The International Handbook of Environmental Sociology
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The International Handbook of Environmental Sociology

Edited by Michael R. Redclift and Graham Woodgate

The International Handbook of Environmental Sociology is a major interdisciplinary reference work on the developing field of environmental sociology. It consists of over 30 specially commissioned essays by leading scholars from around the world. These original essays examine a wide range of environmental issues in the developed and developing world as well as formerly centrally planned countries to present a truly international perspective. Together they analyse theory and concepts, philosophical and empirical issues as well as offering practical policy advice.
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Chapter 15: Risk, the environment and environmental knowledges

Alan Irwin


Alan Irwin One regular theme of environmental debates and controversies concerns the contested nature of ‘environmental knowledge’ - of how we identify and measure environmental destruction and environmentally related threats to our survival and ways of life. At the same time as the successful treatment of environmental issues seems to necessitate authoritative and clear definitions of risk and threat, scientific statements often struggle to achieve public legitimacy, as recent cases concerning food safety and environmental pollution amply testify. Accordingly, ‘environmental knowledge’ has become a diverse and contested arena. This chapter will consider sociological arguments about environmental knowledge and the consequences of these for environmental sociology. In a situation where no single ‘environmental knowledge’ can exist, it becomes important to consider various environmental knowledges and their social significance. More particularly, it is suggested here that matters of environmental knowledge are inseparable from the relationship between ‘nature’ and ‘society’ and the reconsideration of this which current environmental and sociological discussions seem to require. As part of the discussion, it will be necessary to consider whether the environment can ever stand apart from everyday life and action: it is possible to argue that our view of the external environment reflects our social structure and cultural understanding - including what counts as ‘knowledge’. Accordingly, environmental knowledges will reflect assumptions and understandings which are inevitably social in character. Since science has a significant role to play within environmental discussion, it will be especially important to explore its operation in this context. Conventional accounts by government...

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