Research

Research interests - Hillary Angelo, PhD Candidate in Sociology, New York University 

 

My research falls into three main areas:

(1) URBAN GREENING AS A SOCIAL PRACTICE

How Green Became Good: Urban Greening as Social Improvement in Germany’s Ruhr Valley

Though urbanists generally explain the greening impulse as an “escape” from the city—a reaction against slums, density, or lack of green space in the classical industrial metropolis—this practice unfolded in Germany’s Ruhr region in the absence of precisely these conditions. My dissertation shows, instead, how a social imaginary of nature as a vehicle for social goods turned green into a planning tool, which has been used for a century to help “fix” the Ruhr’s urbanism. I use historical, visual, and ethnographic methods to document a surprising continuity 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, my dissertation 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.

 

(2) SOCIAL CONFLICTS SURROUNDING 'NATURE' 

I have also studied nature in cities at an interactional level through two projects focused on the politics of killing birds. 

City Chickens and the Democratization of Urban Nature

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.

 

(3) THEORETICAL AND METHODOLOGICAL EXTENSIONS  

My research is driven by two theoretical and methodological assumptions that I have explored beyond the study of nature.

Materials mediate and organize social relationships

First, it assumes 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. 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.

Urbanizing Urban Political Ecology: A Critique of Methdological Cityism

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. I have 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 have a new paper out 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. 


Hillary Angelo - UC Santa Cruz