Environmental Sociology: Emergence, Theories, Scope, Contributions

Environmental sociology can be defined as the field of sociology that deals with the interactions of societies and their natural and built environments.

Emergence of Environmental Sociology

By the mid-1970s, sociologists had become aware and sensitized towards the reality of environmental issues. But this required a reappraisal of previously held sociological assumptions such as the fact that the physical environment was irrelevant to the study of social behavior. Hence, the label Human Exemptionalism Paradigm (HEP) was applied to the worldview of classical sociology (Dunlap & Catton 1979).


In contrast, the New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) drew from the ideas of early conservationists such as Aldo Leopold, John Muir, George Perkins Marsh and even Rachel Carson. This framework stressed the dependence on ecosystems of human societies (Pellow & Brehm 2013).

Organizational Recognition of Environmental Sociology

There were three major organizational developments that contributed to the emergence of environmental sociology and more importantly the transition from ‘sociology of environmental issues’ to ‘environmental issues’. The first development occurred in 1964 when several members of the Rural Sociological Society (RSS) formed the ‘Sociological Aspects of Forestry Research Committee’. The committee has now evolved into one of the foremost quasi-formal research groups of the RSS and has been renamed the ‘Natural Resources Research Group’. Second, in 1972, the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP) added an ‘Environmental Problems Division’. The division’ membership was crucial to environmental sociology since environmentalism and the environment as a social problem were topics of strong interest. Third, in early 1974, the council of the American Sociological Association appointed the ‘Ad Hoc Committee on Environmental Sociology’. The committee was succeeded by the ‘Section on Environmental Sociology’ in 1976. This section exists to represent all interests pursued by environmental sociologists (Dunlap & Catton 1979).

Theoretical Contributions To Environmental Sociology

Riley Dunlap and William Catton’s environmental sociology is situated on several interrelated notions. The first is that environmental issues and classical sociology’s inability to address them stems from worldviews that are incapable of acknowledging the fact social life has a biophysical basis. Second, modern society is unsustainable since they are living off a finite supply of fossil fuels. Third, societies must prepare themselves to face an inevitable ecological crash due to the exacerbation of environmental problems. Fourth, adaptations and adjustments must be made if environmental crises are to be averted. Fifth, the fact that environmental crises are contributing to a paradigm shift in society must be recognized. Sixth, environmental reform will be catalyzed by paradigm shifts among social scientists (Catton & Dunlap 1978).

Frederick Buttel critiqued Dunlap and Catton’s work by arguing that environmental sociology did, in fact, have classical sociological foundations. These could be found in Weber’s work on ancient agrarian civilizations and also in Durkheim’s view that the division of labor was built on the material premise of specialization in response to environmental scarcity.

Political Economy

Within the field on environmental sociology, political economy perspectives are concerned with the ill effects of capitalism and modernity on socio-ecological well-being. A Marxist viewpoint is displayed since political economy perspectives reveal the fact that when the means of production favor the bourgeoisie, they produce greater ecological damage. There are two competing theoretical perspectives within this tradition: ecological modernization and the treadmill of production (Pellow & Brehm 2013).

The ecological modernization theory proposes that while forces of modernization and globalization result in environmental degradation, they also contribute towards improving environmental quality through state policies and corporate practices. The argument suggests that in order for societies to achieve ecological sustainability, modernization, including new technologies and innovative entrepreneurs must continue (Pellow & Brehm 2013).

On the other hand, the theory of treadmill production proposes that both modern capitalism and the modern state promote economic growth and private capital accumulation and that this process is self-reproducing and hence similar to the character of a treadmill (Schnaiberg 1980). According to this mode, the capitalist state uses accumulated funds to address social upheavals such as falling wages and environmental harm. This logic dictates that investments in economic growth would further finance solutions to the ecological crises caused by them (Pellow & Brehm 2013).

Who are Environmental Sociologists?

An environmental sociologist is a researcher who studies issues such as environmentalism, the relationships between population, health, and the environment, and environmental inequality. Sociologists use research methods like surveys and interviews to collect data about environmental attitudes and behaviours. Alternatively, they may also collate data through observation and reviewing pre-existing documents (“Environmental Sociologist” n.d.).

Environmental sociologists are frequently seen collaborating with climate scientists, economists, anthropologists, geographers, urban planners and legal scholars in an effort to produce defensible accounts of socio-ecological reality (Pellow & Brehm 2013).

Also Read: Gendering Climate Change

Key Figures In Environmental Sociology

There have been many contributors to the field of environmental sociology since the discipline emerged. A few notable environmental sociologists include:

Professor Kari Marie Norgaard is currently an associate professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at the Univeristy of Oregon. Over the last fifteen years, she has taught in the fields of environmental sociology and climate change. Dr. Norgaard is a previous chair of the Environmental Sociology Section at the American Sociological Association. She has also authored the novel, ‘Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life’ (“Kari Marie Norgaard” 2019).

Professor John Bellamy Foster is another sociology faculty at the University of Oregon. His teaching areas include environmental sociology, Marxism and political economy. He has made many contributions to the field of environmental sociology through publications in the American Journal of Sociology such as, ‘Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology’ (“John Bellamy Foster” 2020).

The late Dr. William Freudenburg held many prestigious positions at the American Sociological Association and the Rural Sociological Society. He taught at multiple universities in the United States of America, an example being University of California, Santa Barbara where he was an Environmental Studies faculty and specialized in environmental sociology. He published many articles on the contributions of Riley Dunlap and William Catton to environmental sociology (“William R. Freudenburg” 2020).


Environmental sociology is known as comprising of four major areas of research.

First, environmental sociologists study the societal causes of environmental problems. Scholars have developed many theoretical frameworks to describe how social factors like demographical, political, cultural and economic factors generate environmental problems. Many empirical studies have also been conducted to support the hypotheses derived from such theoretical frameworks (Knight 2018).

Second, environmental sociology is concerned with the natural environment’s impact on society. Early sociologists emphasized that the field required the study of how environment shapes society in addition to how society impacts its environment. This area includes investigation of the consequences of natural disasters especially in terms of environmental justice (Knight 2018).

Third, environmental sociology examines the response of society to environmental issues. Researchers focus on identifying patterns and trends in environmental attitudes such as varied attitudes towards global climate change (Knight 2018).

Fourth, environmental sociologists are especially concerned with learning social processes that could help advance environmental sustainability. Scholarly activity in this area revolves around finding solutions to environmental crises and assessing theories of environmental reform (Knight 2018).

Contemporary Issues

The 21st century brings with it a host of environmental issues. Global climate change is the most pressing issue faced by human society. Environmental sociologists research the anthropogenic factors of climate change such as political and economic causes. They also investigate sociological issues caused by climate change. For example, unusual weather events such as drought and floods are more likely to cause interpersonal violence and armed conflict. According to an Oxford University economist, African nations are 50% more likely to have a civil war in the year succeeding a drought (McLean 2016).

Another important issue related to climate change is that of energy. The consumption of fossil fuels is recognized as the central driver of climate change. Hence, environmental sociologists also study the relationship between energy and the environment. For example, nuclear power has been a major environmental controversy since the 1970s. It has led to many disasters that had drastic effects on human populations. The Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear plant explosions are crucial examples of the effect that anthropogenic disasters can have on societies (McLean 2016).

Lastly, there exists a strong relationship between inequality and the environment. Environmental inequality or environmental injustice refers to the fact that factors like income, race and gender make some populations more vulnerable to the outcomes of environmental problems than others. The American Sociological Association suggests that the emphasis of environmental sociology on environmental inequality reflects the emphasis of sociology as a discipline places on social inequality. There are many examples of environmental inequality. All over the world, developing countries are more likely to be affected by climate change than developed countries. Even within poor nations, people belonging to lower socioeconomic classes and women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change (McLean 2016).

Also Read: Best Environmental Sociology books for Students

Glossary Of Terms

  1. Human Exemptionalism Paradigm (HEP): The HEP was based on the assumption that modern society was not linked to the physical environment since human beings are uniquely superior to every other race. This paradigm dismissed environmental change as a topic worthy of sociological enquiry (Dunlap & Catton 1994). The HEP was the leading Western worldview from the industrial revolution till the 1950s (“Environmental Sociology” n.d.).
  2. New Ecological Paradigm (NEP): The NEP arose in opposition to the HEP. The NEP called for a healthy balance between human activities and the needs of the ecosystems they exploited. The paradigm highlighted the biosphere’s fragility and reflected the perspective of multiple environmental movements in the United States in the 1970s (Pellow & Brehm 2013).
  3. Treadmill of Production: This conflict theory was developed by Allan Schnaiberg in 1980. It proposed that capitalism drives economic growth and that continued consumption is an imperative of the process. This theory contains a paradox; while economic growth is socially desired, it results in environmental degradation which in turn disrupts long term economic expansion (“Environmental Sociology” n.d.)


Catton, W.R., Jr. & Dunlap, R.E. (1978). Enviromental Sociology: A New Paradigm. The American Sociologist 13:41-49.

Decline and Revitalization of Enviromental Sociology. The American Sociologist, 25(1), 5-30. Retrieved May 15, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/27698675

Dunlap, R., & Catton, W. (1979). Enviromental Sociology. Annual Review of Sociology, 5, 243-273. Retrieved May 15, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/2945955

Dunlap, R., & Catton, W. (1994). Struggling with Human Exemptionalism: The Rise,

Envirnmental Sociology. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://environment-ecology.com/environment-writings/114-environmental-sociology.html#Human_Exemptionalism_Paradigm_.28HEP.29

John Bellamy Foster. (2020). Retrieved from https://sociology.uoregon.edu/profile/jfoster/

Kari Marie Norgaard. (2019). Retrieved from https://pages.uoregon.edu/norgaard/index.html

Knight, K.W. (2018). Envirnmental Sociology. Oxford Bibliographies. 10.1093/OBO/9780199363445-0100

McLean, T. (2016). The Environment. Retrieved from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-socialproblems/

Pellow, D., & Brehm, H. (2013). An Environmental Sociology for the Twenty-First Century. Annual Review of Sociology, 39, 229-250. Retrieved May 14, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/43049634

Schnaiberg, A. (1980). The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

What is an Environmental Sociologist? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.environmentalscience.org/career/environmental-sociologist

William R. Freudenburg. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.es.ucsb.edu/william-r-freudenburg

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Arushi is a sociology and environmental studies. She is passionate about writing and researching about these two fields. She has a keen interest in social work and has collaborated with many volunteering programs in the past. Her hobbies include horse riding, trekking and painting.