Law, Environmental Illness and Medical Uncertainty: The Contested Governance of Health, 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

Law, Environmental Illness and Medical Uncertainty

The Contested Governance of Health, 1st Edition

By Tarryn Phillips


202 pages

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We’ve seen it before, with asbestos-related disease, leukaemia clusters and lung cancer caused by cigarettes. There tends to be a lag between the emergence of environmental risks and chemical injuries, and their recognition and therapeutic treatment by medicine and the law. Law, Environmental Illness and Medical Uncertainty examines how our society governs new health concerns as they emerge, and the barriers that face new and uncertain theories seeking recognition in the law.

In this book, Tarryn Phillips focuses her investigation on the struggle over the controversial condition multiple chemical sensitivities, or MCS (also known as environmental illness). Presenting nine case studies where workers sought compensation for MCS from their multinational employers, she captures a nuanced portrait of their embittered, unequal battles over the scientific, legal and insurance paradigms for understanding toxic risk, environmental illness and the regulation of industry. It draws on three years of fieldwork in Australia, including interview data with lay people and sympathetic and sceptical experts, participant observation in the courtroom and textual analysis of official reports.

The book gives a unique, ethnographic insight into the governance of risk and uncertainty within a neoliberal economy, medico-scientific controversies and courtroom dramas. It highlights how a skeptical approach towards emergent environmental concerns is encouraged within the current regime, and decision-makers face disincentives for taking a sympathetic approach. Compellingly written and easy to read, it should appeal widely to interested lay people, and students and scholars of science and technology studies, medical anthropology, sociology of health and illness, and critical legal studies.


"[This book] promises to be a very valuable work by a scholar who is already starting to be recognised in this field. The topic – the processes by which environmental illnesses become recognised by medicine and by the law – is a very important one. The focus, multiple chemical sensitivity, is perhaps the king of contested illnesses, inherently raising issues over its definition and causality."

Dr Anna Lora-Wainwright, University of Oxford

"The use of the detailed personal narratives of various actors in the medico-legal field of MCS is brilliant ethnography; it brings the abstract legal and medical questions of cause and effect into focus in a very human, not to say humane, way. Given the poignancy of the stories the author tells, and their human interest, I suspect that this is one of those relatively rare cases in which a scholarly book will have appeal beyond the academic realm."

Louis E. Wolcher, Charles I. Stone Professor of Law, University of Washington

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Introducing the Disease of Uncertainty, Chapter 2: Knowledge and Power at the Medico-Legal Interface, Chapter 3: Risk Entrepreneurialism: The Social Construction of Toxicity and Disease, Chapter 4: The Medico-Legal Illness Narratives, Chapter 5: Medical, Legal and Insurance Reasoning in the Governance of Uncertainty, Chapter 6: The Deviance of Sympathetic Experts, Chapter 7: Non-legal Governance and Epistemological Possibilities, Chapter 8: Neoliberalism, Scepticism and Toxic Knowledge, Conclusion: Environmental Illness and The Role of the Law

About the Author

Tarryn Phillips is an anthropologist and lecturer in Legal Studies at La Trobe University. Her interests lie in social justice and inequality. She researches how medicine and the law manage uncertainty, define and punish deviance and interact with their socio-cultural surroundings

About the Series

Social Justice

Within a broad geopolitical and intellectual landscape, this new, theoretically engaged, interdisciplinary series explores institutional and grassroots practices of social justice across a range of spatial scales. While the pursuit of social justice is as important as it has ever been, its character, conditions, values, and means of advancement are being radically questioned and rethought in the light of contemporary challenges and choices. Attuned to these varied and evolving contexts, Social Justice explores the complex conditions social justice politics confronts and inhabits – of crisis, shock, and erosion, as well as renewal and social invention, of change as well as continuity.

Foregrounding struggle, imagined alternatives and the embedding of new norms, the Social Justice series welcomes books which critically and normatively address the values underpinning new social politics, everyday forms of embodied practice, new dissident knowledges, and struggles to institutionalise change. In particular, the series seeks to explore state and non-state forms of organisation, analysing the different pathways through which social justice projects are put into practice, and the contests their practice generates. More generally, submissions are welcomed exploring the following themes:

• The changing politics of equality and social justice

• The establishment of alternative, organised sites and networks through which social and political experimentation take place

• The phenomenology of power, inequality and changing social relations

• Techniques of governance through which social change and equality agendas are advanced and institutionalised across different geographic scales

• Institutionalisation of new norms (through official and unofficial forms of institutionalisation) and struggles over them

• Practices of resistance, reversal, counter-hegemony and anti-normativity

• Changing values, practices, and the ways in which relations of inequality and difference are understood

Social Justice is intended as a critical interdisciplinary series, at the interface of law, social theory, politics and cultural studies. The series welcomes proposals that advance theoretical discussion about social justice, power, institutions, grass-roots practice and values/ ethics. Seeking to develop new conversations across different disciplines and fields, and working with wide-ranging methodologies, Social Justice seeks contributions that are open, engaging, and which speak to a wide, diverse academic audience across all areas of the law, social sciences and humanities.

For further information on the series, or to discuss a possible contribution, please contact the Series Editors at:

Davina Cooper, Kent Law School, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NZ, UK
Tel: +44 (1227) 824172

Sarah Lamble, School of Law, Birkbeck College, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX
Tel: +44 (0)207 631 6017

Sarah Keenan, School of Law, Birkbeck College, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX
Tel: +44 (0)207 631 6017


Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
HEALTH & FITNESS / Health Care Issues
HEALTH & FITNESS / Diseases / General
LAW / General
LAW / Environmental
LAW / Health
LAW / Remedies & Damages