The Environmental Justice Debate: A Commentary on Methodological Issues and Practical Concerns

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Over the last decade, environmental sociology has produced a tremendous stream of research pertaining to environmental justice issues. In general, we now know that low income groups and communities of color are disproportionately exposed to toxic wastes. In this paper, I argue that future research requires a shift in methodological approach. Learning how groups come to be exposed to toxic wastes requires an understanding of the organizational processes that shape decisions regarding production practices and regulatory enforcement strategies. I conclude by making three claims: (1) Documenting that disempowered groups are exposed to toxic wastes more than other groups is important. Disentangling whether race or class matters more is more dubious. (2) If we want to make claims about process, we should study process and not outcomes. (3) Insofar as we have to study outcomes, we should be more aware of which outcomes we want to study and what types of inferences we are able to draw from outcomes.

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