Risk & Culture

By: Cameron A. Straughan

June 23, 2002

The first thing that attracted me to Douglas and Wildavsky’s book was the title. Risk and Culture, so I thought, implied that the authors would be discussing the importance of culture in determining what an individual (or group of individuals) would regard as an environmental risk. By proxy, culture should also have a direct influence on how the risk is communicated to certain audiences. Along these lines, I hoped that the essay would provide me with advice for my environmental documentary and environment-themed fictions. Also, since the book was published in 1982, and it is quite a lengthy research essay, I figured that it would provide me with some historical perspective on risk selection and communication. Are the theories and conclusions expounded in the essay still holding up today?

Before I started the reading, I was struck with the questions: why are some risks chosen as worthy of consideration and others are not? At what price does this occur? Lastly, what impact does culture have on risk selection and communication? As it turned out, these questions are the major issues explored in the essay. The essay sets out to answer these questions using qualitative research based on literature searches and cultural analysis – a holistic approach that takes into account science, politics, economics, social factors, and even some history.

I agree with the authors that cultural analysis of risk is important. I support their holistic view that combines scientific fact with social and cultural factors – essentially a combination of the “hard” and “soft” sciences. I also found some of the essay useful and applicable to real-life situations.

For example, it provided me with some useful tips for documentary filmmaking – and environmental communication in general. Along these lines, the authors stated that in the Western world there is disagreement about what a risk is; the environment is highly politicized. Thus, when communicating risk to Western audiences, maybe another narrative structure should be used. Classic western narrative structures could bias the message, thus potentially dividing the audience along political and social lines. Changing the presentation may make the message clearer and more palatable to audiences. Or maybe using a different narrative would be provocative enough to get people to sit up and take notice. As an example, a change in narrative and presentation may present the environment as perfectly natural, instead of the classic Western view of environment (nature) as taboo.

I also learnt that in order to communicate risk effectively, it helps to choose a common risk – or an interesting one. This seems like common sense, yet many documentaries are made that have very limited appeal and provoke a very limited response. If a risk can be documented that transcends borders – universal in theme and values – the film will probably have more impact.

“Pollution ideas cluster thickest where cherished values conflict.” (p. 43)

“But the long-range goals that have to do with keeping a certain kind of social system in being are generally the most potent for stirring the emotions.” (p. 88)

In this regard, it would also aid a documentary if it demonstrated the dangers to a variety of public institutions (i.e., finance, education, and health). This would make the message nearly impossible for the public and politicians to ignore. In addition, a documentary should combine knowledge with a call to action, in order to provoke the audience to make changes. But, as the authors point out, in order for the audience to be galvanized, communicating the risk is not enough – there must be a moral blame for the risk. In other words, the audience must have a clear “antagonist” (or antagonists) to speak out against. Otherwise, they will fail to act, due to confusion, or their actions will be too diffuse to be effective. It is also interesting to note that risk communication, like documentary filmmaking, can not be objective. As the authors note, risk selection is value laden.

I found it fascinating that Risk and Culture concluded that science has a very small role in risk selection. Apparently, individuals do not conform to expert opinions on risk. This is also somewhat disconcerting to me. Although my years spent as a biologist convinced me that the message wasn’t getting out to the public, it was difficult for me to admit how inadequate science really is. Science is merely a tool that can only help inform decision making.

“… the double-edged thrust of science, generating new ignorance with new technology.” (p. 49)

“Science and risk assessment cannot tell us what we need to know about threats of danger since they explicitly try to exclude moral ideas about the good life. Where responsibility starts, they stop.” (p. 81)

Avoiding a reliance on science, Douglas and Wildavsky conclude that risk selection is a social process, with culture playing the main role. Accordingly, risk selection and perception is complex, with many guiding factors. Judgments about risk are social – not scientific.

“But if the perception of risks is social, rooted in cultural bias, scientists should behave much the same as other mortals.” (p. 61)

“Between private, subjective perception and public, physical science there lies culture, a middle area of shared beliefs and values. The present division of the subject that ignores culture is arbitrary and self-defeating.” (p. 194)

Interestingly, this is similar to statements made in my Plan of Study. I also think that using culture (i.e., film) is a more effective way of getting environmental information out to the general public, preferably using humour or dramatic conventions, than scientific discourse. The scientific facts could be veiled in within a cultural product. In other words, an artistic or creative approach is used to sweeten the scientific pill.

According to the essay, documentaries should focus on a fear, be aware of the strength and direction of social criticism, and have a finger on the pulse of what is culturally important. Obviously, this process goes beyond just making sure that the scientific facts are accurate! In this manner, documentaries would be better versed to start the social process of risk selection and action of some sort. As the authors point out, to change risk selection and perception, you must change the social organization somehow. Once social pressure has been generated, institutions are pressured to make decisions. Documentaries can achieve this to some extent. Of course, this process follows in the footsteps of John Grierson’s model of the documentary as a tool for social change.

Reading the essay, I was also struck by the tension between science (“out there”) and perception(s) via culture (“in here”). This tension will be explored in my documentary, in which I will attempt to show what is having the major impact on perceptions and management of Algonquin Park wolves – science or ideology?

I was also fascinated by the description of the “border” versus the “centre”. This reminded me of the Detroit River Update Report I coordinated. During that project, I had to coordinate the efforts of a sectarian, border organization (the Citizen’s Environment Alliance) (CEA) and a hierarchical centre organization (the Essex Region Conservation Authority) (ERCA). Both organizations hated each other. Just like Douglas and Wildavsky described, the CEA hated the ERCA leadership, their “back room deals”, and their blatant pursuit of money. There was tangible jealousy and resentment between the organizations. CEA also cooked up lots of conspiracy theories about ERCA activities – some of which, to be fair, turned out to be true.

I was also intrigued by the ironies and hypocrisies arising from the border / centre conflicts. One can not exist without the other! While the border attacks the centre, it also looks to it for financial support. Only the centre has the money and power necessary to implement change. In addition, the border lacks the organization and governing abilities to institute effective widespread change. Yet, I sense that the centre needs the border to act as a check – a moral and ethical watchdog. Otherwise, if the concerns of the general public went unheeded, the centre would splinter and fall apart. It’s also interesting how border organizations end up joining the centre as they gain membership, money, and power. Since the border is inherently pessimistic, and never satisfied (there is no sufficient level of risk), this process goes on forever. I found this observation somewhat comical, in an absurd sense.

While some of the essay was dated, I was intrigued that the authors emphasized that centre organizations must be resilient and embrace constant change, the unexpected, and shifting risks. I thought this was advocating risk management based on Chaos Theory. In this regard, the essay was quite provocative and timely.

I was also struck by the authors’ provocative statement that Western society regards sex as a risk. It follows that there is a tendency for our patriarchal culture to view sex as a potential “pollutant”, sullying women as a contaminant would sully the environment. I agree with this statement and I often see it manifested in Western culture. Western culture has a preoccupation with controlling and dominating both women and the environment – as if left to their own devices, they would fall apart. This problem is still relevant today.

I found it interesting that risks could be selected as a social control mechanism. That is, all members of a community are expected to accept the same risks and avoid them accordingly.

“… complex pollution beliefs preserve the social categories.” (p. 46)

This struck me as rather like Freud’s theories concerning the pursuit of happiness, in which individuals do not want to be alone, yet joining a community carries with it many restraints on freedom(s) – whether tangible or imagined.

Reading the essay, it bothered me that sectarian groups are portrayed as suspicious of media personalities and “superstars” that join environmental movements. While this is plausible, it seems like an elitist view, on the part of sects. In my mind, such an elitist view would extinguish potentially useful partnerships. I’ve often thought that the failure of some environmental organizations to work with industry, politicians, and the media would adversely impact their effectiveness – especially since the public that sects propose to protect are members and employees of such groups! To be fair, the failure to forge useful partnerships may be the blame of any one group or combination of groups.

While I was in agreement with some points raised in the essay, and I did gain some valuable new perspectives, I had just as many complaints and criticisms. To start, I do not believe that people can be conveniently placed in well-defined “border” and “centre” categories, as implied by Douglas and Wildavsky. I have encountered sectarian groups, such as Earthroots and EcoSource Mississauga, that are not doomsayers. Also, I have encountered sectarian groups that have a more traditional, hierarchical organization (i.e., the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives and Green Peace). In my mind, the lines are blurred.

Douglas and Wildavsky do briefly mention that some may choose not to join either the centre or the border, however they do not expand on the thought. I was left wondering – what are the thoughts and beliefs of these individuals? What risks do they select? I consider myself a border dweller who intermittently joins the centre in order to make a living. So what risks do transients like myself select? I believe that the absence of this information, and the overall simplification of social/cultural groups, is a fault within the essay. In addition, I felt strongly that the essay spent too much time describing how centre and border organizations form – including the formation of their ideologies. I’d rather that time be spent on illuminating connections between risk selection and culture!

I also strongly disagreed that superstition (and spirituality in general) does not inform people’s choices and perceptions. The authors describe in detail what they refer to as the “modernist perspective”. They contrast it with medieval times. Maybe that was the case in the early 80’s, but we are now in the postmodern age. Religion, spirituality, and superstitions have made a big come back. Technology and science are not blindly trusted. Millennium angst and uncertainty may be the culprit, but there’s no doubt that new religions are rapidly popping up. In Iceland, for example, Asatru is a new religion in which Norse gods are worshipped! In addition, as I have found in my research about wolves, people still have misguided ideas about wolves based on superstitions and wives tales, regardless of scientific fact.

This leads us to another problem with the essay – it is, by and large, dated. It would be interesting to see how the authors describe the process of risk selection and communication in a postmodern context, especially with regards to current concerns like global warming and globalization. Along these lines, I do not agree that environmental (sectarian) groups are composed mainly of white, middle class people – as the authors suggest. Maybe that was the case in 1982, but now – with the threat of globalization – all sorts of people have hopped aboard the environmental bandwagon.

As an example, my recent trip to a film festival in Goais, Brazil was eye-opening. The Brazilian public seemed much more concerned with the environment than Canadians are! The festival was a huge event for the city. I could not get over the crowds. People were also very vocal during presentations. The Planet in Focus: Toronto International Environmental Film and Video Festival paled in comparison; some screenings had only five people present!

I also do not agree that people who join the environmental movement are the ones with the time and money to do so. Once again, in this day and age, no one has time! In addition, many of the people I see protesting are students – a group not known for its economic clout! I also think that border groups are now (perhaps ironically) embracing technology more than ever before. Think of the impact of Internet Technology. The authors mentioned how environmental groups had grown via “mail outs” (I found it humourous that they regarded “mail order” as a new technology!) , but I believe their effectiveness has been greatly enhanced by current Web technologies. How much so is worthy of further research.

My major criticism of the essay is that only Caucasian cultures within America were examined in detail. I found this very odd and perplexing. It was interesting to learn about the Amish, Hutterites, and the Oneida Perfectionists. The authors also made interesting and provocative ties between American history, culture, and risk selection. However, I felt that the authors spent too much time describing the history and beliefs of these groups. I did not feel that these examples gave a good account of the impact of culture on risk perception and selection. I was even more perplexed by the fact that First Nations and African American culture were left out of the equation.

The only example the authors provided of a non-Western culture was the conflicts between the Hima cattleman and the Iru farmers. It was an interesting example. I could appreciate how the metaphors used by the Hima to convey risk may seem esoteric and implausible by Western standards, particularly to our scientists. Yet, as part of the Hima culture, the metaphors effectively capture the complex ecology of the problem in very simple (often visual) terms. This points to the short comings of science and the importance of examining culture.

To conclude my criticism, the absence of proper investigation of other cultures – both non-white minorities within America and foreign cultures – is a glaring omission and a major flaw. I do not see how a researcher could address the impact of culture on risk selection without considering a variety of cultures. As a result, I think the author’s findings are greatly weakened.

In conclusion, the essay did provide me with some useful tips for communicating environmental information. Many of the points raised were relevant and I could relate them to my own experiences as a biologist. The essay stirred up a few memories – some good, some bad! However, overall, I found that the essay had not aged well. I think the authors should approach this topic again (to be fair, maybe they have!). I was also surprised and disappointed by the distinct lack of appropriate cultural analysis. The cover had a picture of a gas mask contrasted with some sort of native headdress. Yet, native views were not included. So much for truth in advertising! I guess if you judge a book by its cover – a habit in Western culture – then you truly are exposing yourself to risk!


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