Skin Cancer and Expert Knowledge
The danger of being hit by an oncoming vehicle is always present, but manageable by recalling safety advice like the popular safety advice “Stop, Look and Listen”. However, some risks are not always obvious and we are dependent upon different types of knowledge generated by experts to help reveal them, but sometimes this expert knowledge can be contested and interpreted by lay people in society. The aim of this report is to explore the claim that the role of expert knowledge is disputed between experts and the lay public and will do so by drawing on useful evidence to help support the claim. 2. What is meant by ‘risk’?
The word risk refers to a state in which there is a possibility of known danger or harm, which if avoided may lead to benefits (Carter and Jordan, p. 59). To elaborate, here is an example that illustrates the definition of risk: • Someone who rides a bicycle may be aware of the risk associated with manoeuvring through traffic alongside vehicles moving at fast speeds and manages the possibility through the use of hand signals and reflectors and lights. They may also wear a helmet to reduce the risk of head injury. However, they also manage the risk by weighing it against the benefit of healthy exercise associated with cycling. . Risk Society Sociologist, Ulrich Beck (1989), is a very influential theorist in the debate of risk in the social sciences and his theory of risk society stresses that as we have made the transition from industrial society to contemporary society, we are also in a period of transition toward a ‘risk society’ where we are dependent upon expert knowledge to identify and outline risks that are sometimes beyond the direct powers of human perception (Carter and Jordan, p. 79). Beck uses the events of the Chernobyl disaster to illustrate his theory.
Here are a few key points about his theory: • Beck argues that the as the cloud of nuclear radiation that spread through Europe, people who lived in the ‘fallout’ zones were heavily dependent on the knowledge of experts to identify the risk. • Within a risk society, personal experience not longer enough in order to judge danger or harm. • However, while Beck’s theory highlights the publics need of expert knowledge to define risks and the possible danger it poses for them, one of his key concerns is that the role of expert knowledge goes on to cause worry and anxiety for us all.
This theory of risk is very useful in exploring the claim that expert knowledge in managing and understanding risk is disputed, because we can apply it to numerous other examples of everyday material risk. 4. Evidence of risk in contemporary society There are a large number of examples of material risk in contemporary society that we can apply Beck’s theory to. Here are just two of them. 4. 1 Allotment Example
This example or risk involves the soil of an allotment which was said to be poisoned, how with the use of scientific tests the soil was in fact safe, and uncertainties were created when a different body of expert knowledge revealed that the original tests demonstrated too much variation and so was contested. • After a four year wait, Tim Jordan and his family were given an allotment close to their home in which they grew vegetables and happily ate them. However, they received a letter from the local authorities stating that the soil on the allotment was poisoned with lead and arsenic, and was therefore unsafe. After months of consultations, the local council sent off samples of the soil to multiple laboratories to get it analysed. The results of which tests deemed the levels of toxins in the soil to be low enough not to prove a threat to human health, and so normal gardening was resumed in the allotments. • Jordan and his family decided to give up the allotment because expert knowledge in the field of science was reliant on assumptions about the soil and they were uncertain of the risks posed by the poisoned soil. But the validity of the scientific tests was questioned by the UK Government’s environmental agency (EA) who claimed that the results of the tests were questionable because the tests seem to find differing levels of toxins, and so the EA submitted the same samples to nine laboratories in the UK and Wales, to one in the USA, and one in the Netherlands. The results they produced demonstrated enough variation between the laboratories to suggest that such tests may be underestimating the poisons.
By applying the fundamental points of Beck’s risk theory to this example, we can see that expert knowledge did in fact bring the risk of poison in the soil to the attention of the public, but also it also shows that while scientific expertise identified the potential danger to human health, it was also contested by a different body of scientific knowledge. 4. 2 Sun tanning example In this example, we examine how the lay public interpret medical advice using personal experiences and cultural practices in order to make sense of the risk involved in sun tanning.
This case study was conducted as part of a larger study funded by the Medical Research Council, with respondents aged between 20 and 35 years old and it is important to note that they were from Glasgow, a city where exposure to the sun is often a rarity. • The respondents could all easily recall medical advice about exposure to the sun, but measured it against the notion of a healthy tan. • Many of the respondents explained that by getting a tan they looked and felt healthier in themselves. The sun can be begin to see that the effects the sun’s rays have on the body are both a source of material risk, from cancers, and a symbolic risk, such as being pale and unhealthy looking (Carter and Jordan, p. 76). This example shows how expert knowledge in the form of medical advice tells us to keep our skin covered so as to prevent exposure from the sun that could cause skin cancer, and how this is interpreted by society using the cultural practice of booking holidays and how they balance the material risk of skin cancer with the symbolic risk of getting a tan in order to look and eel healthier. 5. Conclusion In conclusion, risk is all around us in our material lives, but through the use of expert knowledge that is mediated to us in a variety of different ways and helps us to shape our understanding of risk, we are better able to negotiate how to avoid it. In looking at Beck’s theory, risk society, we can also see that expert knowledge is depended upon to bring risks that are not obvious into society consciousness, but at the same time expert knowledge can also be a great cause of worry and anxiety.
Lastly, the way that the public reinterpret exert knowledge through personal and cultural practices, like balancing the idea of poisoned soil with health benefits of growing their own organic vegetable, or balancing the material risk of getting skin cancer from prolonged exposure to the sun with the symbolic risk of getting a healthy tan so that they look and feel healthier suggests that although we know and are able to recall simplified messages conveyed by experts, sometimes we don’t always follow it to the letter.
Therefore, we can see that the role of expert knowledge in understanding in managing risk is far from straight forward and is disputed. 6. References Carter, S, and Jordan, T. (2009) ‘Living with risk and risky living’ in Bromley, S. , Clarke, J. , Hinchliffe, S. , and Taylor. (eds) Exploring Social Lives, Milton Keynes, The Open University. ‘A risky world? ’ (2009) Exploring Social Lives [Audio CD 1], Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Self Reflection How are you managing your time and coping with the study schedule? Generally I am managing my time by planning my studies around my work commitments and it appears to be working fairly well. I am also coping with the study schedule quite well although I do feel that I could spend more time on making notes that help to jog my memory if I get a little confused with subjects within the module materials.