Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Geography & Environmental Studies


Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Judy Bates

Advisor Role

Dissertation Supervisor


The role of culture in the geography of health and technological hazard perception research is an important and relatively recent avenue of research. This dissertation contributes to this research by exploring cross-cultural differences in health and risk perceptions and by examining the relationship between health and place. It involves an in-depth examination of perceptions and meaning of health, as they exist in the local context. It is the first geographical research conducted with individual members of the Old Order Mennonite community considering perceptions of health, technological hazard and understandings of environmental risk.

The studied communities are situated at an agricultural/industrial interface near Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. For the last twenty years the town of Elmira and its surrounding agricultural lands have been the subject of environmental concerns due to the area’s extended exposure to toxic wastes, produced during the manufacture of rubber, highly toxic herbicides and pesticides. These pose significant health risks to the local populations especially to members of the Old Order Mennonite community whose farms are located along the most contaminated tributary of the Grand River in close proximity to Elmira. In the research, perception of health, risk and environment are examined in 48 in-depth interviews involving the Old Order Mennonites, women frmo the mainstream society living in Elmira, and professional and key health informants.

The thesis provides contributions to the research of health geography. Health conceptualizations and health understandings are compared among the groups to reveal culturally-constructed experiences in the local landscapes. Various perceptions of people’s well-being in place are explored by incorporating the religious beliefs and associated cultural practices of Old Order Mennonites. Cultural, ethnic and religious isolation of the Old Order Mennonites and their concerns about maintaining strict traditions have contributed to their unique understandings of health in place. Contrasting understandings of local landscapes are presented, the landscape of mainstream society and the therapeutic landscape of the Old Order Mennonites. In this study, the Old Order Mennonites women are found to be empowered by the religious and cultural differences that sustain their different holistic understandings of their health landscape.

The thesis provides contributions to geography of environmental risk research. Drawing on the social amplification of risk framework (SARF) developed by Kasperson, Renn, Slovic, and their colleagues (1992), a study framework is proposed to reveal how cultural beliefs and practices and religious values contextualize responses to technological hazards. Incorporated in the framework are four categories of cultural processes (threats to lives, core values, worldviews and community context) through which the meanings of risk are either amplified or attenuated among the groups. The study proposes a way of unpacking the black box of culture by using a qualitative based explanation of the dimension of culture that influence risk perceptions.

In summary, the thesis highlights different perspectives on children’s and women’s health and risk associated with participant ethnicity. From a practical perspective, it informs public health and environmental risk management decision makers of the importance of cultural differences which need to be addressed to reduce inequalities existing in the Elmira area.

Convocation Year