Skip to main content


(In)visibility and Pollution: Making ‘Sense’ of Toxic Hazards and Environmental Justice
Third Annual ‘Toxic Expertise’ Workshop
May 15-16th 2018, Radcliffe Conference Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry

Creating and disseminating knowledge of toxic pollution is a key challenge for academics, activists, and local communities alike. Not all toxins are detectable through human sensory perceptions; and our bodies do not always react to toxins immediately. The long-term health impacts of accumulated contamination are severe, but the elusive nature of toxic pollution makes appropriate actions difficult if not impossible.

Since toxic landscapes are replete with deferred harms, secreted hazards, and invisible layers of ‘slow violence’ (Nixon 2011), making toxic pollution known is a contested social and political process (Hecht 2012, Walker 2012). Informal knowledge is regularly overlooked while expensive scientific expertise is often required to ‘translate’ toxicity into legible and/or legal forms. But even when contaminated communities can ‘sense’ or ‘measure’ the pollution surrounding them, converting that knowledge into political action is not a straightforward process.

In a world full of contested toxic hazards, how pollution is made visible - or rendered unknowable - is of critical concern for the social sciences. Using visibility as a starting point to explore our sensorial engagements with toxic times and spaces, this workshop will showcase papers from a range of disciplines that tackle the challenge of making ‘sense’ of toxic pollution and environmental injustice through qualitative and quantitative approaches, including participatory methods, storytelling, affect, spatial data analysis, and ethnographic research, among many others. We invite theory-driven and empirically rich papers from a broad range of disciplines that explore how toxicity can be sensed, embodied, and made visible. Possible topics and themes include but are not limited to:

What methods and approaches can we use to make the unseen world of toxic pollution visible?
What other senses, beyond the visual, are important in narrating and making sense of toxicity?
Can ‘citizen science’ provide new ways of understanding toxic hazards?
How do local communities ‘sense’ and make sense of pollution?What role does visualising and sensing pollution play in the success and failure of environmental justice campaigns?
How can quantitative analyses be used in telling stories of pollution without oversimplifying or overgeneralizing?
What are the politics that surround sensing pollution; in what ways do powerful actors make toxicity (in)visible?

The two-day event is the third annual interdisciplinary Toxic Expertise workshop at the University of Warwick, funded by the European Research Council (ERC). The Toxic Expertise project, led by Dr Alice Mah, is the first in-depth sociological exploration of the global petrochemical industry in relation to corporate social responsibility and environmental justice.

Accommodation will be paid for, and there is limited financial support for travel.

Call for Papers

Please send your paper abstracts of 250 words and a short bio-blurb by Monday 26th February, 2018 to the following address:

Accepted delegates will asked to submit working papers (2000-3000 words) two weeks before the workshop (Tuesday 1st May, 2018). These will be shared with all delegates before the workshop for discussion. We also hope these can be used towards a future published output.

A PDF version of this Call for Papers can be found here.

Past Events

Annual Workshop May 2017: Workshop on Pollution, Environmental Justice, and Citizen Science


(Above, Sam Geall, Sussex University)

We invited people to join our workshop on the theme of Pollution, Environmental Justice, and Citizen Science, which we held on 3-4 May 2017, at the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick, UK.

"The two-day event involved over thirty scholars and members of the public who shared their experiences of environmental justice, pollution and citizen science from a variety of perspectives. Environmental justice experts Phil Brown (Northeastern University) and Gwen Ottinger (Drexel University) gave keynote addresses, and fourteen other academics from a range of disciplines presented fascinating research papers that highlighted cutting edge scholarship at the nexus of citizen science and environmental justice."

"We were lucky with the weather during the workshop, and fortunate to be joined by Cindy Regalado from Public Lab and UCL, who gave a fantastic ‘Kite Mapping’ demonstration."


The above quotes are extracts from a summary piece by Thom Davies, published in Toxic News May 2017. Thom's full summary of the workshop can be found here.

Thursday November 3rd 2016: Toxic Expertise: Environment, Economy, Politics

At our first public engagement event we discusses the following questions: what value does 'expertise' still have in our society? How is expertise used, manipulated or ignored for political, social and environmental reasons? Has expertise itself become ‘toxic’?

A full write up of the event which inluded presentations from Mary Creagh MP, Neena Gill MEP, Dr Erik Van Sebille, Dr Frank Kelly, David Powell (New Economics Foundation) and Ruth Bergan (Trade Justice Movement) can be accessed here.

Mary Creagh MP at the Toxic Expertise event

(Photo Credit: Angeliki Balayannis, attendee)

This even was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council ‘Impact Acceleration Account’ and the ERC Starting Grant 'Toxic Expertise' - Grant Agreement No. 639583

Event Feedback from our Annual Workshop 2017:

"What things did you enjoy most about today's event and why?"

"This conference got the exact right balance between critical studies and reports of case studies between engagement and reflexivity."

"The ideation workshop - I've never done anything like that!"

"How will anything you have learnt during this event lead to changes in your understandings of certain things?"

"This conference reinforced to me the importance of thinking through environmental justice issues on a case by case basis. The importance of nuance, history and context when addressing EJ issues and leaning with citizen science."

“Different methods in this work, very thought provoking.”

“Will anything you learnt during this event lead to changes in things that you do?

“Definitely now interested in using participatory and DIY methods as a form of knowledge production.”

“What, if anything, could we improve regarding our events?”

“Nothing! Best conference in a very long time.”

“It was great. Well organised and interesting, I really enjoyed it.”

Thursday 19 May 2016: 'Pollution, Health & Global Governance': Roundtable Discussion and Film Screening of 'Warriors of Quigang' 

Friday 20th May 2016: Annual Toxic Expertise Workshop: 'Environment & Expertise'

Speakers included: Barbara Allen (Virgina Tech Washington DC Campus); Scott Frickel (Brown University) Anna Lora-Wainwright (University of Oxford); Mao Da (the co-founder of two Chinese ENGOs, Independence and Justice for Sustainability, Beijing); Gordon Walker (Lancaster University); and Sujatha Raman (University of Nottingham).

This one-day workshop provided a platform to discuss key issues surrounding the competing claims of expertise, agency and environmental knowledge. We explored debates about expertise in relation to pollution and health, environmental justice, public participation, and social movements, drawing on examples in the United States, China, and Europe. Expertise exists in all societies, and what it means to be an expert has been challenged, interrogated and unpicked by scholars from a variety of disciplines. Despite key insights by Bruno Latour, Brian Wynne and many others, there remain many questions surrounding expertise and the environment that are yet to be answered. In an era where we are increasingly facing ‘wicked’ environmental problems (Rittel 1973), it is more important than ever to understand whose expertise is valued and which information is discarded. Whether concerning the impacts of environmental disasters, or the slower brutality of climate change, competing claims are often made, reinforced, unmade and hidden from public and policy view.

  • What is meant by expertise?
  • Who can lay claim to expert knowledge?
  • Which knowledge is excluded and what expertise is hidden?
  • What makes us experts?

The workshop facilitated interdisciplinary and exploratory conversations and collaborative knowledge exchange.

Project Launch:

On 4 November, we celebrated the launch of our project at the University of Warwick, showcasing our project website and the first issue of our e-magazine Toxic News. The launch featured presentations from our project team and a lively discussion, with participation from our advisory board and from academics across the university.