Interpretive Communities of Risk

Risks and risk management occur within a rich and complex socio-cultural context, in which particular groups are predisposed to select, ignore and interpret risk information in different ways. This project is part of a broad program to understand the socio-cultural dynamics of risk perception, decision-making and behavior. Specifically, this project integrates three recent research trajectories (affective imagery, cultural theory, and the “white male effect”) in a systematic effort to identify, describe and explain the existence of discrete “interpretive communities of risk:” groups who share common risk perceptions, affective imagery, cultural worldviews, and sociodemographic characteristics. Results from this study will contribute to emerging theory on the roles of affect, symbolic meaning, cultural worldviews and socio-cultural context in risk perception and decision-making.

Research Questions
Can we identify distinct interpretive communities of risk among the American public? If so, what are their distinguishing characteristics? Are these interpretive communities dynamic and in constant flux, or are they relatively stable, transcending particular risks? In other words, do interpretive communities that are substantially different in character form around different kinds of risks (e.g., health vs. security vs. environmental risks), or are there groups who consistently perceive and interpret a wide variety of risks in similar ways? Finally, why do some interpretive communities perceive particular hazards as extreme risks, while others perceive these same hazards as very low or non-existent risks?

Interpretive communities of risk were first identified in a 2003 national survey on American risk perception, policy preferences and behaviors regarding global climate change.

A second exploratory study is currently underway to identify interpretive communities across diverse issues, including nuclear power, global warming, pesticides, genetically modified food, the Iraq War, terrorism, legal abortion, homosexuality, marijuana, and gun control. A national survey of American risk perceptions, affective images, and cultural worldviews was conducted in June, 2005.

Additional studies are being conducted to identify different interpretive communities (audiences) of climate change among the American public.


Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., and Roser-Renouf, C. (2008) Global Warming’s “Six Americas”: An audience segmentation. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change.

Leiserowitz, A. (2005) American risk perceptions: Is climate change dangerous? Risk Analysis, 25 (6), 1433-1442.

Leiserowitz, A. (2007) Communicating the risks of global warming: American risk perceptions, affective images and interpretive communities. In S. Moser and L. Dilling, eds. Communication and social change: Strategies for dealing with the climate crisis, Cambridge University Press.