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Year : 1999  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 3--5

When noise becomes too much noise

Herman R van Gunsteren 
 Dept. of Political Science, University of Leiden, The Netherlands

Correspondence Address:
Herman R van Gunsteren
Dept. of Political Science, University of Leiden, The Netherlands

How to cite this article:
van Gunsteren HR. When noise becomes too much noise.Noise Health 1999;1:3-5

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van Gunsteren HR. When noise becomes too much noise. Noise Health [serial online] 1999 [cited 2020 Feb 20 ];1:3-5
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Noise is a problem, and annoyance, which is a signal of 'too much noise', is even worse. Therefore, the crucial question is: when does noise become too much? Familiar examples of contested noise exposure are the protest of local communities against new tracks for the smooth passing of the high speed train, of suburbians against another free way now coming close to their back yard, or of residents (sometimes far away) against being overflown by more aircraft. Such protest typically arises when situations change, that is, when significant interventions in the environment are announced or when increases of exposure are expected to occur. So called non-steady states. Such situations have become the rule rather than the exception for annoyance. Whereas in the sixties and seventies the issue most often has been the reduction of existing noise levels, the annoyance issue nowadays typically is whether or not an increase of a noise producing activity should be tolerated or not. Dose-effect curves which have been derived mostly under steady state conditions may not apply here. Indeed, a recent survey not only showed the percentage highly annoyed residents around Schiphol airport to be an order of magnitude more than 'it should', but it also revealed higher than normal variabilities within communities (TNO-PG and RIVM, 1999). Apparently, under non-steady state conditions annoyance cannot be interpreted easily anymore as a psychofysical function of some sound-dose. The use of dose-effect information in these situations must be reconsidered, and this requires a better understanding of the social nature of annoyance. How could this be achieved, and in which directions should further research go?

Individuals are expected (more often than being asked) to accept changes into their living environment, and to move along with it. Already the mere fact of being forced to adapt generates negative attitudes towards any real or expected changes at the noise source. But there is more to non-steady states and noise annoyance. Change per se offers individuals an opportunity to redress existing and disliked situations. Levels accepted earlier, may not be tolerated anymore. This need not be irrational at all: the introduction of a change by the noise source may be the best occasion for residents to re-appraise 'costs and benefits' of the present and future situations effectively. Airing annoyance in non-steady states is as much a signal about the direction of change of the decibel as it is about how costs and benefits should be re-allocated and how decisions on these matters should be reached. Therefore, it is time to understand and handle environmental noise annoyance from both acoustical and non-acoustical points of view in an explicit way.

Noise cannot exist without sounds but sounds need interpretation before they can become noise. In the wording of Sanford Fidell at the workshop: "Noise is a sound that someone considers too inconvenient to control". This definition reveals the essentially political nature of noise annoyance. There is always a 'You' who wishes to conduct a sound generating practice (with benefits to at least himself), and a 'Me' who is adversely affected by that practice. Those two meet as follows: "You expose me!" Annoyance is largely about whether you (and I) are satisfied with that social relationship. And that is a matter of perceived control. Who is in control of the relationship and, thus, of my exposure? I, you, both of us? How is it now, how will it be? What is each of us aiming at? And how does that feel? Neither noise nor annoyance can be described by the (psycho)fysical terms of the 'source-path­exposed object' only, as all sorts of social or power-related exchanges take place alongside these chains. Agreement with a particular noise metric may well be a result of these exchanges, but it will not work the other way around: reasonably smooth and undisturbed relationships cannot be expected to flow from the imposition of a particular metric. Understanding noise annoyance in non-steady states requires political and moral theory in addition to insights from psycho-acoustics.

People differ in attitudes towards threat, towards possible disturbances of their living environment, towards risks, towards challenge, towards control. Douglas and Wildavsky (1982; also Thompson, Ellis and Wildavsky, 1990; Douglas, 1992) have developed a cultural theory to show how "common values lead to common fears." In most societies basically four ways of facing risks and control of risk can be observed: the hierarchist, the fatalist, the individualist and the enclavist (also called egalitarian) perspective. Each having its typical view of fairness and blame, its own favorite institutions in which to place trust and from which to expect relief. Each places different needs in front when it comes to social development, and each cares for different resources to meet those needs. Different social organizations (be it a regulatory agency, an ad hoc informal network, a business community or an environmentalist group, and so on) may favor one type of dealing with risk and challenge. Within a community exposed to noise different residents may feel part of different groups, they will see different values disturbed, and they will have different opinions about who ought to undertake which mitigating action.

Using the accepted metrics - with all their expertocratic connotations - as the sole indicators of annoyance and exclusive basis for noise abatement and annoyance addressing policies is terribly top - down. This will do only if the public is comfortable with hierarchy in the first place. The message to policy makers and their advisors is that annoyance is both a psychological and political phenomenon. If the principal variety of annoyance responses is not reflected adequately by the policy measures, such policy itself may become a serious determinant of annoyance.[4]


1Douglas, M., 1992, Risk and blame, London: Routledge
2Douglas, M. and A. Wildavsky, 1982, Risk and Culture, Berkeley: University of California
3Thompson, M., R. Ellis and A. Wildavsky, 1990, Cultural theory, Boulder: Westview
4TNO-PG and RIVM, 1998, Hinder slaapverstoring, gezondheids- en belevingsaspecten in de regio Schiphol, resultaten van een vragenlijstonderzoek, TNO-PG-98.039; RIVM: 44`520010, Leiden/Bilthoven.