Gwen Ottinger (University of Washington-Bothell)
Oxbows and Eddies: Understanding How Community-Based Air Monitoring Has Affected Environmental Policy and Practice
Over the past three decades, sociologists of science have chronicled a number of dramatic disruptions in flows of knowledge between credentialed scientific experts and non-scientist citizens. The ability of anti-toxics activists and AIDS treatment activists, among others, to master highly specialized fields of knowledge and influence scientific practices and policy has, furthermore, led many researchers to speak of "lay experts" and "citizen scientists." These categories, which suggest a flattening of hierarchies of expertise and a democratization of policy influence, appear also to describe environmental justice activists' use of "bucket" air samplers to produce knowledge about air quality in communities neighboring petrochemical facilities. Yet bucket users? mixed success in changing accepted practices for monitoring and controlling industrial emissions demand a more nuanced account of to what extent, and in what ways, "lay" engagements with science are, in fact, redistributing expertise, reversing flows of knowledge, and broadening participation in policy decisions. Drawing on preliminary, qualitative research into the practices and effects of community-based air monitoring, this paper suggests--in contrast to standard narratives of "lay expertise"--that bucket use has created new pockets of expertise rather than redistributing knowledge widely; that bucket-based activism has not displaced regulatory scientists and petrochemical industry experts as arbiters of what counts as valid and relevant data about air quality; and that community activists have gained influence in environmental policy only through their participation in the development of voluntary, industry-led air monitoring programs. Based on these insights, the paper suggests questions for further research that can more adequately characterize the disruptions and transformations of knowledge flows produced by citizen engagement with science.