Great deeds or great risks? Scientists’ social representations of nanotechnology

Bertoldo, Raquel; Mays, Claire; Poumadère, Marc; Schneider, Nina; Svendsen, Claus. 2016 Great deeds or great risks? Scientists’ social representations of nanotechnology. Journal of Risk Research, 19 (6). 760-779.

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Nanotechnologies are becoming a larger presence in everyday life and are viewed by governments and economic actors as a key area for development. The theory of social representations suggests that specialist views eventually disseminate to shape representations among the public. Yet nanotechnologies remain relatively little known to the general public. The media emphasize potential benefits, while potential risks get less attention. The literature has not yet addressed whether representations by a well-informed population (scientists) are indeed structured in terms of the risk–benefit polarity that dominates research framing to date. We attempted a systematic assessment of how background knowledge about nanotechnology may influence experts’ perception. Study 1 delivered the first demonstration derived from a qualitative analysis confirming the existence of a polarized representation of nanotechnologies, contrasting opportunity (medical, economic, and technological) and risk. Interestingly, risk was distinguished at two levels: that associated with nanomaterial characteristics (toxicity, reactivity) and at the larger scale of impact (health, environment, legislation). Does this polarity indicate a ‘yes, but’ logic (nanotechnology carries opportunity but also risk), or two clusters of specialists (sensitive, respectively, to opportunity or to risk)? Study 2 surveyed a larger sample of experts who self-described their scientific background and role viz. nanotechnology. Role had no influence. Specialists consensually viewed that nanotechnology represents opportunity, but depending on scientific background they did not agree to the same extent that nanotechnology also constitutes a risk. Participants with a physics and chemistry background tended to represent nanotechnologies predominantly in terms of opportunities and not in terms of inherent risks or impacts. In contrast, toxicologists, life and social scientists appeared to explicitly incorporate both benefits and risks in their representation of this new technology. Environmental scientists were a more diverse group, divided between the two patterns of representation.

Item Type: Publication - Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
CEH Sections/Science Areas: Acreman
ISSN: 1366-9877
Additional Keywords: nanotechnology, nanomaterials, risk perception, scientists, experts, social representations
NORA Subject Terms: Ecology and Environment
Date made live: 01 Mar 2017 10:34 +0 (UTC)

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