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Understanding the discourse-semantic shift towards risk in the UK and Germany

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - UnRi (Understanding the discourse-semantic shift towards risk in the UK and Germany)

Reporting period: 2016-07-01 to 2018-06-30

Recent decades have seen a proliferation of risk discourses in Europe and globally. However, even though the notion of risk has become commonplace in public debate as well as in professional practice and scholarly work, the characteristics of this shift towards risk and the driving forces behind it are still contested. Several sociological theories offer different explanations for the prominence of risk, linking it to the occurrence of new global risks, the change in the governing of societies and the growing prominence of individualist values. Attempts to explain these changes have largely remained in the different research traditions and thereby failed to develop a broader, thoroughly empirical understanding of the pervasiveness of risk in present-day societies.
To examine these issues, the Fellow developed a new research strategy—corpus sociology—which utilises linguistic research tools to examine changes in language and discourse as well as (social) contexts. On the basis of a case study of The Times (1785 to 2009) the Fellow produced an empirically grounded theory on risk which shows firstly, the relative ability of available theories to explain this historical shift towards risk in public debate after World War Two and, secondly, identifies the concrete developments which fostered risk language in the UK historically and in recent decades.
The action shows that the significant increase of at risk-expressions took place in the transition to the 1970s and 1980s which results from cultural and socio-structural changes, social strategies to manage risk as well as undesired events from large scale to individual disasters (compare Figure 1). These are accompanied by social conflicts, the negotiation of social reality and the discovery of undesired social issues (e.g. child abuse, famines). The research shows that risk language is mediated rather than caused by linguistic dynamics or changes in the newspaper production process but due to social issues. These changes have resulted in a new zeitgeist which is characterised by the tension between the rational management of social issues and the (unreasonable) exposure to risk.
• A literature review on recent developments in the area of corpus linguistics and media studies relevant to the project.
• Training on a range of corpus analysis tools but in particular the online available CQPweb which combines a number of different tools and statistical measures.
• Production of a corpus of English newspapers articles (from 1980s/1990s to 2015)
• Building of a German newspaper corpus with the help of external funding ready for analysis.
• Exploitation of The Times corpus at the Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences research centre (CASS) which contains all articles from 1785 to 2009 and therefore allowed unique analysis not possible with any other corpus.
• Development of a corpus sociology which utilizes corpus linguistics instruments for sociological analysis. These required the adaptation of linguistic instruments to serve sociological research interests focusing on the mutual connection between language and social/material context.
• Comprehensive empirical analysis and development of a theory of the social forces which are responsible for the use and proliferation of risk language in the UK.
• Extensive discussion of the project’s methodology and research results with experts from different disciplines relevant to the projects such as sociology of risk, historical journalism and media studies, corpus linguistics and discourse studies.
• Presentation of the methodology and the research results at one national (UK) and five international conferences and at three meetings at local seminar series at CASS.
• Publication of an edited book, a book chapter (2018), a monograph to be out in 2019 and one peer reviewed article (2018) while a second journal article is still under review.
• Development of substantial international networks in Europe and to build sustainable capacity on corpus sociology. This includes the collaboration with the chair of corpus linguistics at TU Darmstadt (building of text corpora, research proposals, and research) and a Guest Professorship at Mid-Sweden University (2017-19).
Major results of the action:
At risk language changed historically depending on social contexts and media reporting. During the 19th century heroic risk taking (doing good at the risk of one’s life) stood out against a large variety of issues but was almost disappeared by the beginning of the 20th century.
Trade and economic issues were the normal context of the occurrence of objects at risk in the first half of the 20th century. During the post-war period significant changes took place. A clear shift in journalism from politics and economics to everyday life issues also shaped the instantiations of risk language. There is a clear observable shift towards social groups at risk such as children, patients, (young and elderly) people, and women. There are a number of valued objects such as jobs, lives, home and heritage which stood out (Table 1). The unreasonable exposure to risk is a key motive.
A similar shift is observable regarding the reported risks (Table 2). The 1950s and 1960s are dominated by cold war issues but shifted towards a mix of risks in the 1970s before showing the dominance of diseases with a trend towards chronic and civilization diseases. Flooding stood out in the 2000s.
The action advanced scholarship methodologically and conceptually beyond the state of the art in risks studies. The focus of risk society theory on new catastrophic risks, such as climate change, needs complementation.
First, in working societies such as the UK jobs stand still out amongst the valued objects at risk reported in The Times.
Second, the newspapers shift on issues relevant for everyday life people rather than politics and economics is both a response to growing media competition for readers and the expression of a socio-cultural shift.
Third, the action suggests the notion of consequential risk to characterise the media’s approach to risk which is underpinned by some kind of evidence such as expert opinion but has not to be probabilistic. Also smaller disasters or everyday knowledge are sources which can inform reporting on risk in the media.
fourth, in contrast to mainstream theories (e.g. risk society theory, governmentality), it is the scandal that institutions such as the family or the National Health Service which should protect children or patients against risk are a source of risk themselves which make the news.
Finally, the action proved that public debates about risk are shaped by a large variety of issues. A comprehensive risk theory requires combining cultural (e.g. shift towards ‘put at risk’) as well as structural changes in society (e.g. jobs at risk), the institutional practices to manage risk (e.g. risk register, risk lists) and the comparatively smaller disasters which foster imaginaries of the larger risks to come.
Table 1: Objects At Risk
Table 2: The Risks
Figure 1: Frequency of At Risk Constructs