Cellular Phones, Public Fears, and a Culture of Precaution

This is the first account of the health panic surrounding cellular phones that developed in the mid-1990s. Treating the issue as more ‘social construction’ than evident scientific problem, it tells the story of how this originally American anxiety diffused internationally, having an even bigger impact in countries such as Italy. Burgess highlights the contrasting reactions to the issue ranging from positive indifference in Finland to those such as the UK where precautionary measures were taken. These differences are located within the emergence of a precautionary culture driven by institutional insecurity that first appeared in the US and is now most evident in Europe. Anxieties about cell phone radiowaves are also situated historically in the very different reactions to technologies such as x-rays and in the more similar ‘microwave suspicions’ about television. In addition, Burgess outlines a history and sociology of what is, despite media-driven anxieties, a spectacularly successful device.

• The first in-depth study on the subject • Based on entirely original comparative research • The subject of the book is the most popular communications technology of our time


1. Introductory chapter: themes, influences; phones and risk; 2. The mobile ‘revolution’; 3. Mobile discontents and the origins of microwave fears; 4. Radiating uncertainty; 5. Diffusing anxiety: international dissemination and national responses to mobile fears; 6. The culture of precaution; 7. Problems of precaution and responsibility.


‘Adam Burgess’s fascinating and frequently polemical book highlights the perils of precautionary thinking.’ The Lancet

‘Burgess’ book remains a salutary lesson in the social construction of fears, which will undoubtedly be used to inform similar episodes in the years ahead.’ Spiked

‘I found it thought-provoking and can strongly recommend it as a fascinating study of the interaction between science and society.’ Tony Barker, consultant clinical scientist at Royal Hallamshire Hospital and chairman of the IEE’s Policy Advisory Group on Biological Effects of Low-level Electromagnetic Fields

‘… Burgess’s study of mobile phones contains a general and worrying message of small or non-existent risk being emphasised to advance social policy and influence the direction of scientific research.’ The British Medical Journal

‘… Adam Burgess\' important book is the first major work to examine the history and dynamics of the scare.\' New Media and Society