Home, work, and nature in the Rustbelt

My dissertation is an environmental sociology of work and home. Drawing on two in-depth case studies in the American Rust Belt, this project demonstrates how and why post-industrial communities continue to center their identities, economic prospects, perceptions of nature around the concept of natural resources long after those resources actually provided jobs. I contend that Uunderstanding the socio-natures of industrial landscapes helps us understand the roots of the deep stories of identity, loss, and nostalgia currently expressed by many residents in the American Rust Belt.

This dissertation speaks to a problem central to environmental sociology: how the mobility of capitalism produces and reproduces environmental inequalities. Specifically, I aim to complement the field’s focus on social movements, environmental justice, and policy outcomes by probing 1) how the historical political economies of land use constrain and enable residents’ visions of ideal futures for their post-industrial landscapes, and 2) how material circulation of natural resources across rural and urban regions shape the construction of contemporary environmental identities.

I conducted two years of field work in two communities once part of the Midwestern steel commodity chain—an iron mining county in Wisconsin and a steel neighborhood in south Chicago. From my analysis of historical data, ninety in-depth interviews with residents past and present, and six months of ethnographic observations across the two sites, this dissertation make two arguments.

First, the processes of capitalism not only take place, but they make place. In the first decades of the 20th century, iron and steel companies increased the economic and social vulnerability of employees by interweaving the environments of work and home by organizing community gardens, funding health care, and building transportation and housing infrastructures. Industrial companies created dependency between workers and their employers by organizing both the socio-natures and the safety nets of industrial landscapes. I was invited to workshop a manuscript based on this research at the Max Planck Sciences Po Center on Coping with Instability in Market Societies in Paris, France.

The second half of this project illuminates how and why people stay “at home” in economically precarious and environmentally risky landscapes. I ask, if “home” is only conceptualized as stable, and progress defined by mobility, how do working class people understand their place in a capitalist society seemingly eager to leave them behind? I find that working-class residents in my Wisconsin and Chicago cases, particularly the fifty percent who still live in their home communities decades after closure, remain loyal to their community’s founding company even as they told me stories of economic loss, infrastructural decline, and environmental degradation that occurred after their employers closed. In fact, across race, gender, and urban/rural sites, residents shared the opinion that their regions’ best future should include a new generation of industry. They argued that the best way to bring economic and social thriving back “home” was to recreate the last, best era of community life. I expand on this theme in an article published in The Journal of Rural Studies in 2017Listen to a related 2017 podcast, broadcast on WJMS Hurley, Wisconsin, here, and explore photos from fieldwork (visual sociology, some might say) below.

I am currently working on a book, which is under contract with Columbia University Press and is tentatively titled, “We Still Live Here:
Infrastructures, Identities, and the Power of Place in the American Rust Belt.” This book will draw on ethnographic observations and interview narratives to discuss how, across rural and urban regions of the Rust Belt, long-term residents are grappling with the complicated environmental legacies of industry, coping with underfunded infrastructures, and reframing their personal and regional identities within a fraught national context.

By interrogating how capital and its corporations make place and, in turn, how working-class residents make meaning of places wracked by capital flight and crisis, this research illuminates how people’s stories about themselves, their communities, and their best futures are created and revised across time and space.