Volatile Places: A Sociology of Communities and Environmental Controversies


Valerie Gunter & Steve Kroll-Smith

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  • Dedication

    To the students, faculty, and staff at the University of New Orleans who are struggling to find their lives after the great flood of 2005, with a special nod to our friends in the Department of Sociology


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    About the Authors

    Valerie Gunter is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of New Orleans. Following the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, she spent a year as Visiting Associate Professor at Michigan State University, from which she had received her PhD in sociology in 1994. She has spent over 20 years researching the controversial processes by which environmental issues become registered on community and national political agendas. Articles reporting the results from this research have been published in such journals as Social Problems, The Sociological Quarterly, The American Sociologist, Sociological Inquiry, and Rural Sociology. She is a coeditor of Illness and the Environment: A Reader in Contested Medicine.

    Steve Kroll-Smith is Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. He was formerly Research Professor of Sociology at the University of New Orleans. He has edited and written five books on environmental hazards and disasters, health and the environment, and sociologists as expert witnesses. He is the current editor of Sociological Inquiry and the 2004 recipient of the American Sociological Association's Distinguished Contribution Award in the study of environment and technology. His current work is the problem of race, class, and water in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He also regularly contributes to the growing scholarship on the sociology of sleep.


    It is now commonplace to recognize that people change environments and environments, in turn, change people. More important, these reciprocal effects often occur in neighborhoods, villages, and towns, localities that we loosely call communities. Students of environments and societies soon recognize that a substantial portion of their subject matter intersects with that social arrangement commonly called the community. Hundreds of empirical studies now registered in the literature are organized around the variable effects of environmental changes on the anatomy of communities. In spite of the almost unavoidable presence of community in the human-environment encounter, there are no books that look specifically at the intersections of humans, environments, and communities. This book was written to provide students of all kinds—undergraduate, graduate, and faculty—with an analytical guide to the investigation of community and environmental controversies. It begins with a simple observation, to wit, environmental issues are almost always contested and are likely to transform communities into volatile places. Using dozens of case studies written and organized around specific themes, we develop an array of ideas and orientations that should prove valuable to anyone interested in the spirited public controversies that almost always occur when environments become community problems.

    Imagine this book as a trail map of a national park. The purpose of the map is twofold: to prevent you from getting hopelessly lost and to suggest points or places on your trek to stop and look, to examine with some care what is around you or just ahead. As a map of local environmental controversies, this book will help you from getting confused and befuddled by the complexity of environmental troubles and community conflicts. It promises that for all their apparent disorder, these conflicts are not random and unpredictable. On the contrary, if viewed from, say, the presence of the past, perceptions of fairness, or oppositional activity, significant features of these controversies become visible and knowable.

    Chapters 2 through 6 offer five quite different outlooks on local environmental controversies. As a place on the map, each outlook is an invitation to stop and carefully examine a particular set of issues that are both shaping and shaped by social and environmental conflict. Each of these substantive chapters is a place to begin a thesis, dissertation, paper, or book. Taken in their totality, each one of these five chapters might itself serve as a book chapter. Two or more chapters could be combined into a unique study of, say, social and brute facts and perceptions of fairness in a local preservation controversy.

    There is a second, more implicit, invitation in this book that cannot go unmentioned. Its basis is a simple, but affecting, observation summed up nicely by Kenneth Burke. “Every insight,” he reminds us, “contains its own special kind of blindness.”1 Put another way, each chapter in this book possesses a circumference. It points to where a particular interpretation stops. And here, readers, is where you are invited to toss the map aside and become your own sociological cartographers. Acknowledging the inherent limitations of any insight, concept, theory, or point of view is an invitation to others to add, modify, innovate, or abandon and start anew. By its very limitations, sociological inquiry is pluralistic.

    So, in closing, we invite you to examine local environmental controversies through the manifold lenses we provide. Or, should these prove inadequate, we invite you to modify them or create your own and discover something new and different to question, examine, and interpret.


    This book began several years ago as a mere glimmer of an idea, and we want to thank the folks at Pine Forge for continuing to support us through what proved to be a prolonged birthing process. A special note of gratitude goes to Jerry Westby, senior editor, who renewed Pine Forge's commitment to the project after unexpectedly inheriting it from his predecessor. Our decision to write about a specialized subfield of environmental sociology presented challenges to editors trying to get not only a sense of the market potential for our book but also an understanding about how it related to a broader body of literature. We want to thank Ben Penner, acquisition editor, for seeing us through several rounds of reviews and revisions while providing us with the leeway to write the book we wanted to write.

    Feedback from reviewers encouraged our own convictions that we were putting together a unique presentation of material that others in the field would find useful. Reviewers' comments and suggestions allowed us to sharpen our argument and improve the overall quality of the manuscript. We want to extend a special thanks to each of the following individuals, who played a crucial role in getting this manuscript into print: Timothy Bartley, Indiana University-Bloomington; Joan M. Brehm, Illinois State University; Cliff Brown, University of New Hampshire; Diane C. Bates, The College of New Jersey; Stephen R. Couch, The Pennsylvania State University; Furjen Deng, Sam Houston State University; Harry R. Potter, Purdue University; and Steve Scanlan, Ohio University.

    I want to extend personal thanks to the sociology department at Michigan State University, especially to Craig Harris, Jan Bokemeier, and Marilyn Aronoff. Craig Harris and Marilyn Aronoff nurtured my interest in environmental and community sociology when I was a graduate student at MSU, and for this alone I would be grateful. A second debt of gratitude is more recent, however. Beyond all expectations, the sociology department brought me on for a semester's teaching after my New Orleans' apartment was flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I want to thank Craig Harris for taking the trouble to track me down at my sister's house in Texas and for getting the wheels spinning on opportunities at Michigan State. I am also grateful to Jan Bokemeier, chair of MSU's sociology department, for working with the dean and provost to secure funding for me.

    Another note of appreciation goes to Michigan State's Kellogg Biological Station, where I was graciously provided with an office, a computer, and a furnished apartment in October and November 2005. I especially want to thank KBS director Kay Gross and computer specialist John Gorentz, though I will never forget the kindness of all the KBS staff.

    I am grateful to the folks in the sociology department at the University of New Orleans for providing an unusually hospitable environment for professional matriculation. A special note of thanks goes to Susan Mann, who provided needed social diversions. I would also like to thank my sister, Lauren Brooks, who graciously provided housing for me and my husband in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and also my mother, Ella Olson, who took care of our cats after we fled New Orleans.

    A special note of thanks goes to my husband, Tom Andersen, who not only patiently endured the long hours needed to meet deadlines on this project but during the final stages did so under the adverse conditions of being a hurricane evacuee himself.


    As always, my work is an extension of my family. Thank you, Susan, Amanda, and Emma.


    1. Burke (1989), 8.

  • Postscript

    Readers encountered dozens of case studies in this book. We fashioned these studies with a particular story line in mind. One case told a story of uncertain knowledge, another of oppositional activity, still another of the perception of fairness, and so on throughout. Joining sociology to story does have its detractors. A story, after all, could be a tall tale, a novel, or memoir, indeed, science fiction. Moreover, good storytelling brings the added complication of the persuasive force of the argument being carried by rhetorical and literary style. In other words, an author's work becomes convincing to others because, at least in part, the author is good with a turn of phrase, the pace and structure of the story, and other elements of writing that engage readers' attention.

    Literary styles are a far cry from the objective approach scientific disciplines instill in their practitioners. Science is about the discovery of empirical facts. Those facts are to be produced through rigorous application of acceptable methods designed to eliminate bias. A scientist's job is to pull back the curtain to reveal the reality of the world currently hidden behind sensory and cognitive limitations. The naked fact is, simply put, what it is and should stand exposed before the world without being dressed up in flowery language.

    But high-quality research can be joined with high-quality writing. We not only want to be storytellers, but good ones. Our goal is to present evidence in a way which engages our readers. Case studies present an especially hospitable medium for this goal, for they allow us to follow a series of events as these unfold over time. By paying attention to chronology, we create a time line for our story, which in turn provides possibilities for foreshadowing and suspense. We can even draw readers deeper into the story by challenging initial designations of the start and finish of a conflict, marshaling evidence that the roots of the conflict stretch far into the past, with consequences likely to reverberate far into the future. By paying attention to process we can analyze the dynamic forces which drive the conflict.

    In the present book we have presented an analytic framework which helps investigators tell the story of local environmental conflicts. By way of concluding, we discuss some elements of good storytelling that may help students of environmental controversies convey the personal, social, and cultural drama of conflict. We begin with a particular setting, some context fixed in time and space, where momentous events are in the process of unfolding.

    These events set particular characters into collision courses with one another. These courses are likely shaped by both present circumstances and historical events and patterns. Knowledge, a necessary and often volatile resource, is likely debated in the Manichean language of certainty and uncertainty. The human penchant for fairness puts this unstable and emotionally weighted value into play, ensuring that the combustible issue of justice will require expansive debate.

    Moreover, the physical and biological environment itself, its topography, the presence or absence of toxins, the direction and quality of its water, are possibly confounded in a complex web of human and ecosystem relationships. The environment might enter into the story at some points as context, at other points as a momentous event, and at still other points as one of the characters in the drama.

    Finally, good storytelling involves the revelation of initially hidden truths. This may take the form of ordinary people discovering unknown reserves of strength and courage in battles to protect their families, homes, and way of life (think Tolkien's Lord of the Rings). It may also take the form of dawning recognition that groups and individuals in positions of power who purport to work for the collective good have in fact betrayed the public trust through deceit and self-serving action (think Orwell's Animal Farm). Revelation might come about through sudden confrontation with unanticipated consequences of action (think Crichton's Jurassic Park). It may also come about through the unveiling of forces which shape characters' lives in ways they did not perceive (think Sophocles' Oedipus Rex).

    Nowhere is the need to understand the volatility of humans and place greater today than in the ravaged city of New Orleans. New Orleans, of course, was born risk prone, and its subsequent development only intensified the dangers. But on August 29, 2005, dozens of levees failed to hold back the elevated waters of Lake Pontchartrain and—akin to Atlantis—within hours most of New Orleans was underwater. As the city slowly drained, a contested question quickly emerged in plain view of everyone: When water and culture collide, whose vision of the city will prevail? Black people, white people, rich people, poor people, social reformers, artists, oil companies, politicians, tourists, and more are marshaling resources to wage protracted struggles over the questions of culpability, fairness, what is safe and dangerous, over who should live where and in what kind of housing, and, finally, over what kind of city New Orleans can be in its precarious place between a river and a lake.

    As we write, no one knows if New Orleans will rise from the ruins to provide a new model of urban development, one based on just and ecologically sustainable principles. It is a long shot, but it could happen. But whether it happens or not, one thing is sure: New Orleans will be adrift in environmental controversies for many years to come. Environmental controversies are now an inevitable part of the American landscape. They beg inquiry.


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