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Reframing “sensing” and data generation in citizen science for empowering relationships
João Porto de Albuquerque and André Albino de Almeida

This chapter investigates an intrinsic ambivalence in the use of digital technologies by citizen science projects: the often-used “citizen sensor” metaphor can either mean a heightened capacity to perceive and articulate an alternative world view (and thus results in empowerment); or it can connote that the citizen’s capabilities are constrained to capture predefined environmental signals (and thus implies instrumentality). Drawing on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed alongside some of his later works, a new perspective on citizen sensing is presented that goes beyond epistemological concerns to address the types of relationships established with citizens, that is, their modes of engagement. Instead of obfuscating asymmetries in the relationships between citizens and scientists, it is argued that a Freirean perspective entails considering asymmetries as a constitutive and productive tension within a dialogical process of knowledge co-production. This dialogical approach enables the development of new methods and ethical-methodological criteria for citizen-generated data projects that are effectively able to empower citizens to leverage their realities, world views, and epistemologies – particularly those of marginalized and disadvantaged people and of the “global South.”

in Toxic truths
Constructing environmental (in)justice
Anneleen Kenis

In their efforts to put air pollution on the public agenda, citizens cannot avoid engaging with science. Being a largely invisible socio-natural artifact, air has to be discursively translated to become politically salient. Through a comparative analysis of the air pollution mobilizations in two cities, Antwerp (Belgium) and London (UK), the chapter illuminates the political effects of the choices citizen movements make in this process of translation. Delving into the discursive strategies of the mobilizations in both cities, the chapter shows how specific scientific focuses, interpretations of findings, and their spatial framings, can feed into the construction of diverging claims on environmental justice and the advocacy of different types of action. But the opposite is also true, it seems: a preference for specific measures can lead to a focus on particular scientific interpretations. Starting from these observations, the chapter discusses the complex interwovenness of science, politics, and justice claims in dealing with largely invisible issues like air pollution.

in Toxic truths
Open Access (free)
Strategic actions of an environmental organization in China
Xinhong Wang and Yuanni Wang

This chapter is a case study of an environmental protection volunteers’ organization based in Hunan Province of China. Analyzing actions taken by the organization, the chapter discusses how “pushback” and negotiation are two major strategies for promoting public interest and solving environmental problems. Aiming to continuously and effectively push local government to rectify environmental problems, the environmental organization uses the media as a platform and pushback as a strategy to attract government attention and form an inter-dependable relationship and a soft confrontation between themselves and the government. During the process of negotiating with the government, they also continue with the strategy of pushback to maintain the upper hand, thus achieving a balance of autonomy and dependency. The chapter concludes that this integrated strategy of pushback and negotiation, in a form “soft confrontation,” has played an effective role in the interactions between the environmental organization and the government.

in Toxic truths
Open Access (free)
Science, activism, and policy concerning chemicals in our bodies
Phil Brown, Vanessa De La Rosa, and Alissa Cordner

This chapter situates issues of environmental contamination and contested knowledge within the history of environmental justice and popular epidemiology, focusing on the social and scientific discovery of environmental contaminants and responses by science, government, and social movements. The authors examine the “toxic trespass” of chemicals that violate our bodies and environment without permission, drawing on the case study of per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) as contaminants of growing public, regulatory, and scientific concern. The problem of toxic trespass highlights disputes between laypeople, professionals, and governments in addressing the contested and uneven health consequences of environmental exposures. The chapter discusses how environmental health campaigns typically involve local communities discovering a toxic threat and then galvanizing regulatory action. The research argues that local communities have a right to know the findings of academic research and stresses the importance of making those results accessible to communities.

in Toxic truths
Open Access (free)
Environmental justice and citizen science in a post-truth age
Editors: Thom Davies and Alice Mah

This book examines the relationship between environmental justice and citizen science, focusing on enduring issues and new challenges in a post-truth age. Debates over science, facts, and values have always been pivotal within environmental justice struggles. For decades, environmental justice activists have campaigned against the misuses of science, while at the same time engaging in community-led citizen science. However, post-truth politics has threatened science itself. This book makes the case for the importance of science, knowledge, and data that are produced by and for ordinary people living with environmental risks and hazards. The international, interdisciplinary contributions range from grassroots environmental justice struggles in American hog country and contaminated indigenous communities, to local environmental controversies in Spain and China, to questions about “knowledge justice,” citizenship, participation, and data in citizen science surrounding toxicity. The book features inspiring studies of community-based participatory environmental health and justice research; different ways of sensing, witnessing, and interpreting environmental injustice; political strategies for seeking environmental justice; and ways of expanding the concepts and forms of engagement of citizen science around the world. While the book will be of critical interest to specialists in social and environmental sciences, it will also be accessible to graduate and postgraduate audiences. More broadly, the book will appeal to members of the public interested in social justice issues, as well as community members who are thinking about participating in citizen science and activism. Toxic Truths includes distinguished contributing authors in the field of environmental justice, alongside cutting-edge research from emerging scholars and community activists.

Tribal identity, civic dislocation, and environmental health research
Elizabeth Hoover

This chapter explores the experience of the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, a Native American tribe who set out to determine the extent to which a local contaminated site was impacting community health. Akwesasne community members reached out to a research university, eventually partnering on the first large-scale environmental health community-based participatory research project (CBPR) to be conducted in a tribal community. Based on interviews with scientists, community fieldworkers, and study participants, this chapter examines the ways in which collaborating on these studies was beneficial for all parties – especially in the context of citizen science goals of education and capacity building – as well as the challenges they faced, including communicating the limits of what scientific studies could accomplish for the community. Hoover also explores how the binaries between citizen and scientist, between subject and researcher were blurred during this research process, through creating a “third space of sovereignty.” This case study in CBPR and citizen science also leads us to intentionally consider the social, cultural, and political processes that structure research in an Indigenous community, and calls on us to question what we mean by the “citizen” in citizen science.

in Toxic truths
Peter C. Little

Drawing on ethnographic research in Agbogbloshie, an urban scrapyard in Accra, Ghana that has become the subject of a contentious global electronic waste (e-waste) narrative, this chapter explores the extent to which participatory photography augments contemporary toxic studies in general and e-waste studies in particular. The chapter contends that engaging with participatory visualization and documentation can provide vital contextualization for debates grappling with the toxic injustices and environmental politics of e-waste labor. It explores how and why visual techniques in participatory action research matter in global environmental justice studies in general and postcolonial e-waste studies in Ghana in particular. The chapter engages several questions, including: What happens when e-waste workers are involved image makers? What does this participatory photography do to and for representations of Agbogbloshie? To what extent can this alternative visualization shift understandings of a place and space that has become a central node of global e-wasteland and digital pollution narratives? Moreover, how does engagement with this alternative approach to witnessing and knowing e-waste draw attention to or renew critical discussion of researcher positionality and ethnographic reflexivity?

in Toxic truths
Open Access (free)
Graeme Kirkpatrick

The notion of a more humanised technology and a superior nature–society mediation turns on what Feenberg calls the aesthetic critique of technology design. Unifying the disparate interventions that constitute technical politics is a concern to create technology that is less violent and more pleasurable to use. Here Feenberg’s theory has paralleled interesting developments in the scholarly disciplines concerned with technology design, especially interface design for digital artefacts. He argues that while industrial modernity neglected the aesthetic dimension of technology, prioritising a narrowly construed efficiency over other values, this is a historical aberration. The question arises, then, of what kind of aesthetic ought to be embraced by advocates of democratic design culture. The chapter endorses Feenberg’s vision of re-aestheticisation but disagrees with his preference for naturalistic modernism as the source for a reinvigorated technological aesthetic.

in Technical politics
Open Access (free)
Utopia
Graeme Kirkpatrick

The conclusion summarises the argument of the book: Feenberg’s intervention is an important advance for the way that Marxism and critical theory handle the question of technology, especially in its relation to progressive social change. His attachment to the idea of critique inhibits his capacity to fully capitalise on his conceptual innovations.

in Technical politics
Graeme Kirkpatrick

This chapter describes the issue that motivates Feenberg’s theory, and the problematic to which it is a response. This is based in Marx, whose reflections on technology are paradoxical: on one side technology sets humanity free and creates the conditions for a socialism based on great wealth; on the other, technology is shaped by social interests, and under capitalism this results in machines designed to oppress their users. Feenberg’s theory of ambivalence is presented as the first step towards a resolution that preserves the progressive orientation of the theory while enabling it to engage with the complex realities of technology design and use in twenty-first-century societies.

in Technical politics