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Posted: May 22, 2012

Consumers, nanotechnology and responsibilities: Operationalizing the risk society

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Nanotechnology is a set of newly emerging technologies. It bears with it promises of benefits, as well as prospects of risks. The promises concern improved diagnostics and treatment of diseases, more efficient energy production and energy use and lighter, stronger materials. Larger revenues and job creation are also part of this picture. The prospects of risk concern potential adverse effects on health and environment, but also that there are potential uncertain impacts of some of the applications of the technology.
There have been significant investments in nanotechnology from both developed as well as developing countries. Still, surveys show a rather large part of the public as being unaware of the technology. This could be considered even more surprising considering that a number of consumer products on the market claim to have a nanotechnology component. The early adoption of the technology in consumer products has accentuated the focus on risks.
Risks are high on the agenda in our society to the extent that we might refer to the society as a risk society. This indicates that risks are pervasive and have influenced our society in profound ways. The German sociologist Ulrich Beck has diagnosed a shift in the perception of risk from "early "modernity as something that was inflicted on society by external forces, to the "late" modern era were serious risks are perceived as being produced by society itself. These are risks to both society itself and to the environment: radioactivity from nuclear activities, environmental pollution and residues of toxins and pollutants in water and foodstuffs. This can also be perceived as a shift from a society concerned with the distribution of "goods" to a situation where a major concern for society is the distribution of "bads".
Into our society nano-enabled consumer products with their possible benefits and risks are introduced. And people in their role as consumers are confronted with these products from early on and their choices might have far-reaching effects. If the consumers reject the products it may have detrimental effects on the further development of and investments in nanotechnology. If, on the other hand nano-enabled consumer products are embraced by consumers it can spur further investments and developments. However, consumers have been a neglected actor in the discussions on nanotechnology.
Nano-Nina, mannequin dressed in various nano-artifacts available as consumer products
'Nano-Nina', a mannequin dressed in various nano-artifacts already available as consumer products. (Image: Dr. Harald Throne-Holst, SIFO)
What consumers think and do, reacting to the mixed message about benefits and risks of nanotechnology, contributes to how the risk society (with regard to nanotechnology) is filled in further, and in that sense becomes operationalized. The theme of this thesis, therefore, is not just the responses of consumers (and how others perceive these) to the introduction of nanotechnology, but also a case study of how the risk society can be operationalized.
By operationalization I here understand how risk society (in this instance) is made to work. Thus, it is an aspect of the broader question how social order is reproduced and transformed. The joint process can be indicated by speaking of reproduction/transformation: reproduction is never copying, there are always new elements, and these can grow and become transformations. And if transformation is up front (de facto and/or intended), reproduction always plays a role as well. Reproduction/transformation processes can be intentional, but also de facto effects of what happens for other reasons. Choices of consumers can contribute to the reproduction of a less than desirable social order, if there is no reflection on the further implications of these choices. If there is such reflection, it can still lead to reproduction, but now from a conviction that this social order is good. But it can also lead to conscious attempts to transform social order by changing own practices.
From this perspective, operationalization is not a specific activity, but part of reproduction/transformation processes in general. There is, in operationalization, more attention to articulation of what is the case. This perspective is already visible with Ulrich Beck when he speaks of 'work of definition' and how 'work of definition' becomes organized differently in the risk society. The 'work of definition' is about increasing the definition of a situation or a phenomenon. Things become clearer, can be outlined more sharply, without a need to formulate explicit definitions. Social interactions always include more or less 'work of definition'.
'Work of definition' occurs all the time, even if some actors may play a larger role than others. A special role is played by analysts like me. An analyst is explicitly oriented towards clarification of a situation, a phenomenon or a development, although the result will not always be a direct part of ongoing reproduction/transformation processes. An example from this thesis is the analysis of labelling of nano-enabled consumer products. In a first instance the analyst will investigate what is going on and trace how the risk society is de facto operationalized. In a second instance, with the publication and dissemination of the research results, the analyst's 'work of definition' will become part of ongoing operationalization and make it more reflexive.
Traditionally the role consumers and consumption has been understood as linked to the market sphere and market exchanges, whereas the role of citizens has been linked with the political sphere and voting. Recent consumer research has indicated that there is a blurring of the borders between these two roles. Citizens frustrated by the slow working of the political system have turned to the markets which are seen to offer more efficient ways to exert power over businesses. At the same time has the view of what consumption entails changed, and it is no longer apprehended as just buying products, but that it also includes planning, using and disposing of products. The term citizen-consumers indicate this broader view. Actions of citizen-consumers can then be called political consumption: deliberate actions to change or sustain social order. As such it is reflexive operationalization. Political consumption fits well with Ulrich Beck's idea of the emergence of sub-politics, politics outside the traditional political channels, or politics from below.
There are several ways to find or create situations where 'work of definition' can be observed, and the evolving outcomes can be traced. The choice of focus group exercises as sources of data can be explained by the availability of two Norwegian focus group studies that had been conducted for other purposes (projects) were available. They were conducted in 2006 and 2008, and for both years four so-called mini-groups (with 5-6 participants) were arranged which were differentiated according to age and gender. There were anticipation of a limited knowledge of participants on nanotechnology, and this was reflected in the design of the exercises. After initial questions on different aspects of modern technology, the moderator asked the focus group participants if they knew anything about nanotechnology. After that a researcher was introduced in the focus groups and held a 20 minutes introduction to nanotechnology. Care was taken to make it a balanced presentation of both pros and cons of nanotechnology. After a round of clarifying questions, the moderator asked the participants to reflect on what they just had heard.
Such focus groups exercises can be viewed as a micro-cosmos. It is a protected space compared with the wider world, but what happens in this space reflects and to a certain extent anticipates on interactions in the wider world.
When analysing the focus group material, the transcripts of what was said, emphasis was put on the interactions between the participants, not on individual pronouncements. In the interactions the 'work of definition' becomes visible, particularly because the participants are confronted with a topic, nanotechnology and consumers, which is novel and uncertain.
Content analysis of the focus group material was directed towards identification of items. Subsequently, these were taken together, across the eight focus groups, into three clusters with a certain coherence: Trust/assurance; Balance of risks and benefits; Roles and agency. It turned out there was also a recurrent storyline in the discussions of the focus groups, a pattern of argumentation where an earlier argument calls up a subsequent argument. In summary, the storyline is: "New is worrisome"; "But old is worrisome too" and finally "Yes, new is like old – but with possible added benefits". This pattern of argumentation is the result of the interactions between the participants, one would not expect an individual on his/ her own to create this pattern. The three clusters can be linked to this storyline.
A general finding is that consumers, in interaction in the focus groups, do not limit themselves to risk, but more often discuss responsibilities, of others but also of themselves. This resonates with how Ulrich Beck links the risk society with what he calls organized irresponsibility. In the focus groups, participants go further by reflecting on how new responsibilities might be organized. For themselves as consumers, they saw only a limited responsibility, as asking for information. This is a usual response of consumers, but in the focus groups a next step was made when discussing the issue of labelling of consumer products with a nano-component. Labelling was seen as desirable, but the questions were raised what consumers should and would be able to do with such information. Here, 'work of definition' is visible.
As an analyst I built, in a later chapter, on this 'work of definition'. Labelling of products with a nano-component is pushed by and for consumers, but need not be a good measure. The considerations that emerge when consumers, in a focus group, discuss nano-consumer products are broader and might be addressed by other measures. For consumers, transparency and accountability are important, and that someone should be responsible. With product labelling, this is the consumer. In Chapter 8, other measures are discussed where producers or governments are responsible. In general, one could start with the idea of shared responsibility, which is then differentiated and specified (see: "Complexities of Labelling of Nanoproducts on the Consumer Markets").
The analysis in Chapter 7 of consumer rights in the age of nanotechnology overlaps with the discussion of labelling because of 'the right to be informed' combined with the 'right to choose' two of the four basic consumer rights. Presently (2008), most consumers are not aware of nanotechnology, and information about consumer products is uneven, 'nano' being used where it does not apply, and not used where it applies. The right to safety is widely recognized as a right, but uncertainties about risks of nanotechnology and limitations of regulation create difficulties in ensuring safety. The right to be heard would have to go through consumer organizations, but the topic of nanotechnology is not high on the agenda, and the complexity of nanotechnology may limit the organizations' ability to adopt knowledge-based policies in the field. Thus, the application of the rights is not self-evident ("Nobody Told Me I was a Nano-Consumer:" How Nanotechnologies Might Challenge the Notion of Consumer Rights) . Focus group data show that consumers think about their rights, not necessarily referring to the basic rights.
In chapter 5, views on nanotechnology and the risk society, as Beck formulated it, are traced in interviews with a variety of Norwegian stakeholders, taking the precautionary principle as a backbone of the risk society. Six topics were identified in the responses, within an overarching techno-optimistic view: (in contrast to GMO (genetically modified organisms), nanotechnology is seen as "All benefit, no risk"). For the stakeholders, the precautionary principle is a sleeping principle – until something goes wrong ("Who should be precautionary? Governance of nanotechnology in the risk society").
In chapter 6, I move closer to consumers by inquiring into how stakeholders (along the value chain) perceive and target consumers. Two consumer product categories, textiles and cosmetics, the two top categories where nanotechnology is used/marketed (2009), were selected. There is variety across countries in how nano is visible in marketing, even within one company like the cosmetics conglomerate L'Oréal. The chapter also pays attention to the governance challenges that are involved, where regulation has to be complemented by soft actions like codes and vigilance by various actors, i.e. distributed governance leading to distributed responsibilities ("Risk, Responsibility, Rights, Regulation and Representation in the Value Chain of Nano-products").
In chapter 9 conclusions and further considerations are offered. The general conclusion is that focus group participants do 'work of definition', building on their experience and insights, and that they take home what they learned to their own situation. Many participants voiced intentions of being more aware up to the point of avoiding nano-enabled products. Generally, however, the participants articulated an increased interest in the developments of such products.
In other words, what happens in the micro-cosmos of the focus group is part of operationalizing the risk society. Living in the risk society is complicated, and the focus group participants appear to hold contrasting views of technology, with optimistic as well as fatalistic elements. Somehow, they manage to hold these together. Also, risks are viewed as 'facts of life' in a modern society, but there is an increased concern with responsibility for risks.
A more evaluative conclusion is that consumers, in the interactions in a focus group, come with own and important considerations, definitely on the topic of responsibilities for risks and how these can be arranged. Although they see their abilities and powers as consumers as somewhat limited, they are prepared to discuss and take on responsibilities. Thus, they are assuming the role of citizen-consumers.
By Harald Throne-Holst, who works as a researcher at the National Institute for Consumer Research in Oslo, Norway. The dissertation was defended at the University of Twente, The Netherlands on April 18, 2012. The supervisor was Prof. Arie Rip, Emeritus professor at Department of Science, Technology and Policy Studies, School of Management and Governance, University of Twente.

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