Community knowledge improves the science and democratic character of environmental health.
Around the world, concerned community members are demanding a greater role in the scientific research and decision-making processes that impact their health and well-being. From citizens questioning the safety of genetically modified foods and biotechnology to those concerned with how environmental pollution contributes to inequitable distributions of deadly diseases, lay people are increasingly wrangling with scientists about issues of truth and method, exerting pressure on them from the outside and also locating themselves on the “inside” of environmental health research. Community members are organizing to challenge professional experts’ control of environmental health science and claiming to speak credibly as experts in their own right. Community knowledge is showing that critically important questions of environmental health risk cannot be addressed by technical experts working alone with conventional tools of prediction. Environmental health science is being extended and improved by ‘citizen scientists.’
What is community knowledge?
Community knowledge in environmental health science often includes information gained through the experience of coping with toxic pollution and related illness. Community knowledge links these understandings with how local geography, social networks, economic conditions, and cultural norms can influence how and why populations are exposed. Much like the physician-patient relationship where, depending on the question asked, the patient may be as or more knowledgeable about an illness or part of their body than the clinician – community members often have an intimate knowledge of environmental hazards, how people are exposed, and the social, economic, political and technical barriers they face for reducing exposures. Yet, community knowledge is not just data or information, but is also a process of information gathering, public testing, and building trust and relationships through learning. Thus, community knowledge, like professional science, should never be considered as separated from the processes that generated it.
Community Knowledge in Environmental Health Research
|How community knowledge contributes to environmental health justice|
|Identify Hazards – reveal some problems that professionals may have missed and raises new questions about hazards that matter to those most impacted by hazard exposures.|
|Provide Good Data – some information is inaccessible to outsiders; professional data is always partial and sketchy.|
|Improve access to difficult to reach informants/clients – local knowledge can make reluctant community members, such as immigrants & non-English speakers, participate and can overcome disincentives to participation, such as poverty.|
|Expand scope of implementation alternatives – identifying new options for reducing and eliminating environmental hazards.|
|Improve implementation success – by recognizing various actors, perspectives, practices and traditions that influence the effectiveness of local policy.|
|Greater understanding of community claims – in order to work well with communities, professionals need to understand what residents think, what they do, and what they want, and community knowledge is one way to organize this information.|
|Increase Trust and Credibility – with skeptical publics.|
|Recognize the fallibility of all knowledge – incorporating community knowledge into public debate opens it up to scrutiny, criticism and testing.|
|Organize – build community coalitions through production and sharing of information, practices, and images.|
|Empowerment – educate, raise awareness and develop self-help strategies through mobilization of knowledge and action strategies.|
|Recognition – community members have important information, can be trusted, are not ignorant and are not dependent on professionals for problem solving.|
|Improves intra-community decision-making – community knowledge can often provide new information for local groups to help themselves, define priority issues and learn what is important to their constituents.|
|Enhance community control – by organizing community knowledge, disadvantaged groups can enhance their control over the decisions that impact their lives.|
|Shift environmental discourse – from asking ‘is this safe’ to ‘who is at risk,’ ‘is this fair’ and ‘is this necessary?’.|
|Complement other Actions – community knowledge is crucial for complementing, not taking the place of, other community-based problem-solving strategies such as lawsuits.|
|Rituals of Learning – when community knowledge enters professional science it can help legitimize alternative ways of learning about problems, such as through story-telling, visual images, and theatrical performance, that the disciplines routinely ignore as ‘non-science.’|
|Source: Jason Corburn|
The environmental justice and health equity movements in the United States and around the world have long recognized that what community members know, no matter their level of education or fluency with formal science, can improve the technical reach and democratic accountability of environmental health science. For example, organizations such as West Harlem Environmental Action (WEACT), Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), and Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE), have engaged with and reframed central questions of environmental health science, such as:
- What is the problem to be studied and who is in harms way?
- What are appropriate study methodologies and standards of objectivity? and
- How ought data and results be used to shape preventative interventions?
These groups and a host of others have also gathered new information that was often overlooked or ignored by professional scientists and combined these data with an understanding of social conditions to reframe common assumptions about exposure and appropriate remedial actions.
Participatory Research and Action
One practice increasingly used to capture the overlapping technical and social issues embedded in environmental health science and action is community-based participatory research (CBPR). Now endorsed by the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences as a method for generating technically legitimate and socially accountable science, CBPR aims to combine professional techniques with community insights to define problems and research questions, gather and analyze data, and direct action and evaluate interventions. This method, building from participatory action research (PAR), aims to make research more democratic, ensure the poor and people of color are not excluded from decisions that impact their lives, and incorporate local knowledge and lived experience into research and action. Similar goals are driving the use of ‘science shops’ and ‘consensus conferences’ in Europe, India, and around the world, where various publics have participated in policy discourses over nuclear power, mad cow disease, and genetically modified organisms. While these processes often revolve around professional researchers, government regulators and impacted communities, one important limitation is that they are rarely structured around corporate decision-making, where product design and development decisions have a great influence on environmental health.
The limits of all knowledge
Importantly, like all knowledge claims, community knowledge is fallible, influenced by professional science, and should never be romanticized or viewed as a panacea. One danger is when practitioners view community knowledge as completely separate from professional science and fail to see that all science is uncertain, contingent, and embedded with social and cultural norms. Yet, community members face particular barriers to entering the powerful discourse of science, sometimes due to limited material resources and time and professionals skeptical of the views of lay people. Community knowledge may also be limited in identifying alternatives to dominant or default environmental health science practice because it may come too late in the research and policy-making process.
Yet, when community knowledge identifies previously ignored questions and hazards, provides hard to gather data, involves difficult to reach populations, and expands the possibilities for intervention alternatives, science and democracy can be improved. When community knowledge is meaningfully considered by professionals, they are more likely to understand the claims made by the publics they are supposed to serve – and these same publics are more likely to, in turn, trust professionals. Improved trust is likely to improve the work of professionals and allay community fears that environmental science is not addressing their priorities. The mobilizing of community knowledge can help disadvantaged communities organize and educate themselves, as well as increase control over the decisions that impact their lives. Some of the ways that community knowledge can benefit environmental health professionals and lay people are highlighted in the accompanying table.
- Corburn, Jason. 2005. Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice. The MIT Press. ISBN: 0262532727
- Corburn, Jason. 2007. Community knowledge in environmental health science: co-producing policy expertise. Environmental Science and Policy, 10:150-161.
- Wing, Steve. 2005. Environmental Justice, Science and Public Health. Environmental Health Perspectives, 54-63.