Doctoral candidate Britt Dahlberg (University of Pennsylvania), under the guidance of Dr. Adriana Petryna, will conduct research on the role of scientific and community practices in defining what it means for a place and its residents to be designated "at risk." Taking as a case example a United States town founded around asbestos manufacturing, her research will examine the ways in which other community concerns become incorporated into, or displaced by, a renewed focus on asbestos as an environmental health emergency. Through ethnographic attention to the multitude of perspectives and experiences in the town, her research will identify the ways in which a narrow focus on asbestos as a health threat may exclude concerns about asbestos' broader social and economic effects (as well as other concerns altogether) from public discourse.

This dissertation project will employ participant-observation, interviewing, and document analysis to understand how residents, community groups, and government agencies each define the main risks of the town, communicate these with one another, and how their interactions shape the ultimate scope of the on-going environmental risk investigation, as well as public understandings of the primary risks, and ideal futures, for the town.

This project will advance anthropological and science and technology studies' understandings of (1) how bodies, health, and environment are being re-conceptualized and reconfigured around ideas of "risk" and "environmental health;" (2) how expertise, evidence, and the terms for evaluating knowledge-production practices are re-negotiated when science is used to address public problems and when citizens are involved in the making of knowledge about the environments in which they live; and (3) the forms of governance operating in contemporary public health research and interventions which increasingly incorporate the built and social environment into health research. This project will also contribute to knowledge of the politics and stakes of involving communities in environmental health research, which may be used to improve community-science collaboration practices. Supporting this research also supports the education of a graduate student.

Project Report

When is environmental disaster complete? How do people determine the boundaries around problems of public concern - when and where do we decide problems start and end, and what do they include? This dissertation project used ethnographic methods - participant-observation, document review, and semi-structured interviews - to identify how residents, government agencies, and local developers define, locate, and thus address environmental problems. Through this research, the project also explored the broader social meanings and implications collaborative environmental risk assessment has for community formation and urban redevelopment. The project focused on Ambler, Pennsylvania, a town built around asbestos manufacturing and dealing with a legacy of asbestos waste. Ethnographic methods were used to study collaborations between residents and health agencies from 2009 to 2013, while one waste site was listed as an EPA Superfund site. The dissertation written from this research explores how different ways of seeing and measuring place alter ways of imagining neighborhoods and the people who live there. It highlights the ways that definitions of risks and their geographic and temporal boundaries get developed in practice, and deeply shape the kinds of futures people mark as possible to envision or hope for for themselves and their towns. The study holds implications for understanding what it means to move forward socially and materially from industrial pasts, with implications for a wide range of scholarship, practice, and policy.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Jeffrey Mantz
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University of Pennsylvania
United States
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