Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice

By Sze, Julie | Environmental Health Perspectives, August 2005 | Go to article overview

Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice


Sze, Julie, Environmental Health Perspectives


Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice

By Jason Corburn Cambridge, MA:MIT Press, 2005. 256 pp. ISBN: 0-262-53272-7, $24 cloth

Jason Corburn's Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice is an important addition to the literature on the science and politics of environmental health decision making. In clear prose, Corburn provides a "descriptive, analytic, and prescriptive understanding of local environmental-health knowledge" through what he calls "street science" (p. 217). Street science is a framework that joins local insights with professional scientific techniques, with concurrent goals: to improve scientific inquiry and environmental health policy and decision making.

At the heart of Street Science are four case studies from Greenpoint/ Williamsburg, in New York City, where diverse racial and ethnic, low-income populations practice what Corburn calls "science on the streets of Brooklyn." These studies were centered on complex environmental health issues: subsistence fishing risks, asthma, childhood lead poisoning, and small sources of air pollution. Some of the larger issues addressed through these particular studies include the limits of traditional risk assessment and the politics of mapping health and environment risk. Through these studies, Corburn provides a theoretical model for understanding key characteristics of what he calls "local knowledge," its paradoxes, and contributions to environmental health policy. Street science, at its best, identifies hazards and highlights research questions that professionals may ignore, provides hard-to-gather exposure data, involves difficult-to-reach populations, and expands possibilities for interventions, resulting in "improved science and democracy." One of the strengths of this book is that it succeeds where most studies of local knowledge fail, "scaling up" and providing generalizations about the nature of local knowledge, how it is acquired, the typical problems that occur when local and scientific knowledge conflict and why.

Drawing from social science, particularly science and technology studies, Corburn explicitly calls for environmental and public health researchers, policy makers, and urban planners to become "reflective practitioners." At the same time, he is careful to reject the idea that street science is a panacea. It does not devalue, but rather revalues science. He is not calling for a populism where the "community" replaces "experts," but for a better understanding of how knowledge "co-produced" among local and professional constituencies can lead to better health, science, and politics. …

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