The Discursive Construction of Risk

Friday, July 18, 2014: 10:30 AM
Room: Booth 52
Oral Presentation
Melanie WENZEL , Department of Sociology, Technische Universitšt Berlin, Berlin, Germany
In the past few years, an intensified discussion and dispute about the existence and extent of risks of anthropogenic organic micro-pollutants (OMP) and pathogens in drinking and surface water is taking place in public or semi-public discourses. These discourses influence how one perceives possible risks, what risks one states as true or false, and finally how one acts and behaves in everyday life and in times of risk-based uncertainty and crisis.

In this paper, discourses are understood as social practices of producing, reproducing and stabilizing social reality. These practices are usually controversial and conflictive – moreover they are always guided by specific interests. Discourses about the existence and extent of risks of anthropogenic OMP and pathogens in the water occur in and in-between the following main different discourse fields:  media, general public (the “normal” consumer of water in everyday life), topic-related sciences (engineering, biology, toxicology, ecology, medicine …), politics, and water supplier (including their representatives).

This paper aims to analyse, how knowledge about and attitude towards the existence and extent of these risks are being produced in the mentioned discourses above and how these discursively constructed “truths” effect social actors. Especially the role of the media will be emphasised.

An extensive survey was conducted to cover the different discourse fields and to explore how these risks are produced in and in-between these fields, which discourses are most powerful and dominant, and why. Methods of qualitative content analysis are used to extract different lines of arguments, the various levels of the discourses and the diverse discourse positions from the empirical data. Data include in-depth qualitative interviews with “normal” consumers and professionals from science, industry and politics; press articles, TV and radio broadcasts of regional and national media institutions; and published texts and documents from scientific, political, non-profit, charitable, educational, and economical organisations.