An Introduction to Environmental Sociology

Workers wearing protective gear clean up an oil spill. In the foreground, one of the workers holds a bird.
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Environmental sociology is a subfield of the wider discipline in which researchers and theorists focus on the relationships between society and the environment. The subfield took shape following the environmental movement of the 1960s.

Within this subfield, environmental sociologists study a variety of questions, including:

  • How do specific institutions and structures (such as laws, politics, and economic factors) relate to environmental conditions? For example, what factors affect the creation and enforcement of laws designed to reduce pollution and carbon emissions?
  • What is the relationship between group behavior and environmental conditions? For example, what are the environmental implications of behaviors such as waste disposal and recycling?
  • How do environmental conditions affect the everyday lives, economic livelihood, and public health of populations?

Contemporary Issues in Environmental Sociology

Climate change is arguably the most important topic of research among environmental sociologists today. Sociologists investigate the human, economic, and political causes of climate change, and they investigate the effects that climate change has on many aspects of social life, like behavior, culture, values, and the economic health of populations experiencing its effects.

Central to the sociological approach to climate change is the study of the relationship between economy and environment. A key analytic focus within this subfield is the particular effects that a capitalist economy—one premised on continual growth—has on the environment. Environmental sociologists who study this relationship might focus on the implications of consumption of natural resources in processes of production, and methods of production and resource recapture that aim to be sustainable, among other things.

The relationship between energy and environment is another important topic among environmental sociologists today. This relationship is intimately connected to the first two listed, as the burning of fossil fuels to power industry is recognized by climate scientists to be the central driver of global warming, and thus climate change. Some environmental sociologists who focus on energy study the way different populations think about energy use and its implications, and how their behavior is connected to these ideas; and they might study the way energy policy shapes behavior and outcomes.

Politics, law, and public policy, and the relationships these have to environmental conditions and problems are also areas of focus among environmental sociologists. As institutions and structures that shape corporate and individual behavior, they have indirect effects on the environment. Sociologists who focus on these areas investigate topics such as the extent to which and through what mechanisms laws regarding emissions and pollution are enforced; how people act collectively to shape them; and the forms of power that might enable or prevent them from doing so, among other things.

Many environmental sociologists study the relationship between social behavior and environment. In this area there is a large degree of overlap between environmental sociology and the sociology of consumption, as many sociologists recognize the important and consequential relationships between consumerism and consumer behavior, and environmental problems and solutions. Environmental sociologists also examine how social behaviors, like the use of transportation, consumption of energy, and waste and recycling practices, shape environmental outcomes, as well as how environmental conditions shape social behavior.

Another important area of focus among environmental sociologists is the relationship between inequality and environment. Environmental sociologists study the way that people have differing relationships to the environment based on relative privilege and wealth. Numerous studies have documented that income, racial, and gender inequality make the populations that experience them more likely to experience negative environmental outcomes like pollution, proximity to waste, and lack of access to natural resources. The study of environmental racism is, in fact, a specific area of focus within environmental sociology.

Key Figures in Environmental Sociology

Notable environmental sociologists today include John Bellamy Foster, John Foran, Christine Shearer, Richard Widick, and Kari Marie Norgaard. The late Dr. William Freudenburg is considered an important pioneer in this subfield who made great contributions to it, and Indian scientist and activist Vandana Shiva is considered an honorary environmental sociologist by many.

University Programs and Research in Environmental Sociology

Students interested in pursuing environmental sociology will find many undergraduate programs with a focus in this area, as well as an increasing number of graduate sociology and interdisciplinary programs that offer specialized study and training.

Resources for Additional Reading

To learn more about this vibrant and growing subfield of sociology, visit the website for the American Sociological Association's section on Environmental Sociology. There are also numerous journals covering environmental sociology topics, such as: