Relational Activism: Reimagining Women's Environmental Work as Cultural Change

By O'Shaughnessy, Sara; Kennedy, Emily Huddart | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Relational Activism: Reimagining Women's Environmental Work as Cultural Change


O'Shaughnessy, Sara, Kennedy, Emily Huddart, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Introduction

From "hysterical housewives" labels (Seager 1996) to "Love Your Mother" bumper stickers (Roach 1991), gender is inescapable in the discussion of environmental activism in the Western world. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and images of "housewife activists" like Lois Gibbs (Bantjes and Trussler 1999:180) were emblems of environmentalism from the 1960s through to the 1980s. Today, former US Vice President Al Gore and Canadian biologist David Suzuki are among the figureheads of the environmental movement. Indeed, the effect of gender on environmental attitudes and behaviours is a major area of investigation for environmental sociologists, and has resulted in rather contradictory empirical findings: although women are more likely to demonstrate higher concern for environmental issues, they are less likely to engage in environmental activism (e.g., Mohai 1992; Tindall et al. 2003). To make sense of this apparent contradiction, numerous strategies have been undertaken, including analytically separating proenvironmental activism from proenvironmental behaviours that are incorporated into daily routines. Activism, within this body of literature, is presented as a public sphere activity--a realm traditionally dominated by men.

The conceptualization of environmental activism as a public sphere activity undertaken by ecologically minded individuals, however, does not explain women's lower rates of activism. (3) Moreover, it obfuscates much of the behind-the-scenes, private sphere, and community-building work performed primarily by women that makes environmental activism possible. In this article, we revisit the way in which environmental activism is typically measured, and introduce the concept of "relational activism" to better capture women's experiences with environmental activism. This term draws attention to the importance of community, networks, and communication in contributing to long-term change. Relational activism is a form of activism precisely because of the intentionality of such behaviours: these are (often) private-sphere actions undertaken with the intent of demonstrating, encouraging, or communicating to others the tractability and importance of a behavioural commitment to the environment.

We argue that the traditional view of activism as a set of public-sphere activities is incomplete: there are myriad efforts behind the scenes that also constitute environmental activism. In contrast with traditional public-sphere activism, as measured in most environmental sociological work (e.g., attending protests, writing to politicians or newspapers, donating money for environmental causes, see Barkan 2004; Seguin et al. 1998; Tindall et al. 2003), relational activism is a long-term form of activism that utilizes relationships among networks of like-minded individuals, and blurs the distinction between public and private-spheres by using daily behaviours as the locus for social and environmental change. However, relational activism is not antithetical to conventional activism in its predominant conceptualization. We argue that relational activism provides important social and community support that facilitates the types of public-sphere environmental actions typically measured, while also contributing to long-term cultural change. In this way, relational activism provides important insight into the contradictory findings of environmentally conscious women's participation in environmental activism.

Rethinking Activism

Extant literature on gender differences in environmental activism and behaviours rarely provides explicit definitions of environmental activism. Most definitions have coalesced around distinctions between environmental activism and proenvironmental behaviours. For instance, Tindall et al. (2003:910) define activism as "specific movement-supporting activities that are promoted by environmental organizations" and environmentally friendly behaviour as "everyday behavior that aims to conserve the environment in various ways. …

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