Risk Perception Mapping


Risk Perception Mapping (RPM) is a method that maps a hazard zone based on local perceptions of risk from a point of exposure. This zone incorporates the distribution of attitudes and beliefs within a geographic area. Stone (2001) notes, “RPM is an ethnographic method of public consultation that derives from an egalitarian philosophical perspective… It was developed explicitly to identify and map the geographical extent and sociocultural characteristics of an LAP [locally affected population] and to document the impact and mitigation issues raised by its various constituents” (208). [1]

Relevant Characteristics

RPM displays local perceptions within their geographic proximity to the hazard point, enabling identification of distributional trends. This method provides a self-perceived definition of the locally affected population, and enables identification of affected populations that cross jurisdictional borders or fill only part of accepted governmental divisions (e.g., cities, counties, states).Risk Perception Mapping.png

“Method Made Easy”

Step 1: Design the sampling procedure.
  • Define your project area/risk area
  • Divide the risk area into proportional zones
  • Use household and participant random sampling procedures
Step 2: Engage in pre-field community consultation.
  • Meet with community boards and leaders to gain community support
Step 3: Design the interview (including pretesting).
Step 4: Conduct the fieldwork.
  • Ethnography
  • Structured interviews
  • Participant observation
  • Keep detailed field notes

Step 5: Conduct data management and analysis
Step 6: Communicate preliminary findings to the local community (and receive community feedback)


Risk Perception Mapping has multiple methodological advantages for researchers:
  • RMP provides an accurate delineation of the locally affected population, enabling concentration on their needs and perspectives during negotiations regarding the hazard
  • It accounts for variation in major sociocultural attributes such as income, education, ethnic background, etc.
  • This method uses ethnography to identify the risk characteristics of “specially affected populations”, or small populations often missed in broad sampling plans.
  • RPM produces preliminary findings about community perceptions, in addition to its primary goal of population identification.


While Risk Perception Mapping does have its researchers, like any method, it also has a few limitations:
  • RPM is time-consuming and resource-heavy method resulting in simple identification of the locally affected population’s geography.
  • This method is most effective as an initial phase of a longer research project, or as a supplement to a more in-depth study.


Methods are both qualitative and quantitative, requiring a range of analysis techniques. Stoffle et al.(1991) suggests deciding how to calculate the chosen “affected” measure (e.g., aware versus unaware)[2] . Next, simply measure the percentage of interview participants who were aware of the anticipated radioactive waste facility. See method in context for other possibilities. Weight answers based on adults per household, households per sample area, and sample areas per sample zone. Zone size is a factor because those further from the point source cover a larger area. Label each zone quadrant with the percentage of interviewees identified as affected by the hazard. This spatially highlights areas with a higher percentage of aware responses. Identify the core, contiguous area, and islands where a majority of residents are affected by the hazard. Conduct additional qualitative analysis for contiguous areas and islands of awareness to identify reasons for their increased awareness. Illustrate key concerns identified by the interviews by dividing interview data into topics, then using inter-rater reliability to weight responses on a 3-point scale from least to most illustrative. Topic responses with the highest score can illustrate that community concern.RPM 2.png

Method in Context

This method results primarily in a geographic map of the affected community; however, it differs from other mapping methods by its anthropological contribution of qualitative data. Participant observation, informal interviews, ethnographic emersion, and community involvement fill-in gaps often missed in strict random sampling or structured interview techniques.

Affected or not affected is a dichotomous variable to be quantified and put on a map. Yet how the researcher defines “affected” alters its interpretation and can lead to differing results. Variations in operationalizing the term “affected” include probing for basic project awareness, directness of impact, significance of impact, numbers of impacts, or duration of impact.

Online Resources

Risk Perception Mapping:
Using Ethnography to Define the Locally Affected Population for a Low-level Radioactive Waste Storage Facility in Michigan

Further Reading

Hung, Hung-Chih & Tzu-Wen Wang
2011 Determinants and Mapping of Collective Perceptions of Technological Risk: The Case of the Second Nuclear Power Plant in Taiwan. Risk Analysis 31(4):668-683.


  1. ^

    Stone, John.
    2001 Risk Perception Mapping and the Fermi II nuclear power plant: Toward an ethnography of social access to public participation in Great Lakes environmental management. Environmental and Science Policy 4:205-217.
  2. ^

    Stoffle, Richard W., Michael W. Traugott, John V. Stone, Paula D. McIntyre, Florence V. Jensen, & Carla C. Davidson
    1991 Risk Perception Mapping: Using Ethnography to Define the Locally Affected Population for a Low-Level Radioactive Waste Storage Facility in Michigan. American Anthropologist 93(3):611-635.