Governing by ignoring

The production and the function of the under-reporting of farm-workers’ pesticide poisoning in French and Californian regulations

Authored by: François Dedieu , Jean-Noël Jouzel , Giovanni Prete

Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies

Print publication date:  May  2015
Online publication date:  May  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415718967
eBook ISBN: 9781315867762
Adobe ISBN: 9781317964674


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Large areas of uncertainty still surround the relationship between environmental exposure to toxic materials, on the one hand, and human health, on the other. Several historical accounts have recently shown that this state of ignorance is not due only to the complex nature of the interactions between toxic agents and human bodies. Most of these accounts cast a light on the strategies set up by big corporations to hide the dangers of the toxic materials they use, sell or dispose of in the environment. The cases of tobacco smoke (Proctor 2012), global warming (Oreskes and Conway 2010), and toxic chemicals (Markowitz and Rosner 2003), provide evidence of these strategies contributing to the “social production of ignorance” over environmental health issues. Until now, these accounts have tended to focus on how industry draws on specific networks of scientists, politicians and experts in regulating agencies to produce doubts about the harmfulness of their products. These approaches tend to limit the role of governing bodies to that of organizations “captured” by private interests (McGarity and Wagner 2008). In so doing, they overlook the fact that for governing bodies, ignorance can have a value in itself. For instance, it helps contemporary states to reduce complex issues (Scott 1998) so as to make them “governable” (Foucault 2004). Recent environmental health studies support this thesis. The cases of indoor air pollution (Murphy 2006), of pesticides’ effects on bees (Kleinman and Suryanarayanan 2013), and of the consequences of human exposure to chemicals in the soils of post-Katrina New Orleans (Frickel and Vincent 2007), show that ignorance is a useful resource for the control of toxic chemicals in the environment.

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