Academic journal article Electronic Green Journal

Shaping Environmental Justice: Applying Science, Technology, and Society Boundary Work

Academic journal article Electronic Green Journal

Shaping Environmental Justice: Applying Science, Technology, and Society Boundary Work

Article excerpt


environmental justice, STS (Science, Technology and Society), Boundary work, environmental racism

This article applies Gieryn's two concepts of boundary-work, "expansion" and "exclusion", to observing environmental justice (EJ) research. The application of boundary-work in the field of EJ science shows that similar phenomena noted in Gieryn's case studies can also be found in EJ research. EJ scientists continue to shape and reshape the meaning of EJ. Meanwhile, activists also use rhetoric boundaries to discredit the legitimacy of EJ's opponents. I suggest that the EJ movement is still dependent on scientists to provide a scientific way to foster equal distribution of environmental risks. However, to achieve a just distribution, science along is not enough. Public participation in the field of both EJ science and the political movement is necessary.


Science has long been a key element in the broad history of the environmental movement. Generally speaking, scientific knowledge has been assigned the role of identifying environmental risks, measuring the extent of harms, and assessing remedial actions. Needless to say, if the risks are invisible, the public or the authorities have no choice but to trust scientists and their assessments. In an ideal world, the scientific community can develop a unified body of reliable knowledge. Then what policy-makers and citizens have to do is to follow this scientific consensus. In reality, however, it is next to impossible to find a unanimous consensus among scientists. Different occupational and disciplinary divisions between scientists produce substantial variations in terms of their scientific accounts. So in the real world, different groups of scientists constantly disagree with each other on most points. Further, debates among scientists are not always conducted on the basis of reason (Yearley, 2005, Ch.8). Once debates escalate, scientists from different groups may resort to the technique of boundary-work to distinguish themselves (real science) from their rivals (pseudo-science).

This article analyzes boundary-work in environmental justice (EJ) and asks, "Can we distinguish between true science/scientists and pseudo science/scientists?" The phenomenon of boundary work, I argue, can be found not only in the field of science generally, but also in the area of EJ research in particular. To answer the aforementioned question, this article firstly focuses on Gieryn's analysis of boundary-work (1983; 1999), then suggests how this can be utilized to analyze EJ. The second part deals with how rhetorical boundaries were produced within the EJ science, and questions to what extent scientific knowledge supports the EJ movement. After demonstrating the boundaries of EJ science, the third part turns to an analysis of how science was used by EJ activists to expand their movement and how boundaries were set to exclude science from the EJ movement. Finally, I conclude with some initial comments regarding the nature of EJ.

2. Boundary-work

As noted above, contemporary science is often perceived as the sole source of intellectual authority. However, tracing the history of science, it does not take long to find that science has not always possessed the authority attributed to it in contemporary society. By identifying its own supposedly unique and essential characteristics, science/scientists demarcate a rhetorical boundary to strike back at its challengers. The process, through which science is distinguished from other kinds of intellectual activity, is known in the STS (Science, Technology and Society) study as boundary-work. In this section, I discuss how science came to be defined, and how the scientists involved in this definition interacted with each other.

2.1 The "Expansion" of Authority

Gieryn (1983;1999) demonstrated how boundary-work was used from historical perspectives. In Victorian Times, the most famous scientist was John Tyndall (1820-1893). …

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