Animating Theory

Empirically, my research focuses on how the environment is understood and governed in different historical and geographic contexts. A number of themes are of enduring interest to me:  uneven distributions of environmental health risks and problems among social groups; how scientific information about the environment is constructed and used in various decision making arenas; environmental risk assessment, management and communication; strategies used by affected populations to understand and improve the environments in which they live and work.

A number of crosscutting methodological and social theoretical interests also animate my work.  All my projects aim to understand and draw out how significance and marginality are produced — in knowledge systems, political-economic systems and ethical imaginaries, in particular.  This interest stems from my work with feminist, postcolonial, and poststructural theory, as well as from empirical work through which I’ve learned about the many processes – large scale and small – through which some people and things count, and others do not.  At the center of my research on the aftermath of the 1984 Bhopal disaster, for example, was a medical categorization scheme that ranked body systems and in turn gas leak survivors to determine access to compensation.  This categorization has determined – quite literally – who has counted as worthy of care, and who has not.  In my current work, I am interested in how well-designed databases can bring previously discounted environmental problems into visibility.

I also consistently return to questions about the ways difference operates, and is understood and institutionalized.  This interest can also be traced to various strands of critical theory as well as to my empirical work. In trying to understand the emerging field of toxicogenomics (toxicology + genomics), for example, I am examining how new scientific techniques (for gene expression analysis, in particular) are creating new perspectives on differences between the normal and pathological, between present and likely future states of health, and between genetic and other determinants (such as income) of exposure risks.  Difference in the environmental arena has always been complicated and politically charged, and is likely to become more so in coming years as new technologies and techniques make new kinds of difference visible.

A third recurrent interest is with the many places and practices through which ethics happen, and with the different ways that people are constituted as ethical subjects.  I’m concerned with ways ethical attention shifts in different times and places, fixating on particular dimensions and practices of everyday life.  I’m also interested in the political economy of ethics – structural forces and dynamics that shape what counts as good, possible and obligatory – and how ethical imaginaries operate as powerful modes of production.  My analysis of different modes of advocacy in response to the Bhopal disaster, in Advocacy After Bhopal, was an analysis of ethics in this sense – in practice, historically and institutionally embedded, intentionally as well as unintentionally productive of particular futures.  More recently, I have written about the “civic imaginaries” of toxicogenomics researchers, and – more generally – about the way information technology and culture in the environmental field are shaping how people understand the environment, and obligations related to it.