Anthropologizing Environmentalism – review by E Donald Elliot of “Risk and Culture”, Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavksy, Yale Law Review, 1983

Recently I have been posting  on the cultural theory of risk developed by Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky. This is a PDF of a review of Douglas and Wildavksy’s 1982 book “Risk and Culture” by E Donald Elliott adjunct professor of Law at Yale.

The review summarises Wildavksy and Douglas’ thought very well, and gets to the heart of one issue I struggle with in their writing ; their oft dismissive approach to environmental risk:

Most readers will be struck not by the abstract theory but by its application to the rise of environmentalism. This emphasis is unfortunate. The attempt to “explain” environmentalism makes a few good points, but on the whole this part of the book is crude, shortsighted, and snide. On the other hand, the sections that consider the relationship between risk and culture on a more fundamental level are sensitive and thoughtful.

I think it unfortunate that cultural theory of risk has ended up so much overshadowed by this “crude, shortsighted, and snide” discussion of environmental risk (Wildavksy, if I recall correctly, was revealed to have taken undisclosed payments from the chemical industry) It remains a powerful explanatory tool, and in clinical practice and team working one finds that different approaches to risk are rooted in cultural practices.

Elliott’s review focuses on the environmental realm, but serves as a good and sceptical discussion of the more general focus of cultural theory of risk – and an introduction to what is sometimes a less than lucidly explained theory.

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