Are We Living in a Risk Society?

The Risk Society Thesis and Public-Expert Relationships

In Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, sociologist Ulrich Beck argues that contemporary Western society is in the midst of a transition from older forms of ‘industrial society’ to a distinctively postmodern ‘risk society’.[1] Both Beck and Anthony Giddens maintain that this process of transition and modernisation has initiated a variety of unique man-made or ‘manufactured’ risks.[2] The deleterious effects of these manufactured risks transcend political and geographical boundaries, giving rise to radical and controversial changes in social and cultural structures and politics. Beck contends that some of these risks also arise due to the inability of institutions and scientific experts to cope with the pace of scientific and technological advancements and assess their implications and effects. Thus, Beck describes risk society as “a phase of development of modern society in which the social, political, ecological and individual risks created by the momentum of innovation increasingly allude the control and protective institutions of industrial society.”[3]

Giddens identifies risks faced by contemporary society as “low probability high consequence risks” which “are the result of the burgeoning process of globalisation.”[4] Giddens does not, however, suggest that contemporary society is more risky than previously, but stresses that society is now increasingly preoccupied with the future and its safety.[5] Beck also stresses that postmodernity is characterised by the increasing unknowability and unpredictability of risks, because scientific and technological innovations, through their unanticipated consequences, have resulted in the production of risks that, due to their implicit nature and complexities, are confined within the realms of scientific knowledge and expertise and, due to their unforeseen global and long-term effects, cannot be easily calculated or assessed.[6]

One of the leitmotifs of Beck’s seminal risk society thesis is the theory that risks have resulted in postmodern society becoming reflexive and questioning its own principles — not in a self-reflecting way, but in a critical manner. In Beck’s view, industrial society’s beliefs in technological progress and its benefits are now being replaced by concerns of the risks that such technological progress entails.[7] The risk society posits that the pace of scientific and technological advancements has resulted in governments becoming reactive rather than proactive in matters concerning social risks. For Beck, a lack of control over the risks and uncertainties of manufactured risks, and a lack of visible responsibility for the outcomes of such risks has led to traditional institutions such as government and science losing their legitimacy, and a growing public scepticism of these institutions.[8]

On critical examination of Beck’s risk society thesis, especially concerned with the changing relations between the public and scientific expertise, one can see that Beck’s narrow focus on risk in order to justify the growing public scepticism of traditional institutions is a bit misplaced. It can be argued that public scepticism of social institutions and expertise cannot be wholly attributed to the emergence of unmanageable manufactured risks. It can also be argued that Beck’s concept of reflexive modernisation and how reflexivity relates to the public-expert relationship shows public-expert relationship to be a straightforward concept, which is not actually the case.

Risk society and the public-expert relationship

In order to critically evaluate the risk society thesis, it is important to study the institutional dimensions of the narrative, and understand the role of social institutions in assessing and managing risks. In the risk society thesis, Beck contends that social institutions are responsible for defining risks and informing the public of any risks. As a result, public interpretation of risks depends on information provided to them by the social institutions and experts. According to Beck, the generation of risk meanings in risk society depends on ‘relations of definition’, which are:

basic principles underlying industrial production, law, science, opportunities for the public and for policy. Relations of definition thus decide about data, knowledge, proofs, culprits and compensation. [9]

For Beck, a range of institutions — government, law, science and the media — are strategically associated with the assessment of risks.[10] However, in the risk society thesis, science is considered to be central to risk assessment and regulation. In Beck’s view, science has always been central to the development of society. While early industrial society used science as a means to dominate nature, major scientific developments towards the end of the nineteenth century made science central to ethics. Following on from this period, scientific and technological rationality became crucial to the identification and assessment of risks, moving away from the pre-industrial methods of risk assessment through religious beliefs. [11] Also, in The Reinvention of Politics, Beck avers that in the risk society, political decision making on matters of scientific and technological developments has shifted from government systems into economic, scientific and technological domains.[12]As a result, scientific experts have become the mouthpiece through which risks are communicated to the public. Scientific and governmental experts therefore not only define risks, but are also responsible for any debates about risks. In summary:

Risks are defined as the probabilities of physical harm due to given technological or other processes. Hence technical experts are given pole position to define agendas and impose bounding premises a priori on risk discourses.[13]

Having identified science and scientific experts as the centre of risk definition, assessment and inquiry, Beck examines the changing relationship between the lay public and scientific expertise. In Beck’s view, in industrial society, information about risks moved unidirectionally from the experts to the lay public. Beck bases this unidirectional communication to the competing values of ‘social’ and ‘scientific’ rationality.[14] Scientific rationality refers to the technical and scientific discourses used by experts, while social rationality refers to the social and cultural knowledge that the lay public attains through lived experience. Beck argues that in the transition from industrial society to risk society, the burgeoning amount of manufactured risks have driven the two rationalities apart.

In other words, what becomes clear in risk discussions are the fissures and gaps between scientific and social rationality in dealing with the hazardous potential of civilisation. The two sides talk past each other. Social movements raise questions that are not answered by the risk technicians at all, and the technicians answer questions that miss the point of what was really asked and what feeds public anxiety.[15]

In the risk society thesis, Beck is critical of experts. The nature of risks in the risk society has resulted in risks now being beyond the control and capacity of institutions that are responsible for limiting manufactured risks. In the risk society, risks cannot be adequately regulated using the existing methods of risk assessment. As a consequence, expertise is no longer definitive on matters of risk.[16] According to Beck:

key institutions of modernity such as science, business and politics, which are supposed to guarantee rationality and security, find themselves confronted by situations in which their apparatus no longer has a purchase and the fundamental principles of modernity no longer automatically hold good.[17]

In the risk society, institutions responsible for risk assessment and management are also considered to be manufacturers of risk. Beck writes:

They are no longer seen only as instruments of risk management, but also as a source of risk.[18]

Beck also contends that as a consequence of failure of public institutions to calculate and control manufactured risks, the public is forced to distrust the rationality and motives of these institutions. In Beck’s view, the BSE episode is a historical benchmark for analysing public distrust of social institutions and expertise.[19] In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Conservative government in Britain denied any uncertainties over the safety of beef. As mentioned in the Philips inquiry report (2000), the Cabinet, despite being made aware of the possible risks to public health, denied and dismissed all suspicions over the risks of BSE to human health. Being confronted with a new risk, the social institutions responded in conventional fashion by reassuring the public of minimal risks. It was only following a wave of public concern in the late 1980s that the government recruited scientific experts to placate the public. Nonetheless, after years of denial, the government eventually admitted in 1996 that BSE was harmful to humans.[20]

Corresponding with the risk society thesis, the BSE incident is proof that expert systems are unable to control manufactured risks and are, therefore, losing public trust.[21] The risk society narrative also uses incidents such as Chernobyl and Bhopal in delineating patterns of public distrust in experts and institutions. However, Beck’s over-reliance on anecdotal evidences and clustered examples shows the risk society thesis’s shortcomings. Although incidents mentioned in Beck’s works illuminate public distrust in social institutions, Beck interprets public distrust to certain situations as being general and pervasive.

This view of public trust is, however, problematic. While Beck sees public trust as an absolute which social institutions either possess or dispossess, the issue of trust is more a process of negotiation. Even in the case of BSE, where public scepticism was clearly visible, it is evident that the public’s response was varied.[22] According to the Philips report, while some argued that it was not the government’s task to protect the public against risks where the public can make an informed choice, others believed that the government must always work to reduce the public’s exposure to risks The public’s relation with social institutions is also not restricted to simple unidirectional flow of information of risks from the institutions to the public. On the contrary, the public are anxious to understand how social institutions make decisions on risks. Also, social institutions do not aim to achieve zero-risk, but to reduce the outcomes of risks to an acceptable level. The public also play a crucial role in helping social institutions decide what the acceptable levels of risk are, and how risks should be managed.[23]

In the risk society, where expert systems find it difficult to contain manufactured risks, it is reasonable to argue for growing public scepticism of expert systems. However, public distrust of expert institutions and systems, as evidenced by Beck, cannot be transformed into a general rejection of expert knowledge. Recent empirical studies have shown generally favourable public attitudes towards scientific and technological research in the UK.[24] The public’s positive perception of science has increased as compared to a few years ago, and the public sees almost all areas of scientific research beneficial. The public also feels better informed and positive about the impacts of science.[25]

Against Beck’s totalising approach, the question to ask is not whether the public completely ‘trust’ or ‘distrust’ expert institutions, but which underlying factors influence public trust in expert institutions. Public trust in expert institutions cannot be restricted to being either completely positive or completely negative, and public distrust of expert systems cannot certainly be generally attributed to the emergence of manufactured risks and the inability of institutions to manage them. Trust is a complex phenomenon and, therefore, the larger question of public attitudes towards experts and social institutions depends on the scientific and technological innovations in question and on varied contextual factors.

Firstly, public trust in expertise and public institutions is shaped by their assessment of the purposes of, and motivations behind certain decisions — related to science and technology — made by the expert systems. The level of public trust depends on whether or not the science is directed towards societal goals or commercial targets.[26] Secondly, public distrust of expert systems and especially regulatory authorities is apparent in domains where the government and industry work closely. In such cases, public distrust stems from suspicion of the government and industry’s motives, and the inability of government to regulate industry in such cases.[27] Similarly, levels of public engagement also influence public trust. Public distrust is heightened in cases where the public feel they are not included in the decision-making process, especially in matters related to what kinds of science and technology get funded and why. Also, public trust is related to whether or not scientists are encouraged to voice their concerns about potential risks and uncertainties instead of being urged to focus unduly on research and profit.[28] Another factor that influences public trust in expert systems is ethical judgement. The public’s primary concern is whether or not publicly funded science is used for social benefit, and whether or not the benefits are being distributed evenly across the different strata of society. [29]

Beck’s risk society thesis conveniently ignores all the factors which influence public trust in social institutions. Such a simplistic view of the complex public-expert relationship fails to recognise that both the public and institutions and dynamic interactions between lay and expert groups influence risk assessment and management.[30]

Reflexive modernisation and the public-expert relationship

One of the leitmotifs of Beck’s risk society thesis is ‘reflexive modernisation’. In Beck’s view, the changing nature of risks from pre-industrial and industrial societies to the postmodern risk society has produced marked changes in attitudes towards risks. The far-reaching impacts of manufactured risks have been responsible for heightening public awareness of risks. In reflexive modernisation, society is constantly aware of the risks, and questions its own actions and decisions in order to avoid the ‘bads’ of modernity. According to Beck, reflexivity is ‘built-in’ in contemporary risks.[31] The avoidance of the ‘bads’, such as the daunting possibilities of environmental and nuclear threats, demands new methods of constant risk assessment. [32] Therefore, society is transformed as a result of such reflexive forms of thought. Beck defines the elementary thesis of reflexive modernisation as:

the more societies are modernised, the more agents (subjects) acquire the ability to reflect on the social conditions of their existence and to change them in that way.[33]

Giddens explains that one of the requisites of modernity is public dependence on expert systems. In Giddens’s view, science and technology create as many new risks and uncertainties as they dispel and, consequently, the public must depend on scientific expert systems for accurate understanding of such manufactured risks. [34]In recounting the sceptical outlook of public reflexivity, Beck prioritises the central role of institutional experts and counter-experts within science and government in discussions about risks.

Reflexive modernization here means that skepticism is extended to the foundations and hazards of scientific work and science is thus both generalized and demystified. [35]

Unfortunately, the risk society thesis fails to consider the role of tradition and aesthetics. While, according to the risk-society narrative, risk awareness may be increasing, public understanding of risks remains disputable. Beck’s insistence on a completely uniform and rational public perception of risk fails to account for the social and cultural dimensions of risk perception. This means that public understandings of risk are more varied and irregular than Beck acknowledges. According to Wynne, the lay public may follow logics that are obscure and apparently capricious, that can be encapsulated and “naturalised” in fatalistic beliefs, identities and senses of (non) agency’.[36]

Lash also argues against Beck’s reductionism and maintains that reflexivity must be understood with regards to cultural practices and behaviours. Secondly, Lash challenges the fact that modernisation undermines the authority and credibility of expert institutions. According to Lash, expert institutions are restructuring themselves according to the needs of the society, instead of dissolving due to public scepticism.[37] For Wynne, although Beck’s construction of lay-public reflexivity suggests that only institutions and experts can define risks, the fact that the lay public can also interpret and define risks using their cultural and social beliefs and practices contradicts the theory of reflexivity being a straightforward relationship between lay individuals, and institutions and experts.[38] Wynne’s criticisms of Beck’s risk society thesis can be found in his study of Cumbrian sheep-farming following the Chernobyl accident.

After the accident at Chernobyl, there were concerns that the radioactive material that leaked from the plant could have been carried in the air and deposited in Britain. Government scientists negated the claim, arguing that any radioactive material deposited on the soil would either be washed away or would be chemically locked in the soil. Farmers in Cumbria, however, became increasingly concerned about the introduction of nuclear pollutants into the food chain through vegetation and sheep. Experts acknowledged that although this was possible, the contamination would not last for more than a few weeks even if some sheep became contaminated. As a result, the government, on the advice of the experts, placed a temporary ban on the movement or slaughter of sheep until the risk of contamination receded.[39] However, towards the end of this quarantine period, the government extended the ban to a indefinite period, leaving the local community discontented. Wynne writes:

Although the farmers accepted the need for restrictions, they could not accept the experts’ apparent ignorance of the effects of their approach on the normally flexible and informal system of hill farm management.[40]

The government had discovered high levels of radioactive contamination in the Cumbrian soil. Although the government attributed the contamination to Chernobyl, locals argued that much of the contamination had come from the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria and not from Chernobyl. The government denied such claims; however, a survey report revealed that scientists had traced almost half of the radioactive contamination to the Sellafield plant.[41]

Wynne’s case study can, in some respects, be understood as an advocate of Beck’s risk society thesis. The Cumbrian community’s scepticism of the government and the experts, and their identification of inconsistencies in the arguments and findings of the experts conform to Beck’s definition of reflexivity. Wynne also argues, in concordance with Beck, that public scepticism of governments, institutions and expert opinions are becoming increasingly commonplace in modern societies. However, both Beck and Wynne differ in their perspectives on reflexivity with regards to the sources of information that enable public reflexivity. The risk society thesis suggests that experts and governments identify and define risks through intellectual processes, while Wynne contends that public understanding of risks lies outside the realms of expertise and the intellectual processes followed by experts. According to Wynne, the Cumbrian sheep-farming case study shows that the farmers’ mistrust of scientific expertise and the government was backed by local knowledge and cultural experience.

The Cumbrians’ reactions to Sellafield and Chernobyl strikingly substantiate the point that lay people define and judge a risk according to their experience of those institutions supposedly “in control” of hazardous processes, not just according to the physical parameters of the processes alone.[42]

In the case of Cumbria, the farmers — not the experts or the government — were eventually responsible for providing an accurate assessment of risks. As a result, the lay actors were responsible for dissolving the boundaries between themselves and the experts. This view, nonetheless, contrasts the risk society thesis, which, in substantiating scientific and institutional expertise, overlooks the knowledge that lay actors possess as a result of their cultural experiences and local sources. Beck depicts experts and the public as two disparate groups, a notion that neglects the complex interactions within and between the groups.

Conclusion

This essay has studied Beck’s risk society and the impacts of risk on public trust in social institutions and expert systems. As can be inferred from this essay, Beck maintains that public reflexivity results in distrust of expert systems while simultaneously insisting that the lay public remains dependent on expert systems and social institutions for the knowledge and understanding of risk. It has also been demonstrated that the risk society thesis stresses the growing divide between experts and the lay public. Although attributing blame for risks to expert systems and social institutions has become a common response to growing incidents of manufactured risks, Beck nonetheless overemphasises the levels of distrust.

The levels of trust between the public and expert systems depend on multiple factors, and cannot be generalised. Beck fails to grasp that trust means different things to different people and, in depicting public distrust as a usual response to risks, ignores the variable trust relations and the different social and cultural factors that influence the lay public’s decisions about risk. Over the course of this essay, it has become apparent that the growing cultural recognition of risk does not produce public distrust of social institutions. The ambiguities and complexities that arise out of the dynamic interactions between the public and expert systems, as discussed in this essay, show that the public-expert relationship is more exceptional than Beck recognises.

Bibliography

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Beck, Ulrich. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage Publications, 1992.

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Beck, Ulrich. ‘Self-Dissolution and Self-Endangerment of Industrial Society: What Does This Mean?’. In Reflexive Modernisation: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order, ed. by Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994.

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Wynne, Brian. ‘Misunderstood Misunderstandings: Social Identities and Public Uptake of Science’. Public Understandings of Science, 1 (1992), 281-304.

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Notes

[1] First published in German in 1986. The English translation was published in 1992. The 1992 edition of Beck’s publication will be used and referred to for the purposes of this essay.

Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (London: Sage Publications, 1992)

[2] Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), p. 112; Anthony Giddens, ‘Risk Society: The Context of British Politics’, in The Politics of Risk Society, ed. by J. Franklin (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), pp. 23-34 (p. 28)

[3] Ulrich Beck, ‘Risk Society and the Provident State’, in Risk, Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology, ed. by S. Lash, B. Szerszynski and B. Wynne (London: Sage, 1996), pp. 27-43 (p.27)

[4] Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990), p. 133

[5] Anthony Giddens, ‘Risk and Responsibility’, The Modern Law Review, 62:1 (January 1999), 1-10 (p.3)

[6] Beck, Risk Society, p. 21

[7] Ulrich Beck, ‘The Reinvention of Politics: Towards a Theory of Reflexive Modernization’, in Reflexive Modernization: Politics Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order, ed. by Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), pp. 1-55 (pp. 5-6)

[8] Ulrich Beck, ‘The Anthropological Shock: Chernobyl and the Contours of the Risk Society’, Berkley Journal of Sociology, 32 (1987), 153-165 (p.156)

[9] Ulrich Beck, Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), p. 130

[10] ibid, p. 61

[11] Beck, Risk Society, p. 27 and p. 24

[12] Ulrich Beck, The Reinvention of Politics: Rethinking Modernity in the Global Social Order (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997)

[13] Beck, Risk Society, p. 4

[14] ibid, p. 29

[15] ibid, p. 30

[16] ibid, p. 28 and p. 61

[17] Ulrich Beck, ‘Living in the World Risk Society’, Economy and Society, 35: 3 (August 2006), 329-345 (p. 336)

[18] ibid, p. 336

[19] Ulrich Beck, ‘Politics of Risk Society’, in The Politics of Risk Society, ed. by J. Franklin (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), pp.9-22 (p. 9)

[20] Lord Phillips, J. Bridgeman and M. Ferguson-Smith, The BSE Inquiry Report (2000) Available from: http://collections.europarchive.org/tna/20090505194948/http://bseinquiry.gov.uk/index.htm

Also see: Gaybe Mythen, Ulrich Beck: A Critical Introduction to the Risk Society (London: Pluto Press, 2004), pp. 61-62

Jack Stilgoe, Alan Irwin and Kevin Jones, The Received Wisdom: Opening up Expert Advice (London: Demos, 2006), pp. 17-18

[21] Beck, Living in the World Risk Society, p. 337

[22] J. Reilly, ‘Just Another Food Scare? Public Understanding of the BSE Crisis’ in Message Received: Glasgow Media Group Research 1993 — 1998, ed. by G. Philo (New York: Longman, 1999), pp. 128-146.

[23] Lord Philips et.al., The BSE Inquiry Report, para. 1291-1294

[24] RCUK/DIUS, Public Attitudes to Science 2008: A Survey (London: Research Councils UK and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, 2008)

[25] Jason Chilvers and Phil Macnaghten, The Future of Science Governance: A review of public concerns, governance and institutional response (University of East Anglia and Durham University, April 2011), pp. 15-16

[26] ibid, p. 16

[27] ibid, pp. 16-17

[28] ibid, pp. 17-18

[29] ibid, pp. 19-20

[30] Brian Wynne, ‘May the Sheep Safely Graze? A Reflexive View of the Expert-Lay Knowledge Divide’, in Risk, Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology, ed. by S. Lash, B. Szerszynski and B. Wynne (London: Sage, 1996), pp. 44-83 (p. 76)

[31] Beck, Risk Society, p. 165

[32] Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society (Cambridge: Polity Press), p. 12

[33] Ulrich Beck, ‘Self-Dissolution and Self-Endangerment of Industrial Society: What Does This Mean?’, in Reflexive Modernisation: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order, ed. by Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), pp. 174-183 (p. 174)

[34] Giddens, Risk and Responsibility, p. 4

[35] Beck, Risk Society, p. 14

[36] Wynne, May the Sheep Safely Graze?, p. 53

[37] S. Lash and J. Urry, Economics of Signs and Space (London: Sage, 1994), p. 119

[38] Wynne, May the sheep Safely Graze?, p. 47

[39] Brian Wynne, ‘Misunderstood Misunderstandings: Social Identities and Public Uptake of Science’, Public Understandings of Science, 1 (1992), pp. 281-304 (p. 283)

[40] Brian Wynne, ‘Sheepfarming after Chernobyl’, Environment, 31(2) (March 1989), pp. 10-15, 33-39 (p. 34)

[41] ibid, p. 36

[42] ibid, p. 36