My work is motivated by a desire to put a human face on development, illuminating how policies and regulations have uneven impacts on particular communities. By analyzing the relationships between state and non-state actors, such as firms, workers, and activist groups, in situations of unequal power, I uncover and theorize the diverse ways in which communities show resilience and agency. My research agenda brings together perspectives from the political economy of agriculture, environmental sociology, and community & international development to help us understand how the dynamic relationships between the state, transnational firms, civil society, and the biophysical environment shape development and environmental outcomes.
Current research – North Central Regional Center for Rural Development (NCRCRD)
As a Postdoctoral Research Associate with NCRCRD at Michigan State, my work centers on three projects in sustainable community development, technological innovation, and environmental governance. First, I am conducting case studies and interviews for a project designed to improve the adoption of and access to new agricultural technologies from Land Grant Universities to farmers by identifying best practices and challenges, as well as potential policy interventions to mediate those challenges. Second, I am conducting research on water governance in rural agricultural areas to understand how state laws and policies affect the ability of local communities to ensure access to safe drinking water and to effectively regulate local water quality and use. Finally, I am working with researchers and extension agents in locales where fracking has changed the economic sustainability and social dynamics in local communities. Through community-based research, case studies, and policy analysis, we are developing strategies for communities to better manage the impacts of these boom and bust cycles with a focus on long-term economic sustainability.
Dissertation – Navigating Regulatory Regimes when Place Matters: Environmental Governance, Labor, and Power in the GM seed industry
My dissertation explores the question of who gets to participate in environmental governance by studying the complex process through which transnational seed firms select and shape their research and development (R&D) sites for genetically modified (GM) corn seed. I find that seed firms are more entrenched in specific locations than theories of globalization would suggest, in ways that potentially alter the power dynamic between firms and host communities. Drawing on twelve months of multi-sited ethnographic work, I examine the industry’s most important R&D sites for the U.S. corn seed market: Chile, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii, as well as the Iowa headquarters of an industry leader. My analysis is based on 66 semi-structured interviews, ethnographic observation, and an extensive review of documents from trade journals, court cases, seed firms, and producer associations. I use these data to construct a commodity chain model of GM corn as a first step in my analysis of the impacts of seed production on local communities. Despite the assumptions that high-tech enterprises are able to minimize the significance of place through technology, my work shows that technological advances have made location a vital concern for GM corn seed firms.
This project documents how transnational firms shape local regulation by making visible the close links between firms’ profit building activities, community actions, and environmental impacts. It brings the national and local state back into discussions on global governance, highlighting how firms exploit tensions between federal and local laws in order to set the terms of local regulation. My research informs theoretical debates on the changing role that communities and governments play in environmental governance, but also helps us understand how regulations are made, who sits at the negotiating table, and under what conditions local actors can gain voice.
My publications stemming from this research have won awards from the Rural Sociological Society, the Center for Research on Gender & Women, and the Sociology of Agriculture & Food Interest Group.
Future research – Managing Regulatory Pressures in Emerging Market Contexts
My next project expands the geographic scope of my work from Chile, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico to the fourth R&D site for the U.S. corn market, Mexico, corn’s birthplace. Mexico is especially interesting because debates on the safety of GM crops have prompted the country to temporarily ban GM corn to study its potential impacts. Despite this regulatory uncertainty and a strong anti-GM resistance movement, seed firms have increased their presence in Mexico. I will examine how firms expand operations in response to the regulatory flux and how this affects their labor choices as they strive to lower costs and increase productivity. This will allow me to compare firms’ gendered hiring practices between GM and non-GM R&D hubs, offering insights into how technology, skill, and gender matter in high-tech agriculture. While I will write articles based on this work, this analysis will form the basis of a book connecting gender & agriculture, environmental justice, and international development.