Externalities: why environmental sociology should bring them in

Malcolm H Fairbrother

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)
388 Downloads (Pure)


The concept of externalities represents the core of environmental economics, but appears much less in sociology and other social sciences. This article presents the concept of externalities and makes a case for its usefulness, noting reasons why environmental sociologists should like it and use it more than they do currently. The concept is closely tied to theories—of why environmental problems occur and how they can be addressed—which contradict influential perspectives in environmental sociology. But an externalities-centered approach to environmental issues is nonetheless highly sociological, and consistent with current research in other sub-fields. From an externalities perspective, environmental problems and protection are intrinsically social, and often highly political, rooted in relations of injustice and/or distrust. Practically, the most promising solutions to environmental problems embody a balance of market liberalism and strong state regulation. Externalities should therefore be a constructively unifying concept for environmental research across the social sciences. The concept is also provocative, however, in that its diagnosis of environmental problems amounts to powerful advocacy for major policy changes—even if within capitalism, and given continued economic growth.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)375-384
Number of pages10
JournalEnvironmental Sociology
Issue number4
Early online date29 Sep 2016
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2016

Bibliographical note

Special Issue: Conceptual Innovation in Environmental Sociology


  • Environmental externalities
  • treadmill of production
  • ecological modernization
  • collective action
  • environmental policy


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