Understanding the Diverse Meanings and Practices of Environmental Justice

The contours of the contemporary environmental justice movement are being mapped as part of an exciting ARC-funded project. Here, Research Assistants Hannah Della Bosca and Oli Moraes describe the purpose of the project and how its research methodology has been designed to capture the nuances of environmental justice today.

View of mines Mt Isa, Queensland. Image by C de la Cruz, via Shutterstock. ID 1427933126

What does environmental justice (EJ) mean to the people that think about it and work for it everyday? EJ is often described as fair and equitable access to a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work regardless of race, nationality, or income. This is the definition that was adopted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and it often serves as a catch-all for theoretical and practical approaches to EJ. However, it does not reflect the diversity and granularity of the perspectives, priorities and people that make up the contemporary EJ community.

This short blogpost describes why and how the Creating Just Food and Energy Policy project is mapping contemporary understandings of EJ, using a distinctive methodology.


Engaging with and reflecting the global diversity of a multidimensional and ever-expanding field is critical to understanding the nature of threats and obstacles faced by EJ advocates, as well as how they can be addressed and overcome. The EJ community is made up of social movements and organisations that work to reduce inequality and promote systemic changes that support healthier, flourishing communities from the local to the global. It comprises activists who participate in community-led social organising, from small grassroots campaigns to national and international political lobbying. This includes an interdisciplinary field of scholars who examine the factors that assist or impede democratic or community-driven environmental outcomes, particularly as they relate to political and legal governance structures, policies and regulations.

The EJ movement has been expanding and transforming since its inception in the 1980s. Starting from an early focus on the targeted distribution of toxic waste and pollution impacting communities of colour in the United States, EJ is now an expansive movement with a range of focus areas including climate change, food systems, energy transitions, multispecies ethics and land rights. Race, Indigeneity, and ethnicity remain central elements of many EJ frameworks, while there is a growing emphasis on how other aspects of identity such as gender, class, disability, sexuality and geography shape life within different communities and for different individuals.

Our intention is to produce an updated EJ framework, based on the views of contemporary EJ activists and academics from around the world. The project thus examines three key aspects of contemporary EJ work. First, what does EJ mean, and what elements or factors characterise it? Second, what are the main barriers or impediments to achieving EJ? And third, what factors enable or support just environmental outcomes? This project aims to reflect the diverse knowledge of a selected sample of participants in order to produce a nuanced reflection of contemporary EJ. We also aim to develop a toolkit so that potential pathways and barriers to effective and just policies can be shared with the wider activist and scholarly community.


To do this we are using Q-method (Q), a qualitative research methodology with quantitative aspects that aims to capture the subjective opinions of participants on a particular topic. Q has three features that make it appropriate for capturing the diversity of perspectives within the EJ community. First, its data collection requirements combine big picture analysis of EJ discourse with the personal and subjective experiences, opinions, and perspectives of individuals. This enables two interrelated layers of analysis within the EJ community to be undertaken. Second, the ‘forced sort’ methodology requires participants to reflect their own priorities within a field of statements that they may broadly agree or disagree with. This allows researchers to identify granular differences between EJ perspectives. Third, Q reveals both consensus and differences in participants’ viewpoints by identifying patterns across individual responses and clustering them by similarity and demographics. The rest of this article will briefly describe how we are using Q to explore our research questions.

Q requires researchers to establish a concourse (pool) of statements that captures the diversity of known opinions on the topic as comprehensively as possible. This concourse is then narrowed down into a collection of approximately 30 statements, called a Q-set, that represent the perspectives emerging from the concourse. The Q-set is presented to participants, who are asked to rank the statements from most- to least-agree on a bell curve. This is a ‘forced sort’, that produces a grid of statements for each participant, shown below in Figure 1:

Figure 1- Example of Q-sort grid for 29 statements. Participants are asked to place each statement on this grid according to how strongly they agree or disagree with a statement, where 0 represents a neutral view.

Our progress

Developing Q-sets for this project was a substantial task, requiring thematic categorisation of over 1300 statements within the activist and academic literature. Unlike most Q studies, we developed three separate Q-sets from our concourse (meanings, barriers, and enablers of EJ). The process described below enabled us to identify statements for the concourse and from there develop 3 sets of approximately 30 representative statements. Developing a search strategy for both activist and academic literature published on EJ between 2018-2020, our team ran search queries on Google (for activist publications) and Google Scholar (for academic journal publications) using the term “environmental justice” targeted to each of the world’s regions, and selected relevant papers from the top 20 results from each search. From these sources we identified and catalogued key statements on EJ related to meanings, barriers and enablers. This database included 139 activist sources from which 639 statements were drawn, and 153 academic sources from which 711 statements were drawn. These statements were iteratively coded by researchers in Nvivo QSR software by Category (what the statement was about), by Theme (what area of EJ it fell into), and by Type (was it a meaning, barrier, or enabler statement).

Figure 2- Example of Nvivo coding schema used to catalogue academic and activist statements

Once we coded this database of statements, we developed a refinement strategy to assist in systemically reducing the collection of statements into a representative pool of 30.

Figure 3: Statement refinement strategy

Following completion of this stage, we compiled three separate Q-sorts: one each on EJ meanings, enablers and barriers. Each Q-sort will be completed by a randomly assigned participant pool of academics and scholars that were identified throughout our literature search. Participation is via an online platform and takes about 30 minutes to complete. We are currently at this stage of the research. For people interested in using Q, it is worth noting that this process took approximately 12 months and required constant discussion and verification within the team. The development of a comprehensive Q-set for a study of this scale is time consuming and produces an enormous amount of data.

Next steps

Once participation is complete, the research team will move on to the second stage of the study. Every participant’s Q-sort will be analysed through correlation and factor analysis, and all collected Q-sorts compared with each other. This will enable patterns to emerge, revealing similarities and differences between individual Q-sorts. Similar Q-sorts can be clustered together and analysed as a shared view. The number of clusters, or similar types of Q-sort arrangements reveal commonly-held viewpoints on the topic according to where statements are placed on the grid.

We will also invite participants to a brief interview to elaborate on their reasoning behind their Q-sort decisions, and this will provide additional insight into the patterns that emerge from the Q-sort analysis. Finally, we will hold focus groups with interested participants to discuss the outcomes and results of the study and how they may relate to policy direction more broadly.

The study is being conducted by a research team comprising David Schlosberg, Lauren Rickards, Rebecca Pearse and Research Assistants Oli Moraes and Hannah Della Bosca. This research is a collaborative project between the Sydney Environment Institute, The University of Sydney; RMIT University; and the Australian National University (ANU), and is a Discovery Project funded by the Australian Research Council.

Hannah Della Bosca is a Phd candidate in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy and a Research Assistant at the Sydney Environment Institute. Hannah has a background in Legal Geography around environmental decision making, generational coal mining communities and energy transitions, and protected upland swamps. She has previously contributed to research on community resilience and responses to disruption, and continues to work on projects related to environmental and social justice, and violence.

Hannah’s PhD research project is titled For Colony and Empire: The Lifeways and Lifeworlds of Ants as Paradox and Paradigm of Terrestrial Resilience. Shifting the lens onto non-human resilience research subjects, the intention of this work is to position the ant as a provocateur in re-imagining and re-storying the terrestrial narrative of colony and domination that characterises the Anthropocene. It draws together biological and biosocial research on ant species with diverse narratives of ant-human encounters in order to explore the boundaries of identity and theory in day-to-day life. The goal is to challenge or extend theories and ideals of justice as they relate to and are applied as solutions in an age of disruption, attending closely to difference, nuance, and messy but vital realities on a shared planet.

Oli Moraes has research experience looking at blue carbon – mangroves and seagrasses – in the Pacific Island region as a means to addressing climate change mitigation, adaptation, biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. Oli has a Bachelors of Arts and Science from Monash University where he studied earth sciences and international studies and recently completed a Master of Environment at the University of Melbourne specialising in climate change and conservation. His Masters research took him to Fiji in 2018 where he worked with Fijian conservation NGOs, practitioners, government agencies and Indigenous communities around Fiji to understand the opportunities and challenges of protecting and restoring blue carbon ecosystems through carbon market approaches. He focused on empowering voices and particularly capturing the deep Indigenous knowledges about coastal resource management in his research. Oli has since published part of his research in the Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, presented at Victoria’s flagship conservation conference Vic BioCon, and continues to collaborate with research partners in Australia and the South Pacific. Oli is currently working as a Research Officer at RMIT University with IPCC lead author on climate change adaptation Dr Lauren Rickards in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies.