My research falls into three main areas:
Urban greening and urban sustainability planning
How Green Became Good
Though urban greening is classically understood as a reaction against the slums, density, and lack of green space in the 19th century industrial metropolis, I am currently completing a book manuscript (forthcoming with the University of Chicago Press) that shows how and why this practice unfolded in Germany’s Ruhr region in the absence of these conditions. Instead, I argue, a new social imaginary of nature as a vehicle for social goods, which I call urbanized nature, turned green into a planning tool, such that it has been used to help “fix” the Ruhr’s urbanism by creating ideal cities and citizens ever since. Using historical, visual, and ethnographic methods, I document surprising continuities in nature’s use as a medium for improving the social. As moments of major political and economic restructuring (around 1900, 1960, and 2000) precipitated regional identity crises, elites recurrently turned to nature to realize changing urban ideals; each time, the goal of these efforts was to turn a working class urban region into a legibly middle class city. As the recent “discovery” of the green or sustainable city is celebrated as a revolution in urbanism or dismissed as an instrumental policy trend, the book offers a standpoint for critical reflection on urban greening by historicizing it as a social practice, showing how it affects the transformation of the built environment, and excavating its normative dimensions. A new article in Theory and Society previews some of these arguments. I’ve written shorter pieces examining common historical and political economic understandings of urban greening here and here.
Cities Saving the Planet
I am currently engaged in several projects related to urban sustainability planning. David Wachsmuth (McGill University) and I have been documenting the rise of urban sustainability as a new policy commonsense, as well as the consequences of the idea that "cities can save the planet:" the preponderance of city solutions to the global problem of climate change. With Gianpaolo Baiocchi (New York University), I am engaged in a study of the morality of urban planners themselves, looking specifically how they reconcile the profession's normative aspirations with the highly constrained environments in which they work, especially in the context of contemporary urban planning's charge to "save the planet." And with funding from the American Sociological Association's Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline and support from UCSC, I am carrying out an analysis of 300 California cities' Climate Action Plans, focusing in particular on the plans’ treatment of social equity, an increasingly important metric in climate and sustainability planning.
Social conflicts surrounding nature
The Social Life of Climate Change
With Eric Klinenberg (New York University) and Alix Rule (Columbia University), I am working on an interview-based research project that aims to provide a general sociological description of climate change as a public moral issue today. Though sociological treatments have tended toward the diagnostic, implicitly or explicitly addressing the pressing question of what is to be done, we wish to take a step back and characterize the social organization of this moral concern. Our research asks: Do people mean the same thing when they call for "action on climate change"? If not, in what ways are these differences in meaning handled or managed? What is the role of belief about climate change beliefs in shaping the understanding of appropriate response? How are climate change beliefs shaped by the situations in which the issue arises in contemporary social and political life? We hypothesize that (1) though the belief that climate change is a divisive ("polarized") issue is widespread, organizational "theories of change" with respect to climate change are more various than we might expect them to be, and that (2) this belief directs individual practice in professional and personal settings. In other words, the belief that climate change is a polarized issue makes meaningful individual action on climate change possible, especially in the absence of clear lines of collective action on this issue.
City Chickens and the Democratization of Urban Nature
I have also studied nature in cities at an interactional level through two ethnographic projects focused on the politics of killing birds. A book chapter on urban chicken keeping grew out of my professional experience with New York City’s Parks Department. Changes in urban populations become visible in changing public space uses, and new, unauthorized practices—such as backyard chicken coops, Santeria sacrifice, and urban agriculture—become sites where hegemonic expectations for the use of urban public space are negotiated. My research focused on the politics surrounding chicken slaughter showed how existing, dominant norms and cultural values have been upheld rather than challenged in the management of even radically-new-seeming uses of public space in New York City.
Bird in Hand: How Experience Makes Nature
I provide an ethnographic and historical account of the origins of such different understandings of nature in an article published in Theory and Society. Drawing on a year of fieldwork and interviews at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, I show how a contemporary conflict between birdwatchers and ornithologists over scientific “collecting” (killing birds for scientific research) is a product of historically divergent experience. While a century ago both hobbyists and scientific researchers had to kill birds to see them, binoculars, guide books, and automobiles have all made it possible for bird watchers to access birds at ever-greater distances, while skinning birds and preparing specimens has remained part of professionals’ scientific training. The textures of these two different contemporary experiences have literally produced two very different loves of birds; my subjects’ insistence that one must have a bird “in hand” to understand it highlights the degree to which the two are incommensurable.
Theoretical and methodological extensions
My research is driven by two theoretical and methodological assumptions that I have explored beyond the study of nature. First, that the materiality of the "natures" in question matter: the physical properties of gardens and animals facilitate particular development decisions and patterns of social interaction and understanding. Second, my research operates with a definition of urbanization as a mode of socio-spatial transformation that patterns experience and geography and which exceeds the boundaries of the city.
Materials as mediators of social relationships: Infrastructure in sociology
I began exploring the path dependency of the qualities of materials in an article published in City in 2011 and have continued to do so through collaborative research funded by Germany’s Einstein Foundation. In a co-authored article and book project on infrastructure as a mediator of social relationships, Craig Calhoun and I show how infrastructural systems make today’s major forms of social organization (bureaucracy, city, state, nation, and global economy) possible. As part of this project, I co-organized a special feature on what a methodological focus on individuals’ encounters with infrastructure can reveal about patterns of social transformation: how people make inferences about larger scale and longer term processes of change from these interactions, and how researchers can aggregate these perceptions to see the social consequences of changing political and economic systems. We are currently at work on a book manuscript on this topic.
Methodological cityism and planetary urbanization
I co-authored an article on “methodological cityism” that addresses urbanists’ propensity for using the city as the privileged spatial unit of analysis for studying processes that extend beyond it, and published a paper in Urban Studies that examines the historical forms of which this epistemology is an artifact. Using John Berger’s metaphor of “ways of seeing,” I argue that a hegemonic ‘city lens,’ ground in the context of the late nineteenth century European metropolis, continues to dominate urban social analysis. I show how this way of seeing underpins analytical categories far more than we might think, and the interpretive problems it creates when turned on contemporary urban environments. More recently, Kian Goh (UCLA) and I are at work on a methodological paper that engages with "planetary urbanization" regarding issues of difference and abstraction, arguing that the two are not incompatible, as many critics assume.