chapter  14
18 Pages

Risk communication and participatory research: ‘fuzzy felt’, visual games and group discussion of complex issues


Introduction Psychological research has shown that the general public often perceives and acts in the face of risk in ways that are very different from those responsible for assessing, managing and communicating these risks (see, e.g., Fischhoff, 2009 for a review). Powell and Leiss (1997) interpreted these differences in terms of two languages of risk: a ‘public’ language grounded in social and intuitive knowledge (see also Tulloch and Lupton, 2003) and an expert or ‘scientific’ language grounded in scientific, specialised and statistical knowledge. ‘Public’ risk language takes account of qualitative aspects of the threat (e.g. the amount of control people perceive they have; how familiar/unfamiliar it seems) whereas ‘scientific’ risk language is founded on formal models that define risk as the product of the likelihood of some event and the impact, value or utility of its outcome (French et al., 2009). These differences have important implications that have, until comparatively recently, been largely ignored by risk communicators. On the one hand, public audiences often have difficulty making sense of the specialised, statistical basis of professional risk assessments, so tend to ignore communications based on them, or draw conclusions that are different from those intended. Until recently, risk communicators have aimed to resolve such problems by investigating how people interpret statistical risk information, and then sought to improve the presentation of this information accordingly (e.g. Berry, 2004; Gigerenzer, 2002). On the other hand, such communications often fail to address issues of concern to the multiple and varied ‘publics’ they address,1 so are thought to be irrelevant and are ignored, contributing to problems of mistrust and miscommunication between experts and publics (see, e.g. Wynne, 1995).