Chapter 4: CULTURAL DISCOURSES

This chapter is much more readable than that by Jasanoff and Wynne, and shares its strong points, as described above. While also dense, it is much more clearly written. Similar to chapter 1, chapter 4 provides an extremely useful overview and assessment of various bodies of literature of relevance to analysis of the social aspects of assessing human-induced climate change.

Thompson and Rayner et al. attempt to establish a theoretical framework which accounts for cultural plurality of values and assumptions about nature, economy and society -- a framework that "make[s] sense of variation in a parsimonious way without simplifying it to such an extent that it proves incapable of capturing the range and diversity of forms and meanings that actually exist" (287). They begin by describing two competing approaches which, respectively, account for environmental concern as a function of access to accurate knowledge and as a function of changes in ethical frameworks. The knowledge-based approach assumes that people worry about the things that are worth worrying about, and the ethics-based approach holds that peopleís (in this case, environmental) values are a function of moral and ethical frameworks and sets of concern. The chapter argues that both variables, knowledge and concern, depend on underlying cultural orientations, orientations which they seek to delineate. They are concerned to counter the opposition and hierarchy often drawn between lay and expert positions on this as well as other issues related to environment, science and technology. Thus, they point out that experts also are lay persons in other aspects of their lives, and seek to probe beyond surface variation among both expert and lay populations to find deeper structures shaping differences in perceptions and positions on environmental issues. They also note that what some interpret as lay persons ignorance, identifying this as a key problem to solving environmental issues, may reflect different concerns: rather than a simple function of ignorance, lay personsí tendency to conflate climate change and stratospheric ozone depletion may be rooted in a deeper level of general environmental concern. In other words, it may be that the distinction between these two issues isnít salient to a public which is concerned with human insult to the atmosphere and to the environment generally.

The criticism of prevalent assumptions that public ignorance is a root problem in solving environmental issues forms the basis for their calls for greater effort to understand the deeper social, moral, and political roots of "expert" as well as lay understandings and positions on the climate issue, including the socio-political critique such understandings often involve. It makes a (to me, anyhow) convincing and well-articulated argument for the value of an (anthropological) approach which seeks to place divergent environmental values in perspective by placing them within a broader field of possible positions and relating them to different social structures and yet other sets of values and assumptions; the authors argue for an approach which understands knowledge and concern about an issue such as human-induced climate change to depend on underlying cultural orientations.

The chapters provide a valuable review of various models for understanding and explaining variance in environmental views. This involves placing competing understandings of the environment in relationship to each other and in relationship to a heterogeneity of social positionings, including assumptions about society and economy (esp. how these relate to nature). Drawing on other research, the authors argue that traditional sociodemographic variables such as age, gender and education are rather weak determinants of environmental concern compared to sociocultural variables, particularly social networks (density, interconnectedness, rule sharing).

Thompson and Rayner et al. consequently discuss theories which seek to interpret the diversity of environmental views in terms of sociocultural variables, that is, theories which seek to "interpret the societal conversation about climate change" in a way that goes beyond the falsely dichotomous distinction between experts and lay persons to grapple with the complexity of views while identifying some structuring elements. The key to understanding the differences in perspective jostling for authority in the climate debate, they say, lies in identifying the other values that help the different views and solidarities cohere. They describe models outlining key differences in assumptions about the nature of nature, and establish which assumptions dominate within the environmental sciences and in the climate debate generally, namely the assumption that nature is fragile.

Like chapter 1, this chapter assumes considerable patience and existing knowledge on the part of readers -- for example it does not clearly explain terms such as "discount rates" and "exogenous" or what it means that "history is strongly differentiated," etc. Like chapter 1, it does at times seem to suffer from the multiplicity of authors and arguments, which can render the whole a bit confused or confusing. Reminiscent of chapter 1, which included conclusions that were not clearly developed in the body of the chapter, chapter 4 claims in the beginning to set out to argue a point, though the point subsequently appears to drop out of focus. Thus, the authors of chapter 4 state that their chapter argues that "rather than being obstacles to be overcome, the uneasy coexistence of different conceptions of natural vulnerability and societal fairness is a source of resilience and the key to the institutional plurality that actually enables us to apprehend and adapt to our ever-changing circumstances", but this argument is not significantly developed in the article.

As it stands, the article remains at a rather theoretical level, omitting significant examples and applications of the theoretical framework it delineates. Without that application, it remains difficult to gauge its relevance -- though, as mentioned, I think it provides a valuable literature overview and a theoretical framework for social scientists to consider when carrying out research and analysis related to competing environmental values and claims.


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