My research falls into four main areas…
1: Social Theory, Environmental Change, and the Politics of Limited Science
Humanity’s relationships with the biophysical world is becoming increasingly unstable, and political actors, whatever their motivation, want to know as much as possible about how environmental change will impact their interests.
Yet the environmental processes of concern - things like climate change, invasive species, biodiversity loss, and many more - operate in open, complex, and interdependent ways that are often difficult to predict . As a result, the ecologists, biologists, and others who study these types of environmental change cannot always provide the precise , black and white, answers political actors expect. This tension between political need and scientific limitation often leads to confusion and confrontation.
I call this tension the politics of limited science, and am interested in exploring it both empirically and theoretically. For example, in my recent empirical piece in the journal Environmental Sociology, I examine how scientific uncertainty regarding the future migration of invasive Asian carp created immense political turmoil in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basin. Political actors wanted a black and white answer - i.e. will Asian carp migrate to the Great Lakes or not - but the ecologists and biologists spoke with said that to make any such guarantees would be irresponsible. I find that this scientific uncertainty closely tied the performance of ecology and biology to local politics in ways that would not be the case with many other sciences, for example astrophysics or chemistry, which study processes that are more predictable.
Theoretically, I am interested in developing sociological approaches to environmental change that take the explanatory power of science seriously, yet also approaches that never gloss over the manner in which broader politics, as well as the theories, background, knowledge, and values of the scientist themselves, influence and limit the power of science. I have several theoretical papers in this vein. One co-authored piece in Sociological Inquiry with Richard York (University of Oregon) explores how sociologists can better incorporate environmental conditions and environmental science into sociological theory. Another, in preparation, pulls environmental sociology and the sociology of science into tighter conversation.
2: Law and Environmental Precedent
Law is not only derived from and dependent upon social processes, but it is also derived from and dependent upon environmental processes. With my colleague Dan Shtob (University of Oregon), I am engaged in developing a series of articles that examine why and how this is the case.
To capture the ways in which law may shape physical environments, but also how physical environments (in all their complexity) may also shape law, we introduce the concept of “environmental precedent”. By environmental precedent we mean the environmental consequences of legal processes, environmental consequences that then become the new, enduring, dynamic material reality for future legal processes. For example, in our forthcoming paper in the journal Law and Society we examine the legal history of the Chicago River, showing how the law was used to physically alter the trajectory and flow of the river in a way that benefited Chicago, setting what we call environmental precedent. However, we also examine how once this environmental precedent was set, its future was not fully under human control.
This research offers a standpoint for critical reflection on law and environment through engaging the dynamism, complexity, and causal influence of environmental processes, in particular by showing how environments both structure and are structured by the law. We are currently engaged in developing future work in this vein, developing the concept of environmental precedent in more detail and applying it in new directions, especially in direction that feature how classed, racialized, and other inequities affect or are affected by environmental precedent. We are interested in demonstrating the applicability of environmental precedent to environmental sociology, historical sociology, and other literature, as well as its applicability as a tool for environmental legal practitioners.
3: W.E.B. Du Bois, Interdisciplinarity, and Critical Environmental Justice Studies
At risk of sounding hyperbolic, I consider W.E.B. Du Bois to be the most important American sociologist. Few have been able to come close to his eloquence or his assiduous empiricism, let alone their combination.
Like other contemporary sholars, I am not only interested in Du Bois’s race scholarship but also in expanding Du Boisian scholarship beyond the lens of race. To this end, my own focus is on understanding his relationships with natural science, environment (in particular, land), colonialism, and how a Du Boisian perspective can be used to explore contemporary instances of environmental injustice.
With Patrick Greiner (Vanderbilt University) and Brett Clark (University of Utah), I am combing through Du Bois’s oeuvre, including the Du Bois archives at Umass Amherst, to investigate how he approached the natural science of his day. Scholarship has so far focused on his critiques of racist science, yet we are also concerned with the fact that he also demonstrated an open, sophisticated, and critical engagement with science. He recognized that the sciences were socially situated, but that they also addressed real questions and issues. In addition, with Erin Robinson (Canisius College), Katy Brown (UNC Chapel Hill), and Avery Rosenbloom (Northeastern University), I am working to fuse Du Boisian theory with what David Pellow and Robert Brulle call critical environmental justice studies, applying this fusion to examine how ostensibly banal forms of environmental governance, for example fish consumption advisories, constitute everyday forms of environmental injustice. Future projects will examine Du Bois’s later work on pan-Africanism, in particular his reflexive incorporation of the natural sciences to deepen African colonial histories, in order to examine how race, colonialism, and science intertwine in Du Bois’s work in ways that can broaden and inform current scholarship at the nexus of environmental justice and post-colonial studies
4: Dialectics between the social and non-human, over space and in time.
A large part of my research assesses how globalized social processes link species across the world in ways that, over time, cause political, cultural, scientific, and legal problems and injustices. I am interested in the push and pull of these processes, or, in other words, how social processes attempt to transform the lives of other species yet also how the lives of other species are never fully under social control.
My empirical work on these issues is largely centers around the political and cultural impact of Asian carp, an invasive species that threatens to enter into the Great Lakes through the Chicago River. In one paper, I show how how novel connections between ostensibly discrete socioenvironmental processes culminated in the Asian carp invasion, a non-human insurgance that has come to challenge, in unanticipated ways, presumed political, scientific, and cultural assumptions regarding environmental stability. In another paper with Jeanine Cunningham (University of Oregon), I employ a hitherto underutilized Weberian perspective on environment to examine how several rural communities confronted, interpreted, and adapted to the arrival of Asian carp. We examine why many people self-identify as “redneck” in communities impacted by Asian carp, and how this label effects the way they manage the Asian carp invasion.
Beyond Asian carp, I study relationships between social change and biodiversity loss. In one paper with Richard York published in Social Currents, I initiate a broad sociological exploration, one unhampered by subdisciplinary boundaries, into why and how human social processes are setting in motion an increasing rate of global biodiversity loss. Recognizing that developing a single general sociological theory of the causes and consequences of biodiversity loss is infeasible, the purpose of this paper is to engage a wide array of sociological traditions that, whether or not they have thus far incorporated environmental problems, focus on theoretical issues that we believe must be confronted if a sociological conversation about the global crisis of biodiversity is to take place.