Risk information and minority identity in the neighbourhood of industrial facilities
Informing communities who live in the vicinity of dangerous industries has become an established principle of risk policy and management, as demonstrated, for instance, by the EU Seveso Directive and the US Right to Know Act. The underlying postulate is that populations will be better off in accident situations if they are informed beforehand. Or, as Harmon bluntly puts it, populations in an accident situation can be part of the problem or part of the solution (Harmon 2007). Subjacent operational goals suggest that risk information should engage populations to behave responsibly and to take care of themselves, which will lower the workload of emergency forces and health units, while limiting panic and organizational chaos in case of accident (Paton and Johnston 2001). Accident-impacted communities have often been studied from a socio-economic perspective, acknowledging social inequalities in risk exposure (Graham et al. 1999). More recently, the identity of local populations has been shown to be constructed partially through making various accommodations to the presence of the dangerous industrial installation (e.g. social attenuation of risk regarding an accident that, in the vast majority of cases, will never occur; Poumadre 2009). In this article, using French and other European examples, we further these recent analyses through the concepts of minority identity and social representations: minority status designates not only numeric inferiority, but also, more importantly, a different and less powerful position (Mugny 1982, Moscovici 1979). Communities targeted to receive accident risk information do form a numeric minority, as only a fraction of the general population is affected. But they are a minority as well in terms of cognitions, as these local communities find themselves doing what the overall population declares it would never do: live in the neighbourhood of dangerous industries. Our approach to minority communities under the influence of laws and regulations promulgated by a majority should prompt a reassessment of the logic and possible efficiency of risk information in this context. This previously unconsidered aspect of risk policy and management could lead to a better articulation that cuts across the generally established right to know and the more ambivalent wish to know of specific communities. This articulation could engender local empowerment through improvements in quality of life, as defined within each community.
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Document Type: Research Article
Publication date: 01 November 2010
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