Redressing information inequality through social justice research: the case of environmental justice.

Author:Baber, Carolyn


A 2004 symposium issue of the International Journal of Public Administration explored the maturation of the field of public administration. In this issue Richard Johnson criticized the discipline for taking a narrow approach to questions of diversity and social equity by concentrating on issues of race and gender. He suggested the discipline refocus its efforts to include class-related research (Johnson, 2004) Other authors have documented the extent to which public administration research has focused on race and gender while neglecting social class (and sexual orientation). Oldfield, Chandler, and Johnson (2004) conducted a four country review (Australia, Brazil, Canada, United States) of public administration literature and found nearly all the social equity articles focused on race and gender with little attention to social class. The explanations offered for the lack of research on social class range from class bias in higher education to the "professionalization" of public administration. These authors have argued that low-income families are the most underrepresented group at major universities. This is true among both students and faculty, few of whom have significant personal experience with issues of social class (Oldfield, Chandler, & Johnson, 2004, p. 165-166) The authors also argue that because "professionalization [of public administration] promotes and responds to the needs of the state, it can and often does set the permissible limits of scholarly debate." Consequently, there is an almost total neglect of (or relative silence about) the distribution of wealth in a "society of unequal social classes?" (Johnson, 2003, p. 512). While community activists often find this frustrating, understanding the source of the problem is essential to reframing appeals for greater attention to issues of social equity.

Another possible explanation for this blind spot of public administration research on the subject of social class is that the concept, whatever its explanatory power, does not constitute a "strategic" variable in our system of government. To put the matter indelicately, it is illegal to discriminate against someone because of race, but it isn't illegal to discriminate against someone who is poor. Public administrators understand (better than most) that race is a political and legal trump card. By comparison, social class is an interesting phenomenon, but not a potent category. Racial discrimination comes "prepackaged" with its own sense of urgency and a readily apparent range of solutions. Given these background facts, public administration researchers, particularly those who target a practitioner audience, might be forgiven if they respond more eagerly to what the law problematizes than to what it tacitly permits. But as Oldfield, Candler, & Johnson (2004) suggest, the American Society for Public Administration Code of Ethics exhorts researchers to take a proactive approach to issues of social class and inequity and urges them to work to improve and change laws and policies that are counterproductive or obsolete. Understanding this problematic relationship between the legal environment and professional ethics of public administration allows social activists to better focus their organizing and lobbying activities.

Finally, the lack of social class research also has its roots in the general state of public administration. Streib and Roch (2005) reviewed critiques of public administration research and identified "hard" and "soft" barriers to strengthening public administration research. These barriers, or boundaries, "limit the quality of methods used in public administration research" (p. 38). Hard boundaries include lack of available data to support a study and lack of adequate funding to develop resources/data sets. Soft boundaries include research as a low priority, low-quality dissertations and doctoral training ineffectiveness. Streib and Roch do not explicitly define appropriate topics, but cite observations about the need for "long-term studies of administrative phenomena." This perspective sheds considerable light on the different approaches that public administration research has taken to race and class. When compared with race, social class appears to be an "engendered" feature of society rather than the result of deliberate acts (Pogge, 1989). It is a foreseeable consequence of the fundamental structure of a private enterprise economy, an individualistic culture, and a right-oriented political structure. For that reason, inequality of social class is, so to speak, part of the liberal "deal" that is the foundation of modern society. A young scholar who wishes to be a change agent (or merely a successful old scholar) will shy away from a topic that appears to lead nowhere, creating a soft boundary. And government agencies and funding organizations will refuse to expend scarce resources documenting a phenomenon that cannot be changed, creating significant hard boundaries. So the long-term studies Streib and Roch call for are unlikely ever to be undertaken. Confronted with this persistent bias against systematic and rigorous research on the impact of social class in public policy and administration, community activists often must develop the ability to access existing social research from other fields and apply it to their concerns.

Critiques of public administration research often provide conflicting recommendations for improving the quality of that research. Their suggestions generally concern issues of theory, methods, and focus. A public administration researcher is confronted with three basic dilemmas. Should research pursue theory development or problem-solving? Should the researcher employ academically sophisticated methods or rely primarily on widely accessible methods? And should the results of the research be presented with an academic focus or a practitioner focus?

Streib and Roach (2005) have several recommendations to resolve this tension between theory, methods and focus and to overcome hard and soft boundaries. They suggest "academics must build a better research infrastructure," although they acknowledge that coping with the lack of data and funding can be difficult. They advocate strong empirical research (while valuing diverse methods) noting that statistics is the language of government in many respects. Yet they recognize that research results will be effective only if they provide information that is relevant to the concerns of public affairs practitioners. So Streib and Roch also call for better relationships with practitioners who can help with data collection, provide access to data from secondary sources, and act as informants and guides.

As a first step in responding to the need identified by Streib and Roch, this essay will identify publicly available data sets and suggest how they may be used for more effective empirical research on social equity (allowing for collaboration between scholars and practitioners) while support for more funding is cultivated. In order to lend a more substantive and concrete quality to this discussion, it will be set in the context of problems of environmental justice. A focus on the study of environmental justice research can provide:

  1. a model for the inclusion of social class as an element of research study;

  2. an approach for overcoming the obstacle of appropriate data sets by relying on public available data sets with little or no budget;

  3. a format for developing cooperation between not only practitioner and academic, but with community activists as well; and

  4. a roadmap for studying issues of social class within the small geographic areas that are often of greatest concern to public administration practitioners and community activists alike.

By providing academicians, practitioners, and community activists a gateway to existing sources of information on social class, the opportunity can be created for the linkages of class and environmental injustice to be cast in sharper relief.


Government interventions in the area of the environment generally occur in one of two circumstances. First, an environmental issue may arise as the result of a market failure. Government policies (or, sometimes, the failure to make policy) can result in prices that send the wrong signals to consumers and producers, leading them to make unwise use of scarce resources and the environment (Freeman, 2003). Second, environmental policies can be prompted by an inequity in the distribution of environmental benefits or costs that reproduce and reinforce the pre-existing social and economic inequities of a society (Levenstein & Wooding, 1998).

In the case of market failure, one has the assistance of the market in identifying the existence and nature of the environmental issue at hand and developing policy alternatives. This fact is reflected in the proliferation of "market oriented" strategies for addressing environmental problems (Rosenbaum, 2002). In the case of the inequitable distribution of environmental costs and benefits, however, matters are more difficult. It is not enough that some group feels disadvantaged, or even that some governmental organization declares that a particular group has been victimized (Rhodes, 2003). Environmental justice advocates must prove their case politically because the market will not assist them and they are unlikely ever to set foot in a courtroom. In attempting to do this, they often become involved in information-based battles they are ill-equipped to wage. To cite only one example, the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice used zip codes as the base unit for geographic measurement in their ground-breaking report toxic waste and race (United Church of Christ, 1987). But subsequent...

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