The International Handbook of Environmental Sociology, Second Edition
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The International Handbook of Environmental Sociology, Second Edition

Edited by Michael R. Redclift and Graham Woodgate

This thoroughly revised Handbook provides an assessment of the scope and content of environmental sociology, and sets out the intellectual and practical challenges posed by the urgent need for policy and action to address accelerating environmental change.
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Chapter 2: Social Institutions and Environmental Change

Frederick H. Buttel


1 Frederick H. Buttel Introduction Many environmental sociologists think of their scholarly speciality as being the study of social institutions and environmental change. But while the analysis of social institutions and environmental change could in some sense be said to encompass the whole of environmental sociology, the purpose of this chapter will be to examine institutional aspects of environmental change in a more specific and focused way. Our emphasis here will be on some of the major issues, particularly within North American environmental sociology, concerning the role of political–economic and sociocultural institutions in shaping environmental degradation and change. The notion of ‘institution’ is one of the most common sociological concepts. But the notion is so commonplace in sociology, and so much a part of ordinary language, that it is often used in a vague or imprecise way. In this chapter we understand institution to refer to specific or special clusters of norms and relationships that channel behaviour so as to meet some human physical, psychological or social need such as consumption, governance and protection, primordial bonding and human meaning, human faith, and socialization and learning. Thus we may speak of economic, political, family, religious and educational institutions – the five institutional complexes of societies that are generally regarded by sociologists as being most important. While institutions and institutional processes are analytically distinct with respect to one another, and tend to exhibit some autonomy or specialization, institutions of a society are also interrelated (or, to be more precise, people through their...

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