There are many paradigms concerning environmental health reflected in the academic literature. This review brings an anthropological lens to the topic and will do so by primarily looking at three previously identified themes: the concept of risk and how the term may have issues within environmental health, the validity of the science behind environmental risk assessments which are often interpreted to be a predictor of environmental health by the community members, and the structural forces of race and class as impacting environmental health. After reviewing these themes, this section will discuss environmental health as it has impacted health policy, the role of anthropological theory in environmental health, and criticisms aimed at the environmental justice movement.
Risk, in terms of environmental health, can be understood to be either a hazard or the probability of suffering a negative outcome due to an event or danger (Moore 2007:502). Yet how an individual understands risk can vastly differ. For the community, risk can be perceived to be “critical if they do not have control over the risk, or if the impact of the risk is close by” (Galea and Mony 208:2). Public health officials, by comparison, measure risk in terms associated with “providing decision makers with information that can be used to minimize risks” (Dyjack, Soret and Anderson 2002:309). One perspective understands risk as closely related to their present experience of living while the latter views risk as a dataset that serves as a proxy for experienced life.
So “risk” is a problematic term in that, “it has long since been realized that ‘objective’ risk is not a sufficient explanation of perceived risk, not even for the experts, and at times the two differ widely” (Sjöberg 2004:51). Studies have shown that resident’s perceptions of risk can vary widely from those of the experts (Rodricks 1994:263). For these reasons, mistrust and accusatory claims are often the result of risk information traveling through cultural and social modes of construction. This is especially true in low-income areas or minority neighborhoods where distrust of authority figures is common and often historically justified. Conflicts arise due to the risk message unidirectionally passing from the etic perspective, to the resident’s perception of it, or the emic perspective (Morgan et al. 2002).
Neglecting to recognize these differences in perception, “objective” risk becomes a dominant conceptual framework in producing public health policy concerning environmental health risk. Policy discussion becomes an exercise in ensuring that estimated or measured “objective” risk falls below established regulatory thresholds. Yet Lejano and Stolkols conclude “community members experience environmental injury in ways that are deeper and more complex than this simple notion of risk” (2010:108). In other words, there is a gap between the expert’s “objective” risk and the resident’s perception of risk.
Residents have broader notions of place and visions of life than those presented in the typical risk assessment. They have a phenomenological approach to understanding risk (Casey 1993; de Certeau 1999). Their risk is an “experienced” risk in which the environmental concern enters into the lives of the residents in a very concrete way. The risk is experienced as part of the neighborhood landscape and is ever-present. Each health issue brings to mind the reality of the environmental situation by raising the question, “Am I sick because of what they did?” It becomes a contentious issue that needs a solution that recognizes the need to resolve it contextually within the individual’s experience (Lejano 2006).