Date of Award

6-1997

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Geography

Supervisor

John Eyles

Abstract

Community opposition to environmental hazards is often high despite expert assessment that the risk (probability of negative impacts) is quite low. This thesis addresses this problem through an inductive, qualitative case study of a community that was sensitized to a single environmental issue by being the preferred site for a regional municipal solid waste landfill for five years. There are three research objectives: i) explore the meanings of risk and uncertainty for residents; ii) investigate the effect of context on risk perceptions/constructions and; iii) develop a conceptual framework for understanding risk in context. Forty-four in-depth interviews were conducted mainly with residents (n=40) and some experts (n=4) to explore opinions on: risk, safety, general environmental concerns, valued aspects of the community, concerns about the landfill, trusted sources of information, and views of experts.

While the residents were concerned about the potential impacts to health, property values and agriculture the landfill also threatened their ways of life (e.g., rural farming) as expressed through core values (e.g., slow growth) and worldviews (e.g., trust in neighbours). That is, the landfill and siting process threatened the things that residents had worked hard to obtain and maintain in their community. Threats to core values, worldviews and ways of life were mediated by contextual issues including: extremely negative images of waste/garbage, knowledge of contamination from other landfills, perceptions of an unfair siting process, lack of trust in experts, and and widespread community support for opposition.

A conceptual framework for understanding risk at Caledon is compared to a wide variety of literatures on risk (e.g. geographic, economic, psychologic, sociologic). Several concepts fro these literatures are reconceptualized for understanding the social construction of risk at Caledon including: risk, safety, dread, uncertainty, trust, costs weighed against benefits, and psychosocial impacts. Further, an argument is made for increasing the prominence of social/cultural values within existing conceptual frameworks when they are used to understand risk in the context of everyday life. This local-level study provides empirical support for Beck's risk society theory which was developed originally to explain social change in relation to high-consequence global-level technological hazards. one of the main methodological contributions of the thesis is the explicit use and explanation of specific practices for enhancing qualitative rigour including: source and investigator triangulation, member checking, prolonged engagement, low inference descriptors and autobiography. Future research may include explorations of the relative importance of core values and the ability to protest those values (e.g., financially, politically) in a variety of different contexts involving technological environmental hazards.

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