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Steve Woods teaches on Health Studies modules at undergraduate level at the University of Northampton, specifically using sociology to look at Health and Identity, Contemporary Issues in Health, such as Body Modification, Health Risks, Swine Flu and Depression and Obesity. Steve also works for the Open University, and for many years before taught AS/A2 Psychology and Sociology as well as on Access Modules.
Ulrich Beck on Risk Society
No discussion about health and perception of risk can take place without mention of the concept of risk society articulated by Beck (1989) who makes a clear case for the decline in government concern around policy and political discourses on the distribution of wealth, and more crucially how debate is now around the distribution of harm, from ecoli, terrorism, global warming. The list of risks we face is endless. Crucially, Beck’s risk society now sees an unwelcome and overwhelming number of harms threatening us and he argues the case for a wider dimension of tools being made available to judge danger and harm. This strikes a chord with the increased numbers of websites and formats like Mumsnet, Net mums, iVillage, and NHS Direct, as a form of delivering information and knowledge of risk as personal experience is simply no longer adequate. While there are many forms of new social media delivering information on risk and health, this paper will focus on the role of Mumsnet, an increasingly popular UK site with a simple philosophy - to make parents' lives easier by pooling knowledge, experience and support. It celebrated ten years of being with a celebration at Google HQ in March 2010 and today is a force to be reckoned with. The numbers speak for themselves with 1.24 million unique users a month and 25 million page impressions. Turner (2010)
Beck quite correctly asserts that we as we live in a risk society we have become dependent on the expert, operating externally, in order to define the (health) risks we all seem to be facing in every walk of our daily lives. The trouble is that we, like many others cannot possibly determine the threat posed by health risks, simply by drawing on our own means and life experiences; rather we have to decide whether to accept the well intentioned advice of scientific experts. For this reason we have come to rely perhaps too heavily, on such knowledge being created by experts while the credibility of expert knowledge, has faced direct and indirect challenges by events such as the explosion of the Fukushima Plant in Japan in April 2011 (safety of nuclear power) and ‘Climate gate’ at the University of East Anglia in 2010 (alleged falsification of data about the nature of global warming)
One of Beck’s main arguments is the importance of role of experts in defining the risks we face – the trouble is usually this expert advice causes anxiety. This leaves many of us out in the cold - those of us not regarded as experts flounder in the mire of interpreting risk. So what do we do? Our behaviours in this way of seeking knowledge of risk poses a problem for Beck and for the many other risk theory believers who see experts as saviours. We can turn to new mediums, such as online forums, like the aforementioned Mumsnet and others. These don’t necessarily always contain expert or lay advice but quite possibly lay interpretations of expert advice, we might instead find it worthwhile considering looking at lay and expert epidemiology, the science from which societal patterns of illness, health and risk are judged.
Popay and Williams (1996) describe how lay knowledge can inform our practice of risk assessment, especially when this is combined with common sense and our own learning experience of risk and illness and so this lay knowledge can be used to offset risk. Usually the risks we hear about have already been diluted and filtered through scientific research and data publication stages, as well as by the Media’s reporting process. Usually these stages have some sort of message for us, What we then get is something akin to a paradox, and the result of this paradox is where we all have to change our behaviours, as Rose (1981) notes in his prevention paradox, where a
“Measure that brings large benefits to the community offers little to each participating individual” (Rose 1981, p.1850)
In reality only a few of us were ever really going to face risk from whatever it is that threatens health and whether we change behaviours or not, most of us, will be ok anyhow, regardless of the advice we’re given. The trouble is, potentially the public might perceive this advice, at best as do-gooding or over-cautious, and at worst, hectoring, which might unintentionally add to the perceived problem. Research, such as that of Davison (1991) actually shows how savvy the public are in their assessment of risks. It is argued that by using tactics such as self deprecating humour to make light of serious risks people could actually become self aware of exceptions to expert knowledge and gives two examples, or everyday characters. The first goes along the lines of “I have fried food every day, docs says they might be bad for me but I’m fit as a fiddle”, these are the figures or characters we all know, figures Davison (1981) classifies as ‘Uncle Normans’ in the sense we all might know of an unhealthy or risk-defying Uncle Norman, along with the second, opposing, what Davison calls last person discourses which sees a figure we might recognise as being much the last person to have to be at risk of poor health, usually as they’re models of low health risk behaviour”. Interestingly, both types make an appearance in the mass media, such as in the new ‘advice biased’ social media like Mumsnet.
Mayo and Steinberg (2007) argue the web helps people use expert knowledge and or lay knowledge, and specifically the role that user generated sites, such as Mumsnet play in delivering knowledge. People are seen to be regular users of such websites because the sites contain advice on risks around their own lives: hints, tips, suggestions, moral support, and so on, written and shared with other members of the public. Risk to health often takes the form of advice dispensed in user friendly ways and this is seen to trump official guidance in terms of popularity simply because it is written in language that means something to users and has the name of a real person attached. Now then remember Uncle Norman? Well he and his opposite part the last person character are heavily featured across the pages of Mumsnet forums. Gambles (2010) calls this the ‘personalising publics’, in other words through the blurring of public, political and personal, the unlocking and demystifying of the risks of contemporarily parenting is achieved democratically. Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts, is likely to agree and is on record as saying;
“In this crowd of lots of smart women there are experts that know the little intrigues of everything. And the wisdom of crowds is quite awesome to behold, it educates people” (Becket 2010)
Gambles makes a heartfelt case for this democratic nature of Mumsnet and cites founder Justine Roberts who states;
“There is a kind of a general feeling that the internet is dangerous because it is full of people who are not professionals and don’t offer professional scrutiny. Our experience contradicts this” (Gambles 2010 p.14)
Further evidence of the democracy Mumsnet claims comes from the decision not to edit posts and not to allow members to edit their own posts retrospectively. The rule is to stand by what you have said. Although profanity or personal attacks are removed and their posters banned from the site, Mumsnet however does control the traffic on its site and will highlight threads that are in the news or hot topics of the day. Quite clearly Mumsnet is a phenomenon of our age in how it seems to be delivering expert knowledge delivered as lay and Beck would certainly approve in principle of such a powerful medium delivering a risk message and expert advice in such an accessible way. Yet on another level Mumsnet also fulfils a neutralising function, in that how its users interpret, reinterpret, and crucially reframe expert knowledge, but also how it dilutes and offsets risks according to its users own personal values, and those of it contributors, and it’s worth examining the evidence for this position. The word posh in the title gives us a broad clue;
“Around half of Mumsnet members have an income of over £50,000, two-thirds are in full or part-time employment” Costa (2010) Quite clearly we are not dealing with content generating users who could be seen as ordinary or every day. The key problem we have is despite thinking Mumsnet would step up to the mark as a brave new medium of risk identification - instead Mumsnet is more likely to pose risks to its self-proclaimed ‘democracy. In other words Mums net’s highly refined and indeed rarefied cultural base, who some would argue are the Poshes (of the title) middle class yummy mummies will in reality decide what is deemed as risky and to all intents and purposes ones participation in the Mumsnet forums heavily depends not on helping decide risks to health, but crucially whether you’re one of the “Mumsnet mafia” Street Porter (2010) The wider criticisms that were levelled at Mumsnet before and during the 2010 election campaign are worth revisiting in the context of how little of a role Mumsnet appears to take in risk identification – it appears to represent a very narrow group of women, rather middle class and conservative in taste, with brands such as Boden and Cath Kidston appearing frequently as the cultural markers, Janet Street-Porter further argues .
“The daily discussions are usually pretty childish, and there's a fair amount of bullying. There seems to be a received way of thinking, and woe betides anyone who disagrees. Which is ironic, when the whole point of the internet is freedom to express widely differing opinions? Chat rooms are, by their nature, lightweight, not the place to dissect family-friendly policies in any depth” (Janet Street-Porter, Mail Online 2010)
If the truth be told what we are seeing here is not so much Beck’s expert knowledge re-emerging as lay knowledge BUT a rather narrow and dangerous knowledge base. Instead of merely reflecting risk, Mumsnet actually can be seen to be directing risk, to the extent that a new prevention paradox can be seen to be forming - where Rose’s original prevention paradox saw a measure that brought large benefits to the community yet offered little to each participating individual, what we actually are seeing is a perverse prevention paradox, where a measure like Mumsnet that could bring large benefits to the health community, is actually only offering benefits to those ‘belonging’ to a narrow community. So in effect what we might have here is the use of Mumsnet actually proving risky for some, and undemocratic for others, and is far removed from the ideals envisaged. Instead what we have is what some would describe as an old fashioned posh mother’s circle, Uncle Norman or last person advice from Mumsnet on health risk? Yes... so long as you’re one of us.
Beck, U., (1989) on the way to the industrial risk-society? Outline of an argument. Thesis Eleven volume 23 pp 86-103
Becket, C, (2010) The value of independent networked journalism: Mumsnet, available from http://www2.lse.ac.uk/[email protected]/POLIS/documents/Polis%20papers/ValueofnetworkedJournalism.pdf
Cater, S and Jordan, T., (2010) Living with risk and risky living in Bromley, S Clarke, Hincliffe, S., and Taylor, S., 2009, Exploring Social Lives
Costa, M (2010) Put your brand in the hands of Mother, Marketing Week, 11th February 2010, available from; http://www.marketingweek.co.uk/put-your-brand-in-hands-of-mother/3009769.article
Davison, C., Davey-Smith, G and Frankel, S., (1991) Lay epidemiology and the prevention paradox -implications for coronary candidacy for health education, Sociology of Health and Illness 13; no.1. Pp1-19
Gambles, R., (2010) in Mahoney, N., & Newman, J., (2010) Rethinking the Public: Innovations in Research, Theory and Politics, Polity, London
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Mayo, E., and Steinberg, T., (2007) The Power of Information; An Independent Review, Cabinet Office Review, available from; http://www.opsi.gov.uk/advice/poi/power-of-information-review.pdf
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Rose, G., (1981) Strategy of prevention; lessons from cardiovascular disease, British Medical Journal, 282, pp 1847-1853
Street-Porter, J., (2010) This smug Mumsnet mafia won’t get my vote, Financial Mail Women’s Forum, available from http://www.fmwf.com/uncategorized/2010/02/janet-street-porter-this-smug-mumsnet-mafia-wont-get-my-vote/
Turner, C., (2010) How listening to users has built Mumsnet to become a market leader, Utalk Marketing, available from; http://www.utalkmarketing.com/Pages/Article.aspx?ArticleID=19286
The Guardian (10th June 2011) E coli outbreak: German organic farm officially identified
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Living & working in a risk society
Download the podcast on Carey Allen's discussion of Moral panics and deviancy amplification (includes clips from Stan Cohen).