Lesson Plan for Teaching the Cultural Theory of Risk


These materials are designed for an introductory course on human-environment geography, or a mid-level course on risks and natural hazards. They are meant to enable Cultural Theory to be presented in the space of one 1:20 class period or two 0:50 class periods. At the time of this lesson, students will have been introduced to the outlines of environmental risk controversies (the lesson assumes that nuclear power figured prominently in the previous lessons, but that element can be altered depending on the class).

The objectives of this lesson are that students should be able to:

  1. Explain what Cultural Theorists mean when they say that conflicts over risks are really conflicts over social organization.
  2. Describe the four wordlviews outlined in the grid/group typology, and give examples of each
  3. Identify the "myth of nature" that people in each way of life adhere to, and list several of the risks that they will find most threatening
  4. Apply Cultural Theory to understand a conflict over an environmental risk
The objectives are cumulative -- a student will not be able to meet a later objective without having met the previous ones.

In overview, this lesson moves through three basic steps. I first engage the students by engaging them in discussion of a problem, then present them with a theoretical perspective that can help them deal with the problem, then ask them to consolidate their knowledge by applying it to the problem. By using a mixture of large group discussion, small group work, lecture, and visuals, I aim to appeal to a diverse range of learning styles.

The presentation I have developed requires a substantial amount of lecture. This is because Cultural Theory incorporates a very particular set of terminology and philosophical propositions that are difficult to either demonstrate or draw out Socratically. On the other hand, Cultural Theory does lend itself to a stepwise argument leading from the starting principles to the grid/group typology and the myths of nature.

I open the lesson by presenting a scenario whose basic outlines students will have encountered before: the controversy over nuclear power. This allows me to show them that we're starting from a familiar point, and to refer back to their preexisting knowledge about the stakeholders and arguments surrounding that issue and show how Cultural Theory affects our perspective on them.

The next section of class consists of lecture, in which I present the basic philosophical viewpoint of Cultural Theory and describe how the theory was developed. I emphasize the claim that environmentalists are like the Amish, because that argument is unusual and provocative (particularly if there is a large proportion of secular environmentalists in the class), while also nicely illustrating Cultural Theory's claims about types of social organization.

I then begin to draw the grid/group diagram on the board. This diagram provides a clear visual summary of the theory. In explaining the concepts of grid and group, I get the class to discuss how situations in their everyday lives can be described in these terms.

The next section of class moves from social structures to worldviews. I use the ball-on-a-surface diagrams (another compelling visual) to illustrate the four myths of nature, explaining how each fits the associated social structure. At this point enough of the theory is presented that students should be able to make the leap to the final point: which risks do people with each worldview fear? I encourage them to do so by having them brainstorm.

The lesson ends with a group exercise that asks students to apply the theory to the example of nuclear power that has been used throughout the lesson. By constructing an argument consistent with one of the worldviews, students are forced to get inside a certain way of thinking.

The first assessment, an online quiz, is to be given immediately after the lesson in order to gauge students' grasp of the presentation and readings. In the interests of brevity, it focuses on the third objective (with the assumption that meeting that objective requires a mastery of objectives one and two). The second assessment is designed for incorporation into a test or a major homework assignment. It challenges students to apply Cultural Theory to a new scenario, demonstrating mastery of all four objectives.


To be read in advance of class.


Thompson, M. 1997. Security and solidarity: an anti-reductionist framework for thinking about the relationship between us and the rest of nature. Geographical Journal 163(2): 141-149.

Sjöberg, L. 1997. Explaining risk perception: an empirical evaluation of cultural theory. Risk Decision and Policy 2(2): 113-130. (For an introductory-level class, be sure to ask students to focus on the literature review and conclusions sections, rather than getting bogged down in the methods and analysis of Sjöberg's survey)


Rayner, S. 1992. Cultural theory and risk analysis. In Krimsky, S., and D. Golding, ed. Social theories of risk. p. 83-116. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Langford, I. H., S. Georgiou, I. J. Bateman, R. J. Day, and R. K. Turner 2000. Public perceptions of health risks from polluted coastal bathing waters: a mixed methodological analysis using cultural theory. Risk Analysis 20(5): 691-704.

Lecture notes

(Italicized items indicate writing and discussion elements, roman text indicates material to be lectured on by the teacher.)

Opening scenario: Imagine there's a proposal to build a nuclear plant in your town.

Brainstorm a list of likely stakeholders -- plant owners, NRC, local activists, etc. What is each stakeholder likely to believe about the pros and cons of building the plant? (Students should be able to draw on prior readings about nuclear energy and risk controversies.) Why is there so much disagreement? Ignorance? Conflicts of interest? Try to keep the results of this brainstorming on one board, so that they can be left up and referred to throughout the lesson.

According to Cultural Theory, controversies over risk are really controversies over social organization. Risks cannot be objectively evaluated. We become aware of them through a cultural filter that draws attention to certain risks at the expense of blinding us to other ones. People focus on the type of risks that are a threat to their preferred way of organizing society, and which can best be handled by their preferred form of society.

The Cultural Theory of risk, also known as grid/group cultural theory

Figure 1

Draw a 2-by-2 matrix on the board (as in Fig 1)

Grid: vertical dimension. Refers to how many of an individual's choices are circumscribed by social rules or an outside authority. Think of it as a piece of graph paper where you can only move along the lines given.

Group: horizontal dimension. Refers to how much solidarity people feel with each other. In a high group situation, people take an "us versus them" attitude, whereas low group leaves everyone for herself.

Name several situations that students would have encountered in daily life -- this classroom, their clubs or fraternities/sororities, a garage sale, etc. -- and ask them to briefly evaluate whether those situations are characterized by high or low grid and group.

Grid and Group define four possible types of social organization (label each as they're described, and point to additional examples in the list of stakeholders in the nuclear case):

(If lesson is to be spread between two classes, break here)

Each way of life is associated with a worldview that justifies it and explains why that way of organizing society is the best. An important part of the worldview is a "myth of nature," which describes how the natural world works. These myths are often represented as a diagram of a ball resting on a surface, which may be shaken or otherwise disturbed. (draw the diagrams, shown in Fig. 1, as they are described)

No myth of nature is completely correct or completely incorrect -- each is appropriate in different circumstances. Therefore there is a need to have all four worldviews represented, and a possibility for adherents of each to be so "surprised" by how the world works that they change their myth of nature.

Attitudes to risk:

Outstanding issues in Cultural Theory

In-Class Group Activity

Break class into four groups (or multiples of four, if it is a very large class). Assign each group one of the four worldviews. Give each group 15 minutes to write a short statement taking a position on the proposed nuclear plant, from the perspective of people adhering to their assigned worldview. Remind them that being of a certain worldview doesn't necessarily dictate whether they will be for or against the plant -- the key point is that whatever position they take, they must back it up with the kinds of reasons that their assigned worldview would accept. Groups will then present their arguments to the class. As a class, discuss which type of arguments different students found more persuasive. How likely do students think it is that adherents of one worldview will be able to cooperate with the adherents of another?


1.To be completed prior to the next class period, via a multiple choice quiz on Blackboard.

Which Cultural Theory worldview do you think would be most concerned about each of the following risks?

  1. Civil disobedience (Hierarchy)
  2. Lack of a stable investment climate (Individualism)
  3. Inflation (Individualism)
  4. Decline in moral values (Egalitarianism)
  5. Nuclear waste (Egalitarianism)
  6. Federal over-regulation (Individualism)
  7. Misuse of science (Hierarchy)
  8. Overpopulation (Egalitarianism)

2. To be incorporated into a larger examination or given as a major homework assignment

Read the following news story about a proposal to expand logging in the hypothetical Big Pine National Forest, then answer the questions that follow.

SMITHSBURG, KY -- The Forest Service will allow logging on an additional 30,000 acres of Big Pine National Forest, according to a spokesperson speaking at a press conference yesterday. The decision comes after months of heated debate and with the threat of a lawsuit by environmental groups if their concerns were not addressed.

"We believe that by opening up a select portion of the western valley, we can improve the economy of the Smithsburg region without damaging the ecosystem," said Forest Service spokesperson Kathleen O'Toole. "We are committed to ensuring that the most modern, environmentally sustainable technology and logging practices are used."

Nevertheless, some environmentalists resolved to fight on. Aaron Fontaine of Save Kentucky's Old Forests (SKOF) said the Forest Service had sold out the natural ecosystem to boost the profits of giant timber corporations. "It's a sad state of affairs when the government, which claims to be protecting us, would so easily trample the delicate balance of Big Pine," he said.

Smithsburg Town Council Chairman Kevin Anderson was ecstatic over the news. "Logging is the backbone of this town. For those of us who grew up, went to school and church here, it's our whole culture, our way of life. If some Washington bureaucrats had taken that away from us, this town would have disappeared," he said.

The American Timber Council issued a statement of approval, praising the Forest Service for understanding the needs of the timber industry. "We are pleased that the Forest Service recognizes that nature is at its healthiest when it is used by people, rather than giving in to the misguided radical environmentalist ideology that says nature must be locked away lest we ruin it."

The New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said that while it was not happy with the outcome, it would abide by the Forest Service's decision and not pursue the threatened lawsuit.

"Would we have liked to see more protections, more limits on how and where they can log? Certainly," said NRDC representative Ellen Beal. "But we agreed to enter into a negotiation process with the Forest Service and the timber industry, and to abide by the decision. I think it was a fair process."

"We think the NRDC fell asleep on the job," said Fontaine. "The negotiations were hardly a fair process. They happened behind closed doors, and members of the community -- such as SKOF -- were not able to participate."

Anderson dismissed SKOF's concerns. "I don't know what community SKOF thinks they represent, but it isn't Smithsburg. And in Smithsburg we don't appreciate outsiders trying to tell us what we can and can't do."

The new tract in Big Pine National Forest is expected to be logged for paper. A spokesperson for American Paper Inc, which currently employs about half of the population of Smithsburg in logging on other lands, said not to expect the skidders to be arriving anytime soon.

"Certainly we're happy to see any new lands avaliable," said spokesperson Jerry Allen. "At the moment, however, there's a glut of softwood on the world market. It may not be economical for us to begin cutting right away."


  1. List all of the stakeholders in this controversy who appear in the news story (name individuals or organizations). Identify which of the four Cultural Theory worldviews each stakeholder adheres to. Each answer may be used multiple times or not at all. (Answer key: Forest Service - Hierarchy; SKOF - Egalitarianism; NRDC - Hierarchy; American Timber Council - Individualism; American Paper Inc - Individualism; Kevin Anderson - Egalitarianism)
  2. 2.Write a short paragraph explaining which stakeholder's viewpoint you find most persuasive in this case. You may draw on other materials from this class to supplement the information given in the story.