Research Areas

Research History and Overview

My undergraduate mentor was a symbolic interactionist named Andy Weigert. Andy’s work pushed, and continues to push, symbolic interactionists to consider how human interactions with nature, not just with other social actors, shape our sense of self.

Andy’s work, especially Self, Interaction, and Natural Environment: Refocusing Our Eyesight (1997, SUNY Press), shaped the questions I asked in my thesis and dissertation and eventually lead to my first publications. Initially I was interested in theoretical questions of whether an ecological identity is even possible given that sociological conceptions root identities exclusively in social interaction.

After exploring these questions in my Masters thesis, I concluded that although ecological identities are feasible they are very difficult to nurture and maintain. My dissertation research shifted slightly to questions of whether measures of self concept and values could be useful in understanding what is known as the A-B gap, the inconsistency between people’s attitudes (A) about the environment as expressed through surveys and their behavior (B). Under the assumption that independent of environmental attitudes, resistance to our consumer culture could produce pro-environmental behavior, my dissertation also examined attitudes, values and the self concept as they relate to people’s orientations to consumerism. This work, which led to several journal articles and book chapters, is discussed at greater length on the Ecological Identities page.

My arrival at Providence College in Providence, RI for my first job out of grad school coincided with the Environmental Protection Agency’s “discovery” of high levels of dioxin contamination in a river running through the heart of the city and into Narragansett Bay. Thus began the next phase of my research. I was curious why residents in North Providence, where contamination was greatest, were not more alarmed as all the literature on community contamination suggests they should have been. Investigation of this question led to two more publications, both with undergraduate students who assisted the research. It also connected me to Phil Brown and the Contested Illness Research Group at Brown University. The work I did with that group is described in more detail below and in great detail on the Health Social Movements and Contested Environmental Illnesses page.

The other serendipitous event during my time at Providence College was running into Stuart Shulman, at the time an adjunct instructor in the Political Science Department. Stu had gotten his hands on about 150,000 public comments that had been submitted to the USDA in response to the Agency’s proposal to begin regulating the use of the “organic” label. What was unique was that these public comments, which agencies are required to solicit (and respond to) whenever they are proposing new regulations or changes to existing ones, were the very first comments to be submitted in a public comment process via the Internet. Stu had struck a data goldmine and I was fortunate to be involved. With two computer scientists and another political scientist, we worked at the forefront of the federal government’s transition to a new norm–solicitation, acceptance and review of public comments through the Internet. We published multiple articles and book chapters in which we analyzed the comments being submitted, comparing letters and faxes to the mass of emails agencies were beginning to receive through the Internet.

At the same time as the digital democracy and environmental decision-making research unfolded, with Phil Brown’s Contested Illness Research Group (CIRG) I was looking at a different type of public participation. Rather than disease clusters specific to a location, we began looking at diseases more broadly, focusing on those that we called “contested environmental illnesses,” and the struggles that people with these illnesses face in engaging scientists and policymakers in taking seriously the possibility that their conditions might have environmental causes. Phil had received funding to begin this research by examining the emergence of social movements around three particular conditions: breast cancer, asthma, and Gulf War-related illnesses. We developed a theoretical framework for understanding how a class of health social movement that we called “embodied health movements” becomes mobilized, the strategies they deploy engaging with science and policy, and the outcomes of their efforts.

In 2004, I had moved to the University of San Francisco and a friend came passing through on her way to the Goldman Prize award ceremony. Two activists from Bhopal were receiving the Goldman Environmental Prize (awarded each year to “grassroots environmental heroes” from each continent) and my friend told me the story of her experiences volunteering at a community health clinic in Bhopal that activists had built to provide care for survivors of the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster. Our conversations about the ongoing activism in Bhopal forced me to reconsider some of our findings on embodied health movements in the U.S. where activists generally had access to far greater monetary, legal and scientific resources than activists in developing countries. A Fulbright Senior Scholar Award in 2005-6 allowed me to explore the nature of these differences by investigating movements against environmental contamination across India.

My work on both the domestic and global dimensions of environmental health activism are described at greater length on the Health Social Movements and Contested Environmental Illnesses page.

My most recent area of research, on Mobility, Space and Access in the Urban Sustainability Revolution, at first glance seems like a departure from my previous work. I’m interested in the ways that urban sustainability strategies, such as building of infrastructure to support bicycle transportation or zoning reform to support urban agriculture, are also touted for their health benefits. Additionally, I’m focusing on how these efforts engage with issues of urban inequality, and what this means in terms of the diverse groups of stakeholders–ranging from public health officials and food activists to transportation justice organizations and environmentalists–that converge around these issues. Another important aspect of this work is how the broad and interrelated trends of urban growth and renewal, the sharing economy, declines in car ownership, and growth in local food production seem to be shaping the urban sustainability revolution without the explicit, or exclusive, driving forces of environmentalism or the ecological identities and environmental attitudes that go along with environmentalism.

In other words, this new direction for my work is an integration and culmination of my previous work. It actually brings me back to my interest in identities, only this time exploring how urban identities and not environmental attitudes are shaping less environmentally harmful lifestyles. At the same time, by continuing to focus on how the public engages in debates–this time about the shape of our cities rather than the etiology of disease–my work continues to contribute to our understanding of public involvement in democratic processes. Finally, this new direction is clearly an outgrowth of my work on health social movements, only this time with an eye towards movements that make demands for transformations in the built environment that can make urban dwellers safer, healthier and happier.


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