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Second Workshop on Social Interpretations and Reactions to Air Pollution

Post by Keming Yang

With the support of Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience (IHRR) and Department of Sociology, our research group organized the second workshop on Social Interpretations and Reactions to Air Pollution on the 29th of May.

While the first workshop focused on the sources of air pollution and the meaning of air pollution from a public health perspective, presenters at this workshop addressed various social aspects of air pollution.

Dr Keming Yang, who initiated and organized the workshop, started the workshop by explaining why air pollution should be an issue sociologists should be concerned about, comparing India and China as two contrasting cases, briefly reviewing some sociological studies, and presenting an overview for future research projects. He proposed two research designs that researchers interested in this problem could adopt in order to move the research forward.

Professor Nick Fox presented his New Materialism as a theoretical framework for understanding and tackling environmental and public health problems, calling for researchers to break the boundaries between nature, animals and humans, and to take into account all kinds of elements that are involved in the creation of any particular problem.

Two other members of the group, Dr Jonathan Wistow and Professor Brian Castellani, presented their thoughts in the afternoon session. In his talk, Jonathan introduced his work with other colleagues on how local authorities dealt with environmental issues, putting the topic in a broader context of state capacity and governance. Based on his recent book, The Defiance of Global Commitment, Brian discussed the need to develop a more rigorous sociological theory for thinking about air pollution that addresses two key issues: relations of power (economic, political, institutional, etc) and the irrational aspects of human behaviour and decision making.

Two researchers from the Department of Earth Sciences, who are working with Dr Claire Horwell, presented their work at the end of the workshop. Dr Fiona MacDonald from Queensland University of Technology, Australia, presented a number of ethical issues surrounding environmental problems for the audience to ponder. Finally, Laksmi Rachmawati, a PhD candidate, gave her review of an existing literature with a focus on how communities perceive the risk of air pollution, which included some well-known sociological studies by Ulrich Beck and Anothy Giddens.

During the discussions, the audience pointed out that air pollution is a problem too important to be left to natural scientists and engineers alone, but on the other hand we must specify and demonstrate the ways in which sociologists and social scientists in general could make indispensable contributions to tackling this issue. Professor Rob Barton, Co-Director of Institute of Advanced Study (Social Sciences), was present throughout the whole workshop and expressed his support of future research by the group on this important problem.

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