An Intersubjective Approach to the Social Amplification of Zoonotic Risk
Management Science Lancaster University Management School Lancaster, United Kingdom
Zoonotic risks, for example "bird flu", exhibit rich social contours linking human well being to animals in complex relationships.
The Social Amplification of Risk Framework or SARF (Kasperson, Renn et al. 1988) portrays risks following consequential trajectories under the influence of "social stations of amplification". "Amplification" is held to be a phenomenon whereby perceptions of risks "that experts assess as relatively low..." (Kasperson, Kasperson et al. 2003:13) become heightened over time leading to serious consequences such as economic losses.
We visited "stations" looking for the risk amplifiers and found none: We conducted grounded, qualitative research within the institutions tasked with the management of zoonotic risk, with the media widely charged by SARF exponents as being amplifiers, and within other lay and expert groups, looking at how these actors understood zoonotic hazards and we found that no group or individual saw themselves as amplifiers of risk. What we did find were subjects readily identifying "amplification stations" elsewhere. Subjects pointed the finger at other individuals, groups, or institutions and accused them of disproportionate response to risk.
Our findings are consistent with Rayner´s reservations about SARF (1988): That it naively implies an initial, objective level of risk, reifying risk and placing it outside the social system subject only to "amplification" once it enters that system . But as Rayner correctly states; "neither risk nor information are things; They are complex relationships..." (ibid:202) Our data shows "amplification" to be useful as a relational concept.
As data was gathered a picture developed of actors concerned not exclusively with risk objects, for example the highly pathogenic avian influenza, but also significantly concerned with other actors, for example, the Bernard Mathews operation. Actors saw other actors variously downplaying risks or exaggerating them for a complex variety of reasons.
This view of disproportionate risk perception and risk related behaviour as an intersubjective phenomenon transcends the limitations of SARF´s of signal/receiver metaphor, and the theoretically problematic implication that risk signals have an objective value. It further promises progress toward building "the capacity to identify relationships between the various components of SARF" (Breakwell and Barnett 2003:84) by exploring how "stations" coexist.