Fulbright Grants Send Two NSSR Students to Mexico

Although Tania Aparicio and Guadalupe Chavez were both New School for Social Research (NSSR) students, their paths just never crossed. It’s not too surprising: Aparicio’s doctoral studies in Sociology and many student jobs keep her pretty busy, while Chavez just finished her master’s degree in Politics.

What’s finally brought these emerging scholars together? A profound interest in Mexico, and one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world. As NSSR’s two Fulbright Scholarships recipients, Aparicio and Chavez will spend the 2018-2019 academic year in Mexico carrying out critical research in their fields.

Two students winning Fulbright grants is enough for any school to celebrate. But two students winning Fulbright grants to the same country — which accepts fewer than 10% of applicants — is something particularly special.

As NSSR extends its warm congratulations to Aparicio and Chavez, Research Matters is excited to share their important work with our wider community. Their stories showcase not only the quality research NSSR students are carrying out, but also the doors that such scholarships can open to students at all levels of graduate study who aim to do nothing short of change the world.

New Directions at a New School

For the Brooklyn-born Chavez, charting a future intellectual itinerary was directly linked to connecting with her family’s history. “Being the daughter of Mexican migrants, I was always interested in how U.S. immigration policies were designed at the federal level, and why these policies always created a distinctive binary between the deserving and undeserving migrant.”

While studying political science and getting involved in local activism, Chavez interned on Capitol Hill and found the level of legislative discourse surrounding immigration policy lacking. “How can these politicians talk or even design migration policies when they lack a critical understanding of migration, and have never experienced what is like to live in constant fear of having their family deported? My experiences in Capitol Hill challenged me to think more critically about citizenship, the construction of illegality and rethink migration and mobility beyond a nation-state framework,” Chavez said.

After earning her BA, Chavez sought out ways to research immigration policy at the graduate level, focusing on U.S.-Mexico relations as a way of making a tangible contribution to those communities. ”I was looking for a program that examined public policies of course, but that also interrogated complex concepts such as citizenship, belonging, membership mobility, and borders. I was also looking for a politics department that studied global political issues beyond a state-centric framework, and NSSR has been the best place for examining these complex concepts,” Chavez explained.

Aparicio’s journey involves migration as well, but has also been driven by an interest in alternative education and the arts — specifically, film. She explained that because of changes in tuition and class ratios at her school in Lima, Peru, “we had a student-organized protest that turned into a conference. My role was to do research on alternative forms of education. I found out about John Dewey and I did a presentation about Bennington College and The New School.”

When Aparicio’s undergraduate institution shuttered, she decided to apply to The New School — not to NSSR, but rather to the Schools of Public Engagement (SPE), where she could study film and social science. A generous scholarship and willingness to accept her previously earned credits, plus The New School’s proximity to New York’s film industry, made the choice easy. After graduating and working in film for two years, she realized on-set life was not for her and decided to return to The New School, this time as a graduate student.

“I didn’t know anyone who had come to grad school,” Aparicio remembered. “And so I applied to the school that had opened doors to me before. I had always been interested in the sociology of cultural production, in understanding critically the meaning of cultural production in our society. When I came, however, I was still very much steeped in the language of communications.”

Her transition from film to sociology was marked by an encounter with the professor who would become her doctoral advisor: Associate Professor of Sociology Rachel Sherman. “I remember a meeting early in my first year where she said, ‘You have to stop thinking about what is on the screen and start thinking about the communities that are around the screen that bring the screen to life.’ That completely blew my mind and made me realize ‘Oh, that’s what I’m interested in!’” Aparicio said, adding, “I feel [Professor Sherman] was the first person who actually knew what to say to direct my gaze in a sociological way.”

Bringing It All Together

Once at NSSR, Chavez similarly worked closely with professors to distill her interests, while also noting the importance of learning from her peers and attending lectures and events on campus. Her final research proposal, and the one that helped her write her winning Fulbright application: “I am interested in exploring how formal and informal institutions respond to the “return” and expulsion of migrants from the U.S to Mexico and the types of organizations and mobilizations that arise after expulsion. Moreover, I also have an interest in decolonial approaches to international relations and to studying migration and mobility. Overall, I am interested in translating theory into innovative political practices.”

Aparicio, on the other hand, developed her dissertation topic in a more hands-on way. “In the second year of my MA, I went to Mexico. I was thinking I was going to write about a social movement that started in the film industry after NAFTA was signed, which had a big impact on the film industry,” she said. While this idea eventually fell by the wayside, it planted the seed for a new research project. Going to the Cineteca Nacional, she started to think about how to research film spaces themselves. Back in New York, Aparicio learned that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was the first museum to include film in their collection, “creating a kind of division between film as art and movies as entertainment.” Deciding to bridge the two cities, she proposed, in her PhD application, a comparative study between MoMA and Mexico’s Cineteca. In the summer of 2017, a research grant from the Janey Program in Latin American Studies helped her return to Cineteca Nacional and secure important institutional affiliations to bolster her Fulbright application.

Aparicio’s two advisors reflect her diverse academic background. With Professor Sherman, she investigates how prestige is constructed; with University in Exile Professor of Sociology Robin Wagner-Pacifici, she focuses more on the institutions themselves. Economic anthropologist Janet Roitman and a CUNY Graduate Center faculty member round out her preliminary dissertation committee, and she also hopes to collaborate with Associate Professor of Sociology Virag Molnar, who has a special interest in the sociology of art.

Plans for Mexico

For each student, the Fulbright Scholarship is a unique opportunity to propel their research forward with fundamental field research.

As Chavez described it, her Fulbright project focuses on “how formal and informal institutions respond to the ‘return’ and deportation of the Mexican diaspora, particularly of the formerly undocumented youth that grew up in the U.S.” She will also probe the types of organizing and mobilization taking place in Mexico after deportation or return, “especially when so many deportees and returnees experience ‘double abandonment’ and estranged citizenship in their country of birth.” Conducting this face-to-face research in Mexico will help Chavez explore this multifaceted phenomenon through a robust “bilateral and transnational lens…[and] see how other scholars and students working on this topic handle similar work. avoid and or address potential research and fieldwork dilemmas.”

Aparicio’s decision to apply to the Fulbright program came as she reached a crossroads in her early career. “As much as I’m a student, I am also a worker at the university. I’ve been working really hard in order to support myself. So I knew when I went into the PhD that if I was going to take this risk, I had to go all out.”

In practice, this meant that she developed a meticulous study timeline, specifying when she wanted to finish classes, write for publications, and apply for grants. “This year the goal was to get a grant…otherwise it just wasn’t sustainable,” she explained.

After attending a workshop run by Katie Wolff, the Fulbright representative for The New School, Aparicio was motivated to apply for the scholarship — especially because the Mexican program explicitly encouraged projects that engaged art communities in the U.S. and Mexico. She similarly advises future applicants to “know for which grants you’d make a good candidate.”

Fulbright funding, in addition to a dissertation fellowship, will enable Aparicio to stay in Mexico City for nine months, largely researching at the Cineteca. “Now I’m going to be able to just focus on my work. I can’t even imagine what I’ll be able to do over the next year…without having to stress about money, healthcare,” she said.

In addition to Wolff’s workshop, Aparicio and Chavez received invaluable encouragement, feedback, and support from Tsuya Yee, assistant dean of academic affairs; Jennifer MacDonald, associate director for graduate career success, NSSR professors such as Associate Professor of Politics Anne McNevin and SPE professors such as Associate Professor and Chair of Global Studies Alexandra Délano Alonso.

Looking Forward

The young scholars are excited about what’s coming next. In matters both scholarly and personal, the Fulbright is an important achievement. “I look forward to immersing myself as much as possible in my family’s culture,” said Chavez, “meeting new people, learning more about Mexican politics, particularly the relationships between the state and civil society, how the Mexican state manages and addresses migration from its southern border. I hope to become involved in my new community as much as possible….I wonder how locals will respond to my identity as Mexican and American and to what extent will I fit in the community.”

For her part, Aparicio spoke of a vital opportunity for reconnection. “My parents haven’t been able to come to the U.S., ever. They’ve been denied the tourist visa. So I’m looking forward to being able to go to their next visa interview and show them that I’m a Fulbright.”

“The One True Barbecue”

Historical Studies  Alumnus Rien Fertel talks with Research Matters about New Orleans, Creole cuisine, race, and his time at The New School for Social Research. 

Rien Fertel—now a historian, James Beard Award-nominated writer, and teacher based in Louisiana—arrived in New York City as a self-described Hurricane Katrina exile in 2005.

The storm had swept away his business—a small grocery store that he ran in New Orleans—as well as his home. Like many of the 1 million individuals displaced by the storm, Fertel wondered if he would ever make it back to his hometown.

“I spent nine months feeling lost, and emotionally affected by Katrina,” he said in an interview with Research Matters.

During that period, Fertel stayed in New York on the couches of his cousin and uncle, the latter of whom was teaching on a part-time basis at The New School. Already familiar with the reputation of The New School for Social Research, Fertel applied to the M.A. program in Anthropology in hopes of adding structure to his time in New York.

When he was accepted to The New School for Social Research, Fertel discovered that wires had somehow become crossed, and he had been offered a scholarship to attend the Historical Studies master’s program. Though he had the option to transfer into Anthropology, Fertel decided to stay in Historical Studies, and the error turned out to be fortuitous. It connected him with his advisor—Professor of History Oz Frankel—and set him on a course that would provide space for him to work through his intellectual and emotional relationship to post-Katrina New Orleans, while building a foundation for his future career.

“I grew up in my family’s restaurant in Lafayette, New Orleans,” Fertel explained. “And when I started at The New School for Social Research, I was worried about New Orleans and about its culture, which seemed threatened with disappearance.”

Frankel’s class introduced Fertel to historiographic methods, and motivated him to think about the centrality of food to the distinctively mixed cultural setting of New Orleans.

“In my thesis, I looked into foundational texts—cookbooks for the most part—that wrote Creole cuisine into national and global vernaculars,” Fertel said. Against the backdrop of questions about how cuisine solidified the culture of the Gulf, he took another class with Frankel on the history of books as objects. Fertel’s thesis evolved into what he described as, “a textual history of cuisine,” engaging at the same time with broader questions of mythmaking and the construction of race.

“Part of what was going on in New Orleans in the nineteenth century—specifically after Reconstruction—is that you have these first cookbooks that codify recipes,” Fertel said. What emerged in his research was a kind of racial and ethnic hierarchy that privileged French and French-derived recipes, alongside what Fertel called “melting pot” recipes that often included several elements of African and Caribbean traditions.

“The books gave credit to French chefs,” Fertel explained, “in part because they seemed invested in the representation of French ethnicity in New Orleans.” Stories of French chefs who masterminded hybrid recipes—at least, according to the mythology constructed by these texts—tend to obscure the influences of racially marginalized cultures whose influences were in fact central to the evolution of the region’s cuisine.

Despite the fact that he only took one history class as an undergraduate, by the time Fertel finished the Historical Studies program at The New School for Social Research, he had become a convert to the discipline. And despite his skepticism about the future of New Orleans, he ultimately decided to return to the city.

“It honestly felt like a really bad idea to go back,” he recalled. But he had applied to the Ph.D. program in History at Tulane University, and had been offered a fully funded offer.

“At The New School, I had taken classes about capital and about class dynamics, and about war on the poor. And I was writing about race,” he remembered, “I saw all of these things happening in New Orleans. And though I knew that I had seen them happening before, I definitely became more aware of them in grad school.”

When Fertel returned to New Orleans, he said that he realized the city already changed—and that would continue to change as Katrina receded into the past—for better and for worse. As a doctoral student, he developed a dissertation on white Creole literature in New Orleans. His work returned to questions about the creation of the city’s myths and racial identities in books—this time in novels, plays, and poetry.

Thanks to the advice of a mentor, Fertel also became involved with an organization called the Southern Foodways Alliance, which connects academics and writers with individuals in the restaurant industry. Fertel said that the purpose of the organization is to recognize the people, places, and events in Southern culinary history that have been “ignored, suppressed, or erased.”

At the Southern Foodways Alliance, Fertel collected oral histories in Memphis about the history of barbecue—a regional cuisine with its own set of rich and complicated mythologies that resonated with his academic work. These oral histories quickly began to produce a full-on set of research questions about the traditions of barbecue in the South, occupying an increasing amount of Fertel’s attention.

“I had a deal with my advisor,” he joked, “Every time I turned in a dissertation chapter, I could go back on the road. I really loved talking with these people—going deeper, beyond asking, ‘how long do you cook this piece of meat and at what temperature.’”

The result is The One True Barbecue, which deals with the often behind-the-scenes labor at barbecue restaurants. Fertel focused on a practice called whole-hog barbecue, in which a pig is cooked slowly over the course of 24 hours. At the time of his research, the number of whole-hog restaurants was dwindling. Today, just a few years later, Fertel points to whole-hog’s resurgence, with restaurants opening even in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood.

“It has become a really hip food style for a lot of reasons,” Fertel said, adding that the book tries to understand the tradition of the process, and complicate the popular histories that often of barbecue’s origins.

“It’s about the myth-making that is placed front-and-center at a lot of these restaurants,” Fertel said. In the course of his research, he explained, “I talked to individuals who have worked in restaurants […] the people whose names are not on the front of the building. Their pictures don’t hang on the wall. A lot of them have been working there for 50 years—but customers don’t know their names.”

In many cases, the actual cooking has to take place in a structure that is physically separate from the restaurants themselves. As Fertel put it, the back-of-house employees that he talked to, who are often the individuals responsible for the recipes and high quality of the food, “were so outside the restaurant itself that a lot of these people were foreign to their own restaurant.”

Fertel traces the roots of his emphasis on under-acknowledged physical and cultural labor—similarly done by individuals from racially or ethnically minoritized communities— to The New School for Social Research.

In addition to his research and writing, Fertel teaches at the University of Mississippi, and has taught history at Bard Early College in New Orleans. At Bard, roughly 100 students attend public high schools each morning. According to the school’s website, students “spend the second half of every school day as undergraduates of Bard College, completing the first year of a Bard education during the last two years of high school.”

In his work at Bard, Fertel had the chance to teach archival research methods, taking his students to museums and archives, and challenging them to deliver research presentations—all in the city that he had worried he’d never come home to again.

“New Orleans has always been seen as exceptionally different from everywhere else, not just in the South but in the country,” he reflected, adding, “It looked different, it was built differently. The people talked different. We had a French background. We have an exceptional history. We invented jazz. We invented Creole cuisine.”

Fertel’s ongoing work—in his research, writing, and teaching—deconstructs many of the founding myths responsible for public conceptions about the cuisine and culture of his hometown. He credits The New School for Social Research for teaching him some of the skills that have made this work possible. But in talking to him, it is immediately evident that his efforts to tell under-acknowledged stories and to restore forgotten figures to narratives about southern culture, cuisine, and identity are motivated by a much deeper connection to the hometown that he loves.

Research at the Border: Politics PhD Alumna Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera

To celebrate her recently-published book, Los Zetas, Inc.: Criminal Corporations, Energy, And Civil War in Mexico, Research Matters sat down with Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a recent doctoral alumna of the New School for Social Research Department of Politics, and current Associate Professor at the Shar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Born and raised in Mexico, Correa-Cabrera focuses on issues of border security, human trafficking and smuggling along the US-Mexico border. Straddling the line between political science and international security studies, her work probes the economic dimensions of organized crime in a transnational context, and other forms of unrest along the border.

Correa-Cabrera trained as an economist in Mexico. Interested in furthering her education, she chose to pursue a master’s degree in Politics at The New School for Social Research. After completing the program, she choose to stay at The New School to pursue a PhD under the supervision of Professor of Politics David Plotke and her dissertation concerned the relationship between politics and violence.

Having extended her stay in the US to complete her doctorate, Correa-Cabrera planned to return to Mexico upon graduation in 2010. As she put it, she wanted continue her research into “the institutional factors leading to violence and instability in my homeland,” which she had begun to explore more directly in her dissertation. These insights were later developed into Correa-Cabrera’s first book, Democracy in “Two Mexicos”: Political Institutions in Oaxaca and Nuevo León (Palgrave). Moreover, she felt a certain pull to continue teaching and writing in her native Spanish. Taking these factors together, a return to Mexico seemed like the most attractive option.

Before she could return, however, Professor Plotke suggested that Correa-Cabrera apply to a position at the University of Texas Brownsville (now The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley). Located adjacent to the border itself, and serving a community of American and Mexican students, this post offered her a unique opportunity to expand upon her research while reconnecting with her Mexican roots.

“You could cross the street and you could see the bridge to Mexico,” Correa-Cabrera said. After securing and accepting the position, she moved from New York to the small Texan town.

Correa-Cabrera explained that she “had been studying the northern part of Mexico, particularly the border states, especially Nuevo Leon.” But she added that the border is, “a very tough place.” Around the time of her arrival, Mexican border states were going through a particularly difficult period, with high rates of violence concentrated in the very states Correa-Cabrera had been researching. “Border violence was a big deal exactly when I arrived,” she said, “A very violent war between two organized crime groups started just on the other side of the border.” It was precisely this climate, which had previously shaped her teaching and gave concreteness to her doctoral research, that would define her unfolding research program.

As it turns out, Matamoros—Brownsville’s twin city across the border—is home to one of the most prominent violent drug organizations in the region. Popularly known as the “Gulf Cartel,” the organization is known not just for its violence, but for how its ‘business innovations’ have transformed the way criminal enterprises operate in Mexico and throughout the western hemisphere. Correa-Cabrera found herself as a political scientist precisely at the right place and time to delve into how these organizations operated.

As a result, she said, “It was inevitable” that her research focus would grow to encompass the issues of crime and violence in this region. She recalled that many of her students lived across the border in Mexico, and would often cite criminal violence as their reason for being absent from class. “They came to me and told me that their parents were very frightened,” Cabrera-Correa said, “A couple of them had had their parents kidnapped.” Undeterred, she explained that she and her students, “continued to work, often while listening to the gunfire coming across from the other side of the border.”

Applying her social research skills to what was occurring around her, Correa-Cabrera obtained a fellowship from the Social Science Research Council. The grant allowed her to conduct interviews on both sides of the border, and to review the way people discussed violence on social media. “At the time,” she added, “I didn’t have the consciousness of what was really happening, and it really shocked me […] it changed my life basically, and it gave some meaning to what I wanted to do. It gave me a project to pursue that was at the same time important, meaningful, relevant.”

Correa-Cabrera’s new book, Los Zetas, Inc., is the result of the research she conducted since that time. She explained: “It’s the product of personal experience in my own family, and other students who were suffering the same thing.” Despite the difficulties inherent in teaching and conducting research in such a precarious environment, she said, “It was the perfect laboratory for me.” Through this combination of research and life experience, Correa-Cabrera became an expert in border security, border relations, and organized crime, elaborating on the connections between a range of organized illicit activities. These extend not just to the transport of illegal drugs and weapons, but also to human smuggling and trafficking. Unlike smuggling, which consists of an agreement between two parties, in human trafficking one party is forced to work and is exploited, and the other party gains from that exploitation.

In other words, through the influence of the Gulf Cartel and others, Correa-Carbrera said, “drug trafficking organizations have consolidated and diversified to the point that they now involve all these illegal activities that were, at some point, controlled by different groups.”

Correa-Cabrera’s work was received positively, and she began to receive support from institutions like the Free University in Berlin, and UNAM in Mexico City. She also won a grant from the US State Department to study the connection between human smuggling, organized crime, and the trafficking of persons along migration routes. It was here that Correa-Cabrera pivoted, focusing on what she calls “the connection between the human elements and the criminal elements” associated with these international crime organizations. This connection led her beyond Mexico, to other countries in Central America’s “Northern Triangle”—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador— where these networks extended their reach.

This project reveals a new dimension to Correa-Cabrera’s research: her on-the-ground empirical work, in which she accompanies migrants on the long journey from Central America to the United States border. “It made a lot of sense for me to go to the countries of the Northern Triangle and to take the journey with the migrants from there,” she said. To Correa-Cabrera, this was the only way to see how these people were affected by international criminal groups, and how, in the end, smuggling could lead to human trafficking.

“Today because of immigration policies of the United States, it can be much more complicated for migrants to enter the United States so they [often] pay a fee to a smuggler,” Correa-Carbrera said, “And these smugglers are connected to the criminal organizations.” She explained that trafficking can involve many forms of forced labor: from sex work to coerced domestic labor, agricultural work, or forced participation in the criminal activities themselves. She emphasized that this project was about, “how these are connected and the vulnerability of the migrants […] The project was about doing the journey and interviewing individuals in the migrant shelters and in the trucks.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, according to Correa-Cabrera, this was an exceedingly complex process that entailed over 400 interviews. After its conclusion, she was awarded a Residential Fellowship at The Wilson Center, a non-partisan policy forum in Washington, DC. There, she is turning her research into articles, which in turn will inform concrete public policy proposals. This marks a new chapter in her work as a publicly-engaged scholar.

“I’m contributing to the design of public policy by presenting the results of my research,” she said, “It’s an amazing opportunity.”

Fieldwork photos credited to Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera.

PhD Alumnus David Bond on the History of “The Environment” as a Political Category

In a matter of decades, political and scientific debates concerning the environment have generally moved from the margins to the center of public life. But our collective understanding of what constitutes “the environment” has changed significantly during that same period.

The notion of “the environment” has a specific and, in many ways, surprising history—despite the fact that it is a fairly recent conceptual invention. Bennington College Professor and New School for Social Research anthropology PhD alumnus David Bond studies this history of our present. Straddling the lines between anthropology, climate science, and critical theory, Bond’s work helps unpack not only what we know about the environment, but also how we came to know the environment. In this context, he pays particular attention to the role that environmental disasters bring the environment to the center of public debate.

Troubled by the injustice and racism he saw in the world, and moved by the desire to do something about it, Bond initially went to college to study sociology. He thought that sociology would be the best lens through which to grapple with the issues that motivated him. Bond was still on that path when he arrived at the New School for Social Research as a master’s student in sociology. Surprisingly, it was a course taught by Willy Brandt Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Ann Stoler that most marked his experience.

“Whatever she was doing,” he said, “I wanted to be a part of it.” Bond explained: “Ann was grappling with things in a way I’d never seen before, pulling out the tensions that animate our present with an incisive critical focus and clear political implication. That’s what I wanted to be a part of.”

Attracted by the foment of new work unfolding in the Anthropology Department, Bond decided to pursue his Ph.D. there. For Bond, anthropology at The New School is not so much “a venerable discipline, as much as a really useful set of tools to examine the present and to write urgent histories of our present, in all that that implies and commits one to.” He added that he also appreciated the department’s insistence that students “take seriously the critical and creative capacities with which people lead their lives.”

Bond has just published a paper in the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History concerning how the US empire of oil offshored crucial hydrocarbon infrastructure to the Caribbean to avoid rising labor and environmental concerns, and the unexpected role those leaky refineries had in bringing new attention to the ecology of mangroves. . In January, Bond also organized and edited an online forum at Cultural Anthropology, providing a space for anthropologists to respond to the rise of Trumpism “as a political present” in the United States and its implications for critical theory. He is expanding his introduction to the forum into a full-length essay while finishing a book manuscript based on his New School dissertation, which tracked the emergence of the category of “the environment” during the BP spill of 2010.

When it comes to the current state of the discipline of anthropology, and how his work contributes to it, Bond emphasized the importance of ethnography. “It’s a truism that ethnographic insights are lacking in our public discourse,” he said. For Bond, insights recovered from this kind of research represent insights into the most looming and complicated problems facing our world today. He added: “We really have to reorient and recommit ourselves to thinking about those problems with people. Ethnography promises a different kind of insight.” Bond’s focus on ethnography truly comes through in the work on the BP oil spill, during which he followed government officials to several town halls with local residents in the direct aftermath of the spill. Repeatedly, Bond witnessed residents raise concerns about their health, only to have these concerns waved away by the officials, who preferred to focus on damage to property and to wildlife. “The environment was defined, in the aftermath of the disaster, in a way that excluded public health concerns,” Bond explained. “It excluded a lot of voices that otherwise had very legitimate complaints that were very easily connected to the spilled oil.”

Continue reading “PhD Alumnus David Bond on the History of “The Environment” as a Political Category”

The Ethics of Climate Change: NSSR Alum Eric Godoy Asks Who Bears Responsibility

This is the second in a series of Research Matters articles profiling the interdisciplinary climate change work of students, faculty, and alumni at The New School for Social Research. Check back for more!

Who is truly responsible for the climate’s state of disrepair? Who should be responsible for preventing further deterioration of the environment? To help address these questions, Research Matters sat down with Eric Godoy, a recent doctoral alumnus of the Philosophy Department at The New School for Social Research and current Assistant Professor at Illinois State University. His research focuses on the ethics and politics of determining responsibility for the climate, and aims to articulate a frame for responding to it.

“I guess I’ve always been concerned with climate and climate change,” Godoy said. But his path to a PhD in philosophy was somewhat unexpected, given earlier interests in questions about climate from a scientific perspective. Having entered college as a chemistry major, he conducted research on waterways near his hometown in Central Florida. In the course of his fieldwork, he witnessed firsthand the disruption of delicate balances in the local waters, and began to consider ethical and political questions.

At The New School, Godoy wrote his MA thesis on the philosopher David Hume, examining how Hume’s ethical doctrines could be extended to envelop the concept of global justice—pressing on the typical boundaries of the scope of traditional philosophical inquiry of ethics. Godoy found the way ethics was typically framed to be much too restrictive, and went looking for an ethical and political framework that could address global challenges. Following his MA, Godoy began to work with Nancy Fraser, the Henry A. & Louise Loeb Professor of Political & Social Science at The New School. He both aimed to deepen and broaden his research, studying ethical and political frameworks that grappled with what he called, “the question of individual and collective responsibility.”

After serving as Assistant Chair of the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute, Godoy recently accepted a position at Illinois State University, where as Assistant Professor he is currently contributing to an effort to expand the university’s environmental studies major and minor. Over the past few years, Godoy has deepened his investigation into how ethics (and ethicists) can cope with a challenge as complex and overwhelming as those presented by climate change.

Godoy sensed that urgent issues related to climate change and environmental degradation are best explored within the framework of social and economic justice, but that little existing scholarship considered the issues from this perspective. “The question of where moral value resides is really interesting to me when it comes to climate change,” Godoy said. “There’s a far more pressing question that climate change presents […] and it’s going to get much worse.” The relative absence of justice from considerations of climate change seems, to Godoy, especially the case in his discipline. As he explained, “Especially outside of philosophy where a lot of the work focuses on environmental justice, climate change [is treated] as fundamentally a justice issue,” he said. Godoy’s work digs deeper: if environmental issues are fundamentally about justice, then who is the injustice being done to, and who can be said to be responsible for taking action? How can individuals ever feel individually responsible for such a large-scale problem? And if the responsibility resides with institutions or entire ways of life, then whom should we urge to action?

Godoy emphasizes that the causes of global climate degradation are profound and structural in nature. In his perspective, this kind of phenomenon is best understood by focusing on fundamental structures of our society like the way we economize, the way we govern, and our relationship to power. However, Godoy explained that, “the average person does have a sense that there’s something they should be doing. They don’t know what it is because it is a very complex problem.” He explained that this way of framing the problem and motivating action has considerable drawbacks. In his words:

This is kind of dangerous because there are plenty of corporations that will give those individuals an answer for a low, low price—just buy this, and do that—and these things don’t make much of a difference. The challenges are structural, and the solutions are political. So when we atomize responsibility, when all I have to worry about is whether or not I recycle, whether I remember to bring my reusable tumbler to Starbucks, that’s dangerous because it diffuses all that energy and motivation that people have.

At the same time, Godoy argues that swinging too far in the other direction can leave people feeling helpless about being able to do anything to fight climate change directly. He suggested that the history of recycling helps to illuminate the point, pointing to the introduction of aluminum cans to the market for beverages in the 1960’s and 70’s. “When recycling came along, beverage companies that had been able to survive Prohibition needed a much wider distribution method, so they were attracted to aluminum, which is easier to transport than glass.” This was a coup for beverage companies since the cost of glass manufacturing glass required companies to reuse these containers. However, the general public did not share this excitement. Godoy continued: “In short measure, there was waste everywhere. After widespread outrage, and a collective effort to band together to stop companies from being able to sell disposable containers and return to reusable glass, the companies themselves banded together to sponsor the America Beautiful Act. And they promoted recycling.” The crucial point is that, as a result of this move, “recycling passes the responsibility onto the consumer and the municipalities rather than the companies that manufacture the disposable containers.”

In more recent work, Godoy has written about the case of university campaigns to divest from fossil fuel companies. These efforts complicate the distinction between individual and collective action, as the campaigns are often made up of students, faculty, staff, and even Board members. Asked what attracted him to this kind of activity, Godoy responded, “For one thing it’s interesting pedagogically. For another, the communicative force of saying ‘this is not something we should be doing, this is not something we should be profiting off of.’ So it sends a very public message, and it comes from knowledge producers, which I think carries a certain kind of authority.” In this case, the agent of the activism is a single entity—a specific college or university—but the action illuminates how intimately individual persons and institutions are related at the level of economics and politics to the actions of big business, and especially, to the fossil fuel industry.

As a philosopher managing research that moves between disciplines, Godoy said, “I’ve always admired people, like Nancy, who can navigate two worlds. I’ve tried to push myself to work on interdisciplinary teams and to build relationships with different kinds of people so I can write with them.” Asked how this had worked out, and what he had learned about the terminological and methodological differences that exist between disciplines, he responded, “I think there’s something to be said for using disciplinary boundaries.” He clarified that despite one’s best intentions, it’s often quite difficult to co-author research across discipline lines without sacrificing some of the precision gained through disciplinary specialization. “I do think that when you try to approach real problems, you do give up a bit of precision,” he said. “But in the end, you might have to bracket certain issues in order to be able to work together.” Given the global magnitude of the challenges presented by climate change, the need to think through issues of individual and collective responsibility—and beyond intellectual specialties—has never been greater.