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Anticipating or Accommodating to Public Concern? Risk Amplification and the Politics of Precaution Reexamined

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Jamie K. Wardman, Ragnar Löfstedt

Original languageEnglish
JournalRisk Analysis
Issue number0
Early online date26 Apr 2018
Accepted/In press12 Mar 2018
E-pub ahead of print26 Apr 2018


King's Authors


Regulatory use of the precautionary principle (PP) tends to be broadly characterized either as a responsible approach for safeguarding against health and environmental risks in the face of scientific uncertainties, or as “state mismanagement” driven by undue political bias and public anxiety. However, the “anticipatory” basis upon which governments variably draw a political warrant for adopting precautionary measures often remains ambiguous. Particularly, questions arise concerning whether the PP is employed preemptively by political elites from the “top down,” or follows from more conventional democratic pressures exerted by citizens and other stakeholders from the “bottom up.” This article elucidates the role and impact of citizen involvement in the precautionary politics shaping policy discourse surrounding the U.K. government's “precautionary approach” to mobile telecommunications technology and health. A case study is presented that critically reexamines the basis upon which U.K. government action has been portrayed as an instance of anticipatory policy making. Findings demonstrate that the use of the PP should not be interpreted in the preemptive terms communicated by U.K. government officials alone, but also in relation to the wider social context of risk amplification and images of public concern formed adaptively in antagonistic precautionary discourse between citizens, politicians, industry, and the media, which surrounded cycles of government policy making. The article discusses the sociocultural conditions and political dynamics underpinning public influence on government anticipation and responsiveness exemplified in this case, and concludes with research and policy implications for how society subsequently comes to terms with the emergence and precautionary governance of new technologies under conflict.

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