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Exploring Technical and Cultural Appeals in Strategic Risk Communication: The Fernald Radium Case

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Risk disputes are often characterized by tensions between technical and cultural understandings of risk and by communication practices that reflect those differing perspectives. This study considers how participants in risk debates draw upon and combine aspects of technical and cultural rationality as broad orientations to risk in expressing their views and formulating persuasive appeals during risk debates. Rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke's (1984) concept of frames of acceptance is used to analyze a case study involving competing priorities for radium stored at the Fernald site, a former Department of Energy nuclear weapons facility. A rhetorical analysis is conducted using the transcript from a 1995 public meeting during which local residents and a nuclear medicine expert discussed priorities of Fernald site cleanup versus providing radium stored on site for promising cancer research. Two tensions are identified that fostered disagreement among discussants: the first a tension between a local or global context for the controversy and the second a tension between competing definitions of public participation for this issue. This study analyzes the rhetorical strategies by which participants in the Fernald radium debate articulated these tensions and argues that technical and cultural rationality (Plough & Krimsky, 1987) acted as sources of rhetorical invention influencing participants' individual frames of acceptance and the ways they defined and interpreted the situation and crafted persuasive appeals.

Keywords: Kenneth Burke; Technical rationality; cultural rationality; environmental communication; public participation; risk communication

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2003-04-01

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