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The Significance of Socioeconomic and Ethnic Diversity for the Risk Communication Process

Vaughan, E.
Risk Analysis

May 29, 2006

Risk communication is being characterized as one way of facilitating more effective, democratic and participatory risk management strategies. An emphasis on formal communication approaches as a means to improve decisions and decrease conflict will highlight the challenge of managing hazards within a culturally heterogeneous society. Communication and participatory strategies will be considered successful only if diverse communities can be engaged as partners in the policy process. Because responses to risks are embedded and evolve within broader social environments, achieving the promise of risk communication across a diverse society may not be possible absent an understanding of how sociocultural variables and past experiences shape the exchange of ideas or information in any particular situation. This paper considers the implications of ethnic and socioeconomic variability for the risk communication process, summarizing theoretical perspectives and empirical evidence on the link between sociocultural features and risk responses. Specifically, the factors that define the context of communication may influence: the initial framing of a risk issue, particularly, the adoption of an environmental justice vs. scientific/economic perspective; the perceived importance of various aspects of the decision problem; and prior beliefs about environmental hazards and agencies involved in risk management. Two examples of situations requiring communications about risk are presented and illustrate how these principles could operate in minority or lower-income communities. A significant challenge for health and regulatory officials will be to engage in an interactive process of information and opinion exchanges that is reasonable and effective within vastly different socioeconomic and cultural contexts.