Local knowledge and environmental risk assessment

One of the most frequent and persistent questions that come up with regard to environmental risk assessments and community responses to the level of risks identified in those studies is: why is there such a disjuncture between community risk perceptions and official evaluations of risk?

A researcher from City University of New York analysed a case of a low-income, African-American neighbourhood in the Hyde Park area in Augusta, Georgia. She illustrates how environmental risk assessments can exclude the experiences of marginalised groups such as the poor and people of colour. Her analysis is especially important because environmental problems are heavily dependent upon scientific information so any biases in this information may have significant and lasting impacts on many social issues.

The fact that something can be regarded as environmental science does not mean that it will necessarily lead to environmental justice.

Many aspects of environmental risk assessments are probabilistic, meaning they can only tell us that certain impacts are more or less likely. Assigning these probabilities, however, is not a value-free exercise, as Checker shows in her article. One of possible biases that shape risk assessments and environmental science is in how officials choose to define a “typical” subject or a member of a particular community. Such a subject is usually male and of a particular age. If officials are not very familiar with the social make-up of the community under study, they may also rely on stereotypes and displace potential harms caused by toxic contamination by reporting them as a problem that did not result from industrial practices but some other (stereotypical) feature of the community. Another bias may stem from the failure to address cumulative risks of exposure to toxins.

Community risk perceptions vary according to their socioeconomic characteristics. This means that previous experiences of marginalisation and discrimination can further heighten and intensify the perceived threat.

Checker shows how ethnographic research can complement environmental risk studies and she suggests a community-based participatory research model in order to improve the quality of risk assessments as well as the relations with governmental agencies.

Checker, M. (2007). ‘But I know it’s true’: environmental risk assessment, justice, and anthropology. Human Organization, 66(2), 112.