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How the stories of ordinary people could give them more say over planning decisions


Stories in their own words from men and women directly caught up in debates and controversies over threats from technologies to themselves and their environment are to be recorded and analysed in new research sponsored by the ESRC.

This new approach, which pays much more attention to how ordinary people understand risks in the context of their everyday lives, could give them a greater say with planners and policy-makers, according to Professor Nick Pidgeon, who is leading a project team at the University of East Anglia.

The study will concentrate on gathering stories - or narratives - from two contrasting communities in Essex – one that has lived for a number of years with a nuclear power station, at Bradwell-on-Sea, and the other close to a major UK airport, at Stansted.

Researchers using this ‘narrative approach’ will explore people’s assumptions and values through the stories they tell about their experiences of the risks involved in the place where they live.

Previously, much research of this kind has come from the fields of economics and psychology, trying to assess people’s opinions and values through formal questionnaires. But new methods already in use in various types of social sciences research, such as studies of family relationships, produce narratives of people talking in-depth about how a topic forms part of their life-histories.

Now, for the first time, these methods are to be used in an investigation aimed at giving far greater insights into the social, cultural and other factors which lie behind people’s attitudes and reactions to technological risks to themselves and to their environment. It will also be possible to explore various local influences on people’s understandings of technological risks, and track how they develop and sustain particular values.

Professor Pidgeon said: “Complex new technologies create uncertainties over their risks, and governments have to be involved in planning and managing these. Often, however, they know very little about how people will respond to particular developments. “We are now aware that the issue is not simply one of ‘educating away’ public misunderstanding of what is best, as recent controversies over GM foods and the siting of mobile phone masts have clearly demonstrated. “Ordinary people’s accounts, in their own everyday language, are an essential ingredient in the whole process of drawing up plans and making important environmental decisions.”

Professor Pidgeon argues that people’s experience of environmental risk and their response to it is bound up with their own identity and sense of place. And this can only be captured through sensitive interviewing at the location concerned.

This sort of approach is also the best way to investigate the culture of a particular place and the way risks are interpreted locally, he says.

Professor Pidgeon added: “A key aim of our project is to offer some insight into how gathering the stories of people in this way can help in the deliberations between them and the authorities, and ultimately lead to decisions which are acceptable to all sectors of society”

Becky Gammon | alfa
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