The societal dynamics of controversies around the siting of mobile phone base stations

Risk and uncertainty are important features of modern life. Our current society is increasingly referred to as a risk society (Ulrich Beck), in which society is challenged to manage potentially negative outcomes of new scientific and technological developments. This PhD project focuses on one societal controversy dealing with risks and uncertainties in particular: the controversy around wireless communication technologies (GSM, UMTS, C2000, Wifi, etc). While the majority of scientific experts emphasize that to date no consistent evidence has demonstrated health risks from the electromagnetic fields generated by these new technologies, there remain some uncertainties about long-term effects and effects on children. Contradictory media headlines – inspired by disagreeing experts – leave citizens more confused than enlightened about the possibility of risk, which nourishes societal anxiety and even resistance.

Resistance is especially manifest against the siting of base stations and antennas for wireless communication technologies in the vicinity of residential areas in municipalities. Local citizens that mobilize against the siting of base stations often gather a remarkable amount of technical, scientific, legal and organizational knowledge about the issue with which they challenge the claims made by scientists, governments, city councils and legal courts. Municipalities increasingly find themselves in the middle of a conflict. Although studies on technological developments often focus on the macro-level of policy regulation, the centre of risk controversies is mostly very local. This project therefore aims to study the controversies in municipalities in the Netherlands and Belgium.

The project focuses on the dynamics and mechanisms underlying and determining the level and course of controversy by analyzing how different actors involved (experts, telecom industry, policy actors, housing corporations, legal actors, citizens, social movements, etc.) deal with uncertainty and risk and (scientific) knowledge.This PhD project hopes to contribute to ideas about responsible governance of innovation in view of risk.

PhD candidate: Marijke Hermans
Supervisors: Prof. dr. ir. Marjolein van Asselt, Prof. dr. Wim Passchier and Dr. Ragna Zeiss