Debra Davidson & Magnus Bostrum: Environment


Research Committee on Environment and Society (RC24) Reports


Debra J. Davidson

University of Alberta, Canada

Magnus Bostrum

Örebro, Sweden Author

The key topic of the Third ISA Forum of Sociology in Vienna, “The Futures We Want: Global Sociology and the Struggles for a Better World,” is one that members of the Research Committee on Environment and Society (RC24) take very seriously. Environmental sociology engages with extraordinary critical problems such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, chemical pollution, resource depletion, nuclear risks, water shortage and many other mega risks – indeed the very survival of ourselves as species and human societies. It does so however, without the ecological reductionism that characterizes many other environmental sciences. Environmental problems are also social problems and require social solutions. The environmental sociologist has a unique position and potential – theoretically and methodologically – to explore and better conceptualize the problematic society-nature relationship. The environmental sociology committee (RC24) is indeed one of the biggest research networks in ISA. This both reflects that we are a vital research network, but also, sadly, the problematic condition of our planet.

In Vienna, we will be hosting a number of sessions directly relevant to global environmental struggles, and we hope to attract participants from across the Association to join in the discussion! We will describe some highlights of those sessions shortly, but first, a few insights from our President, Koichi Hasegawa, on the scope of the problem, and what sociology contributes to their understanding and resolution. Dr. Hasegawa has a long and distinguished record of research in environmental sociology, and recently shared his responses to three central questions that will be explored more deeply in Vienna, summarized below.

What are the most critical environmental issues facing society today, that are receiving sociological attention?

Critical environmental issues vary by country and region, but I can say, across the globe we share concern for the interconnected issues of climate change, nuclear energy, environmental justice, building sustainable futures, citizens’ participation in environmental decision making, and ensuring continued vitality among environmental NGOs. I believe that promoting citizens’ participation can empower environmental NGOs. And if governments listen to citizens’ voices, a sustainable and environmentally just future is within our grasp.

What are some unique insights that sociology provides to our understanding of these issues?

Scholars of environmental economics and environmental legal studies can provide policy proposals to, for example, introduce a carbon trading system, or feed-in-tariff system to promote renewable energy. And, they can estimate the outcomes of introducing such policies. I think environmental sociologists, on the other hand, are able to provide broader and more comprehensive perspectives on environmental issues, and directly grasp public attitudes and activities of environmental NGOs. With the use of both qualitative and quantitative analysis, we can evaluate structures, social processes, framings, actors, value orientations, interests, etc., all of which are key to socio-environmental outcomes, and constitute a set of relatively unique elements we focus on.

Considering the importance being placed on the upcoming Conference of the Parties in Paris this December, what do you feel are some key contributions or insights that environmental sociologists have made to our understanding of political efforts to mitigate climate change?

One key outcome of recent research is the wide discrepancies across nations in their political and civil society structures, with direct consequences for responses to climate change. I think such characteristics of political processes are key to grasping the whole political situation on climate change issues. To take just one example, one key finding of a recent large international comparative study, called COMPON (Comparative Climate Change Policy Network), is that in Japan the most crucial sources of influence are central government agencies like Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (MITI), Ministry of Environment (MoE) , and the councils of these agencies. The influence of political parties, non-governmental research institutes and NGOs was comparatively small. By contrast, the project found that in the U.S., sources of influence are dispersed, and political parties, non governmental research institutes and NGOs play significant roles, whereas the influence of central government agencies is relatively low. Similarly, in Western societies, media coverage of NGO activities is relatively much higher than in the East. This may be a reflection of the fact that US and western societies are more pluralistic, while countries like Japan and Korea are more centralised.

How can sociologists increase their influence over the outcomes of political debates about climate change?

Large, collaborative, comparative studies among countries/regions of media coverage, public awareness, decision making process and so on in relation to climate change issues can offer many possibilities to increase our influence. Discussion based the findings of such studies can have an influence on politicians, leaders of economic sectors, public audiences and media. The COMPON project mentioned above, led by Jeffrey Broadbent and joined by environmental sociologists from 18 countries is an excellent example of such a comparative study. Work by the Japan team will come out in book form this autumn.

ISA members can join us in Vienna to learn more. Our sessions include in particular two specially focusing on climate change, Mitigating Global Emissions: Networks of Political Mobilization and International Cooperation, organized by Jeffrey Broadbent, and New Research in the Sociology of Climate Change, organized by Mark Stoddart and David B. Tindall.

Why should other members of the ISA attend the sessions of the RC24 in our upcoming Forum?

While some ISA members might think that environmental issues are relatively peripheral to mainstream sociology, within the globalised society of the 21st Century, tackling environmental issues and critical examination of the relationship between environment and society are necessary to achieving sustainable futures, and are thus relevant to specialists of any research field. Whether one’s main concerns are gender, ethnicity, poverty, social welfare or disaster, today each of these is deeply related to environmental concerns. For example, in most countries, women—especially women of ethnic minority or lower class—are most vulnerable to suffering the impacts of environmental harm. In the forum in Vienna, the main topic is ‘The Futures We Want: Global Sociology and Struggles for a Better World’. Can anyone imagine pursing ‘The Futures We Want’ without acknowledging the key role environment must play to get us there?

We invite the ISA community to participate as a presenter or attendee in the sessions of the RC24 in Vienna. We have formed several session themes that engage in the important topic of improving our understanding of the fundamental environmental problems we face in the current world and explore ways to contribute to societal change. Sessions will theorize and problematize the synergies and tensions between social and environmental aspects of (un)sustainable development. They will address topics such as development vs. economic growth, North vs. South, how issues of social justice relate to environmental problems and problem-solving, as well as pathways to sustainable, equitable, and democratic economies and societies. Such theorizing and research cannot be done only in the abstract and ‘universal’ but most be sensitive to context. A globally relevant environmental sociology therefore engages in issues of time and space. The sessions cover aspects such as cross-national studies of environmental concern, how context affects the understanding of ecologically relevant lifestyles, and the multi-level dimensions of governance and politics. One session explicitly consider the concept of “time cultures”, the temporal dimension of sustainability. How does an understanding of the temporal dimension of sustainability aid the creation of alternative futures?

Quite naturally, of key concern for environmental sociologists are issues of societal change, including the search for possible futures as well as powerful forces blocking change. Environmental sociology documents and theorizes progress and backlash. Several sessions will explicitly focus on exploring conditions for structural change, cultural change, socio-technical shifts, transformation, transition, and public mobilization. Topics such as institutional design, eco-innovation, and development of eco-sensitive lifestyles will be explored. Such change processes or backlash are related to other cross-national economic, financial and political crises of today.

Sessions will also explore who are the change agents? Any kind of actor has a role to play and sessions will scrutinize the role of media, consumers, local communities, experts, journalists, NGOs, politics, policy-makers, advocacy network mobilizations, brokers, intergovernmental actors, eco-innovators, transnational business, hybrid actors and more.

Environmental sociology moreover engages with the social construction and enactment of nature representations. For instance, what visual representations are provided by NGOs, political and economic elites? What are the visions of the future, and collective imaginaries about the relationship between Nature and Society? What agency is created by such representations? How are they packaged in ways that render them useful, credible and meaningful for policy communities, other stakeholders, and the scientific communities?

Like most other research networks, environmental sociology does not restrict its studies to a particular theory or methodology. However, RC24 is proud that environmental sociology is so rich in approaches. In Vienna we will also have several sessions that focus on conceptual development in environmental sociology, and hope such aspirations also will feed back to sociology and other disciplines. We aspire to demonstrate how environmental sociology can both build on and enhance sociology.

The pluralistic ambitions among environmental sociologists are reflected in their many collaborations with scholars from other disciplines and research networks. In Vienna there will be thematic sessions with Visual Sociology (WG03), RC23 Sociology of Science and Technology (RC23), RC09 Social Transformations and Sociology of Development (RC09) and Sociology of Local-Global Relations (WG01).

In closing, those who have ventured into the domain of environmental sociology have come to discover that, learning about global ecological crises offers a new lens upon our current society, and thus can be an important source of vitality for the broader discipline. By the same token, in looking for The Futures We Want, we cannot escape the need to engage with the ecological sustainability of our planet.



Debra Davidson is Professor of Environmental Sociology at the University of Alberta, Canada. Her research and teaching focus on impacts and adaptation to climate change, and transitions in energy and food systems.

Magnus Boström is Professor in Sociology at Örebro University, Sweden, with a research interest in environmental sociology. In his research he focuses on consumption, politics, governance, participation, communication, organization, and responsibility in relation to transnational environmental and sustainability issues



Banner Image: Anti-ncuclear protest at Tompkins Square Park in New York City on the anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant explosions (photo by editor, 2014).

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