I study how people try to “solve” pressing social and environmental problems.

More precisely, I am an environmental and economic sociologist interested in explaining how and why new forms of governance and economic regulation emerge and change. I am especially interested in understanding how and why states are increasingly using market-like institutions to regulate economic behavior and to govern human relationships with nature—changes that are critical to understand at a time when conflicts between economy and ecology loom larger than ever. Take a look at my publications to get a sense of my scholarly work in this area.

Markets and Environmental Protection

You may not realize it, but market-oriented shifts in public policy are all around us. Cap-and-trade schemes, ecological offsetting programs, water quality credit exchanges, and many payments for ecosystem services schemes are examples of the kinds of institutions I study, wherein states build systems of exchange and markets—often in unusual commodities like species credits and eco-points—directly into their own regulatory infrastructure.  And these market-oriented institutional shifts are not confined to environmental examples: markets in tradable air rights are increasingly used to regulate urban development in cities like New York, São Paolo, and Tokyo; auctions in frequency spectra are used to regulate and distribute broadcast rights in telecommunications; and market-oriented systems are increasingly used to allocate and distribute health care—and not just in the United States.

In a nutshell, I try to explain how and why these market-oriented institutional transformations occur when and where they do.  That means my research is focused on explaining how and why new social institutions—loosely, rules and often taken for granted “ways of doing things”—develop and change, especially insomuch as these institutions structure economic life and shape human relationships with the natural world. More concretely, it means that I study how people build, experiment with, and innovate new rules and policies to address environmental and economic problems—problems that never seem to really go away, but that are critically important to wrangle with if we stand a chance of building a sustainable future.

Book Project

My first book manuscript investigates these processes of institutional emergence and regulatory change through a cross-national comparison of one market-oriented institutional reform in particular: habitat-based ecological offsetting. In this approach to nature protection, ecological harm “over there” is, in principle, made up for by purchasing  ecological offset credits that are generated through ecological restoration and improvement “over here.”

The approach is far from perfect—there are many reasons ecological offsetting is a flawed policy—but it serves as an especially useful site for the study of institutional emergence and regulatory change. That’s because ecological offsetting developed nearly simultaneously but also relatively independently in both Germany and the United States in the 1990s. That is to say, there is little evidence of any direct institutional diffusion between these two national cases.  Examining the development of ecological offsetting in both countries, then, offers key insights into the ways that particular political conflicts, ideologies, systems of public administration, and culture shape processes of institutional emergence and policy change, particularly as these changes relate to the development of new and often market-oriented forms of public policy and nature protection.

The book is most certainly not a study of utopian social or environmental engineering: it does not promise to unearth the secret for averting the sixth mass extinction of life on earth or ending perennial conflicts between economy and ecology.  But it is very much a study of the imperfect and convoluted work of real people embedded in real organizations and governments as they “muddle through”  a common environmental crisis—the loss of open space, habitat, and species—in both Germany and the United States, and as contentious politics, history, culture, and administrative organization messily shape that process all along the way.  To the extent that we stand any chance of “solving” major environmental problems, understanding these flawed processes of institution building is crucial. Contributing to that knowledge base is my central aim.

Environmental Politics and Organizational Effectiveness

In a second and closely related strand of research, I am investigating how different social-political contexts shape the emergence of particular regulatory approaches, which in turn influence the on-the-ground implementation of environmental policy and the robustness of environmental protection in any given area. It will come as little surprise to learn that in the United States, federal environmental laws like the Clean Water Act are often implemented in different ways and with different results across the country. In North Carolina, for example, market-oriented but non-profit and state-run programs create and sell “wetland offset credits” to land developers who need to ‘make up’ for ecological harm caused by building homes or highways (fig. 1, D).  In neighboring Virginia, however, the market in wetland offsets is dominated by private offset providers who sell offset credits for a profit (fig. 1, C). In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, a market in wetland offset credits hardly seems to exist at all; in the western half of the state firms impacting wetlands (e.g. fracking companies) usually just create offsets for themselves (fig. 1, B), while in the east, the state itself may provide offsets for its own impacts to nature (fig. 1, A). By exploiting these regional variations, I am able to demonstrate how different organizational and regulatory approaches in different areas bear the fingerprints of the distinctive social and political dynamics that drive their emergence in those places. This, in turn, offers a chance to link ecological-regulatory performance to the social-political dynamics that produce particular regulatory institutions in the first place. The results of this study not only bear on wetland policy in particular, but speak to larger questions about how and why specific organizational forms emerge when and where they do, and contributes to broader efforts to link the insights of social and ecological science.

Figure 1: approaches to wetland protection in the United States.

Regulation and Political Power

The perennial question of “who governs?” and how firms and industries wield political influence is as relevant today as ever.  What is more, my research on environmental policy and regulation has made clear to me that the American rule-making process—that is, the construction of the regulations used to actually implement more abstract and general laws passed by legislatures—is a central arena of corporate influence and political contention more generally. Despite this, scholars of political power and business influence have focused most heavily on higher levels of politics (e.g. elections and legislative processes), giving us a less clear picture of how firms and industries may steer policy in favorable but much more subtle and less visible ways.  If the corporate elite are, in fact, wielding more and more political and policy influence even as they grow more fractured and less unified, as is increasingly believed by social scientists, then rulemaking and public administration may well be a key site of corporate influence.  I am currently in the process of assembling a large-N dataset on administrative rulemaking processes, which, with the help of natural language processing tools and more standard quantitative techniques, I will use to assess who, how, and to what degree firms and industries—or other actors, like social movement organizations—influence public policy in the context of administrative law and regulation. The results will help to illuminate whether and to what degree the corporate elite exert political power in an understudied—but critically important—arena of governance and public policy.

Science, Knowledge, and Politics

Outside of my focus on economic regulation more generally, I am also centrally interested in the ways that systems of knowledge and knowledge production influence both knowledge itself, and how related understandings of the world—scientific or lay—influence patterns of social action, including, of course, the implementation of rules and laws. Thus, in a working paper, I investigate how the particular practices of ecological quantification and valuation shape and proscribe the work of environmental bureaucrats, who do the day-to-day work of actually implementing nature protection laws. In a  completely separate paper with Ed Walker, we investigate how social-contextual factors shape school-level vaccine exemption rates and point to differences that may be driven by patient interactions with particular kinds of doctors. And in an ongoing project with Jacob Foster and two colleagues at the University of Chicago (James Evans and Pete Aceves),  we investigate the ways that inequality is created and reproduced in the field of physics, with implications for understanding what kinds of research gets done and is rewarded in the physical sciences. In each of these cases, the central focus is on understanding how institutions and organizations constrain and shape both what people know and understand, and in turn how those understandings shape what people do in the first place, be that assigning value to a wetland, electing to vaccinate a child, or conducting one kind of scholarly research and not another.

I am always eager to share ideas and work; please do not hesitate to contact me if you are interested in discussing any related topics or research in more depth!