In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environmental Sociology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Handbooks and Collections
  • Journals
  • Social Causes of Environmental Problems
  • Environmental Impacts on Society
  • Environmental Attitudes, Behaviors, and Activism
  • Environmental Reform and Sustainability
  • Human Dimensions of Climate Change

Environmental Science Environmental Sociology
Kyle W. Knight
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0100


Having emerged in the 1970s as public awareness of and concern for environmental problems increased, environmental sociology’s main goal is to understand the interconnections between human societies and the natural (or biophysical) environment. Environmental sociology has been described as comprising four major areas of research. First, environmental sociologists study the social causes of environmental problems. Along these lines, scholars have developed an array of theoretical frameworks to explain how various social factors, including demographic, social, cultural, political, economic, and technological dynamics, generate environmental impacts and problems, and they have conducted many empirical studies on a wide range of environmental indicators to assess hypotheses derived from these theories. Second, environmental sociology is concerned with how the natural environment influences and impacts society. Early environmental sociologists strongly emphasized the dependence of human societies on the natural environment and stressed that the field should consider how the environment shapes society in addition to how society impacts the environment. Research in this area tackles issues such as the social consequences of natural disasters and the inequitable distribution of environmental hazards along racial and socioeconomic lines. Third, environmental sociology examines social reactions and responses to environmental threats and problems. Research in this area focuses on understanding patterns and trends in environmental attitudes and behaviors (e.g., recycling) as well as various aspects of the environmental movement. Fourth, environmental sociologists are concerned with understanding social processes and dynamics that could advance environmental reform and sustainability. In general, environmental sociology has tended to focus more on explaining how society causes environmental problems while paying less attention to potential solutions, but a shift has taken place in recent decades. The development, discussion, and empirical assessment of theories of environmental reform, analyses of potential solutions to environmental crises, and drafting of conceptual frameworks for sustainability have become important foci of scholarly activity in environmental sociology. Another major area of research, one that cuts across the preceding four, is the human dimensions of global climate change, which has become one of the main substantive issues studied by environmental sociologists. In this article, important scholarly works in each of these five areas are highlighted and briefly discussed, along with a selection of the most relevant textbooks, handbooks and collections, encyclopedia and review articles that provide general overviews of the field, and academic journals that publish environmental sociology research.

General Overviews

A number of encyclopedia articles offer up-to-date, accessible, and relatively concise overviews of research in environmental sociology. Two relatively recent articles that were authored by prominent scholars are cited here (Jorgenson, et al. 2014; York and Dunlap 2012). Review articles are another source of overviews of the field; compared to encyclopedia articles these are generally more in-depth, technical, and comprehensive, and they often highlight emerging trends and point out underexamined issues or unresolved questions in the research literature. Four review articles are included here, two classic works (Buttel 1987, Dunlap and Catton 1979) and two contemporary pieces (Pellow and Nyseth Brehm 2013; Rudel, et al. 2011).

  • Buttel, F. H. 1987. New directions in environmental sociology. Annual Review of Sociology 13:465–488.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    This review article provides an overview and assessment of research in environmental sociology in its first decade as an established subdiscipline of sociology and identifies the main areas of inquiry during this period.

  • Dunlap, R. E., and W. R. Catton Jr. 1979. Environmental sociology. Annual Review of Sociology 5:243–273.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    A foundational work in the field. This classic review article describes the emergence and early development of environmental sociology, distinguishes it from mainstream sociology, and defines its core focus as the study of society-environment interactions.

  • Jorgenson, A. K., R. E. Dunlap, and B. Clark. 2014. Ecology and environment. In Concise encyclopedia of comparative sociology. Edited by M. Sasaki, J. Goldstone, E. Zimmerman, and S. K. Sanderson, 457–464. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004266179_048

    A brief review of the major theoretical and methodological approaches in comparative international environmental sociology research.

  • Pellow, D. N., and H. Nyseth Brehm. 2013. An environmental sociology for the twenty-first century. Annual Review of Sociology 39:229–250.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-soc-071312-145558

    This review article provides the most up-to-date overview of the field. It describes the origins of environmental sociology; reviews major theories, topics, and issues; highlights related areas of inquiry; and discusses future directions for research.

  • Rudel, T. K., J. T. Roberts, and J. Carmin. 2011. Political economy of the environment. Annual Review of Sociology 37:221–238.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.012809.102639

    This article provides a chronological review of substantive and theoretical issues in sociological research on the political-economic dynamics of environmental problems, social responses to them, and efforts to address them.

  • York, R., and R. E. Dunlap. 2012. Environmental sociology. In The Wiley-Blackwell companion to sociology. Edited by G. Ritzer, 504–521. Chichester, UK: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444347388.ch27

    This excellent encyclopedia article offers a broad but detailed discussion of the major areas of research and theoretical debates within contemporary environmental sociology.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.