9th Conference European Sociological Association

RN22 Sociology of Risk and Uncertainty

2009-09-05 11:00:00 2009-09-05 12:30:00 Saturday, 5 September 11:00 - 12:30 Nuclear Power Building I, 2E4

The societal context of individual risk perception - an empirical investigation of the acceptance of disposal projects for nuclear waste in Switzerland

It is often claimed that when deciding upon a controversial socio-technical system, like for example the siting of a nuclear waste disposal, people tend to refer to risk-benefit considerations. More concretely, research shows that acceptance is positively influenced by perception of benefits and negatively by that of risks. In contrast, the role of unconscious and automatic responses is stressed in the affect heuristic. Here it is showed that positive affect impacts the perception of benefits; negative, on the other hand, that of risks. Further research integrated additional variables like e.g. trust or values.
These effects are mostly discussed from an individualistic perspective neglecting the historical and societal context. We argue that a more encompassing view is necessary, accommodating the different understandings and appraisals of the issue existing in the society. We claim that judgments are not primarily influenced by risk-benefit calculations but more so by non rationalist deliberations. These are normally referred to as affects in risk perception research. We, however, argue that at the societal level, a "societal mood" develops in discourses on the risk object in a broader context, often amplified (or attenuated) through opinion leaders and the mass media. We therefore deliberately use the term prevailing mood as we do not consider actual emotional states as prevalent especially in a situation of low concernedness and among the public at large.
We test our model using a representative postal survey (N = 2?428, response rate 46.1%) in whole Switzerland. Using path analysis, we can show that negative moods have a large influence on acceptance both mediated through trust and risk perception but as well directly. In congruence with this, we can show that positive moods play a comparable role insofar they influence trust and perception of benefits positively and even more acceptance of nuclear waste disposal directly. Hence, the societal context - captured by the "societal mood" - matters. We conclude that acceptance of a nuclear waste disposal is a multilayered phenomenon which defies easy explanations. Hence, risk communication strategies should refrain from simplistic recommendations and rather promote a well informed governance of the societal decision process.