Journal of Social Psychology, 1987, 127, 99-100
A PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION STUDY OF SOCIAL CLASS AMONG ENVIRONMENTALISTS
JOHN J. RAY
School of Sociology, University of New South Wales, Australia
Studies of social class among members of environmentalist organizations (e.g. Devall, 1970) almost invariably conclude that environmentalism is typically upper-middle-class. Yet studies of the population at large (e,g. Van Liere & Dunlap, 1980) conclude that environmentalism has broad support that transcends social class. One way both can be right is if only middle-class people are "joiners". Another is if only middle class people give researchers the co-operation they need when voluntary organizations are studied. Middle class group members might be much more likely to mail back their questionnaires. Some check on this latter possibility seems needed.
The research method chosen was participant observation. This is one of the nonreactive methods and is the principal method of anthropology. It is, however much less arduous when applied to the study of one's own society than when applied to the study of primitive tribes. In the present case, a group of second-year university students were sent out to attend any environmentalist groups they could find. Off-campus groups were specified and precautions were taken to prevent two students from attending the one group. A total of eleven meetings split up among six organizations were attended. The organizations were: Movement against uranium mining, Friends of the earth, Project Jonah, Greenpeace, Georges River Cleanup campaign and an anti-Airport group. All meetings were held in the Sydney metropolitan area, Australia.
The study was covert to minimize defensiveness on the part of those studied and to avoid breakdowns in co-operation. The students who attended the meetings, then, endeavoured to mix as much as possible with those present and as often as possible popped what is after all the standard party question in our culture: "What do you do for a living?" As some discipline against poor memory on the part of the interviewers, they were all required to write down the name (even if only the first name) and approximate age of each person so quizzed. By keeping lists of names and occupations, the students could attend more than one meeting of the same group without duplicating their results. Attending more than one meeting was seen as desirable not only for the usual anthropological reason of building trust, but also because few groups have full attendance at any one meeting. The possibility that students might unconsciously bias their findings to give an expected result was dealt with by telling them in advance that previous findings on the topic had been mixed. Problems of observer bias are now well-known in anthropology but it was felt that the relative objectivity of the data being sought on the present occasion should make bias difficult. The students reported acceptance among the groups they visited, probably because most such groups actively seek new members and because young students are inherently not very threatening. The meetings were generally fairly small, so that no more than two visits to any one group was required for the occupations of all in attendance to be gathered.
The overall distribution of occupations gathered in this way was 88 people in non-manual occupations and 37 in manual occupations. A random doorstep sample (being carried out at the same time in Sydney for another purpose) yielded a distribution of 101 nonmanual and 44 manual occupations. The two distributions are obviously very similar and the chi-square between them was not significant. When studied by nonreactive methods, environmentalist activists do not appear to be particularly middle-class.
Devall, W B. (1970) Conservation: An upper middle class social movement: A replication. Journal of Leisure Research, 2, 123-126.
Van Liere, K. D., & Dunlap, R. E. (1980) The social bases of environmental concern: A review of hypotheses, explanations and empirical evidence. Public Opinion Quarterly, 44, 181-197.
Received August 27, 1986
What is reproduced above is the version of the article that was originally accepted for publication. Last minute editorial changes made some minor alterations in the wording of the version that was finally printed. I have retained the original version here for what I regard as its greater intelligibility.
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