Learning Lab Denmark - INCUBEus

Cultural Theory

As opposed to other theories about risk, Cultural Theory starts with the assumption that individuals within a society have very different values and beliefs about how society ought to be. People have differing 'cultural biases' or 'ideologies', which are socially created, often incompatible, and mediated through intersubjective value systems. These ideologies determine people's understanding of the world.

Cultural theory acknowledges that the diversity of world views within one society might result in reciprocal blind spots, making it really hard to understand each other. But on the other hand, the diversity of world views provides security against one-track solutions for society as a whole. Diversity and incombatibility among beliefs and value systems might thus be a painful experience for a democratic society seeking consensus decisions, but they are nevertheless perceived as a positive attribute by cultural theorists.

Communication about risk among members of society should therefore be directed towards the creation of shared meaning and trust. Although competing views may remain in conflict due to irreconcilable differences, one should seek a fair solution, respecting ideological differences and cultural biases. This might not be easy, but since fairness and equity are widely held social norms, they should be of primary concern for decision-makers.

In contrast to cultural theory, the so-called objective approaches to risk, like quantitative risk assessment, decision analysis and cost-benefit analysis, set acceptable risk thresholds according to toxicological or epidemiological data, thereby treating vulnerable population groups like children, pregnant women, elderly, etc. systematically unfair. This is the case because the mathematical models are based on probabilistic risk assesment methods, maybe giving 95 percent of the population adequate safety, but ignoring the hypersensitive last five percent. This is in conflict with moral norms of fairness and neutrality.

On these grounds, the cultural theory of risk proposes a different distinction between acceptable and unacceptable risks. Acceptable risks are those that do not pose a threat to cultural diversity. Unacceptable risks, in contrast, threaten the culture by undermining the foundations of the socio-cultural fabric as a whole.

Cultural Theory acknowledges, accepts and offers explanations for the clash of cultural orientations within modern societies. But how to create a shared understanding of risk when the culturally biased world views cannot be shared? The only way is to produce meanings that lie outside the territory of individual cultural biases (Wynne 1992). Thus, effective social policy depends on successful creation of shared meaning among - not within - cultural groups, and this can only happen through social interaction and open dialogue.

Further reading
Douglas, M.T., Wildavsky, A.B. (1983). Risk and Culture: an Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Rayner, S., Cantor, R. (1987). "How Fair is Safe Enough? The Cultural Approach to Social Technology Choice." Risk Analysis 7, no. 1, pp. 3-9.

Wynne, B. (1982). "Institutional Mythologies and Dual Societies in the Management of Risk". In The Risk Analysis Controversy. An Institutional Perspective, eds. Kunreuther, H.C., Levy, E.V., Springer Verlag, Berlin.

Wynne, B. (1992). "Risk and Social Learning: Reification to Engagement." In Social Theories of Risk, eds. Krimsky, S., Golding, D., pp. 275-297, Westport, CT:Praeger.

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Nine Technologies

A. Air Transport
B. Buildings
C. Land Transport
D. Marine Transport
E. Bridges and Dams
F. Oil Tankers
G. Chemical Industry
H. Medical Industry
I. Nuclear Industry

Nine Theories

Quantitative Risk Assessment
Decision Analysis
Cost-benefit Analysis
Normal Accident Theory
High Reliability Organisations
Risk communication
Arena Theory
Cultural Theory

Five Categories

Hazard (0-1000)
Range (km2)
Fear Factor (0-10)
Media Effect (0-100)