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Critical Sociology




What might it take for politically marginalized residents to challenge cuts in public spending that threaten to harm their health and wellbeing? Specifically, how did residents of Flint, Michigan contribute to the decision of an austerity regime, which was not accountable to them, to spend millions to switch to a safe water source? Relying on evidence from key interviews and newspaper accounts, we examine the influence and limitations of residents and grassroots groups during the 18-month period between April 2014 and October 2015 when the city drew its water from the Flint River. We find that citizen complaints alone were not sufficiently able to convince city officials or national media of widespread illness caused by the water. However, their efforts resulted in partnerships with researchers whose evidence bolstered their claims, thus inspiring a large contribution from a local foundation to support the switch to a clean water source. Thus, before the crisis gained national media attention, and despite significant constraints, residents’ sustained organization—coupled with scientific evidence that credentialed local claims—motivated the return to the Detroit water system. The Flint case suggests that residents seeking redress under severe austerity conditions may require partnerships with external scientific elites.


Author Posting. © The Authors 2018. This article is posted here by permission of SAGE Publications for personal use, not for redistribution. The article was published in Critical Sociology, 2018,

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.