Inflexibility in the Social Construction of Risk
Perhaps there was a time when deference to the authority of scientists and engineers on matters of technology and risk was assured, but not today. By means of advertising campaigns and court proceedings, advocacy groups publicly challenge expert risk assessment on technologies as diverse as genetically modified organisms, high-power transmission lines, and vaccines. By investigating these controversies, social scientists have accumulated valuable information regarding the social construction of risk. A common conclusion is that advocacy groups are quite flexible with frames and rhetorical devices and that these are primarily driven in response to the strategies and tactics of their adversaries. Although not denying this co-constructive process, I argue in this paper that more attention should be paid to organizational constraints on characterizing risk. A shift in perspective is recommended: Rather than exclusively focus on the demands of the external environment (the adversaries, the policy process), investigators should consider internal conditions which may determine certain constructions of risk. In addition to the general public and regulators, social scientists should recognize a third audience crucial to advocacy groups—their membership. This approach is informed by the literature on social movement organizations (SMOs) and, in particular, resource mobilization. It is noted that SMOs depend on members for financial support and participation in events, and leaders do well to please and not alienate their base. Likewise, I assert that spokespersons of advocacy groups take care to characterize risk in a way consistent with the world view and value set held by their respective base. Examples are presented for organizations promoting women’s rights, environmental protection, and conservative Christian ideals.
Keywords: Social Construction of Risk, Risk Assessment, Technology Controversy, Social Movement Organization, Resource Mobilization
Dr. Stephen Lilley
Associate Professor, Sociology & Social Work Department, Sacred Heart University