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The Inadequate Life: Rural Industrial Pollution and Lay Epidemiology in China*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 May 2013

Anna Lora-Wainwright*
Oxford University. Email:


Based on fieldwork in a heavily industrialized Yunnan village, this article examines how villagers understand and respond to pollution-related health risks. Building on Robert Weller's (2006) concept of environmental consciousness, it shows that Baocun villagers have developed an acute environmental health consciousness. However, despite earlier instances of collective activism, they no longer act as a community to oppose the harm to their bodies caused by pollution. The article investigates the role of uncertainty surrounding illness causation in deterring action. It argues that uncertainty about pollution's effects on health is reinforced by the social, political and economic contexts and developments in the past few decades. As a result, villagers engage in a form of “lay epidemiology” to make sense of the effects of pollution on their health, but not in a “popular epidemiology” consisting of collective action against presumed health damages. The article concludes with some thoughts on how locals act within and despite uncertainty.

Special Section on Dying for Development
Copyright © The China Quarterly 2013 

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The research on which this article is based was generously supported by grant RBF/SSRC-CEHI/2008-01-07 from the Social Science Research Council China Environment and Health Initiative with funding from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and by a British Academy Small Grant (SG091048).


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