Cultural Theory of Risk as a Heuristic for Understanding Perceptions of Oil and Gas Development in Eastern Montana, USA

Extr Ind Soc. 2017 Nov;4(4):852-859. doi: 10.1016/j.exis.2017.10.004. Epub 2017 Oct 21.


This paper applies Douglas' cultural theory of risk to understand perceptions of risk associated with oil and gas development in eastern Montana. Based on the analysis of interviews with 36 rural residents, findings show the dominant perception of risk is most closely aligned with an Individualist worldview. Despite direct experience with oil or wastewater spills, most interviewees described spills as "no big deal", viewed nature as resilient, and felt that the economic benefits outweigh negative impacts. Cultural theory was a useful heuristic for understanding this dominant worldview, as well as identifying points of deviation. For example, interviewees discussed the benefits of landowner associations - a more Egalitarian approach to dealing with oil companies. Some landowners relied on external authorities (e.g., sheriff) when dealing with oil companies, revealing a Hierarchical approach to issues they face. Interviewees expressed frustration with the lack of enforcement of existing regulations, which can be interpreted as either support for - or indictment of - Hierarchical solutions. While the Individualist worldview is dominant, our qualitative analysis reveals the complex tensions at work among rural residents. The results suggest areas where policymakers, advocacy groups, and residents may find common ground to address potential environmental and health risks.

Keywords: Cultural Theory of Risk; Montana; Oil and Gas Development; Risk Perception.