IV. Case Study I: Groundwater contamination

Educator Self-Study Module
STEP 4. Collect audience information relevant to the environmental practice and specific behaviors


A. Introduction: Social and cultural issues are important


Case Study I: Anthropology and Environmental Problems in the U.S. – The Case of Groundwater Contamination

In the mid-1980s, an anthropologist named Janet Fitchen conducted applied research in a number of communities in New York State that were experiencing groundwater contamination problems (Fitchen, 1988). Efforts at remediation of the problem by technical/agency officials were being increasingly frustrated and retarded by a combination of both technical AND sociocultural (institutional?) factors.

In terms of sociocultural factors, it was found that the interactions between technical and agency people and members of the local community were “seldom smooth: frustration and dissatisfaction with one another and with the progress of investigation and remediation seem(ed) to be the norm” (Fitchen 1988:5). In response, the institutions represented by the technical and agency officials sought to improve both their technological and sociocultural approaches. Fitchen was hired to conduct research into the latter and offer advice as to how the technical and agency people could more effectively work with members of the local community. She interacted with and observed both technical/agency people and members of the local community in the context of public meetings related to remediation efforts as well as in the everyday contexts of their homes and/or work-related lives.

Fitchen found that many of the conflicts between technical/agency people and members of the local community arose as a result of misunderstandings grounded in different “worldviews”, or ways of understanding and responding to environmental problems. For example, technical/agency people tended to be “action oriented” and “product minded” in their approach towards the problem. They were found to assume that an environmental problem was “a technical problem, requiring a technical fix…(and that) “ the ‘people factor’ represent(ed) an unwelcome source of difficulty, a block to (the) resolution of a technical problem” (Fitchen 1988:18). The latter was a result of the view among technical/agency people that the responses of local communities towards environmental problems were irrational and incomprehensible.

Technical/agency people were also found to take a macro-level approach towards dealing with the environmental problem that led them to both 1) see the local context as irrelevant towards remediation efforts and 2) talk about the problem with members of the community in a technical and specialized manner of little or no relevance towards local concerns such as whether or not the local ground water was drinkable or not.

After conducting her research, Fitchen began to provide advice to the technical/agency people as to how they might more effectively interact with members of the local community. In particular, she talked about the cultural dimensions underlying the local community’s responses towards environmental problems. For example, Fitchen talked about how the American ideals of individualism can be explored to better understand community members’ general 1) distrust of outside experts, 2) interest in being actively and locally involved in remediation efforts such as water-quality monitoring, and 3) hostility towards technical and specialized responses to their matter-of-fact questions in public forums. This information was found to help reduce the former frustrations and misunderstandings that technical/agency people experienced in reaction to public responses. Public responses were no longer interpreted as irrational and incomprehensible.

In conclusion, Fitchen found that the “resolution of (an environmental) problem is not a one-way delivery of a product. Rather, it is an interactive process, and the community is an active player, even if it is not formally assigned a role” (Fitchen 1988:19). Environmental problems, furthermore, are dealt with in a particular environmental AND sociocultural context, “not a vacuum”, and “every context is different” (Fitchen 1988:19).


Fitchen, Janet. (1988) “Anthropology and Environmental Problems in the U.S.: The Case of Groundwater Contamination”. Practicing Anthropology, 10(3-4): 5,18-20.