Communication Risk Communication
by
Georg Ruhrmann, Lars Guenther
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0156

Introduction

Many natural disasters and industrial accidents are not unforeseen; in many cases, scientists and other experts have conducted analyses and communicated the potential risks in advance. When a disaster does occur, journalists and the media react immediately. Politicians and administrators, spurred by this media coverage, then begin to work to change laws and regulations. Finally, representatives from the business sector not only change production processes and products but also invest in new research and public relations: this is done to shape media coverage in the event of another accident or disaster and to inform the public and reach acceptance of risks and uncertainty. A theory of risk communication, however, is only beginning to develop. The term risk communication appeared for the first time in the mid-1980s, as an interdisciplinary field bringing together a wide array of disciplines: economics, sociology, psychology, and communication research (Jungermann, et al. 1988; Lundgreen and McKaien 2013, cited under Communication about Risks). Analyses dealing with risk communication describe and explain (1) what persons communicate in what ways about risks, (2) how the mass media covers risks, and (3) what influences the way the general public receives, understands, and uses risk-related information. Based in the United States and beginning in the late 1960s—and supported by several major industrial accidents (e.g., the Bhopal gas leak and the Chernobyl [see Chernousenko 1991] and the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdowns)—a scientific and political controversy was ignited. Key issues were (1) how experts perceive and assess risks; (2) how journalists, the media, and the general public perceive and evaluate risks based on expert opinion; and (3) if a dialogue between experts and non-experts would result in more acceptance toward the undesirable but inevitable consequences of risks. Risk communication research explores the general public’s concerns regarding important scientific findings, technological innovations, and their social consequences, as well as the skepticism of experts, journalists, and information recipients toward uncertain consequences of technological innovations. These forces can be seen both in media coverage about science and in public-relations materials. Risk communication research emphasizes that basic research and innovations are associated with risks but that these risks are necessary to increase wealth and knowledge.

Core Texts

Since the early 1980s, psychologists and sociologists have been major contributors to the scientific foundations of a theory of risk communication. Beck 1992, Douglas and Wildavsky 1983, and Rasborg 2012 combine cultural-sociological and theoretical approaches, Luhmann 2005 provides systems-theoretical considerations, and with Perrow 1984 can be seen a tradition of an organizational-sociological approach. From the very beginning of risk communication research, there has been a general distinction between analytically oriented theoretical and empirical basic research and normatively oriented applied research. In the late 1980s, especially in the United States, both public and private agencies and policy organizations developed, focusing on normatively oriented applied research. Early discussion was guided by the influential report made by US National Research Council Committee on Risk Perception and Communication 1989; this report broadly discussed the interdisciplinary bases of fundamental processes of risk perception, risk communication, and risk. Renn 2008 summarizes twenty years of risk communication research in this area. See also Lundgreen and McKaien 2013, cited under Communication about Risks, which presents both basic theoretical underpinnings and relevant applications of risk communication. Special attention is given to planning, conception, implementation, and evaluation of effective risk communication. Prominent examples include the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, the 2010 BP oil spill, and the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

  • Beck, Ulrich. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London and New Delhi: SAGE.

    E-mail Citation »

    Ulrich Beck, a leading contemporary sociologist, focuses on the basic concepts underlying trends in modern societies toward individualization or institutionalization. Beck discusses socioeconomic inequality and political theories of knowledge (keyword “concurrence of rationalities”).

  • Chernousenko, Vladimir M. 1991. Chernobyl: Insight from the Inside. Berlin: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-76453-0E-mail Citation »

    This piece, written by the Scientific Director of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, is one of the first instructive and critical descriptions and explanations of the explosion that took place at Block 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power station.

  • Douglas, Mary, and Aaron Wildavsky. 1983. Risk and culture: An essay on the selection of technological and environmental dangers. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    This influential theoretical work on risk and culture deals with sociologically relevant dimensions of problems and risks. These problems arise analytically from a matrix of certain and uncertain technical and scientific knowledge, as well as from points of agreement and dissent in the field of risk communication.

  • Jungermann, Helmut, Roger E. Kasperson, and Peter M. Wiedemann, eds. 1988. Risk communication. Jülich, Germany: Kernforschungsanlage Jülich.

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    One of the first books published in Germany about risk communication. It concentrates on the media’s reporting of risk information, trust and credibility in risk communication, the right to know, community dynamics, disaster and crisis communication, and conceptual frames for describing the public perception of risk.

  • Luhmann, Niklas. 2005. Risk: A sociological theory. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine Transaction.

    E-mail Citation »

    This highly influential sociological, systems-theoretical monograph defines risks in relation to hazards, whereby a risk is the unexpected and harmful unforeseen result of a decision. Luhmann demonstrates how different autonomous sub-systems of modern society (e.g., economy, politics, culture, and science) deal with specific forms of risks.

  • Perrow, Charles. 1984. Normal accidents: Living with high-risk technologies. New York: Basic Books.

    E-mail Citation »

    This Yale University sociologist analyzes the organization of unforeseen possible risks of technological systems ranging from nuclear power plants to chemical factories, as well as in fields such as general genetic research. Perrow argues that these risks can be traced back to the systematic properties of large-scale systems.

  • Rasborg, Klaus. 2012. “(World) risk society” or “new rationalities of risk”? A critical discussion of Ulrich Beck’s theory of reflexive modernity. Thesis Eleven 108:3–25.

    DOI: 10.1177/0725513611421479E-mail Citation »

    Deals with relevant contradictions of the risk society, respectively the reflexive modernization. While Beck mainly discusses social constructivist and technologically driven realist notions of risks based on the sociology of knowledge, Rasborg calls for analyses of the changing cultural self-understanding of late modern society, referred to as new “semantic of crisis.”

  • Renn, Ortwin. 2008. Risk governance: Coping with Uncertainty in a complex world. London: Earthscan.

    E-mail Citation »

    Based on extensive insight into research on risks, Renn provides an extensive overview of the principles and conditions of risk communication. He also focuses on the criteria and guidelines for effective risk communication.

  • US National Research Council Committee on Risk Perception and Communication. 1989. Improving risk communication. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This report was compiled by a committee of authorities in this field, including B. Fishoff, N. Schudson, P. Tannebaum, and D. von Winterfeldt. It provides an excellent and comprehensive overview of the origins of the psychological, natural scientific, and sociological basic research in risk communication, risk perception, and risk communication.

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