Brown Universidy

Contested Illnesses Research Group
Brown University , Providence RI

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Blue and Green Shades of Health: The Social Construction of Health Risks in the Labor and Environmental Movements

This project examines how labor unions and environmental organizations discover and socially construct health risks in the workplace and the general environment. Through examining the similarities and differences in the social construction of health risks, this research will demonstrate how successful coalitions may be formed between the two movements by jointly considering occupational health and environmental health science, which have historically been discrete areas. Although both movements may trace their origins to the workplace safety and health activism of the first decades of the twentieth century, the professionalization of industrial hygiene and the divergence of the environmental movement away from health issues created an ideological divide between these two social movements. This divergence ignores the fact that members of many labor and environmental organizations share socioeconomic similarities that jointly expose them to social causes of disease and environmental degradation, masking the fact that what truly divides these groups is the social construction of what constitutes environmental health risks. This project builds on our previous work on the social discovery of illness, which focused on the role of laypeople in the construction of scientific knowledge of environmental health, and on disputes between lay, professional, corporate, and government actors over environmental factors in disease.

This project will have three major tasks.

1) Both successful and unsuccessful attempts at labor-environment coalitions, or so-called blue-green coalitions, will be identified through an extensive search of academic and popular publications, as well as by polling of leaders in the environmental and labor movements. Documents and secondary data will be collected and analyzed from labor groups likely to be affected by environmental health risks. Professional groups that support labor efforts, such as Committees on Occupational Safety and Health, will also be interviewed. 2) Four detailed case studies, two of successful coalitions and two of unsuccessful coalitions, will be examined in further detail. 3) One additional major case study will go into even further detail. For tasks 2 and 3, in addition to documents, interviews and observations will be conducted with members of the labor and environmental organizations, and with scientists and policy-makers. In all three tasks, we will determine characteristics that lead to success or failure in blue-green coalitions.

National Science Foundation