Friday, August 27, 2010

the risk society

Eileen McGurty: Summarizing part of Beck: when environmental contamination is the order of the day, class distinctions dissolve. Later McGurty criticizes Beck, stating that his concept of social location was too narrow -- he didn't include gender, race, or ethnicity.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

"social constructionist"

A quick definition from a 2000 article by Dorceta Taylor. I think it uses the phrase "social construction" too many times, but it gets the point across in the bit that I've italicized.
This article adopts a social constructionist perspective that views the environment as a social construction. That is, "environmental problems" are social problems; they are socially constructed claims defined through collective processes. By social construction, I mean that environmental problems are not static. They are not always the product of readily identifiable, visible, or objective conditions (Hannigan, 1995, pp. 32-33; Klandermans, 1992, p. 78; Spector & Kitsuse, 1973, p. 146). That is, groups in a society perceive, identify, and define environmental problems by developing shared meanings and interpretations of the issues. Therefore, a constructionist perspective is concerned with how people assign meanings to their social world (Best, 1989, p. 252; Hannigan, 1995, p. 33).

Friday, August 20, 2010

Kevin Mumford's Interzones


As Kevin Mumford states in the introduction, Interzones attempts to “excavate a genealogy and map a geography or black/white sexuality” (p. xi). In so doing, Mumford crafts an anti-essentialist history that combines the analysis of race, gender, class, and sexuality to draw a map centered in space on the vice district—an urban area of commercialized sex and public leisure—but encompassing the American city (and later, rural America) and extending in time through the Progressive and Prohibition eras. Mumford’s history draws on, and moves fluidly between diverse sources including archived vice commission reports, novels, travel guides, theatre, film, and newspapers. Mumford’s use of temporal and geographic metaphor throughout the book is helpful, as it mimics the ebbs and flows of individuals and groups into and out of the vice districts and helps to make the construct of the “color line” between white/black sex concrete by drawing parallels to geographic borders. These districts were formed after Reformers “solved” the problem of white prostitution. Due to the pervasiveness of a “white slavery” discourse, black prostitutes were subsequently not seen as worthy of uplift, their demographic data was not collected or was ignored. As a result of such racialist social policy, vice was pushed into black neighborhoods in Harlem and Chicago’s south side and forgotten. Fortunately, the vice districts had redemptive qualities which included the formation of a novel culture of non-mainstream sexuality. The contribution of Mumford’s work is to provide concrete historical data to supplement and expand the theorization of racism at the time the book was written (p. 175).


I come to Mumford’s book (and this class) as a historical novice—interested in methods and fascinated by the possibilities for my own work. Interzones has shown me that theory and history can be combined to produce a subversive and accurate historical text that problematizes the content of historical documents by shining light on their unspoken assumptions. Mumford does this using both “with” and “against the grain” readings [1]. By looking at the regularities of the sociology emerging from the University of Chicago in the 1920s, Mumford reads “with the grain,” and shows how white researchers unfairly stigmatized those individuals, such as Filipino taxi dance hall patrons, as “disorganized” or “socially unadjusted” (p. 59) when in fact the researchers most likely had difficulty reconciling the accounts of white dance hostesses with their own experiences. He shows that black prostitution was both ignored as a problem (p. 27) and then overrepresented in demographic data (p. 39) using this method. These with the grain readings examine regularities and omissions which are highlighted by understanding the “racial commensurabilities,” or the unspoken essentialist conceptions of race (that black sex workers are immoral and unworthy of uplift), of the time period under study [2]. Conversations with black prostitutes are read “against the grain” to determine that these individuals were historical agents capable of resistance through seemingly small acts (pp. 106-7).

It helped me to see concrete examples of both types of readings to apply the first week’s readings to practice. An interesting question was raised for me by Mumford’s critique of the simple positivism espoused (either knowingly or unknowingly) by the University of Chicago researchers he studies. Speaking of inflated arrest data for black prostitutes he states, “the statistical data can also be read or interpreted as cultural representations” (p. 39). Indeed, in the vice committee reports, the numbers of black prostitutes were placed unproblematically alongside value judgments on the relative severity of the transgressions of “hostesses” (white) and “streetwalkers” (black). To the vice investigators, they were merely reporting objective truths, but Mumford’s readings show otherwise. Within my own discipline(s), positivism is firmly entrenched, and I view it as a problem—the solutions suggested are too simple, the explanations offered too neat. My concern is that applying today’s analytic categories to evidence from the past will make it too easy for positivists now to write it off simply as a historical phenomenon: it was bad then, but it’s better now. I’m wondering how to connect Mumford’s critique of positivism to today’s work, to improve research done on contemporary problems. I acknowledge that this may not even be of interest to the historical community (a similarly critical stream of thought, the discipline of science studies, has been unwilling or unable to effect changes in scientific practice over the past several decades and have encountered fierce resistance from scientific researchers). Connecting the theory to current practice is often my overarching concern. With Interzones, Mumford shows that race can’t be ignored when considering urban problems, but how has the book been received by 1) the historical community—are they skeptical of his methods and 2) those shaping policy today? If it has been ignored, how can we change this? Engaging in these kinds of dialogues is of great interest to me, and I hope to begin some of them in this class.

[1] Stoler, A. (2002). "Colonial archives and the arts of governance." Archival Science 2(1): 87-109.

[2] Ibid, p. 100.


lately it's been hard to find time to write, so i thought i'd post some of the writing i've done for class in recent memory that wouldn't see the light of day otherwise. i'm going to start with some work that i completed for a history class last fall. enjoy!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

funding transportation

Ken Orski may have lost his mind in his latest innovation brief ... more to come.

[Edit: I think all I meant with this was that Orski cited a report from the Reason Foundation as justification that highway trust fund revenue should be used only for highways. I.e. not other modes as has been the case since the 70s. This seems shortsighted, though since we get to pick what is socially desirable; meaning that we get to decide whether we want to take money generated from fuel sales and turn that to transit. The system of automobility is subsidized in so many other ways that sticking to a user pays principle for the HTF is absurd on its face, since we would need to kill fossil fuel subsidies, ethanol subsidies, and incorporate the external costs of the automobile before talking about using HTF revenue only for freeways. I think that's pretty much it.]

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


to yesterday's post:

Here's a quote from Whitelegg on why following "economic development" as an end is not necessarily the best idea:
For this [the free market model of development] will mean more roads, more long-distance freight, less local economic development, more pollution, poor health and more loss of landscape. [emphasis added]
He goes on to discuss inequality as an outcome. I think he hits the nail on the head by emphasizing local economic development. If the highway in Eureka is widened and Walmart does move in, is there a cost to the local economy? How can we quantify it? Are cheap toilet seats and fishing rods worth the cost in low-paying shit jobs and other hidden quality of life hits?

Monday, August 2, 2010


With the TRB submission deadline come and gone, I feel like I have some breathing (and blogging) room. The next task is dissertation proposing. This time it's for real, though, since I have something of a deadline associated with advancing to candidacy. The high-level theme I'm thinking about is something like complications associated with good ideas. It's a little contrived since some of the work has already been done and I need to weave a common thread. I've got work on environmental justice in AB 32, and work on the greenhouse gas emissions/land use implications of ARRA projects. Finally, I've got a funded proposal starting up in fall regarding a general disconnect between good transport policy ideas and a failure to put them into practice despite a lot of white papers, research, and talk.

What's underlying all of this is my exposure to Willem Vanderburg's preventive approaches in undergrad. Unlike most (all?) graduate students, I can still say that my graduate application's statement of purpose is highlight relevant.
My undergraduate education has left me with pressing questions related to the practice of professional engineering. If we accept that engineering activities aim to improve the quality of life, to promote environmental sustainability, and to ensure economic well-being, how is it that we find ourselves, faced with many threats to our very life support systems? Why are economic viability and environmental well-being so often viewed as fundamentally irreconcilable? How might I address these problems through my own engineering practices? In my graduate education, using the tools of rigorous engineering analysis and academic research, I plan to seek answers to these and related questions.
I'm doing okay, except what's happened is that I've drifter further and further from engineering practice to the point where I'm doing social science to get the answers that I want -- this is a little beside the point since I've got academic support for these methods.

The point is that I read a couple of things this morning that brought up a Vanderburgian idea that I touch in in the above paragraph. Vanderburg points out that we're often forced to choose between environmental and economic objectives. (I.e. we're told that if we prioritize the environment then we will surely lose jobs. Q.v. the prop 23 debate.) Jobs (and by extension, the economy) often win out.

A corollary is that economic expansion and job creation trump not only environmental objectives, but also local visions of and for the economy.

Caltrans has a proposal to widen 101 through Humboldt County in the name of economic development thereby eliminating truck restrictions -- widening would allow trucks to travel from the Port of Oakland to Eureka in ~275 miles instead of ~700.

Critical Mass by John Whitelegg talks about Cornwall (a town in Southwest England) that was being pressured to "improve" highway access in the late 90s.

In both cases it seems like pressure is being exerted mostly by political actors, while actual residents are/were opposed. In Cornwall, residents enjoyed their remoteness, in Eureka, it seems like some enjoy having difficult truck access since it appears to be keeping out the likes of Walmart).

What is the Caltrans role in all of this? What is the language being used to justify the proposal? Are they presenting themselves as objective observers, simply responding to the economic development needs of the population? How does this relate to Bruce Seely's work on the Bureau of Public Roads and their role in the development of the (pre-Interstate) US highway system?

Why are folks so afraid of envisioning alternative economies and livelihoods?