Louis Guay – Feature Profile

We introduce you to:

Dr. Louis Guay, Professor, département de sociologie,  Université Laval

What is  your academic background?

I was trained and educated as a sociologist at the Université de Montréal (B. Sc.  and M. Sc.) and I did a PhD at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in Urban Planning.  I decided to study urban sociology and planning because I was born and brought up in Montréal and loved, still love, city life. I discovered the Chicago School of Sociology in my undergraduate studies. Their empirical and theoretical sociological program had a great appeal on a young sociologist in training. Planning seems, however, to me less developed in the Chicago School’s program and I felt that urban planning is an important part in structuring urban life and form. I chose the LSE because the UK had a glorious historical experience in urban planning, despite some mishaps, and because he LSE was located in… London, a city I had visited before and epitomised city life. I knew and was impressed about LSE past contributions to knowledge and public policy. Max Weber has always had a great influence on my sociological thinking, and I read and liked his short essay on the city.  His historical and comparative sociology was a great contribution to the disciple, though very few of us now practice both, because scientific questions have become more complex. But I discovered other urban tinkers and writers in my PhD studies, such as David Harvey, Ray Pahl and a giant in urban studies, Peter Hall. These authors were at the time were almost unknown in Québec’s sociology.

However, before going into urban sociology and planning I had hesitated between urban sociology and the sociology of science. At the end of the 1960s when I chose urban sociology, the sociology of science was a very small field of study inside sociology. At the University of Montréal there were no courses in sociology of science, though, surprisingly, there was a course in epistemology of the sciences and of the social sciences in particular. Merton was read, but not for his works in the sociology of science. During my PhD studies I discovered and read with great interest the new sociology of sciences, which was taking shape in the UK. This had a lasting impact on the way I now study environment problems, for contrary to many pioneer sociologists in the field (the Chicago School is a good example) I have always thought that science and expertise are at the core of the environmental questions and they should be dealt with very seriously.  I am fond of saying to my students that at the core of the environment as an issue lay science and expertise, to which I should add social representations of nature.

How did you become interested in environmental sociology?

I came into environmental sociology when my department director, when I was hired, asked me to teach Human Ecology, an undergraduate course that was in the sociology program, but was not offered every year. I had of course the proper qualifications. But I felt, after reviewing the most recent literature, that the course description wasdépassé. Human Ecology, as a model of sociological explanation, had more or less died a few years after having been conceived. Many authors, especially Alihan, gave it the coup de grâce, though Amos Hawley continued to write in the tradition till the 1980s. The course was thoroughly transformed and took the shape environmental sociology has now. I gradually and prudently started to introduce ideas coming from the sociology of sciences (the Edinburgh, Bath and York ‘schools’), but students were far more interested in the environmental movement and the political aspects of the ecological question than in the role of science in defining problems and solutions. Science and expertise were for that generation of students part of the problems, not part of the solutions. They were partly right, but now they are more open, with the help of the ecological modernization thesis, to seeing science as part of the solutions. It was not always easy to study the many environmental questions I brought in class in a value-free way, for many students were looking for solutions, and at times for grand solutions, to the ecological crisis of the times. I had to wait many years before combining, in a PhD seminar, my sociology of science interests with environmental sociology. This seminar has been very rewarding for myself, but also, I believe, for the participating graduate students.

What are your research interests?

My research interests in environmental sociology have always been on governance issues and the role of science in decision-making and public debate. I kept an interest in urban problems and city planning, for I taught courses in urban sociology and planning in a graduate spatial planning program at Laval University, called Aménagement du territoire et développement régional.

After having researched on environmental and planning problems for may years, I sort of decided to tackle bigger environmental issues, such as, in chronological order, acid rain, climate change and biodiversity. Why? Because these problems were not local, often continental and, of course, global. They imply a large set of actors and institutions and comparisons can be carried out. They were seen from a Canadian point of view, but within a global context. I am still much involved in the sociology of climate change and biodiversity. I feel that these questions are far from being closed, at least from a sociological perspective.

I am still much involved with my PhD students on different local environmental problems, such as water and forest governance in Québec. Many years ago when sociology students were looking for a topic for a Master’s essay or a PhD dissertation, I used to suggest a research on forest governance and forestry, but they were very reluctant to work on these problems, for they felt that it was a research area tightly reserved to researchers in forestry. Fortunately, with the passing of time and with the public debate on forestry, in Québec as well as in other provinces, sociology students became less afraid of taking up the forestry problems from their own discipline’s point of view.

What research are you currently working on?

One current research, carried out in different projects, combining my interest on the environment and on the city, is about the joint governance (la gouvernance croisée) of climate change and biodiversity in large Canadian cities. A second is about the ecosystem approach in environmental governance. The latter is very much inspired by my interests in the sociology of science and draws on recent works on expertise and its use in decision-making. But the ecological approach of the Chicago school can be clearly seen, for the project is about the social ecology of a scientific idea (ecosystem). The sociology of science has been focusing more on the genesis or production of knowledge than on its social diffusion and appropriation, as Harry Collins has stressed in his ‘Three-Wave model’.

What are some of your more interesting findings that you would like to share with us?

During my research projects I can say that I have developed or adapted a constructivist model of environmental governance and public debate, a perspective that I share with John Hannigan’s ‘constructionist’ approach, though mine is more influenced by the sociology of sciences than, I believe, his. In so doing I have focused on ecological controversies among a diversity of social actors and institutions. One can see a clear influence of the new sociology of the sciences on my work. Controversy analysis is the lens through which I study environmental problems. Moreover, I try to be ‘symmetrical’ when analysing social actors positions and discourses. It is not for a sociologist to judge whether some groups are wrong or right about an environmental problem. Although I wouldn’t go as far as some ‘relativists and constructivists’ about treating truth and falsehood in a symmetrical fashion, sociology of science has taught us to be open-minded and to apply the same sociological principles to various actors’ beliefs. I am often asked, for instance, whether I personally believe in climate change to which I answer that, as a citizen I do, but as a sociologist this is a question I should not ask myself for fear of judging before hand the responses of the social actors I study.

On a larger level, an important finding of my research is captured by the word complexity, a three-fold complexity to be precise. Let me briefly elaborate on complexity. Firstly, there is an ecological complexity to all environmental problems: they are far from being simple and time and change are important ecological dimensions. Secondly, there is social complexity in public environmental controversies: different people express different demands and options on the environment and its resources; they also differ in their representations of nature. To paraphrase Beck, environmental problems are often conflicts about social representations or frames. Finally, there is complexity in the relationship between an ecological problem and the social community who has defined some state of the environment as a problem. With complexity comes uncertainty. Not only have large environmental problems scientific uncertainty stitched into them but social actors and institutions deal very differently with uncertainty. No wonder that it is difficult to choose policies over global environmental problems. However, I have also learnt that uncertainty can be converted into challenges: more research and thinking lead to a better understanding of the environment; public debate over the environment leads to a more informed citizenry. As Giddens and others have said, reflexivity is a crucial dimension of late (or second) modernity, and the state of the environment is a major factor leading to greater social and institutional reflexivity, including inside governments and businesses. This is one reason why the Ecological Modernization thesis should be taken very seriously, and not be dispelled as an ideological smokescreen.

What would you like to pursue with your research in the future?

I am close to the end of my professional career. Though I don’t expect to stop doing sociology the day I retire, I will certainly not be in a position to start large research programs. However, having said that, I have recently started to form an international research group on cities and climate change. Canadian, French, and Brazilian researchers make up the network, but we would like to slightly expand the group and to build more connections with other international researchers in the same subject area.

What is your favourite place in Canada to spend time?

I am, so to speak, a city-goer. I like large cities, such as London (evidently), Paris, New York, Boston, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. Large cities are appealing for their cultural life and their cultural diversity. They are full of energy and creativity. I enjoy living in Québec City, a much smaller city, partly because of its geographical location, and I still thought of myself as a ‘Montrealer’, though it is no longer the Montréal of my childhood and youth. As second choices, I like Canadian National Parks, those in Québec as well as those in the Maritimes, which are the National Parks I am most familiar with.

Is there a particular Canadian situation that concerns you as a social scientist or impacts your research with respect to the social-environment relationship?

There are of course many, but the Canadian climate policy is a great concern. Some provinces have climate plans, but the federal government, despite what it says and claims, is not doing enough. When I make a presentation at international conferences or give a talk on invitation, people are baffled at the lost of leadership on environmental issues by Canada. Rightly or wrongly, they believe that Canada had in the past been a beacon on the environment and they wonder why it has lost its leadership. They of course complain about climate change policy, but worry about its forest policy as well.

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