Refining Expertise

How Responsible Engineers Subvert Environmental Justice Challenges

240 pages

March, 2013

ISBN: 9780814762370



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Gwen Ottinger is Assistant Professor in the Center for Science, Technology, and Society, and the Department of History and Politics at Drexel University. She is co-editor of Technoscience and Environmental Justice: Expert Cultures in a Grassroots Movement.

All books by Gwen Ottinger

Winner of the 2015 Rachel Carson Prize presented by the Society for Social Studies of Science

Residents of a small Louisiana town were sure that the oil refinery next door was making them sick. As part of a campaign demanding relocation away from the refinery, they collected scientific data to prove it. Their campaign ended with a settlement agreement that addressed many of their grievances—but not concerns about their health. Yet, instead of continuing to collect data, residents began to let refinery scientists' assertions that their operations did not harm them stand without challenge. What makes a community move so suddenly from actively challenging to apparently accepting experts' authority?

Refining Expertise argues that the answer lies in the way that refinery scientists and engineers defined themselves as experts. Rather than claiming to be infallible, they began to portray themselves as responsible—committed to operating safely and to contributing to the well-being of the community. The volume shows that by grounding their claims to responsibility in influential ideas from the larger culture about what makes good citizens, nice communities, and moral companies, refinery scientists made it much harder for residents to challenge their expertise and thus re-established their authority over scientific questions related to the refinery's health and environmental effects.

Gwen Ottinger here shows how industrial facilities' current approaches to dealing with concerned communities—approaches which leave much room for negotiation while shielding industry's environmental and health claims from critique—effectively undermine not only individual grassroots campaigns but also environmental justice activism and far-reaching efforts to democratize science. This work drives home the need for both activists and politically engaged scholars to reconfigure their own activities in response, in order to advance community health and robust scientific knowledge about it.


  • "An intriguing and impressive account of corporate social responsibility—and neoliberalism writ large—on the ground, in action, in chemical plant communities in Louisiana. The storytelling is rich, the analysis is crisp. Ottinger effectively draws out what Gramsci termed a passive revolution—how, in complex, culturally saturated ways, corporate commitment to `responsible care’ has created critical challenges for environmental activism and justice."

    —Kim Fortun, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

  • "Builds on STS studies and close ethnographic research to provide a sophisticated analysis of remarkable changes in corporate claims to expertise and in the responses of environmental justice activists.  Written with a good storyteller’s sense of drama and timing, this book engages the reader with a visceral sense of neoliberal cultural terrain and how it infiltrates actors’ subjectivities and identities to subtly constrain community-industry relations and block the democratization of knowledge."

    —Dorothy Holland, co-author of Local Democracy Under Siege: Activism, Public Interests, and Private Politics

  • "Who has authority?  Specifically, what makes people experts, with the authority to speak on scientific topics?  In this descriptive 'contribution to our collective understanding,' Ottinger (Univ. of Washington-Bothell; coeditor, with B. Cohen, Technoscience and Environmental Justice) relates the experiences of concerned citizens in New Sarpy, Louisiana, who felt that their health was being adversely impacted by a nearby oil refinery....Overall, Ottinger advocates support for the 'democratization of science,' i.e., opening technical issues to public dialogue."


  • "Ottinger's book is lucid, well written, and it analyses with great precision and sensitivity the concessions, compromises, and contradictions that have been generated out of New Sarpy's and Norco's encounters with the oil industry. For readers with a critical interest in governmentality studies, community development, corporate social responsibility, and citizen science that are rich insights to be found."

    —Rosie R. Meade , Antipode

  • "Gwen Ottinger's powerful and beautifully written Refining Expertise tells a different story: she shows, through exceptionally rich ethnographic and interview evidence and sophisticated theoretical observation, that the ways that industry experts frame themselves and their companies as political actors has a profound effect on de-fanging opposition....Ottinger makes a strong case that her research shows that citizen participation in environmental policy creation must be required. The high costs of activism, the lack of state regulatory protection, and the sophisticated means by which activism is channeled mean that it is unrealistic to think that citizens can expect that their own activities can pressure regulatory agencies and industry to protect them from environmental harms. Companies are now the new 'governors' and the state is the broker. The only way to ensure environmental protection in this situation, Ottinger argues, is by having citizens help write environmental protection laws themselves. The evidence and careful reasoning in Refining Expertise makes it hard to disagree." 

    —Kelly Moore, Journal of Responsible Innovation

  • Refining Expertise is the fascinating story of New Sharpy, a small community in Louisiana, USA.  This community actively opposes the neighboring refinery’s health and environment claims but suddenly ceases its opposition and accedes to the refinery’s expertise.  As such, Ottinger ethnographic analysis of the New Sharpy case shows how American petrochemical facilities may thwart environmental justice activism and attempts to democratize science.”

    European Association of Social Anthropologists