Using Corpus Linguistics for Sociological Research: Discourse-Semantic Changes of “Risk” in the New York Times, 1987-2014

Monday, 11 July 2016: 15:00
Location: Hörsaal 46 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Jens ZINN, University of Melbourne, Australia
The notion of risk has become pervasive in societal discourses and scholarly debate. From early work on risk and culture to the risk society, from governmentality theorists to modern systems theory all have built their work around the notion of risk and implicitly or explicitly refer to linguistic changes. Though this body of literature offers different explanations for the shift towards risk and its connection to social change, to date there has been no attempt to empirically examine their relative ability to explain this change in the communication of possible harm to advance theorizing.

The presentation will present a study on the discourse semantic shift towards risk utilising a corpus-based investigation of risk words in a number of US newspapers from 1987 to 2014. The study supports Mary Douglas’s claim that the meaning of risk is shifting towards the negative end. There is also good evidence that risk is an increasingly common experience but characterised by decreasing individual control. Decreasing agency in risk processes supports assumptions that the individualisation of risk in the news is accompanied by the scandal of not being in control. Generalised worries about risk are more common. There is a tendency of average people (e.g. men, women or children) being reported as vulnerable while powerful people are presented as risk takers. In contrast to Beck’s theorizing, the study shows the importance of risk in the health area. The risk society might be much more characterised by concerns about health issues such as civilisation illnesses rather than new mega risks.

The research shows how corpus based approaches can be used to test and develop sociological hypothesis on historical change in the realm of risk.