Are sociologists researching climate violence? 

Emmet Fox (National University of Ireland)

 The Current Climate Change Reports journal has a special issue that presents literature reviews from five social science disciplines on climate change and conflict. Published at the end of 2017, the main focus is on social science contributions since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Fifth Assessment Report (2014). The five disciplines the issue covers are anthropology, criminology, economics, geography, and political science.

Notice that there is no contribution from sociology. Several prominent sociologists, as well as the Environment and Technology, and the Peace, War, and Social Conflict sections of the American Sociological Association (ASA), were approached but declined. Editor Elisabeth A. Gilmore writes that the authors indicated it was not their area of expertise. Some, mainly junior faculty members, expressed interest but noted the dearth of literature from their discipline.

Although there appears to be a distinctly US slant as to where they sought sociologists, there seems to be a lack of sociological application in this area. Admittedly, I do not say this as someone who has carried out some systematic Boolean search-string of the literature, nor as someone who holds much expertise in climate conflict but it is not a topic that I come across often when reading sociology of climate change. 

A point worth noting is that sociology as the all-encompassing discipline inevitably overlaps with the research of other disciplines. The overlap between sociology and human geography is particularly striking and I know of several sociologists employed in geography departments. Therefore, much of the research being done into the social science of climate conflict can have strong sociological leanings despite sociology’s apparent absence.

Of course, this study group welcomes input into climate change research from any discipline as long as it is broadly sociological. Sociology can and should still benefit from the intellectual contribution of other disciplines such as from the valuable spatial and place-based emphasis of geography. But as a specific discipline with a particular theoretical heritage and research emphasis – e.g. societal power, the structural nature or relationality of social phenomenon – and as a need to resist managerial impulses to obliterate such knowledge repositories by amalgamating social science departments or subordinating the third level universe to STEM, it remains important to develop sociology’s specific contribution. 

Therefore, it would be useful for study group members to know of the research, past and future, in this area along with possibilities for sociology’s future contribution. Relatedly, Gilmore notes that recent sociology literature appears to show some potential – specifically mentioning Bonds (2016) critique of climate violence research.

Some insights from Bonds and the special issue would caution future researchers to be alert to the need to concentrate as much on the possibilities for pulling together, as to falling apart, in times of climatic distress, and not to presume the latter over the former. They also caution against over-focusing on conflicts of the Global South and the potential climate-related violence of the poor. 

According to Bonds critics of ‘orthodox climate violence researchers’ argue that they rely on environmental determinism that naturalises conflict within the warmer Global South and depoliticises the emergence of climate vulnerabilities. It is also a focus that directs attention away from the violence of the powerful. Especially, the structural violence inherent in climate change itself, as fossil fuel companies conspire against climate legislation, leading the world towards “profound, and otherwise avoidable, human suffering” (Bond, 2016).

In the sense of structural violence, sociologists could already be considered to be researching climate violence. Perhaps sociology’s further contribution to this area, therefore, might involve naming the climate violence of the powerful in their research and positioning it within the climate conflict debate.