Re/constructing risks and selves: the possibilities and limits of popular epidemiology and political ecology

Peter Taylor
"She can evaluate the risk," the New York State health officer repeated about any woman in Love Canal who was considering pregnancy. He angered the Love Canal activists; they knew he wasn't telling them what he knew about the risks. Moreover, they sensed he was protecting those responsible for the hazards through his insistence that Love Canal be dealt with as an issue of individuals evaluating risks. Yet, in another way, it was the "housewives'" data from Love Canal that made knowledge of the risks possible, for these data drew attention of trained epidemiologists to fine scale patterns of disease in that community. Where the local people's individually experienced and diverse health problems had been discountable, it seemed that statistics could demonstrate a cause and a case. It was not through "popular epidemiology" alone, however, but through community mobilization, led by certain local women who were transformed into activists, and the movement's skilful use of national media that government funding was secured for the families' relocation to homes free from hazards, homes in which they didn't have to take risks. These women became historically significant agents in another sense as well, after cases like Love Canal corporations are exploring new ways for less vocal people in less visible places (including the future) to take on the costs of hazardous waste.

The simple statement of the health officer has led us into an arena in which individuals, communities, governments and corporations, are constructing risks and hazards, both environmental and economic, and responding to the risk/hazard constructions of others. In doing so, the different agents are contributing to on-going reconstructions of individuality, self and agency. This is the arena explored in this seminar. In particular, we contrast popular epidemiology and political ecology and explore the possibilities of a synthesis between them. Whereas popular epidemiology highlights the possibilities of local agents knowing and acting in this context, political ecology maps heterogeneous processes, spanning from the soil morphology and agro-ecology, through local institutions of patronage and resource management, to the changing international political economy, all of which are shaping environmental problems and responses to them. What are the limits of various agents, ourselves included, knowing and acting upon a political ecology of hazards?

To provide background and counterpoint for readings on popular epidemiology and political ecology, we also look at recent work examining

a) the historical development of risk, epidemics, statistical individuals, and quantification, and

b) uneven and contradictory developments currently occuring, such as:

-the rhetoric surrounding the resurgence of neo-classical economics celebrates the autonomous agency of individuals while, in the name of the free market, the state sets capital free, transferring to it the transnational regulation of people, jobs, environments;

-information technologies allow both the monitoring of all individuals and their averaging and packaging into demographically segmented targets;

-prenatal genetic screening allows couples to avoid the burdens of parenting a disabled child and the struggles needed to secure social support to lighten those burdens;

-the probabilities of disease or susceptibility revealed by post-natal genetic screening may be used by insurance and other corporations to make uncertainty a matter for individual anxiety and decision, rather than a cause for social/corporate remediation or amelioration; and

-new technologies of toxicological analysis that identify exactly which chemical has caused mutation in affected cells might both help citizens prove their case against polluters and lead to stricter legal standards of demonstration of cause and effect than epidemiology can meet.

Sequence of Topics

I. Introduction: Popular epidemiology

II. Epidemiology and quantification of social life in historical perspective

III. Risk and responsibility today

IV. Changing subjectivity, agency, and political economies

V. Political ecology, from explanation of somewhere else to interventions here?

VI. Student presentations and/or themes raised by students

I. Introduction: Popular epidemiology

Brown, P. and E. J. Mikkelsen (1990). No safe place: Toxic waste, leukemia, and community action. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Gibbs, L. M. (1982). Love canal: My story. Albany, State University of New York Press.

Krauss, C. (1993). "Women and toxic waste protests: Race, class and gender as resources of resistance," Qualitative Sociology 16(3): 247-262.

Levine, A. G. (1982). Love canal: Science, politics and people. Lexington, MA, D. C. Heath.

Pellow, D. N. (1994). "In whose interest? Seeking environmental justice through popular epidemiology," (paper given at the American Sociological Association meetings, August 1994, Los Angeles).

II. Epidemiology and quantification of social life in historical perspective

Daston, L. (1988). Classical probability in the enlightenment. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

Hacking, I. (1986), "Making up individuals," in Heller, T., et al. (eds.) Reconstructing individualism : autonomy, individuality, and the self in Western thought. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986.

Hacking, I. (1990). The taming of chance. New York, Cambridge University Press.

Martin, E. (1994). Flexible bodies: Tracking of immunity in American culture from the days of polio to the age of AIDS. Boston, Beacon Press.

Morris, R. J. (1976). Cholera 1832: The social response to an epidemic. London, Croon Helm.

Porter, T. M. (1995). Trust in numbers. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

Ranger, T. and P. Slack, Eds. (1992). Epidemics and ideas : essays on the historical perception of pestilence. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

III. Risk and responsibility today

Aggleton, P., K. O'Reilly, et al. (1994). "Risking everything? Risk behavior, behavior change, and AIDS." Science 265(15 July): 341-345.

Beck, U. (1990). "On the way toward an industrial society of risk?" International Journal of Political Economy 20: 50-69.

Boal, I. (1991). "The rhetoric of risk." ms.

California Comparative Risk Project (1994). Toward the 21st century: Planning for the protection of California's environment.

Crimp, D. (Ed.) (1987). AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Jasanoff, S. (1990). "American exceptionalism and the political acknowledgment of risk." Daedalus(Fall): 61-81.

Jasanoff, S. (1990). The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Nelkin, D. (1989). Dangerous diagnostics : the social power of biological information. New York, Basic Books.

Rapp, R. (1995). "Risky business: Genetic counseling in a shifting world," in R. Rapp and J. Schneider (Eds.), Articulating hidden histories. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Treichler, P. A. (1991). "How to have theory in an epidemic: The evolution of AIDS treatment activism," in C. Penley and A. Ross (Eds.), Technoculture. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 57-106.

IV. Changing subjectivity, agency, and political economies

Blondet, C. "Establishing an Identity: Women Settlers in a Poor Lima Neighborhood."

Carney, J. and M. Watts (1990). "Manufacturing Dissent: Work, Gender and the Politics of Meaning in a Peasant Society," Africa 60(2): 207-241.

Davis, M. (1987). "Chinatown, Part Two? The Internationalization of downtown Los Angeles." New Left Review 164(July/August): 65-86.

Haraway, D. J. (1995). "Mice into wormholes: A technoscience fugue in two parts," to appear in G. Downey, J. Dumit and S. Traweek (Eds.), Cyborgs and Citadels: Anthropological Interventions on the Borderlands of Technoscience. Seattle, University of Washington Press.

Henriques, J., W. Holloway, C. Urwin, C. Venn, and V. Walkerdine. (1984). "Constructing the subject." In Changing The Subject. London: Methuen, 92-118.

Marginson, S. (1988) "The economically rational individual." Arena 84: 105-114 .

Robinson, S. (1984). "The Art of the Possible." Radical Science Journal 15: 122-137?.

Smith, C. A. (1984). "Local history in global context: Social and economic transitions in Western Guatemala." Comparative studies in society and history 26(2): 193-228.

V. Political ecology, from explanation of somewhere else to interventions here?

Casten, L. C. (1992). "Anatomy of a cover-up." The Nation (Nov. 30): 658-662,664.

Collins, J. L. (1987). "Labor Scarcity and Ecological Change," in P. D. Little, M. M. Horowitz and A. E. Nyerges (Ed.), Lands at Risk in the Third World: Local Level Perspectives. Boulder, Westview, 19-37.

DiChiro, G. (1995). "Nature as Community: The Convergence of Environment and Social Justice". in W. Cronon (Ed.), Uncommon ground. New York, Norton.

García-Barrios, R. and L. García-Barrios (1990). "Environmental and Technological Degradation in Peasant Agriculture: A Consequence of Development in Mexico," World Development 18(11): 1569-1585.

Shulman, S. (1992). The threat at home: Confronting the toxic legacy of the U.S. military. Boston, Beacon Press.

Taylor, P. (1992). "Re/constructing socio-ecologies: System dynamics modeling of nomadic pastoralists in sub-Saharan Africa." in A. Clarke and J. Fujimura (eds.), The Right Tools for the Job: At work in twentieth-century life sciences. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 115-148.

Taylor, P. and R. García-Barrios (1995). "From environmentalism to political ecology (using two analyses of socio-environmental dynamics in Mexico) and back to environmental justice (in the USA)." Paper to be delivered at the 1995 meetings of the American Association of Geographers.

plus other papers from the Political ecology-Environmental justice session

Watts, M. (1990). "Sustainability and Struggles Over Nature: Political Ecology or Ecological Marxism?" ms.

Whyte, W. F. (Ed.) (1991). Participatory action research. Newbury Park, Sage.

VI. Student presentations and/or themes raised by students