Against Risk Perception

By Alex Zahara

Risk analysis and risk perception are now common ways through which government institutions understand, regulate, and control hazards associated with waste, contamination, and disaster. But there is a key issue with how risk perception is framed. When public understandings of risk are framed as ‘perception’ as opposed to knowledge, public concerns and insights about contamination are often ignored.


In psychology, perception is the process through which unfiltered sensory information is interpreted by the brain. It’s how seemingly erroneous facts about the environment are trimmed down and made sense of. As sociologist of science Sheila Jasanoff writes, when public understandings of risk are labelled as ‘perception’, they are often dismissed as mere opinions “shaped by the ignorance, prior beliefs, and subjective personal experiences of non-experts” (1998: 91). They are placed in direct contrast to ‘actual’ or scientifically identifiable risks, and are responded to with more science, greater public education, and improved communication strategies. They are rarely taken as a form of knowledge or understanding in their own right.

Not surprisingly, risk management efforts that attempt to re-orient public interests to a more ‘correct’ understanding of a given issue often ‘miss the music’ as risk theorist Brian Wynne puts it (Wynne 2006). In what follows, I provide an overview of one of the foundational premises of risk communication that frames public understandings about risks as perception, called the deficit model. I then provide a few strategies for thinking differently about public contestation of risk management.

The Deficit Model, Public Controversies and Power

“We will be able to see it [contaminant levels]. Quantify it . . . These are facts, but the exposure—or, basically, the [risks of] exposure to our health—are perceptions.”  -Interview with government official, Nunavut, Canada, August 2014

The above quote is from an interview I conducted with a government official in the northern territory of Nunavut, Canada. It was made in the context of a summer-long dump fire in which toxic dump smoke readily blew into Iqaluit, the Territory’s capital city, and was breathed in by community members. While Territorial and Federal government health officials insisted that the dump fire was not a public health emergency, they also warned children, Elders, pregnant women, and women of childbearing age not to go outdoors when smoke was blowing into the community due to risks associated with dioxins (Government of Nunavut 2014). After the Federal government denied the city emergency funds to put out the fire, community members responded with public protests. People related the fire to a history of federal government underfunding of Indigenous and northern communities and argued that the common public health directive of ‘shelter in place’ (being told not go outside) was unacceptable for maintaining community health and wellbeing (see Alivaktuk and Innuksuk in Murphy 2015). After over three months of the dump being on fire, emergency management officials held a public meeting at the request of protesters. The purpose of the meeting was to educate the public on the dump fire extinguishment plan and about the ‘actual’ risks associated with previously identified levels of contaminants.


Figure 1: Photo of the Iqaluit dump fire. Taken by Alex Zahara, August 2014

The cycle of public protest to government-public engagement to public education has been labelled the public deficit model by risk theorists (Wynne 2006, Irwin 2008). The deficit model frames controversies as a lack of public understanding of science or lack of appropriate trust. Here, people are seen as deficient in knowledge about an issue, and the reason they are protesting is framed as a lack of knowledge or trust in scientific and public institutions, erasing any possibility of local, community, or personal expertise. Public engagement and education are aimed at filling this knowledge deficit, and community-specific concerns are dealt with as issues of awareness.

The deficit model dismisses public concerns as risk ‘perception’.  Health Canada, for example, distinguishes between “actual factors that affect people’s level of risk”  from a public’s “risk beliefs”. Risk beliefs are seen as “influenced by a number of perceptual cues” (Health Canada 2005:5) including odours from landfills, changes to soil, colouration or flavours in water, the placement of warning or caution signs, all of which may increase “levels of fear and anxiety,” even in “situations where experts dismiss the risk at a contaminated site as minimal” (ibid).  Effective communication is considered “especially important in cases where there are large discrepancies between perceptions and scientific assessments of risk” (Health Canada 2004: C3). Risk perception models are part of contaminant fetishization, where an object (e.g. dioxins) is mistaken for the thing it stands for (e.g. longstanding social inequities). Accordingly, governments respond to contaminant issues as if “publics are concerned only about ‘risk’ and not, for example, about upstream (usually uncountable) driving human visions, interest and purposes” (Wynne 2006: 7). Public concerns are only seen as legitimate, then, if they are about what science already knows about contamination and not about government decision-making practices or historical injustices.

Risk management practices that follow a deficit model framework both normalize and set the terms of public engagement and concern. Risk management practices that operate through a deficit model framework do not challenge pre-existing inequalities. Rather, they define terms like ‘health’ and ‘emergency’ as ones that can only be understood by those in power, and what solutions (often technical, often scientific, often based on pre-existing infrastructure) are able to be proposed (Zahara 2018).  They are about normalizing–making some things seem normal and other things seem less appropriate– how risk is understood and dealt with. They are about normalizing what risks are to be ‘perceived’ and which are ‘actual.’

Towards Public Understandings of Risk

How, then, might we go beyond deficit model frameworks of risk perception in understanding public concerns over contaminant issues?

First, it’s important to rethink the idea of controversy. In his book Reassembling Rubbish, Josh Lepawsky writes, “it is not disagreement per se that signals a genuine controversy. Instead, what does is that actors may not even agree on the framing of the question” (2018: 20). When public health controversies arise, they don’t happen because publics misunderstand a given issue, but more that publics disagree with the terms in which the issues are allowed to be addressed. In the case of the dump fire, this included not only disagreements over what counts as safe (including where environmental samples were taken, how, and when), but also questions about acceptable living standards (such as whether staying indoors in a community characterized by hunting and other outdoor activities is appropriate) and government accountability (such as ongoing underfunding, paternalism, and colonialism that the dump fire was only one instance of). Deficit model approaches that frame these issues as ‘perception,’ as the government official did above, ignore these legitimate problems.

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Figure 2: Screen shot from Iqalummiut for Action- Stop the Dump fires Facebook page. After 92 days of the dump being on fire, protesters began placing signs of the number 92 around town and uploading photos to social media. Another photo reads, “The dump has been burning for 92 Days. That’s 92 days of toxins, 92 days of smoke, and 92 days of waiting.”

Second, as risk theorists have articulated for decades, it’s important to recognize that hazardous wastes are indeterminate (Beck 1995, Wynne 1988). This means that there are certain things that scientists don’t or can’t possibly know about hazardous waste materials– and this is part of the character of waste (Lepawsky 2018). For example, in the case of a dump fire, it is impossible to know exactly what materials are in the dump, or what chemicals in these materials are yet-to-be-discovered toxicants. It would not be possible to know how these chemicals (known and unknown) interact with one another, what their cumulative effects are, or how these act in particular bodies or places (such as the tropics versus the arctic).  This is not to say that scientific understandings of risk are not important. Indeed, decades of environmental justice research has demonstrated that what contamination is known about and who it effects is unevenly distributed by race, class, gender, Indigenous status and other markers of difference (Bullard 1990; Murphy 2006). But rather, because of the uncertainty associated with hazardous wastes, it can be perfectly rational for publics to understand but disagree with evidence being provided, and that this disagreement has little to do with a lack of scientific understanding or trust.

Lastly, and importantly, it’s necessary to recognize that there is no singular public. Rather, there are multiple publics that form around different issues (Marres 2007), and this happens during what might seem like a single, controversial event. For example, a group of people concerned about the location of air quality monitors might be different than those that are concerned about being able to go outdoors with their children or grandparents, or even those that are concerned about ongoing historical injustices. In this way, how a risk management system identifies and addresses risks should always be seen as a process of making certain understandings of risk, and the relationships, activities and histories associated with them, possible, while discarding others (Todd 2017). Risk management efforts that respond to a singular public and its ‘perception’ thus erase important differences within a given community.

Moving away from risk perception and towards public understandings of risk reorients researchers away from deficit model approaches and towards one of addressing locally identified problems. Doing so requires seeing public controversies not as the by-product of people who don’t understand a given issue, but as points of tension that highlight major discrepancies between public infrastructure and community understandings of harm and justice. By doing away with ‘risk perception’, government officials and scholars alike might move forward in ways that actively respond to, rather than negate, specific local insights about contaminant issues.


Acknowledgements: Research involved in the making of this post was conducted on Inuit homelands in Nunavut Territory. It was licensed through the Nunavut Research Institute and approved of by Iqaluit City Council. Thanks to Max Liboiron for feedback and edits on a previous draft.

Alex Zahara is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute in Melbourne, Australia. He is a PhD Candidate in Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His research focuses on controversies surrounding wildfire management practices near his home community in Treaty 6 Territory in Northern Saskatchewan, Canada.

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