About the research

Politics and Risk Communication

How can we understand the emergence of patterned social behavior while living in a post-traditional society? Markets, media coverage and education for sure are part of the answer. In our research program, we focus on politics and especially policy making as cultural forces. Policy processes provide the basis for socialization: interaction and framing in policy practices shape modern citizens’ everyday experience of risk and uncertainty.

This project examines the effects of risk communication on risk perception. We compare different political risk communication approaches on electromagnetic fields (EMF) which vary in their discourse on health and risk and in the degree of citizens’ political control. The fear of health effects of a new technology, here mobile telecommunication, might be triggered by the way that scientific uncertainty surrounding these EMF is discursively constructed in interaction between citizens, health authorities and politicians. Therefore we examine the effect of the political context by means of a comparative panel study. If the policy discourse is of importance, we have to vary the policy to see its effect.

To be able to observe this effect and to assess possible changes in politics the research is longitudinal and cross-national and includes six cases in the Netherlands and two in California, USA. In each case, a panel of citizens is followed before, during and after being informed about the siting of a mobile phone mast in their neighborhood. We include a theoretically relevant sample of the people addressed in a specific communication event and a for the Netherlands representative control panel. Psychometric surveys are used to assess changes in EMF risk perception. Qualitative interviews and participation in communication events are used to assess peoples’ frame of mind and their relation to the policy discourse. This way, we combine the comparability of quantitative measures with the in-depth information of qualitative measures.

There are two major gains in this project. First, it will provide recommendations how to communicate about EMF and health, including an outline for an optimal approach. Second, the results contribute to risk theory and particularly the pertinent question where peoples’ worries come from. In general, we contribute to the question where social patterns come from when traditional institutions are weakened.

This project runs from 2010 to 2015 and is financed by the Netherlands Organization for Health Research and Development (ZonMW, Project 8560002) at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam in collaboration with the Amsterdam Public Health Services (GGD Amsterdam).

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