Concept, method, and reality in understanding risk perception: Applying the lessons of the anthropology of education, group process, and risk communication to an urban groundwater contamination event

Syd Havely, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

This dissertation examines the inside dynamics of a “real life” risk event in a northeastern U.S. urban community in which multiple actors perceive an imposed risk—groundwater contamination from a nearby chemical plant—with differing interpretations and degrees of intensity, including the filing of a multi-million-dollar, class-action lawsuit against the offending chemical company. ^ The purpose of the study is to provide an in-depth analysis of how the individuals involved in this risk event came to their particular viewpoints and beliefs about the groundwater contamination and to evaluate the use of socio-cultural frames and methodologies by this researcher that attempted to address and influence behavioral change after the class-action suit was filed. ^ Analysis and interpretation are offered as to why and how the affected parties to the lawsuit chose to drop their claims against the defendant company after a year-long series of actions involving small group process, third-party intervention and lessons from the anthropology of education and risk communication practices in influencing risk perception and behavior. ^ Risk perception and behavior interact with psychological, social, institutional and cultural processes in ways that may amplify or attenuate public responses to the risk or risk event. Educational practices focusing on the anthropology of education, cognition, group process and behavioral psychology have bearing and relevance in understanding risk perception, beliefs, and behavior. The results reported here suggest that the tools of interpretive research and the anthropology of education, in addition to their contributions to research on teaching, offer significant potential in addressing and resolving issues involving imposed hazards and involuntary risk to human health and the environment. ^ The case study is compared with the litigation and dialogue process of other noteworthy groundwater contamination cases. These include the Toms River, NJ, childhood cancer cluster and the Woburn, MA, and Hinkley, CA groundwater contamination cases, which formed the basis for the movies A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich. ^

Subject Area

Psychology, Social|Education, Adult and Continuing|Environmental Sciences

Recommended Citation

Syd Havely, "Concept, method, and reality in understanding risk perception: Applying the lessons of the anthropology of education, group process, and risk communication to an urban groundwater contamination event" (January 1, 2004). Dissertations available from ProQuest. Paper AAI3138019.
http://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI3138019

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