


2019 | Ryan Hagen. “Collisions Between Institutional and Populist Risk Imaginaries: The ‘Dark Side’ of Negative Asymmetric Thinking.Sociological Forum.

Abstract Expert knowledge informs the construction of public problems from gun violence to disease epidemics to climate change, and institutional actors draw on this knowledge to implement public policy to mitigate or repair the related harms. The expanding role of experts and institutions in managing risks has come at a time of declining public trust in institutions and a legitimacy crisis around expert knowledge. What happens when these tendencies collide? Previous scholarship has examined how disaster arises through failures of foresight, and how cultural‐cognitive biases can prevent actors from seeing disasters coming. Less is known about the mobilization of resistance against risk management policies. This theoretical essay examines a particular category of that resistance: conspiracist discourse that frames risk as emanating primarily from perceived secret agendas of institutions and experts that explicitly claim to be acting in the public interest. This essay argues that conspiracy thinking can be best understood as rooted in a “populist risk imaginary,” which is rooted in negative asymmetry, a cultural‐cognitive bias that foregrounds the possibility of worst‐case outcomes. Conspiracy discourse can be understood as the “dark side” of negative asymmetry, which is otherwise used by service‐oriented professionals to sharpen their foresight in preempting future dangers.

Averted Lynching

What motivates and enables waves of collective violence, and what ends them? This project, which began as my masters thesis, examines the political conditions under which white mobs lynched 3,000 African-Americans in the southern United States between 1880 and 1930. Previous studies of lynching had considered only events where mobs formed and were able to kill. That left unobserved many hundreds of additional cases where mobs formed with intent to kill but were thwarted by external intervention. For this project I, with Kinga Makovi and Peter Bearman, constructed an inventory of averted lynchings -- events where mobs formed with the intent to kill, but were prevented from doing so. This study shifts the dependent variable from mob killings to mob formation, allowing for a more precise investigation of what motivated and enabled mobs to kill. We find that the defeat and rollback of Reconstruction, along with the construction and consolidation of the Jim Crow regime, had a profound effect on when and where agents of the state shifted between encouraging, accommodating, and intervening in lynch mob violence.


2016 | Kinga Makovi, Ryan Hagen and Peter Bearman. "The Course of Law: State Intervention in Southern Lynch Mob Violence 1882–1930." Sociological Science.

Abstract Collective violence when framed by its perpetrators as “citizen” justice is inherently a challenge to state legitimacy. To properly account for such violence, it is necessary to consider an opportunity structure incorporating the actions of both vigilantes and agents of the state. The motivation and lethality of lynch mobs in the South cannot be understood without considering how the state reacted to the legitimacy challenges posed by lynching. We trace the shifting orientation of state agents to lynching attempts between the end of Reconstruction and the start of the Great Depression. Analyzing an inventory of more than 1,000 averted and completed lynching events in three Southern states, we model geographic and temporal patterns in the determinants of mob formation, state intervention, and intervention success. Opponents of lynching often pled with mobs to “let the law take its course.” This article examines the course followed by the law itself, as state actors moved between encouraging, accommodating, and in many instances averting mob violence.

2013 | Ryan Hagen, Kinga Makovi and Peter Bearman. "The Influence of Political Dynamics on Southern Lynch Mob Formation and Lethality." Social Forces.

Abstract Existing literature focuses on economic competition as the primary causal factor in Southern lynching. Political drivers have been neglected, as findings on their effects have been inconclusive. We show that these consensus views arise from selection on a contingent outcome variable: whether mobs intent on lynching succeed. We constructed an inventory of averted lynching events in Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina—instances in which lynch mobs formed but were thwarted, primarily by law enforcement. We combined these with an inventory of lynching and analyzed them together to model the dynamics of mob formation, success, and intervention. We found that low Republican vote share is associated with a higher lethality rate for mobs. Lynching is better understood as embedded in a post-conflict political system, wherein all potential lynching events, passing through the prism of intervention, are split into successful and averted cases.