Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay

How do people routinely exposed to past and present hazards created by facilities such as an oil refinery, a fracking site, an incinerator, or a smelting plant, think and feel about the risks posed to their surroundings and their health? A now more than two decades-long “relational turn” in the social sciences has taught us that the true source of shared understandings – subjective, yes, but rarely individual – lies in the relationships between agents. Perceptions of toxic risk are not different, as Daniel Renfrew masterfully shows in this detailed and engaging ethnography-history of lead contamination in Uruguay; they are not locked inside individuals’ minds but located in specific social, political, and cultural universes.

In his dissection of the “the profound devastation wrought and illuminated by the crisis of lead contamination,” (114) Renfrew tells a story that is uniquely Uruguayan (in that the author goes deep into the country’s cultural and political specificities) but also, and herein lies in my view, the book’s greatest strength, almost universal in its analytic and theoretical intervention. The book documents the suffering of low-income communities exposed to lead contamination and their individual and collective efforts to “endure and thrive” (215). In the study of environmental suffering, documentation is still imperative––Renfrew does this very well. But so are analysis and critique – and here, he excels. Renfrew mobilizes a wide range of perspectives (mainly from sociology and anthropology but also from other fields) to understand and explain not only the reasons why folks think and feel about widespread contamination the way they do, but also their actions to contest what dominant discourse (by officials, scientists, and doctors) sometimes minimizes and other times denies. His particular attention to the diverse forms of grassroots mobilization – and the hopes they convey – provides a glimmer of hope in an otherwise quite gloomy reality.

Life without Lead shows and tells readers the story of contamination and mobilization. If we are to truly comprehend the experience of pollution, the book reveals, we need to pay close and simultaneous attention to history, to daily life, to dominant discourse and practice, and to individual and collective actions. Along the way, Renfrew demonstrates that shared experiences of pollution are not only ways of viewing the surrounding world but also, and as importantly, ways of acting in it. And without pontificating the value of ethnography, Renfrew proves that in order to reconstruct and analyze the views, sentiments, and practices of those living and suffering in contaminated communities, embedded participant-observation that is sensitive to local history still is (with the mandatory reflexivity) a useful tool and perspective to both understand and intervene in the world. Ethnography is also a way, our way, of expressing recognition of (and solidarity with) those who are, as the main protagonists of this book certainly are, enduring (suffering and fighting) the devastations produced by unequal socio-political orders.


Javier Auyero is professor of sociology at the University of Texas-Austin where he directs the Urban Ethnography Lab. Together with Katherine Sobering, he recently published The Ambivalent State: Police-Criminal Collusion at the Urban Margins (Oxford Press 2019).

One Response to Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay

  1. Pingback: Book Forum: Daniel Renfrew’s Life Without Lead: Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay | Somatosphere

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