Democracy, Dialogue, and Environmental Disputes


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The Contested Languages of Social Regulation

Bruce A. Williams and Albert R. Matheny

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At every level of government, environmental regulation is under siege. In Washington, it has been attacked first through the "New Federalism" and now through the "Contract with America." Outside the capital, environmental regulation is the subject of controversy as state and local officials struggle with new responsibilities, threats of industry exit, and challenges from grassroots groups.

This book addresses the conundrum of regulation by tracing its source to the competing characterizations of regulatory legitimacy that have accompanied the growth of the American state. Bruce Williams and Albert Matheny identify three distinct languages—managerial, pluralist, and communitarian—used to articulate competing visions of regulation. They argue that each language posits a different understanding of the public interest and therefore a different relationship between the state, the market, and the public. Because all three languages are invoked in regulatory debates, disputants talk past one another, leaving fundamental issues of legitimacy and democracy unresolved or masked by unexamined assumptions. The authors propose a dialogic model for analyzing regulatory policymaking, drawing on postmodernist theory that claims that establishing single languages for understanding the world inevitably distorts communication. They then apply their analysis to case studies of actual environmental disputes over hazardous waste regulation in the 1980s and 1990s in New Jersey, Ohio, and Florida.

Bruce A. Williams is associate professor of urban and regional planning and of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Albert R. Matheny is associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. 

"The focus on dialogue and the role of language provides an interesting contribution."—Douglas J. Crawford-Brown, American Scientist

"This is a wonderful book, from which I learned a great deal empirically about the toxics movement, models of state management, and resistance. It makes a real contribution to theory because it is so well rooted in real world dynamics. The cases are politically significant, rich, and interesting."—Carmen J. Sirianni, Brandeis University

"This book is a refreshing alternative to dry, technical texts on social regulation. It brings to life grassroots, citizen-based efforts to shape a democratic dialogue on toxic regulation. Williams and Matheny provide the most insightful political, legal, and economic discussion of 'social regulation' since the term was invented. They interpret the language of regulation and show how it has been mobilized to produce 'the public interest.'"—Christine B. Harrington, New York University

"Ambitious and broad-ranging. . . . It is a well written and documented overview both theoretical and applied, of one aspect of social regulation, hazardous waste regulation. . . . The work represents a valuable addition to the understanding of the policy process."—Martin King, Journal of Economic Issues

"Williams and Matheny's book is an intriguing piece of work, sure to be enjoyed by graduate students and serious scholars alike."—Choice

"[An] excellent book. . . . In their engaging prose, Williams and Matheny show how studying the language of political conflict over social regulation can have concrete, commonsense, useful applications to students of the policy process. . . . An impressive contribution to the study of social regulation, democratic theory, and hazardous waste politics and policy. It delivers one of the few sophisticated treatments of the conundrum involving the relationship between environment and democracy."—Daniel Press, American Political Science Review

"Democracy, Dialogue, and Environmental Disputes offers readers a well-written and carefully crafted theoretical framework for understanding the importance of rhetoric in policy development. . . . Students of the policy process may find that Democracy, Dialogue, and Environmental Disputes provides a helpful framework for understanding why people seem to 'talk past each other' when developing environmental policy."—Denise Scheberle, Journal of Politics



"A timely and interesting contribution to the environmental policy literature."—Robert C. Paehlke, author of Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics

Winner of the 1996 APSA prize for the best book published in Environmental Politics and Policy (awarded by the Science, Technology, and Environmental Politics Section of the APSA)
ISBN: 9780300075540
Publication Date: May 25, 1998
272 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4