by Gwen Ottinger
Environmental regulation in the United States protects communities from pollution using a series of concepts, such as risk assessment and chronic versus acute effects, that do not resonate with the experience of people living next to polluting facilities. Communities have responded by pioneering new methods for collecting and interpreting air quality data that advance alternative concepts that better convey their experience. Their activities constitute epistemic innovation—innovations that, by intertwining new concepts and new technologies change how and what we know. However, they have been widely misunderstood as bids to expand democratic participation in regulatory science-as-usual. Recognizing epistemic innovation in cases of environmental injustice, I argue, calls on researchers to (a) ask whether other forms of peer-production and citizen science are being similarly misrecognized, and (b) consider how credentialed scientists can support the interpretive innovations of social justice activists.
Gwen Ottinger is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Drexel University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley’s interdisciplinary Energy and Resources Group and is author of Refining Expertise: How Responsible Engineers Subvert Environmental Justice Challenges. She is currently working on a second book, Fenceline: Edgy Tech in Neglected Places, about the long-term impacts of community-driven air monitoring and the epistemic dimensions of environmental justice.