Risk, Culture, and Health Inequality: Shifting Perceptions of Danger and Blame

By Barbara Herr Harthorn; Laury Oaks | Go to book overview

Introduction: Health and the Social and Cultural
Construction of Risk

Laury Oaks and Barbara Herr Harthorn

Risks to health and safety perhaps were never more prominently at the center of public discourse and private anxieties in the United States than in the weeks following the events of September 11, 2001. This tragic circumstance provides ample evidence for the main arguments in this book: risk meanings are primarily socially, culturally, and politically constructed; judgments about relative safety or appropriate risks are almost entirely social/cultural, particularly when attached to categories of ethnicity, class, gender, immigration experience, sexuality, religion, and numerous other identifiers; and shifting assessments of risk provide fertile ground for the dynamic analysis of social/cultural systems of meaning.

The purpose of this book is to examine what one scholar has deemed “the epistemology of risk” (Hayes 1992), which we take to mean a critical analysis of the way risk is discussed, deployed, and disentangled by multiple actors and across varied cultural and social divides. Building on the pivotal analyses of the social and cultural construction of risk by anthropologists and sociologists (Douglas 1970, 1992; Nelkin 1985, 1989, “1979, 1984” 1992; Lupton 1999a, 1999b), our contributors' case studies expand understandings of the perception of health-risk categories and the social, political, and cultural uses of risk assessment and risk warnings. The main contributions of this book are its dual focus on health risks and health inequality and the breadth of its analysis of risk in distinct cultural contexts and in relation to pressing health issues.

An important argument of this book is to show the strong connection between health-risk perceptions and both risk-taking and risk-reducing behavior. The study of risk perception emerged in the early 1980s and was primarily designed to explore divergent views of laypersons from those of “experts.” That is, experts' views were taken to have scientific truth value, while laypersons'

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