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
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,
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.