Volume 4 (2) 2010

Special Issue: Risk as Discourse



Jens O. Zinn

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  • This article introduces the special issue ‘risk as discourse’ which is based on contributions at a session at the CADAAD 2008 conference in Hertfordshire, UK.  The aim of the session and this special issue is to trigger cross-disciplinary work which connects risk sociology and corpus linguistics research strategies to advance our understanding of societal risk phenomena.  Even though in academic and public debate ‘risk’ has become a core concept in particular after WWII, there is still limited empirically proven knowledge about the historical development of increasing ‘risk communication’.  I argue that more cross disciplinary work which links sociological research interests with corpus linguistics research tools could significantly improve our understanding of how and why the risk semantic entered the social realm so successfully.  In the following, I show that linguistic analysis of the usage of ‘risk’ could enrich sociological analysis of risk phenomena which often focuses only on specific aspects of the risk semantic.  There is evidence revealed by linguistic work that sociological analyses tend to use artificially constructed examples instead of real life examples, which then weakens the analysis.  Furthermore, I will suggest perspectives for further research by preliminary analysis of the historical change of the usage of ‘risk’ and related semantics in the news-coverage of the New York Times.  The increasingly available digitised text data such, as newspaper archives, are a valuable source for all kinds of (historical) analysis (not only) on ‘risk’ and related semantics, to improve our understanding of cross-cultural differences and social changes in particular.

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Reiner Grundmann & Ramesh Krishnamurthy

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  • Based on Goffman’s definition that frames are general ‘schemata of interpretation’ that people use to ‘locate, perceive, identify, and label’, other scholars have used the concept in a more specific way to analyze media coverage.  Frames are used in the sense of organizing devices that allow journalists to select and emphasise topics, to decide ‘what matters’ (Gitlin 1980).   Gamson and Modigliani (1989) consider frames as being embedded within ‘media packages’ that can be seen as ‘giving meaning’ to an issue.  According to Entman (1993), framing comprises a combination of different activities such as: problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.  Previous research has analysed climate change with the purpose of testing Downs’s model of the issue attention cycle (Trumbo 1996), to uncover media biases in the US press (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004), to highlight differences between nations (Brossard et al. 2004; Grundmann 2007) or to analyze cultural reconstructions of scientific knowledge (Carvalho and Burgess 2005).  In this paper we shall present data from a corpus linguistics-based approach.  We will be drawing on results of a pilot study conducted in Spring 2008 based on the Nexis news media archive.  Based on comparative data from the US, the UK, France and Germany, we aim to show how the climate change issue has been framed differently in these countries and how this framing indicates differences in national climate change policies. 

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Georg Marko

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  • This article proposes a conceptual framework for analysing the discursive construction of lifestyle risks in health.  This framework suggests that a preoccupation with the negative (= negativization), and with individuals, their choices and responsibilities (= personalization and individualization) combined with an aura of science (= scientification) will introduce lifestyle risks as a perspective to any discourse, particularly discourses concerned with health.  It is further argued that this connection might lead to a view of health and diseases that foregrounds medical aspects and individual responsibility at the cost of social aspects and political responsibilities.  The article tries to demonstrate how the framework can be translated into concrete research, starting from a Critical Discourse Analytical perspective and using corpus analytical tools.  The data examined is a corpus of sixteen books giving advice on how to avoid cardiovascular disease.  The contribution firstly shows how the analysis of keywords and elements of deontic modality can be interpreted with respect to the conceptual categories of the framework, and secondly how these categories might also lead to very concrete research foci such as the frequency of cardinals and lexemes for measuring units or the frequency and the lexical variation of lexemes for pathological conditions.

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Agnes Sandor

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  • Detecting emerging risk is a major concern in the ‘risk society’ we live in.  Risk can be detected among other sources from discourse describing events.  Automatic language processing tools can help monitoring large amounts of electronic text, and recent advances in syntactic and semantic processing allow fine-grained analyses that produce normalized event descriptions, which can be used in risk detection.  We have implemented normalized event extraction in the Xerox Incremental Parser.  We propose filtering all the normalized event descriptions in order to get events that indicate emerging risk based on two theories of detecting weak signals of emerging risk: one based on scenario models, implemented in the tool EventSpotter, and the other on detecting events that show characteristic features of weak signals. In this article we describe the three modules (normalized event extraction and two ways of  filtering) and propose them for industrial application as well as for social scientists involved in the analysis of discourse on risk.

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Catherine F. Smith & Donna J. Kaine

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  • Our case study of hurricane risk and emergency communication in a high-risk county on the US southeastern coast shows residents actively processing information available in public discourse about hazardous storms.  To construct meaningful assessments of personal risk, local people interpret and evaluate alternate representations of storm events produced by government emergency managers, local and national news media, and commonsense local lore.  Using combined methods, we analyze empirical evidence of narratives communicated by residents and by journalists.  As contribution to study of risk perception, this article describes mechanisms of interpretation and evaluation by which people perceive weather-related danger and make judgments about it.

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Sissel H. Jore & Ove Nja

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  • This article discusses different approaches to terrorism risk assessment.  Different approaches to risk have different implications for communication and actions in society.  The most prominent implications are the foundations of risk assessment, how risk is to be interpreted and what kind of knowledge risk pictures represent.  Positivist approaches to risk assessments are contrasted with social constructivist approaches.  We argue that a positivistic approach to risk legitimizes the use of worst case scenario thinking, endorsing precautionary terrorism counter measures which could lead to significant changes and hamper democratic discussions about the implementation of terrorism security measures in society.  We recommend the Bayesian approach to risk analysis because this approach deals with uncertainties in a consistent way.  However, there is a need to investigate the effect of risk management strategies in tackling terrorism risk.  A promising point of departure could be empirical studies based on discourse analysis, as these would increase our understanding of how terrorism risk assessments are connected with power and subsequent societal perceptions of the terrorism threat. 

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