"Taking Back a Little Bit of Control": Managing the Contaminated Body Through Consumption

Norah Mackendrick, Lindsay M. Stevens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

14 Scopus citations


In this article, we explore the lived experience of avoiding environmental chemicals through safer consumption, such as buying "eco-friendly" products. Using focus groups and in-depth interviews involving 50 subjects, we investigate how individuals become aware of environmental chemicals and how they adapt to this awareness. Our participants describe being surprised or alarmed to learn that chemicals are present in food and commodities that they believed were safe. They respond by developing a set of heuristics rendering the "dangerous" consumer landscape into a space that is amenable to personal control. They learn to read an ingredient label and look for organic certification seals on product packaging. We develop the idea of the "contingent boundary" to describe how participants perceive personal control as uneven: they believe they can activate a protective boundary in local and familiar contexts, but outside these contexts, they believe the boundary dissolves. They accept this contingency as normal and describe having to ignore some chemical exposures, for fear of becoming too "crazy." We conclude that the individuals in our study accept that inverted quarantine (Szasz 2007) is out of reach, and instead try to impose order upon a ubiquitous risk.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)310-329
Number of pages20
JournalSociological Forum
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science


  • Body burdens
  • Consumption
  • Environmental health
  • Environmental sociology
  • Food
  • Medical sociology
  • Risk

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