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The Social Foundations of Risk Perception

Providing a fascinating contrast to how you and I experience the world, anthropologist have found that the Guki-Ganu people “cannot distinguish between the products of their imagination and the objects of their perception.” Similarly, Berbers along with a number of cultures around the globe, are unable to distinguish between the colours blue and green. Given enough time with the anthropological literature, I’m sure you would find many more surprising cultural differences in the way people see the world. However, when we're talking about seeing the world, we are often talking about a "world view" -- something constructed not by what we see with our eyes but how we interpret what we see. 

Paul Slovic, one of the foremost experts on risk perception argues that “Danger" (i.e., what we might see) "is real," "risk" (i.e., what we interpret) "is socially constructed.” While I might quibble over whether the semantic distinction between risk and danger has much to say about the ‘realness’ of either, the general point of Slovic’s quote is important and underpins how the threats we see in the world are not objective facts so much as subjective interpretations of facts. For example, the so-called ‘danger’ of HIV transmission during receptive condomless anal sex with an HIV-positive partner is about 1 in 72. As these odds aren’t necessarily favorable—most HIV-negative men don’t have condomless receptive anal sex with HIV-positive or unknown status partners. However, not everyone equates risk with danger and a sizeable number of gay men do in fact engage in this sort of risky sex. So, the central question that cultural theory answers is how to account for the diversity in the ways people interpret danger, evaluate their personal risk, and ultimately respond to these valuations? It seems to me that there are two primary options here: (i) We could study common behavior as the product of shared individual-level psychological phenomenon; or (ii) we could study these collective actions as a sort of social phenomenon. The latter, without discounting the importance of the former, is what social theorists try to do: recast what initially might seem like an individual perception as a collective one—governed not solely by some personally generated sense of danger, but also by cultural structures that structure the structures that structure us.

To demonstrate how this works, let’s apply social theory to the study of the HIV epidemic among gay and bisexual men. First, we will need to contextualize the epidemic by identifying the major players and their relation to one another. As noted by Foucault, sexuality, especially as an identity or social movement, went essentially unexamined until the 19th century. However, inspired by the work of Darwin (1809 – 1882), academics began to explore the biological and genetic origins of human behaviour with increasing rigor up to the present day. Naturally, these investigations turned quickly to the topic of sexuality. As Foucault put it, “since sexuality was a medical and medicalizable object, one had to try and detect it—as a lesion, a dysfunction, or a symptom.” The early academic discourse regarding sexual attraction closely mirrored that which continues today: some believed that it was biologically anomalous and originated during embryonic development (i.e., inversion) while others insisted that all deviations from heterosexuality were sexual perversions.69 Thus heterosexuality and its -ism was born.

Prior to the 20th century, most gay men expressed their sexualities subversively, out of the eye and ire of the public. This was especially true in the wake of World War II and the Red Scare, when increasing social anxiety led to greater rigidity of gender roles and other social norms. However, by the 1960s, isolated urban areas, implicitly zoned for so-called ‘deviant entertainment,’ began to flourish as safe(r) cultural spaces for bohemian enclaves. Within these ‘ghettos,’ and to the dismay of the social establishment, social power began to coalesce around gays and lesbians who moved to these areas seeking cheap rents and entertainment. Eventually, the accumulation of social power among New York GBM culminated in the Stonewall Riots of 1969—an event which is considered by some to be the birth of the modern LGBT movement and a quintessential moment in the sexual revolution. Within this era of increased sexual openness and freedom, the emergence of gay neighborhoods throughout North America was a manifestation of an emerging cultural identity among GBM. Hereto, at least prior to the 19th Century, sexuality was a behavioral phenomenon—men could have sex with men without thinking of themselves as different from men who had sex with women. However, in these new neighborhoods, GBM carved out a new society and culture where they could come together, find support, and meet sexual partners. Gay men flocked from all over the continent, many from more conservative landscapes, to find acceptance and relief from the intense and sometimes violent social stigmas their neighbors and families enacted upon them. Of course, not all gay men flocked to these enclaves. Even at the height of the sexual revolution, coming out of the closet wasn’t easy for gay men and many choose to veil their pariah status.

Nevertheless, gays and lesbians had begun to achieve some level of liberation—and you know the saying, ‘Once a dog tastes blood…’. However, there were two competing visions for what homosexuality would be moving forward. Halperin paints the scene nicely:

“In the gay society of the period…the shift from deviant to normative gender styles, the rise of sex as both symbol and practice, and the euthanasia of traditional gay male culture were all strictly correlated…Now that gay men were living their homosexuality not as a cultural practice but as a sexual identity, they required a new gender style; and the masculine gender style that they adopted by expanding their sexual opportunities enabled them to consolidate a definition of gay existence and a model of gay identity that focused on sex at the expense of culture—and that excluded the feminine identifications that had informed and defined much of traditional gay male culture.”

In other words, assimilation into the heterosexual male form (diverging only in the object of one’s sexual desire) seemed to have in some respects triumphed over a more ‘radical’ or ‘deviant’ vision for gay life. This is the tension between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft: communities try to maintain their established boundaries, they are distinguished by culture, they resist assimilation. Society on the other hand is enchanting to the individualist: it promises greater freedom and self expression—independence from what are seen as archaic and oppressive norms. “Being gay,” the individualist insists, “is a sexual orientation, not a subculture.”

Amid this tension, another would become obvious throughout the AIDS crisis and subsequent HIV epidemic. Indeed, in some ways AIDS reminded gay men that they weren’t mainstream—that the lure of Gesellschaft was a flimsy deception at best—and that in some ways all gay men shared a common lot with the gay community. According to some, this had a unifying effect.77 Though in reality, the tensions simply mounted along different cultural fractures that had less to do with collectivism, and instead focused on status and social position. As Douglas observed, some in the community organized themselves around AIDS services organization, in an effort to strive towards community-based prevention. Unlike the way the Polio epidemic was handled, this new prevention style was amenable to collectivists, as it offered a bottom-up approach to stopping AIDS. However, the stratification of knowledge makers and knowledge takers made the social structure of CBO’s inherently hierarchical. As such AIDS forced gay communities to undergo the fundamental transformation from an enclavist to a hierarchical social order. For those with a habit of differing to social position (either by upbringing or some other means of cultural acceptance), this was fine. But others in the community were skeptical of relying on knowledge that originated from an un-egalitarian system. According to Group and Grid, these folks perceive risks as “being embedded within a much deeper set of social anxieties” and viewed AIDS prevention efforts as “inflaming rather than dispersing these anxieties.” In summary, the gay community, like other communities, faces division from both the allure of society calling us to greater individualism and conflicts over social order.

Given this history, what does all of it have to do with risk perception? After all, that is the purpose of Group and Grid: to illuminate the influence of social structure on the ways people interpret and react to risks. The characters we’ve identified are those (1) closeted and isolated from the gay community, (ii) society’s individualists, and the two collectivist groups: (iii) egalitarian enclavists, and (iv) hierarchical positionalists. We have already briefly mentioned how the conflict between egalitarians and hierarchists plays out (i.e., Egalitarians reject the information asymmetry in hierarchical systems therefore deemphasizing the risks emphasized by the hierarchical social order), so, we will now focus on the tensions between collectivists and individualists. Assessing this relationship, Lo and colleagues found that collectivism is associated with maintenance of sexual norms, while individualism was associated with more liberal beliefs regarding sexual behavior. Similarly, collectivism has also been shown to impact the level of stigma that sexual minorities feel, with higher collectivism contributing to higher stigma when an individual is in violation of group norms. Another, related concept known as sexual altruism has also been shown to predict GBM’s sexual behavior. Together, these sorts of studies highlight the role that social pressure can have in shaping risk behavior. Collectivists, being more subject to social pressures are thus more likely to comply with community-endorsed risk management behavior. While Individualists are more free to explore; and thus employ strategies which are perceived to better balance risk taking and pleasure.

Another example can be seen when looking at technology uptake, which has become an increasingly important part of gay community life since the mid-1990’s. As noted by information systems researchers studying the uptake of new technologies, they diffuse in predictable patterns, based on specific user characteristics. For example, individualism has been associated with quicker uptake of new technologies; while collectivist groups only embrace technology on the proviso that it is compatible with group norms. Further, Dake distinguishes between egalitarian and hierarchical collectivists, suggesting that egalitarians tend to perceive new technologies as threats to their social structure, while hierarchists are more likely to perceive them as tools by which thy can expand their social dominance.

All of this is not to say that social structures determine our risk perceptions, only that they influence them. Indeed, our values about how we organize ourselves are fundamentally embedded in the ways we conceive ourselves and our responsibilities to others. Group and Grid attempts to capture this relationship and emphasize the gravity that social structures have on how we see the world and all its dangers.

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