M.B. de Graaff
Research question and design
The exponential growth of wireless technologies in the past two decades has a marked material footprint in cell sites that hold the antennas that comprise the cellular network on which handheld wireless devices depend. The development of this network, i.e. the deployment of cell sites, is embraced and embattled at the same time. It is being pushed for in policy and through consumer demand, while the possible health effects of the radio-frequent electromagnetic fields (EMF) the antennas emit are the focus of protest by citizens who are being confronted with these antennas in their living environment. The occurrence and intensity of these protests differ. Where do citizens’ concerns about health effects come from? How do these local protests emerge, and why are some cell sites heatedly debated, while others are constructed without any complaint? This research aims to answer these questions by focusing on the relation between the risk politics and citizens’ experiences of this technological development.
The regulation of technological development and their environmental health risks has moved from a top-down government perspective to one of ‘governance’ in response to declines in trust and the legitimacy of science and government to deal with these issues. Central to this move is a participatory turn, which argues for citizen participation in decision making on science and technology. This turn is being criticized as being merely rhetorical when citizens are not allowed to define what to talk about and how to talk about it, and, at the same time, as disregarding professional, expert knowledge thought to be necessary for properly valuing what is at stake in decision making on science and technology. The debate on the proper shape and practice of the governance of science and technology is somewhat obscured because the effects of these practices are unclear. For example, it has been found that risk communication practices that intended to sooth citizens’ worries instead raise their concerns. What is lacking, especially, is an understanding of the effects of risk governance practices in everyday life, an understanding to which this research aims to contribute.
Cell site deployment offers a case to examine the emergence of citizens’ concerns about technological development in relation to the governance of scientific uncertainties and health risks. The core question that guides this research is:
How do citizens experience cell site deployment, and to what extent and in which ways can this be explained by its risk governance?
The theoretical aim of this question is twofold. First, it aims to contribute to social movement research. It achieves this by exploring the mechanisms through which policy discourse ‘resonates’ in citizens’ experiences in both contentious and not contentious situations. Second, it aims to contribute to the sociology of risk and uncertainty. This is accomplished by exploring the effects of risk governance through a contextualized understanding of risk and uncertainty in the context of everyday life. These two ambitions are combined in a ‘feedback model of risk politics’. This research focuses on the dynamics and dialectics involved in the construction of social problems in concrete political interactions. It argues that, through these interactions, citizens’ experiences of a social problem can indeed be disciplined by a policy discourse. However, citizens’ experiences of a social problem are not blank slates, and through civic engagement they can contribute to the construction of a social problem that, in turn, affects policy discourse. The model emphasizes discursive processes of framing and feeling, the intertwined dynamics of political interactions and everyday life, and in particular the emergence of citizens’ experiences and the contributions citizens might make to the development of policy discourse.
To grasp these intertwined dynamics, this research is designed primarily as a multi-level and longitudinal mixed-method study of cell site deployment in the Netherlands and Southern California. It follows closely the practices of governmental officials, industry professionals and active citizens on the national and local levels, through interviews with informants, observations of political interactions and document analysis. Citizens’ experiences are tracked over time through mixed-method panel studies in situations where a decision-making process on a cell site is ongoing. These panel studies combine survey, interview and observational data. This design avoids a focus on citizens’ concerns and protest, in line with recent methodological critiques on social movement research. In particular, it contributes to the scarce research over time on the development of citizens’ experiences of risk and uncertainty.
A depoliticizing discourse
In the governing of cell site deployment in the Netherlands and California, cell site deployment is made into a particular kind of social problem that delineates citizens’ rights and duties in order to address it. The practices of industry and policy focus on the rollout of the network, precaution to the EMF health effects, the design of the cell sites and, exclusive to the Netherlands, care for people who claim to suffer from EMF exposure. These practices imply different kinds of citizenship, respectively, a consumer-citizen, a passive and generalized citizen, an active citizen and a victim-as-citizen. Together, these practices bring the policy discourse to light, which centers on a technological imperative and a process of medicalization. Cell site deployment was medicalized through policy practices years before citizens started to protest cell site deployment on its potential health effects. Today, these practices consciously and reflexively depoliticize cell site deployment. Citizen protest and involvement in decision making on cell site deployment is more often seen as a problem than a solution, and societal unrest is, preventatively, managed. These depoliticizing practices, although successfully contributing to the construction of the network, have unintended effects, chief amongst which is the sustained controversy on the possible health effects of RF EMF.
Resonance and feedback in contentious interactions
These unintended effects are a first indication of the feedback of citizens to the construction of a social problem. Depoliticizing practices that intend to move specific decision-making processes outside of the political realm can, instead, lead to a politicization of such decision making. The resonance of the policy discourse is clear in contentious interactions. Active citizens strategically learn how to argue against cell sites by sensing and seizing the (discursive) opportunities available to them. These efforts are structured according to what is legitimate given the policy discourse. The most active citizens on the national level in the Netherlands are those claiming to suffer from exposure to EMF: electro(hyper)sensitivity (ES) sufferers. How ES sufferers deal with their condition is successfully shaped by the discourse of EMF and health policy on this contested ‘condition’. ES sufferers are part of different stakeholder groups, and care for ES sufferers has been put on the agenda, without an acknowledgement of the supposed cause of their condition. This partial victory shows the strengths and limitations of (active) bio-citizenship. ES sufferers only create an incremental change in the definition of what is at stake and how one can, legitimately, feel about it.
We find that policy discourse resonates somewhat differently in particular situations in which cell site deployment occurs. By following sixteen cases of local protest against cell sites in the Netherlands, it becomes clear that specific, situational, problem definitions can affect the courses and outcomes of these protests. Local authorities and active citizens are able to provide feedback to the discourse through which the discourse itself can shift. Changes in legitimate ways of framing and feeling can be radical when municipalities align with citizens’ concerns and challenge the national level policy discourse. The more intense, inclusive and authoritative municipalities’ engagements with protesting citizens are, the larger this effect appears to be. This can lead, in extreme cases, to the removal of cell sites and durable changes in national policy.
Citizens’ experiences of cell site deployment
To grasp the more mundane practice of cell site deployment and its effect on citizens’ everyday lives, the population level is, in the Netherlands, explored first, between October 2012 and December 2014. This shows how Dutch citizens’ experiences of cell site deployment involve much more than health risks. Dutch citizens do worry about cell sites’ health risk, but their concerns are, just as those in the USA, relatively low in comparison to other European countries. This (generalized) experience is, despite a polarization between benefit and burden, stable between October 2012 and December 2014. These analyses provide for a first understanding of the resonance of the policy discourse in everyday life because citizens’ framings can be brought in line with the national level policy discourse. It is even clearer that the ongoing depoliticization of cell site deployment has not stirred more concern amongst citizens but also has not diminished it over time.
These population level insights provide for a background to follow the flow of interactions of eight local decision-making processes and to explore the influence of these interactions on citizens’ experiences in everyday life. These cases show how cell site deployment happens through long-term, dynamic and backstage decision-making processes, which are repetitive and desynchronized with the construction of cell sites. The information provided by authorities and industry professionals repeats and strengthens framing and feeling rules from the depoliticizing policy discourse. Health concerns are, locally, not legitimate arguments to halt cell site construction, and only the specific location of a cell site is left open to citizens’ advice. These dynamics make it difficult for citizens, but also for local authorities, to control cell site deployment. Citizen engagement is, in some cases, actively sought by local authorities, and in half of the cases a citizen engages in political action. The reach of official information and direct risk communication on cell site deployment seems limited. Instead, local media and information provided through local networks appear more important to citizens’ experiences than official governmental information. Citizens also search for information themselves, with the emergence of such activities seemingly provoked by governmental information, especially when it leaves particular questions on health risks unanswered.
The local interactions in the eight decision-making processes have a limited effect on citizens’ experiences. Citizens take different positions towards cell site deployment, ranging from indifference to alarm. The more they engage with cell site deployment in everyday life, the more negative emotions are managed, such as doubt, shame and fear. Through mobilizing existing emotional attachments to place, community, the technology and local politics, citizens generally create a large distance to cell site deployment in an everyday life that is filled with more pressing problems. Cell site deployment is made into a ‘far from my bed show’ and prevented from making an impact in everyday life, in line with the depoliticizing policy discourse. In light of this distance taking, but also because of rather stable local definitions of the problem, it is not surprising that the majority of citizens are unmoved by the eight decision-making processes.
At the same time, a significant amount of respondents appear to be influenced by the decision-making processes, which shows in subtle and gradual shifts in their experiences of cell site deployment. Political interactions and citizen engagement influence the intensity and direction of citizens’ experiences. When citizens experience little control, these dynamics can lead them to feel concerned about cell site deployment. This is different when citizens are actively involved, learn the discourse and experience control in the process. Here, citizens seem at ease over time. This relation between political interactions and citizens’ experiences is more diffuse when both local authorities and citizens are actively engaged. These cases show that local interactions appear to induce concern when they are disconnected from citizens’ expectations on what the decision making should be about.
Engaging with risk politics
This research shows how a policy discourse on cell site deployment resonates in citizens’ experiences of the technology over time, and it makes clear that citizens’ experiences can, at times, feed back into cell site risk politics. These observations blur clear cause and effect relations between policy creation and citizens’ experiences. The development of policy can be dynamic, just like citizens’ experiences, and these dynamics can intertwine in the construction of a social problem. In the construction of cell site deployment as a health risk, the policy discourse takes historical precedence to citizens’ protest, and, in general, the policy discourse appears to structure citizens’ experiences of the technology. Similar policies in the Netherlands and California emerged that aim to avoid the mobilization of citizens on a particular cell site by hiding antennas in plain sight and centralizing the health debate on a national or federal level in explicit response to these protests. These protests, in turn, can be fueled precisely by the opportunities available in these policies. Citizens’ engagement can help constitute what is legitimate to do, say and feel in a particular situation. Such engagement can consist of political mobilization or of a rather subtle positioning, which, despite its subtlety, is nonetheless part of the social construction of what is at stake when a technology is being deployed. Citizens’ experiences are, therefore, not fully disciplined by an issue-specific policy discourse, as their everyday lives are much broader. To make sense of a potentially risky technological development is an ongoing process of framing managing feelings. This process is embedded in concrete interactions, existing emotional attachments and experiences. A policy discourse can provide a context for citizens’ experiences, depending on the specific situation and citizens’ degree of engagement with policy practice. Today, the dynamics of policy creation and citizens’ experiences lead, in the case of cell site deployment, to a rather stable policy discourse and citizens experiencing this technological development in a similarly stabilized way.
These findings emphasize that citizens can be worthy participants in risk politics, potential political agents similar to local authorities, industry professionals and scientists. The influence of the risk politics on cell site deployment in citizens’ everyday lives is currently rather indirect. The lack of large differences between citizens’ experiences of cell site deployment in the cases in California and the Netherlands, despite the former cases having intensive community outreach and citizen notification programs, shows how information and participation in themselves are not enough to involve citizens in a meaningful way. This research suggests that citizens’ engagement with risk issues, such as through community meetings, is helpful in abating unrest only when this is done in relation to the existing experiences of citizens. This is particularly the case in relation to their emotional attachments to place and community and when it provides an experience of control over the problem at the same time. This suggestion contrasts with the ongoing effort to avoid societal unrest on cell site deployment, but this effort has not resulted in citizens feeling less concern nor has it ended local protests or scientific uncertainties. Instead, we could more explicitly engage with citizens’ everyday lives and aim for a pragmatic understanding of the different ways and situations in which citizens experience risk and uncertainty. In so doing, we could try to embrace uncertainty and controversy and explore the doubts and fears of all actors involved in decision making on science and technology.