Patterns of perception, negotiation, and civic epistemology: Constructing knowledge claims of risk on Capitol Hill
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Socio-psychological and sociological studies of risk and risk communication have long contributed to a discrepancy between studies of message effects on the one hand and processes by which risk definitions (or messages) are constructed on the other hand. This discrepancy is most notable for the concepts of trust and credibility, where socio-psychological studies have focused on the processes by which individuals come to trust risk managers, view them as credible, or imbue them with expertise. Contrarily, studies in the sociological tradition have examined risk managers’ efforts to construct and disseminate risk definitions and express credibility in knowledge claims about risk. Although overlapping in their use of terms, these two lines of research remain disconnected, and little progress has been made to reconcile these conceptual distinctions or consider how processes of risk message perception and social negotiations to produce risk messages may inform understandings of credibility, expertise, or what these cognitive and social processes reveal about broader parameters of learning within which knowledge claims are developed (i.e., a civic epistemology). To address the discrepancy between socio-psychological and sociological approaches to risk and forms of credibility in the perception and production of risk messages, this study uses the context of the United States Congress, and specifically, two bipartisan organizations in the House of Representatives designed explicitly to investigate (and make claims about) issues related to climate change risks—the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and the Climate Solutions Caucus. Taking an ethnographic approach, this study uses in-depth interviews with key staffers (i.e., legislative specialists) affiliated with each organization, in-person observations of hearings, and analyses of public-facing materials to examine how climate-related risk information sources are deemed credible and used to develop (or inform) members’ knowledge claims about risk. Findings reveal that legislative specialists are situated in environments that provide little time to assess the credibility of information sources, which requires them to rely on sources they consider familiar or established, or those with whom they have built a relationship over time. In turn, legislative specialists remain the primary gatekeepers of source credibility assessments as knowledge claims are developed with other staffers within or outside of one’s office—providing them the ability to effectively “nest” credibility judgments within strategic negotiations about the substance of knowledge claims. Public-facing materials and Select Committee hearings reveal thematic expressions of credibility in knowledge claims that are distinct along partisan lines, which is contrary to the concealed processes of perception and negotiation that are politically indistinguishable. This private-public divide that limits partisan discourse to public-facing materials and sense-making rituals suggests a distinct culture of sense-making (i.e., a civic epistemology) that is unique to Capitol Hill. Overall, processes of credibility nesting pose implications for understanding the points at which risk definitions are (re)framed and provide a formative connection between socio-psychological and sociological approaches to studying risk communication.
Capitol Hill; Credibility; Risk communication; Risk perception; Science communication; Social construction of risk
Hilgartner, Stephen; Lewenstein, Bruce V.; Rickard, Laura
Ph. D., Communication
Doctor of Philosophy
dissertation or thesis