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

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

Foreword: The Social Meanings of Risk

Dorothy Nelkin

During the summer of 2000, a group of actors in New York City performed a street theater play called “Biotech” in public parks throughout the city. The play was about the risks of a new crop called “dicktater”—a genetically modified crossbreed of penis and potato. The tuber had infiltrated a community garden, causing an epic battle. The issues were less about health risks than about an array of social and political issues: lack of consumer choice, abuse of corporate power, mistrust of science, appropriate use of public space, and police brutality when corporate interests fought off local activists.

Risk disputes are ubiquitous—controversies occur over the risk of genetically modified food and other products of biotechnology, the spread of infectious agents, workplace and environmental hazards, the siting of large technological facilities, global warming and ozone depletion, and the risks imposed by diagnostic and reproductive technologies (Nelkin 1992). “Risk” has become one of the defining cultural characteristics of Western society (Beck 1992; Robertson 2001). And some would argue that we have become a risk-averse society.

For years, risk assessments were based on technical assumptions. Risks were technically manageable: identification and measurement of risk were sufficient as a basis for effective public decisions. Social psychologists then examined the character of different risks to find what was influencing public perceptions. They concluded that risks that were involuntary, uncertain, unfamiliar, and potentially catastrophic were most difficult for people to accept (Fischhoff, Lichtenstein, and Slovic 1991). Most recently, attention has focused on inherent risks—often called predispositions. The anticipation of illness, of future risks, has become a preoccupation of our time (Lock 2001). This anticipatory notion of risk, writes Robert Castel (1991), calls for systematic pre-detection of future risks in asymptomatic people—the interpretations of the expert become more important than the perceptions of the person. It has also depoliticized risk, di-

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