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International Journal of Medical Microbiology 296 (2006) S1, 5–10 Different concepts of risk – A challenge for risk communication Department of Sociology of Technology and Environment, University of Stuttgart, Seidenstr. 36, D-70174 Stuttgart, Germany Although communication belongs to the everyday activities of humans, there is no common understanding of what communication means. Several concepts of communication developed in the communication sciences are describedand analyzed in their consequence for the communication about risk. It is shown that successful communication has aset of requirements: a common set of signs and symbols and common moral understandings, experiences, and values.
This is a fundamental problem of risk communication because research on risk perception has shown that theunderstanding of the term ‘risk’ varies substantially between lay people and scientific experts. While the scientific riskconcept is evidence-based and focused, the public addresses uncertainty and a wider range of potential problems.
Accordingly, risk communication has to address a wider range of topics, not only factual evidence and probabilities,but also the problem of the definition of expected negative outcomes and the evaluation of these outcomes. Not onlythe problem of how to define risks plays a major role in risk communication, but also institutional performance,expertise, and experience – gaining institutional trust is one of major challenges of risk communication. As aconsequence, the understanding of risk communication, where experts inform the public about risks, has a high risk tofail. Modern concepts of risk communication propose a different conceptualization of the problem: Riskcommunication is not a task where bits of information are transported from the sender to the recipient of thecommunication but a process, where both sender and recipient interact in order to develop a common frame for theunderstanding of the problem.
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Keywords: Communication; Risk; Expert-lay division discussed in the media, and the way we deal with risksdiffers from situation to situation. While on the one Risk has become a topic of almost universal hand, assurances benefit from our needs to reduce risks, importance in modern, highly industrialized countries.
on the other hand, people are searching for risks and Debates about risk dominate the discussions on sports-like bungee jumping, parachuting, and diving technologies-like nuclear energy and modern biotech- nology. Risk is an almost universal concept. Although Risk research has shown that the basic understanding being almost omnipresent, risk is still not a uniform of risks differs within societies. Scientists differ in their object. There are enormous discrepancies in the way understanding of risks and there are also different how risks are defined, perceived, and evaluated. The understandings of risks between lay people and scientific risks of various daily routines and activities are experts (). Communication about risk is notnecessarily addressing the same topics. For that reason, risk communication is gaining more and more impor- Tel.: +49 711 6858 4293; fax: +49 711 6858 2487.
E-mail address:
tance for an effective and efficient risk management.
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doi:10.1016/j.ijmm.2005.12.002 J. Hampel / International Journal of Medical Microbiology 296 (2006) S1, 5–10 But communication is contingent and not self-evident.
and are defined within a certain cultural context and Experiences have shown that a differentiated under- cannot claim to be the same in other social contexts. The standing of the conditions of communication about risk recipient is not just perceiving the information, but is necessary for an effective communication. In order to actively reconstructing the meaning. It is only possible do this, we first analyze ‘communication’ in order to be to conclude from the reactions of the recipient, whether able to develop a frame for risk communication. In a or not, this reconstruction is identical with the ideas of second step, different concepts of risk will be discussed the sender. For these reasons, successful communication and their consequences for the problem of risk commu-  a common set of signs and symbols; common moral understandings, experiences, and Communication belongs to the everyday activities of While in direct communication, feedback loops allow human beings and even animals. Nevertheless, there is to clarify communication problems, mass communica- no general consensus about what communication means and how communication works. In different socialspheres, we can find different understandings of the term communication, namely in technology and in thesocial sciences. collected 160 different The discussion of communication processes has definitions of communication. The classical communica- shown that successful communication needs at least a tion model is a simple stimulus-response model: common set of signs and symbols. Among these signs A communicator is sending a stimulus, what may be a and symbols are terms. Like the term ‘communication’, message or an information, to a recipient ( also the term ‘risk’ has not a specific, exactly defined or, in other words, communication is a transmis- meaning. The general nucleus of the term ‘risk’ is that it turns the uncontrollable, fate, into something that can communication is closely related to the understanding be calculated. ‘Risk’ was introduced in the 14th century of communication in communication technology, where bits of information are transported from a sender to a merchants to cope with losses of ships. Since then, the concept of risk has gained an enormous importance for tion model which still dominates the understanding of the self-reflection of modern societies. According to the communication, as a ‘Containermodell’ (‘container German sociologist Ulrich Beck, modern societies can model’). The information is the container which is sent be labelled as ‘risk societies’ because risk has become the from one harbour to another. The meaning of the information is defined by the sender and the meaning of According to the technical understanding, risks can be the information can be transferred from one context to another without interferences. When getting the infor- mation, the recipients are easily able to decode thismeaning. Deviations in the understanding of the mean- where W is the probability, that a damage will occur and ing are caused either by a lack of ability of the recipients S the expectation of the magnitude of the damage. This to understand what was meant or by ambivalent definition of risk has the advantage that it allows to messages from the sender of the information. But compare risks. The scientific risk concept plays a empirical research has shown that the implicit assump- prominent role not only in the sciences themselves, but tions of this communication model, that communication also in regulatory contexts, as can be seen in the is just the transfer of a stimulus, is unrealistic.
The social sciences deal with communication as a form of social interaction. The understanding of The scientific concept of risk gives on the one hand communication which has been developed in the social the opportunity to compare risks, but in order to do so, sciences has a higher level of complexity and several some requirements are needed: It is necessary to have a opportunities for interferences. While the container consensus, how W and S have to be defined and how model assumes, that communication is independent they have to be measured. And there is also a need for from its context, social scientists emphasize the context- enough statistical data to be able to make meaningful statistical analyses. This is the case with assurances.
nication is not just signal transmission, but a mutual Assurances know from experience, how likely it is that construction of sense. The sender is not sending certain damage will occur. In this understanding, it is information but signs and symbols which have meanings known what the risks are and how likely they are in a J. Hampel / International Journal of Medical Microbiology 296 (2006) S1, 5–10 society; it is only unknown, when and to whom this emphasizes analysis of risks which does not focus on expectable specific damage will occur.
past experiences but towards the future. Not only are But this consensus cannot be taken for granted for the immediate consequences of an activity taken into other fields of risk. Different understandings of risks are account, but also long-term and side effects. So not a deviation from a normal calculable situation but uncertainty is at the core of this understanding of risk, the normal case. This becomes clearer when we look at a uncertainty not only about the question, when damage recent definition of risk. define risk as will occur, but also uncertainty about the question, what ‘a situation or event in which something of human value type of damage should be expected. Different to the (including humans themselves) has been put at stake and scientific risk definition, which refers to experience and where the outcome is uncertain’. Whether or not a scientific evidence, the new or evolutionary concept of certain issue or thing is of human value requires value risk refers to the future development, which cannot be judgements which cannot be done in an objective way.
foreseen. The uncertainty even increases, because side This means that risks are not real phenomena but that effects and long-term effects can only be determined in a they originate in the human mind (they are limited way. Reflecting these uncertainties, there is no scientific method available to distinguish between ‘real’ risks and ‘phantom’ risks. The extension of the risk So different questions have to be answered (following concept requires a new time perspective for the analysis of risks. The discussion on the precautionary principledemonstrates the consequences of this new, uncertainty- centred approach to deal with risks (e.g.  What types of outcome and their consequences are  What are the intended and what are the unintended  How are the concepts of possibility and outcome It becomes more and more important, which under-  Who is the actor that judges the questions above? standing of risk is applied in a specific context. Thisrefers to the problem of risk perception. Already in its Consensus on these questions cannot be taken for beginnings, risk research also looked at subjective risks granted. Any of these questions can be answered consensually or it can be the cause of intense debates it is perceived by the individual or by the public as and even conflicts. These debates are of particular aggregation of individuals. Risk perception is a mis- importance if they are associated with regulation.
leading term. Being a mental construct, risks cannot beperceived like trees or apples, it is the active constructionof the risk. According to individual risk perception is both, a function ofindividual cognitions and motivations as well as a Reflecting these questions, which can be answered in function of the social, political, and cultural environ- very different ways, it is not surprising that there are ment. Most of the empirical work on risk perception has different understandings of risks in society. New risk been done dealing with the topic how the public concepts developed in the social sciences attempt to deal perceives risks of modern technologies.
with the social complexity of risks. Social scientists Risk perception is influenced by a series of risk developed the concepts of ‘new risks’ (), ‘second-order risks’ Published soon after Conventional risk indicators like losses of life are not determining the personal risk perception. Risk percep- assumes, that a new type of risk emerged that can be tion depends on the context of the risky situation. Trust neither contained nor compensated and that affects not in institutions plays an important role as well as the only the producers of risks but also others. As a perceived benefits and the fairness of the distribution of consequence of the technological and scientific develop- the risks and benefits. Risks are perceived as being ments of the classic modernity, ‘risk’ becomes the higher when there is one single catastrophic event central concept for the description of modern societies.
instead of numerous small events distributed in space and time, when people are not used to a risk, when the emphasize the time dimension of risk analysis. While the mechanism leading to a risk is not understood, when it is traditional risk approach is oriented at experiences and unclear what the potential damages are, when the empirical evidence, the evolutionary concept of risk person feels in subjective control of the risk, when the J. Hampel / International Journal of Medical Microbiology 296 (2006) S1, 5–10 ‘Unjust’ distribution of benefits and risks ‘Just’ distribution of benefits and risks Trustworthy institution in charge ofcontrol and regulation aIs there one single catastrophic event or are there numerous small events distributed in space and time? risk is imposed by others, when the effects of a risk are the evolutionary development of humans and the delayed, when there are also risks for the future, when the effects are irreversible, when people think that thepersons who have the benefits are not the same personslike those who have the risks, when there are no institutions in charge with the control and regulation ofthe risk which are perceived as being trustworthy, and Research on risk perception has shown that the public when risks are caused by humans instead of acts of has its own way to deal with risks which is not the same nature or God? As a consequence of this pattern of risk way scientists assess risks and that risk perception by the perception, technological risks are overemphasized, public is not necessarily less ‘rational’ than risk while ‘natural’ risks, like tick-bites, are underestimated.
estimates by experts. Applying the container model of One of the main results of this research, which is communication and the scientific risk concept, risk mainly associated with the name of Paul , is communication is a rather simple task. Communication that the public has a different concept of risk than the means to inform the public about the risk as it was scientific or technical experts. Some of the heuristics of defined by scientists. To improve the effects of commu- nication, communication skills can be trained and are misleading. As the communication scientist concepts of marketing and advertising can be applied.
Peter notes, ‘The risks that kill you are This concept of risk communication has its internal not necessarily the risk that anger and frighten you.’ To problems because mathematical terms and probability quote an example, the likelihood, that a single event will figures are misleading in the communication with the occur, increases, when this event is cognitive available.
One critical implication is that information about a risk But there are not only technical problems. Ignoring may lead to an overestimation of the risk. Information the broader understanding of risks applied by the about safety measures given by a medical doctor may public, this communication has only limited effects.
increase the perception that damage may occur.
But it would be misleading to discuss the public’s view risk communication which means that experts deliver on risk as a bad deviation of the scientist’s view on risks.
information to the public. Being that complex, inform- Studies have shown, that lay people are able to estimate ing the public about the risks as they are defined by the outcomes of risky activities rather well and that lay scientists is only one goal of risk communication.
people estimates are highly correlated with the estima- lay people perceive risks as complex, multidimensionalphenomena (). Different from  Education and enlightenment: The objective is to the scientific understanding of risk, which concentrates inform about risks and the handling of these risks.
on one single risky activity and excludes its context from  Risk training and inducement of behavioural changes: the risk analysis, institutional and cultural variables play a major role in the perception of risk. Perceived risk is  Confidence in institutions of risk assessment and risk different from the expert’s definition of risk and reflects management: To assure people that the existing J. Hampel / International Journal of Medical Microbiology 296 (2006) S1, 5–10 governance structures are capable of handling risk in between lay people and experts. The scientific concept of an effective, efficient, fair, and acceptable manner.
risk which tries to operationalize risks in an inter-  Involvement in risk-related decisions and conflict personally reliable way, is only accepted within the resolution: To give stakeholders and representatives scientific communication, or even more, within parts of of the public the opportunity to participate in the risk the scientific communication. For that reason, risk assessment and to be included in the resolution of communication is more likely to reach its goal when it is not based on the scientific concept of risk within theinformation mode of communication, but when it refers Only the first two tasks can be handled more or less to the public’s understanding of risk. As a consequence, easily by scientists, when only the information problem risk communication is not just information but a process has to be solved, especially, when the public is unaware where a reflexive mode increases the probability that it of risks which had been detected by scientists. For the other functions, a broader communicative approach isrequired and communication is not only on the technical dimension of risk. distinguish,based on , three levels of Back, K.W., 1962. The behavior of scientists: communication and creativity. Sociol. Inq. 32, 82–87.
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