Perceptions of extreme weather affected by social context

A new study in Environmental Sociology finds that people view extreme weather differently depending on their context:

“Odds were higher among younger, female, more educated, and Democratic respondents to perceive effects from extreme weather than older, male, less educated, and Republican respondents,” said the study’s author, Matthew Cutler of the University of New Hampshire.

There were other correlations, too. For example, people with lower incomes had higher perceptions of extreme weather than people who earned more. Those who live in more vulnerable areas, as might be expected, interpret the effects of weather differently when the costs to their homes and communities are highest.

Causes of extreme weather and the frequency of extreme weather events is an under-explored area from a sociological perspective. Better understanding is important to building more resilient and adaptive communities. After all, why prepare or take safety precautions if you believe the weather isn’t going to be all that bad or occur all that often?…

“The patterns found in this research provide evidence that individuals experience extreme weather in the context of their social circumstances and thus perceive the impacts of extreme weather through the lens of cultural and social influences. In other words, it is not simply a matter of seeing to believe, but rather an emergent process of both seeing and believing — individuals experiencing extreme weather and interpreting the impacts against the backdrop of social and economic circumstances central to and surrounding their lives,” Cutler concludes.

Context matters! (Many sociology studies could be summed up this way.) Weather may have some objective features – it can be measured, quantified, examined, and predicted (to a small degree). Yet we all experience slightly differently based on what shapes us. While it sounds like this study focuses more on demographic factors, I wonder if there would also be big differences based on general attitudes about nature: is it something that is bigger than humans/has a life of its own vs. it is something that humans can control or not be affected by because of our increasing knowledge? Plus, humans are often not the best at detecting patterns; we perceive things to be related when they are not or vice versa.

Perhaps this helps explain why so many people can make small talk about the weather. It isn’t just that it affects us; rather, we all view it in slightly different ways. One person’s big storm that requires changing their behavior might be just an inconvenience to someone else.

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