I investigate “environmental systems” and “ecosystems” as culturally formed spaces. I research how groups such as scientific and technical experts, political leaders, corporate employees, activists, and community members interact to shape environmental spaces, and, in turn, how such activities effect new socialities and politics. Such processes include ways to manage life and non-life in systemic terms, to order human/environment interactions, and to imagine and control futures. I do fieldwork in the U.S., Europe, Mexico, in large scale and extreme environments.
Since 2005 I have been doing fieldwork on the transformation of out space into an environmental space. My fieldsites are places on Earth where engineers, industrial designers, life scientists, and astronauts work on U.S. spaceflight programs. My ethnography, Into the Extreme: U.S. Environmental Systems and Politics Beyond Earth (University of Minnesota Press 2018) describes how U.S. spaceflight projects turn the solar system into an ecosystem, where “eco” encompasses ecology and economy. These projects create “systemic” processes and technologies – including biomedical research, resource prospecting, and asteroid impact prevention – that connect space and Earth in new ways. These connections extend modes of relational thinking and environmental imagination as well as forms of spatial and political control. As spaceflight programs produce “extreme environment” operations that extend from outlying Earthly sites into space, outer spaces are becoming increasingly governable and exploitable at large.
My current project started during the 2010 BP oil spill; it is centered on the social organization, science, technologies, and politics of large scale marine ecosystem science and restoration. I am conducting fieldwork along the Gulf to track how U.S. and Mexican marine experts engage in four sentinel processes: 1) research and restoration as distinct and often conflicting activities, 2) building new formal scientific and political nature-society systems, 3) making ecosystems science work integrate disparate material and energy-focused activities (such integrating biology and economics), and 4) how these activities are reforming U.S. environmental governance.
I am Principal Investigator for the UCI Social Sciences arm of a research partnership with the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority (SAWPA) that will produce a watershed-scale ethnography of community strengths and needs. The Santa Ana watershed is a mountain to ocean drainage basin that covers 2,600 square miles and includes 1.6 million human residents. SAWPA’s state-funded multi-institutional project is among the first of its kind in California: a collaboration to collect and analyze spatial, demographic, and ethnographic data on underserved communities. Its purpose is to improve agency-community interactions and develop locally-defined responses to large-scale problems such as flooding, water quality, and drought. It will also serve as a feasibility study for future ethnographically-informed assessments, and help local water agencies develop more socially equitable practices. The research manager for this project is Post-doctoral Researcher Emily Brooks.
Problems in theory and method
My ongoing interest in systems as cultural concepts and in multiscalar ethnography has inspired two theoretical concerns. First: how can anthropologists collect data on and theorize the various relationships people have with environmental spaces and agents to which they are physically connected but on which they have little or no effect? To this end, I am working with students to develop a “critical systems studies” approach to the contemporary analysis of systems as ethnographic objects. Second: how can anthropology better account for the category of the non-living? I am specifically interested in the extent to which a focus on life, vitality, and qualities of livingness foreclose possible kinds of investigation and interpretation. How can we as living beings engage in an anthropology of the nonliving which does not default to vitalist or biocentric conceptualizations? I am collaborating with Andrea Ballestero (Rice University) to organize and formalize an exploration of this topic.
I also experiment with qualitative research technologies and techniques, with an eye for finding new ways to understand and rework the techniques, forms of perception and experience, and social interactions that constitute ethnographic research “fields.”