We pride ourselves on the research coming out of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Our faculty have contributed to the breadth and depth of the discourse in their research areas. Ranging from political economy to craniofacial growth, those research areas are as diverse as the complex human endeavor our faculty strive to analyze and understand. Ultimately, their fine research aids us in understanding human behavior and relationships, the foundations of human cultures and societies, which each of our faculty explores from a distinct perspective.
Today, we meet Dr. Tom Shriver, who joined the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in the 2013-2014 academic year as an Associate Professor specializing in Environmental Sociology.
Thanks for joining us, Dr. Shriver. Could you begin by giving us a little information on where you born and where your family is from?
I grew up in a working class family in Bowling Green, Kentucky, which is in south central Kentucky. All of my family is still there. My roots are there.
Where did you attend college, and what did you study?
I did my undergraduate work at Western Kentucky University. I studied sociology with minors in criminology and business administration. I did all of my graduate work in sociology at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville.
So, how did you discover your chosen field, and when did you know it was what you wanted to pursue?
As a freshman, I was undecided about what I wanted to do. I started out as a business major, but when I took my first sociology class I really fell in love with the field right away. The first professor that I had was really phenomenal. Sociology just resonated with me from the very beginning in large part because of this unique critical perspective of the world. And it resonated with my life experiences coming from a working class family. I always had that sort of critical interpretation of the world but it wasn’t grounded in academics and theory. It was just something I got from my own background. So looking at issues of inequality, stratification, and any number of topics through that kind of critical lens really resonated with me.
When I was a sophomore, I was taking a general education geography class, and at the end of the class the professor gave us a short lecture about what you could do with a geography degree. At the end of that lecture, he said, “Most importantly, do something that you’ll be passionate about for the rest of your life.” So when I left the class that day I went and changed my major to sociology. I decided shortly after that I wanted to go into academia. I thought it was a great career and I loved the interaction between faculty and students. As an undergraduate and graduate student, I had a lot of great mentors that inspired me to follow their lead and serve in that role for students. I’ve been teaching now for 18 years.
Have you worked any jobs beside teaching?
Before teaching, my path was a little unusual for an academic. I didn’t go to college right after high school. I finished high school and wasn’t really sure what I was going to do. I initially attended vocational school to study carpentry but then I got a job at a factory based in my hometown. So my first real career was factory work. And it wasn’t something I was doing temporarily; it was going to be my career. I got laid off a couple of times, and the situation wasn’t completely stable economically. During one of my longer graveyard shifts, I was sitting on the assembly line and I thought, “I want to go to college.” So from there I applied to Western Kentucky University and started on the business degree track. It’s been academics and teaching since then.
What courses do you currently teach?
I’ll be teaching Principles of Sociology in the fall. In the spring, I’ll be doing the Graduate Seminar in Environmental Sociology, which is a course I taught many times at Oklahoma State University.
Could you describe your teaching style or teaching philosophy?
I think it’s really important to engage students in the learning process. There are different ways that you can do that and I structure my classes so that there is a lot of interaction. I do things in different ways depending on the size of the class and the layout of the space, but I do a lot of work in small groups, working on discussion questions, and then regrouping to have class discussions on various topics. My primary goal is to engage students in the learning process. I do some more traditional lecturing as well, so my courses are a combination of traditional lecturing and student participation. But I really emphasize the interactive component of the class. I think students learn best when they are actively involved in the learning process. My approach to teaching reflects my own experience as a student and what really resonated with me, in addition to trying different approaches to teaching over the years. I’m excited to expand on that and look for new ways to engage students. I know there’s a lot of innovative teaching here in the Department and that’s one of the things that really drew me here.
And what do you think are the most important attributes of a good instructor?
You have to be passionate about what you’re teaching. And you have to be fully engaged in the process. I’ve always been enthusiastic about teaching and, given my style of instruction, I have to remain actively engaged during every class period. I have to be on my toes and well-prepared to discuss the material and direct the interaction. You also have to be accessible. Mentoring students has always been really important to me and you have to be accessible to students in order to do that successfully. There’s a lot of teaching that extends beyond the classroom, so I think accessibility is a key component of that process.
If that is what characterizes a good or successful instructor, how would you define a successful student?
A successful student in my class also needs to be engaged. Part of that takes the form of active participation in classroom discussion and activities. And, obviously, I evaluate student performance on various assignments in the class. I require a lot of writing so I’ll assess the quality of their work and their responsiveness to the feedback I’ve given them. I also look at success in terms of improvement over the course of the semester.
What would you like students to take away from your courses?
What I hope to do in all of my classes is to expand students’ sociological imaginations, to help them develop and refine their critical thinking skills, and to help them apply a sociological framework to the social world around them. With the environmental sociology class, for example, we apply this critical sociological lens to the study of environmental issues and concerns. The substantive topics of courses obviously vary but, overall, my hope is to develop and refine this sociological imagination and these critical thinking skills.
If you could create your dream course, what course would it be?
The undergraduate environmental sociology course really has been my dream course. It’s a course that I developed early in my career at Oklahoma State. At that time, the university didn’t have an environmental sociology concentration area, and I spearheaded the program to develop both undergraduate and graduate emphasis in the area. So, I really had the opportunity to design a course that reflected my ongoing teaching and research interests in environmental sociology. The course uses a critical perspective to examine environmental issues, and for a lot of students it’s the first opportunity that they have had to think about environmental issues from a sociological perspective. We first talk about theoretical perspectives in environmental sociology to give students a lens through which to view these issues, and then we study a variety of topics, ranging from environmental disasters like the BP oil spill to climate change. We also study environmental health impacts and environmental justice issues surrounding these issues. In the course, I’m able to bring in my own research to give students a direct sense of how individual lives are impacted by environmental problems. So, we look at environmental issues from a global level, like how climate change is affecting the world around us, to what’s going on in our own backyards. We talk about so many different topics that are relevant in our lives and in which students have direct experiences.
Is there an important lesson that you’ve learned from your students?
There are a lot of lessons (laughter). I think that one of the most powerful lessons that I take away on a regular basis is how much I am learning in the classroom as I’m teaching – how much I’m learning from my students. Students have amazing experiences and they come up with these incredible insights about the world. Maybe their perspective is not refined around an analytical framework but the insights and experiences that they share really touch me and make me think about what I’m doing as a sociologist or how I’m approaching my research projects. Very often it’s a student in the class talking about an experience that he or she has had in their local community around a contamination issue, and those initial discussions in class have led to collaborative working relationships with students. My experiences are somewhat limited to where I’ve lived and what I’ve studied, and students bring such a rich range of experience and knowledge that they share with the class. And it’s one of the many reasons why I like to have classes that are interactive. You can really learn about a student’s perspective, and it’s no longer only about me educating them but about them being able to educate the rest of the class and make us all more thoughtful and reflective.
Since you’ve brought the subject up, what are your current research interests?
I have a number of projects that are ongoing. I have several case study projects in the United States, and then I have a large research project that’s been going on for the last 13-14 years in the Czech Republic. I go to the Czech Republic every summer and focus on that project, and then I work on other domestic projects throughout the rest of the year.
In the case of the Czech Republic, I have been essentially studying environmental change in a country that has gone through a political transition from communism to post-communism. That project includes historical work on environmental problems during the communist era and related environmental activism during this political period, as well as the evolution of environmental activism in post-communist Czech Republic. I’m fascinated by these complex transformations and the ways in which they have been shaped over time. During the communist era, real environmental activism was illegal. They had some state-sponsored environmental groups but they were very restricted in terms of what they could do. It was more or less things like nature education and cleaning up litter. The people who tried to engage in substantial environmental activism were heavily persecuted by the state. But what the state labeled as political dissident environmental activism in communist Czechoslovakia was very similar to the kinds of normal environmental activism that you would see in any democratic society. A lot of it had to do with discussions about the state of the environment. People would write letters and petitions to the state, sometimes anonymously, sometimes signed by a large number of people. The letters would be centered around things like obtaining more information on air quality and health impacts. But engaging in those kinds of activities made them “criminals” with the state. They were routinely harassed, interrogated, and imprisoned. So, part of my research investigates this sort of underground environmental activism in an authoritarian state.
Even in that repressive setting where people faced such extreme repressive measures, there was a steady stream of underground environmental activism. There were very brave and committed activists that continued to speak out and organize despite the consequences. They’d be in prison for a while, they’d get out, and they’d continue their activism. I’ve interviewed a number of these activists from that era as part of my research. In the mid-80s, environmental conditions really deteriorated in the country, particularly in this northern Bohemia region, which is the home to low-grade “brown” coal mining, chemical factories, and horrendous environmental problems. It has been one of the most contaminated sites in Europe, if not the whole world. In the mid-late 80s, these residents became more and more vocal and started to speak out and organize public meetings and, of course, they faced various repressive measures. I’m very interested in those experiences and in what was involved in trying to challenge this authoritarian state government over something seemingly as simple as clean air. What happened to activists? How did the state respond? How did authorities report on these conditions in the state media? What kinds of repercussions did people face?
So, one component of the Czech project focuses on environmental activism and change during the communist era. But a larger part of the overall project examines the evolution of environmental activism in the post-communist era. In 1989, Czechoslovakia became an open and free democratic society but the country continues to face severe environmental problems. So I’m fascinated by these environmental issues and the changing nature of activism over time. Many areas of the country continue to be plagued with environmental problems today and I’m interested in the changing nature of the institutions involved. During the communist era the state dictated production schedules and was solely responsible for environmental problems and all regulatory activities. Today private enterprises are largely responsible for production activities. Yet, the pattern of environmental degradation continues in places like the North Bohemian Coal Mining Basin. Essentially, you see the same kinds of environmental patterns occurring in that region. People continue to be negatively impacted by environmental problems, particularly with air pollution, but now it’s private business interests that have taken over ownership of these former state entities. In many ways it’s a paradoxical situation. People are facing the same challenges. For example, during the communist era the state routinely liquidated villages when they identified coal deposits. If a city was in the way, they simply destroyed it to access coal reserves. They even destroyed the beautiful 700 year old city of Most. These were unthinkable acts that occurred under Communism. But today communities in this region are once again being threatened with liquidation, but the culprit is not an authoritarian state regime, but large privately owned corporations that want to access the remaining coal reserves. Essentially, I am studying the emergence, development, and struggles of Czech environmental activists over time and through two political distinct political periods.
How did this research project begin?
The project in Czech began because of my ties to the country. My spouse is Czech, so my initial interest was stimulated from a vacation there when I recognized the sort of stifling air pollution in my wife’s hometown of Pilsen. It’s an industrial city and it was really a centerpiece of industrial development during the communist era. The city continues to have serious environmental problems. I was there on vacation trying to set aside work for a while, but then I realized how serious the environmental problems were and I started to investigate. That curiosity evolved and I decided to develop a significant research project. Initially, I planned to only focus on environmental problems in the industrial city of Pilsen, but eventually I expanded the project to include environmental problems throughout the entire country. I’m the principal investigator for the project but I collaborate with my graduate students and other colleagues on the manuscripts.
Can you tell us about the theoretical framework you used in developing your research?
All of these projects are driven by theoretical traditions in sociology. One of the benefits of having worked on these kinds of projects for the last twenty years is that they continue to build on one another. In environmental sociology, I draw from various political economic perspectives and those related to risk and contested environmental health. I also draw from theoretical traditions in social movements since much of what I study is at the intersection of environmental sociology and social movements. I also draw from theoretical traditions in the study of health and illness. So it depends of which specific aspect of my projects I am working on at the time.
What research methodology do you use for these projects?
Most of my research is qualitative but I am a strong proponent of mixed methods. For example, in some of my current work I am doing quantitative content analysis of new media and archival documents and combining that work with more traditional qualitative fieldwork.
How have you collected your data and research materials?
It depends on the project, but I generally conduct qualitative fieldwork at each of my study sites. I also collect archival documents and various news media materials. In the Czech project I’ve conducted over 200 interviews and visited over a dozen archives around the country. But I’ve also conducted research on numerous domestic environmental contamination cases, where I always conduct fieldwork.
Were there any unexpected challenges when performing your research?
There are always challenges. There are access issues, particularly when you’re doing research in another country. Travel can be difficult. Accessing the people that you want to talk to can be difficult. Physically navigating a different environment can be challenging. Fortunately, state agencies in Czech have been very supportive in providing access to the archives.
Have there been any surprises that emerged from your research?
What have been most surprising in the Czech project are the challenges that environmentalists continue to face today in an open and free democratic society. And that’s actually the project that I presented during my job interview. It was a paper published a couple of months ago. That particular case documents environmental conflict over a highway bypass and in that case environmentalists were stigmatized, vilified, threatened, and physically harassed. So what that case illustrates is that even though we’re now talking about an open and free democratic society, activists still face tremendous challenges and obstacles. It’s a paradoxical situation. I’ve had some activists say to me, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that activism was easier in the communist era because people were generally more interested in environmental issues. Even though environmentalists faced more extreme harassment and persecution by the state, the general public was supportive of what activists were doing. Today, the country has become much more interested in economic concerns and consumerism. And in many ways the general public has become less interested in the kinds of environmental problems that helped undermine the Communist government. During the 1980s people really rallied around the environment to criticize the regime, and during the initial transition period environmental concern was very high. Well, that’s really changed. There’s been a real decrease in concern for the environment and a lack of support from the democratic government. So that change has really been surprising to me as an environmental sociologist.
When do you think you’ll complete this research project?
It’s tricky because the project keeps evolving. I collected new data this year on what is an ongoing issue in the country, centered around energy and climate change. There are ongoing struggles between residents in this Northern Bohemia region who are trying to preserve their communities and the private enterprises who are trying further expand coal mining operations. So I’m doing research now on coal and climate change in the country.
I’ve got this whole other stream of domestic research examining environmental justice, health and toxins in the United States. So I divide my time during the year about 50-50 between domestic projects and research related to my ongoing Czech interests. With the domestic projects I’m looking at a lot of the same environmental issues, but they tend to be more specific with localized case of contamination, environmental health impacts, and environmental activism in those smaller communities. I’ve got a variety of cases in Oklahoma and many are centered around some aspect of energy. And I’ve got ongoing work around a uranium processing facility in Canon City, Colorado.
I’m starting a new domestic research project on hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” which has obviously been a big issue around the country. I’m working with a couple of collaborators and we plan to seek funding from the National Science Foundation to conduct a large study on the social-environmental impacts of fracking. We’ll likely have 4 to 5 sites around the country where fracking has either been ongoing or is still under discussion.
What do you hope are the implications of your research for future researchers?
I hope it contributes to a growing body of literature that enhances our understanding of both the underlying causes and consequences of environmental problems. Very broadly speaking, that’s what I want to contribute to the field. For example, with my work on contested environmental illness I hope to contribute to a better understanding of the health consequences related to various forms of environmental harms. I’m also interested in contributing to our understanding of environmental justice. In the case of environmental contamination in Ponca City, Oklahoma, one of the primary themes was environmental injustice among a local Native American population that was being heavily contaminated from a substance known as carbon black. The local Native American population was being heavily exposed to carbon black dust and they were experiencing serious respiratory problems. Issues of justice often permeate my projects. I look at how disenfranchised populations are being impacted by environmental harms and whether or not they are receiving the same sorts of remediation efforts as other groups of citizens. So, it’s not only studying environmental issues but it’s connected to all these other areas we study in sociology, like inequality and stratification, health, and social movements. All of that comes into play and helps us understand the origins and consequences of environmental problems. In my research on social movements, I want to contribute to our growing understanding of the factors that influence and shape mobilization, particularly around environmental issues. So I think there are numerous implications from my research, ranging from theoretical contributions to practical implications.
Do you envision your research benefiting the general public at large?
I certainly hope so. Again, these are all real-world cases that I’m working on and my research has received some media attention. There was a major contamination case in Oklahoma that I worked on and some local media outlets reported on our findings. Ultimately, that case evolved into a class action lawsuit and a settlement for residents. I would like to do more to disseminate my findings to popular media outlets in order to communicate my research to a wider audience. Most of my work, though, is published in peer-reviewed, scientific outlets. It’s always a challenge to figure out ways to disseminate that information to the general public, but I certainly believe that my work is relevant and beneficial to the general public.
What are your research plans for the next five-ten years, or is there anything you’d like to achieve in your career?
I continue to be interested in environmental change in the communist/post-communist context of central Europe and the Czech Republic. I envision continuing that line of inquiry and building upon my earlier work to focus on issues related to coal, climate change and health. I’m really interested in doing more work on domestic issues related to energy and, of course, that ties directly to climate change. I’ve done previous work that looks at oil and uranium processing and I think that over the next five-ten years energy is going to be a centerpiece of my research. Part of this stream of research will involve the project examining the social and environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing. I think that’s a very important issue that we need to address in the coming years. Fracking is expanding around the country and we need to examine the social and environmental impacts. I think environmental sociologists are in a good position to conduct that kind of research.
What do you feel are the biggest unanswered questions in your areas of interest?
In terms of unexplored issues, I continue to be interested in environmental health impacts. With my research on energy, I will continue to explore the health consequences. For example, what are the environmental health impacts associated with hydraulic fracturing? Energy has always received a significant amount of attention by sociologists and will continue to do so, but fracking itself is a relatively new technology and has received little attention. In the last 3-4 years it’s really expanded around the country. So I think that on that particular topic there is much work to be done, particularly on the potential health impacts associated with fracking.
Is there a subject in the field that you wish you knew more about?
My background and training is in environmental sociology, social movements, and inequality and I wish I had more training in medical sociology. I think that would be helpful in measuring and understanding the negative health impacts associated with the environmental issues I study. That’s one area in which I wish I had more knowledge and training.
What is the most significant or exciting piece of scholarship that you read last year?
One of the best books I read was The Secret History of the War on Cancer, by Devra Davis. In the book she traces the history of the war on cancer, which has largely glossed over underlying causation factors. She draws a lot of attention to environmental factors, which is consistent with my own research. It’s an incredible book.
Is there a researcher whose work has influenced your own?
Allan Schnaiberg is one of the pioneers in environmental sociology. He was one of the first scholars to apply a critical political-economic lens to environmental problems. So, I think in many ways that was what inspired me in the field of environmental sociology. He wrote a seminal book in 1980 called The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity and that is a classic. He’s probably been one of the most instrumental influences in my career, even though I did not know him personally. My own academic advisor at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, Sherry Cable, has been another huge influence in shaping my perspective of environmental problems. But I have been fortunate to have many other informal mentors and influences throughout my career.
Do you have any words of wisdom for young scholars trying to chart a career path for themselves?
I think that, in general, mentoring is so important for any young scholar that’s starting out. My advice to these students and scholars is to develop collaborative relationships, identify mentors and people that can guide you through the process. It’s a pretty steep learning curve involved in going from undergraduate to graduate student and then going into a successful academic career. Having good mentors can really make a huge difference in that transition. So mentoring is really so important.
If you hadn’t followed this career path, what would you be doing?
I’d probably work for a non-profit organization.
Do you have a favorite place? It can be anywhere in the world.
Prague in the Czech Republic. There’s so much history and beauty there, and a lot of it is now tied to the research that I do and the experiences of the people I study. There is just so much cultural and political history in the city.
Do you have a motto or general principle you try to remain mindful of?
We used to have this little sign in our house when I was a kid that said, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” It’s kind of cheesy but that phrase does guide my outlook on things. I don’t like to procrastinate.
And, lastly, do you have any favorite free-time activities?
Most of my time is consumed with my kids, ages 4 and 6. We do a lot of family activities. I also love cycling and have raced competitively off and on over the years.
We’d like to thank Dr. Shriver for his time and participation. If you’re interested in contacting him to discuss his research, you can find more information here: Faculty Listing – Tom Shriver.
Until next time,