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 foundation of human cultures and societies, which each of our faculty explores from a distinct perspective.
Today, we meet Dr Stefano B. Longo, who joined the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in the 2013-2014 academic year as an Assistant Professor specializing in Environmental Sociology.
Thank you for joining us, Dr. Longo. Could you begin by giving us a little information on where you and your family are from?
I was born in Queens, New York. I lived there when I was a little child, and then my family moved to Long Island. My family is originally from Sicily, so we were an Italian-American family living in the New York Metro Area. I grew up just outside of Queens in a town called Valley Stream. I eventually moved and have lived in a lot of different places since. Outside of Valley Stream, I lived in Oregon for the longest when I was in graduate school.
Where did you attend college and what did you study?
I earned my bachelor’s degree in psychology from Pace University in New York. I earned my first master’s in Education from the University of Colorado – Boulder in 1997. I earned a master’s of science in sociology from the University of Oregon, and then my Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Oregon in 2009.
How did you discover sociology and when did you know it was what you wanted to pursue?
It was a long transition period from my master’s in education to a career in sociology. I got my Ph.D. at a later age than some people do, or later than the average person that gets a Ph.D., I guess. Part of my interest in sociology began with studying education and being exposed to the issues of social inequality, class, and access to education or the inequalities in educational opportunity. That was the initial starting, but I was also working. I did some substitute teaching. I worked in the printing industry in Manhattan, in New York, for many years. That experience of interacting with different individuals, the process of trying to make ends meet as a so-called middle class American living in the New York Metro Area, and all the challenges associated with middle class life in the modern United States opened my eyes to a variety of issues.
I started to do independent study, you could say, on these kinds of issues. I did as much reading as I could and I was exposed to different thinkers, just from my own interest. Initially, I was very interested in issues related to marketing, consumerism, and the media, just because of the job I was in, and that exposed me to a whole area of thought. A lot of the work we did in printing was putting together materials for organizations, like ads and posters, associated with trying to get people to buy more stuff, and it was throwaway material. I was looking at all of the resources, time, energy, and money, and all of the images that went into this process of trying to get people to buy more stuff. I started looking for research to examine those issues. I read people like Noam Chomsky, Neil Postman, Robert McChesney and their work on media, and all the people and thinkers associated with Monthly Review, which I had started to read as part of my independent study, like John Bellamy Foster, who I ended up working with, along with others, at the University of Oregon. I came across this body of work and was seeking answers to the dilemmas that I faced as a middle-class working-class person in New York. In thinking about and examining these areas, I developed a very critical perspective on these areas, like how consumerism was creating social problems, and used a lot of resources, and that’s how I became interested in the environment. I was looking at all of the resources that went into producing not only this marketing material that influenced and shaped people to buy more stuff but also the resources used to produce the stuff. Being in New York you get a certain view on that because there is a great deal of wealth concentrated there, and it’s also a kind of fashion conscious, cutting-edge kind of place where people are very interested in displaying their possessions and wealth. I began reading Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class about conspicuous consumption, those kinds of things.
I shifted trajectory and ended up in Oregon. When I was looking for graduate schools, I applied to a bunch of places and I ended up in Oregon because there was the link with John Bellamy Foster, who taught there and also edited Monthly Review, which I had been exposed to. I met John and we spoke. We still have a good relationship, but he wasn’t actually my advisor. I ended up working closely with Richard York. Both John and Richard are environmental sociologists. At the time, I was interested in doing a sociology of consumption and environment kind of thing, and have really just focused on political economy, environment and the social drivers of environmental problems since then. I’m hoping that someday I’ll get back to looking at the political economy of consumerism and climate change because I’m still interested in going back to that initial interest.
Have you had any jobs besides teaching and working in the printing industry?
Yes, many. I have worked at a locksmith, in a couple of recording studios, a few coffee shops, also various packaging and shipping departments. When I finished my Ph.D. in 2009, my first academic job was at University of Illinois – Springfield in their Environmental Studies department. They were looking for a social scientist (a sociologist, an economist, or a political scientist) that did environmental issues. Environmental studies is a broad area of research that tries to be multidisciplinary or, ideally, interdisciplinary. In that department, I had to be more expansive than sociology. But I was looking to get back into a sociology department, and East Tennessee State University was looking for someone in environmental sociology, so I got the job. But I’ve actually been working to get a job like this, or even this job [at North Carolina State University], since I left Oregon in 2009. So, when the opportunity came up, I was thrilled.
Now that you’re here, what courses will you be teaching?
Environmental sociology. I’ve taught it many times. I’ve also previously taught Sociology of Development, Globalization and Development, Community, Environment and Society, and Sustainable Development. I’ve taught the Intro to Sociology course many times. I will also be teaching sociological theory here.
Could you describe your teaching style or philosophy?
My philosophy is to engage students to think critically and to develop the kind of skepticism and questioning that’s fundamental to scientific investigation. I try to encourage dialogue. I try to encourage critical thinking, and analytical thinking in the classroom. For me, those are the most important skills a student can get from my class. They’ll learn some research skills, they’ll learn some content and knowledge, but the ability to think and analyze are the most important things to me. I try to use a somewhat Socratic method. I try to ask a lot of questions to get them to reflect and think about things. But it depends on the level. For freshmen, there’s a different strategy from a senior-level or even a graduate-level course. I still want freshmen to think critically, reason, and analyze but I find that there are other skills they need at that level. You have to provide some time and space for them to learn the basics of what it means to engage at a university-level of learning.
Ultimately, I want them to be able to carry on a conversation and debate and really question many of the assumptions that they have about the world. It’s all about them gaining the ability to question the basic assumptions that they have about the world, which they all come in with and we all have. I try to use personal examples to illustrate the different ways that society shapes our belief systems. I ask them to look at those things and ask themselves why society is organized this way and not a different way and to challenge some of those assumptions. Ultimately, that’s what I’m trying to build.
What do you think are the most important attributes of a good instructor?
Being well prepared and being organized. I think those two things are very important. Knowing where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. What are the steps involved? How are you going to hit those things? And kind of sticking to that plan, you could say, and knowing that ultimately there has to be an arc to the course and being able to build that. I think preparation and organization, for each class and the whole course, are important. Scaffolding or building knowledge, concepts, ideas and analytical abilities, one on top of another over the course of the semester, and then drawing them all together at the end of the semester, is part of organization. If you don’t have that organization, if you’re not thinking through it, you can’t think about where you’re going to start or where you’re going to end. I don’t always do as well as I’d like to do and I don’t always live up to my ideals, but I think I’m someone who is willing to try different things in the classroom and see what works. I’m someone who is more flexible and willing to try different approaches to teaching and learning and use a variety of methods and approaches in a classroom. That’s how you learn what works and doesn’t work, and that’s how you improve your class.
If you could create and plan your dream course, what course would it be?
I’ve always had a problem with the dream thing or favorite thing because I have so many favorites. I guess, right now, it would be marine sociology. I am immersed in this area and it would be interesting to put something like this together for students to examine human social organization and the ways that we interact with and rely upon ocean systems, for example.
Another ‘favorite’ question coming up. What are some of your favorite assignments for students?
My students tend to like when I give them biographical assignments using a sociological perspective because everyone likes to talk about themselves. The one that is most popular, which I got from my advisor, is assigned in the environmental sociology course when they are asked to develop a project in which they’re required to change some part of their life in a way that they think will have an environmental benefit. They have to change their life in a way that they think will have an outcome beneficial to the environment, like recycling, eating locally or organically, becoming vegetarian, taking the bus or bicycling, and then they journal about it, reflecting based on specifics they are given, and then they write a paper and do a presentation about that. In doing that they have to draw together what they’ve learned in class and try to analyze their experience. The idea is not that they’ll change the world by making this small step but that they’ll recognize the challenges associated with having a positive impact on an individual level. There are many barriers to that, and many problems associated with trying to solve environmental problems one person at a time. They also learn about the structural components of how environmental problems are developed.
For example, they may say, “I want to reduce my fossil fuel consumption so I’m going to try to ride my bike to work.” And then they find that it’s really hard to ride their bike because they almost got ran over five times, or it wasn’t very convenient. Why aren’t the streets very friendly to bicycles? Why don’t we have bike lanes? Why is it that bicycling is not really common? One student, knowing that some people have challenges with access to water, tried to do a few days of only using as much water as she could carry. She could carry a certain amount each day and she could only use that for all of her needs. It was only a few days but there were many difficulties. Another person tried to eliminate all plastic, not just recycling, but all plastic, and found that it was impossible. And that’s the interesting thing . Look at how ubiquitous something like plastic has become. Why do we use plastic for all things that we used to not use plastic for? So, they start to learn about some of these bigger questions and problems.
They always say that they learn a lot from trying to do this, and they also like the social interaction they get. Inevitably, if they’re trying to ride a bike or become vegetarian, they’re going to go out with their friends and they won’t be able to drive or eat at a certain place, so they have to talk about the project they’re doing. They see how other people are interested and they learn a lot from trying to explain the process to other people.
Can you tell us about your current research interests?
I’m examining human systems and their interactions with ecological systems, and also looking at the current era of modern capitalism and the associated environmental concerns that we have right now and trying to understand the drivers of those environmental concerns, and analyzing them in a way that can help us think about alternative social organization that can enable us to live more ecologically and economically sustainably, recognizing the foundation that these life support systems offer us. I’m interested in the ways that modern societies interact with natural systems.
In the past I’ve looked at food production and agriculture, but my main focus in my dissertation research was associated with marine systems, ocean systems, fishing and aquaculture, and I was looking at the bluefin tuna fishery in the Mediterranean, specifically in Sicily and later on in Sardinia. I’ve been visiting that region since I was one year old and have been going for many years, so I have close ties to the area and was very interested in the ways that this fishing system was massively transformed in the past few decades. The particular system of bluefin tuna fishing I studied in that region dates back to about a thousand years and, in that region, bluefin tuna fishing in general dates back thousands of years, as far as we know. But there’s a specific type of fishing that was developed in this region which was active until just a couple of decades ago. So, questions about sustainability were very relevant here. We were looking for what sustainable is and what sustainable food production could look like. Obviously, it was a sustainable food production system; they were doing it for a thousand years. And in the span of fifty years, we’ve managed to decimate it. How does that happen? Fishing that’s been occurring in a specific way for thousands of years is decimated in fifty years! What are the processes that bring that about? That’s what I examined there.
Since then, I’ve shifted into more broad examination of marine systems, which I’m calling marine sociology, which is not something that many people are doing. It’s on the margins of the margins. I’m examining those systems and recognizing that our relationship with ocean ecosystems are much deeper than we think. No pun intended. We’re relying on ocean ecosystems all the time. Did you know that the ocean produces about fifty percent of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere? Just an example. And then, of course, it’s a food source. It’s a source of recreation and economic development. We’re very closely linked to ocean ecosystems and we tend to ignore them. In fact they become dumping grounds. So, it’s a similar tale that we’ve seen before. We start with a human-centered belief that there are so many resources available that humans can’t imaginably deplete a resource like that, and yet these vast oceans that we thought we could not impact because they’re so big are being negatively impacted by human action, even destroyed. We’re dumping tons and tons of toxics and plastics in the oceans. Did you know that there’s a garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean the size of the state of Texas? Any beach you go on you can find plastics. Not only big pieces, it often gets broken down into little pieces. The scale of the impact that we’re having on these ocean systems that are fundamental to life is extraordinary and we don’t even think about that. Even environmental sociologists are not considering ocean systems, really. We’re really biased towards the terrestrial, for some obvious reasons. But other reasons, we kind of see the examination of marine systems as what natural scientists do. Those are all aquatic creatures out there. People don’t live out there, so we don’t study that. But, in fact, we need to recognize the importance of these systems.
One of the most notable aspects of marine sociology recently is climate change, of course. Ocean systems are fundamental for establishing climate conditions. They’re taking up like thirty to fifty percent of the CO2, which is one of the reasons why climate change is happening kind of slowly. However, as the oceans warm they’ll take up less and there’ll be more CO2 in the atmosphere. So the role that the ocean is playing in climate change is important but beyond that we have issues of sea-level rise and increasing storms and coastal communities and other issues that are directly associated with ocean systems. I’m interested in those things. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to expand on the coastal aspect of it being in North Carolina. I know there’s a lot of discussion about these problems, especially sea-level rise in this area.
Do you have any major research projects that you’re currently working on?
I haven’t given up on the tuna stuff, but I’m thinking about developing this area of marine sociology and first establishing that this is a legitimate area of study and developing theoretical models, approaches, and frameworks to try to understand this and hopefully, in the near future, I’ll be developing some specific projects, possibly drawing on coastal issues here in this region. I have been doing international research, for a while, and it might be nice to switch and look at more local issues. I really have to do a little work to determine where I’m going to spend my time because there are multiple different projects that I could do. I could look at the ways that coastal communities are dealing with storms and how they’re preparing for that, the political and economic realities of that, the ways that it’s affecting the communities in terms of their economies, tourism, the money that’s being spent to rebuild, and the political contentions around that. Or I could look at fishing systems and fishing communities and what’s happening in terms of the fishing populations, as an economic activity, and the ecological realities of those stocks off the coast. There are also issues with North Carolina’s aquaculture. I could look at trout farming and things like that. There are different avenues and ways that I can develop this and I haven’t completely decided how I want to do that. Right now, I’m thinking more broadly and making sure that this is established and accepted. One of the things I’ve dealt with is the response that marine ecosystems seem like an odd thing to study because I get into the ecology of these systems and sometimes more mainstream sociologists think it’s odd. Much like the environmental sociologists had challenges in the ‘70s from mainstream sociology that said this isn’t sociology, that it’s a study for the physical and natural sciences, I’m going through the same kind of process. We’ve come to understand that environmental issues are social issues, and not just in terms of just studying environmental attitudes but also studying environmental problems and our ocean systems are part of that.
Can you tell us about the theoretical framework you’re developing?
I’ve worked on this with other individuals, and we’ve used a human ecology perspective, which goes back to early environmental sociology and recognizes that human societies are not disconnected from their ecosystems. The human ecology perspective says that we are embedded in our ecosystems, and there is an ecological complex that we are interacting with all the time that is necessary to sustain life. It seems obvious to us now that we are interconnected with ecological systems but early environmental sociologists were saying that there was a human exemptionalist paradigm where humans saw themselves as exempt from the natural environment and that they could create their way out of anything with human technology and ingenuity. We had this kind of separation from the demands and laws of ecology, which is totally false and just human hubris. So, they were trying to tackle that and say that we can’t ignore ecological systems. In fact, they’re necessary not only for basic life but for all forms of life, and complex human organizations cannot happen without ecological systems, and these need to be part of what we study as sociologists.
We’re also using a more recent approach called social metabolism or metabolic analysis, which has been developed in environmental sociology by people like John Bellamy Foster, but also Austrian thinkers. Social metabolism basically looks at the ways that human and natural systems interact and exchange, or the metabolism of a society. It looks at how a society extracts resources and how it dumps its waste, and how humans in different periods in history and in different types of social organizations have different metabolic relationships with their environment. So, the focus is really on modern capitalism and the social metabolism as created by that political economy, which is one of expansion and growth, which is one of seeking and accumulating profits, which are central drivers of the ways that we interact with nature. Those are the general frameworks. We’re looking at different aspects of different environmental issues and examining using that theoretical lens.
For example, ocean acidification is something sociologists are not talking about at all. They’re talking about climate change, but no one is talking about ocean acidification, which is a huge problem also tied to CO2 production and is a twin problem which can have serious consequences as well for marine ecosystems. Using the human ecology perspective, we are linked to those systems, so massive transformation and collapse of those ecosystems is going to affect us in various ways.
What methodology do you think you’ll be using for the projects in marine sociology?
In the past I’ve done quantitative and qualitative research. My most recent publication was a quantitative paper but I foresee some qualitative research involved in going to communities and doing interviews. So, I’d say both since there’ll be a need for both methodologies. It really depends on the question and what data is available. For example, ocean acidification is affecting producers of mollusks, so you might want to do a case study of that and that might require doing interviews. But also, looking at aquaculture systems and the globalization of production, you could look cross-national quantitative data and do a quantitative analysis. It really depends on the scale of it, if it’s a broad, global analysis or a case study, and both are appealing to me.
Have you faced any challenges so far in building this project?
A big challenge is trying to convince people that the research area is valid for sociology and helping them understand the social relevance. There’s also the challenge of now trying to put this together formally rather than in multiple conversations with people. But the biggest challenges that I encounter with all of my research is that I really take seriously the multidisciplinary nature of environmental sociology. Of course, I’m constantly working on social analysis and honing those kinds of skills but when I go into a different project I need to be well-versed in all aspects of it. Take marine systems, for instance. I study books on marine conservation ecology and oceanography, and that isn’t what I studied, but over the years I’ve spent time learning that literature as best as I can so that I’m conversant in it and can draw on that. And that’s important, particularly in doing this kind of social metabolism work and understanding how its mechanisms work, or when I’m looking at ocean acidification and understanding how that process works. In terms of our social metabolism, I think it’s helpful to think about how the combustion of fossil fuels, the production of CO2, is part of our interaction with broader global systems. And what happens with that CO2? Part of it goes here and part of it goes there, and when it gets into the oceans what does it do? It seems so far removed from us yet it’s directly related to the activities that we’re doing on a daily basis. Understanding that requires a well-versed, interdisciplinary approach. So one of my big challenges is trying to live up to the bar that I’ve set for my own interdisciplinarity research, in terms of content, method, and theory and really trying to understand the theoretical underpinnings of, say, ecology. It gets quite complex. How would a natural scientist study this stuff? What is the data that they’re using and would that be applicable to what I’m doing or not? I think it’s very challenging because on a weekly basis I’m not only reading sociology journals but I’m reading Science, and Nature, and Conservation Biology, and trying to keep up with that literature as well because I want to know what the latest research is saying about these issues.
What do you hope the implications of this research will be for future researchers?
I’m hoping that it’s recognized that we have to more broadly understand what we mean when we talk about sociology. We can’t limit ourselves. Sociology has a lot to offer in terms of looking at environmental problems and showing how far sociological thinking can reach into our understanding of our interactions with natural systems. I’m hoping that others will look at this kind of work and start to develop more work like I’m talking about because I can’t possibly do all of this work. I hope sociologists start to look at these coastal issues, and that they start to examine the problems associated with marine systems.
Do you envision your research benefitting the general public?
I hope so. I hope that we begin to recognize that we’re destroying the planet, and that if we don’t do something about it then we’re going to have serious problems. And we’re already starting to see serious problems. So, ultimately the hope is that sociological investigation of these issues gets to the real root of the issues and we start to address those problems at the root rather than superficially and that we move to more ecologically-minded, ecologically-sustainable paths because the current path is a short-term path.
What do you feel are the biggest unanswered questions in your areas of interest?
A lot of the questions are unanswered. What are the drivers of certain ecological problems? I mean the ultimate social drivers. On one hand, we know because we’ve done the research. On the other hand, we’re still understanding these processes. You could say they’ve been answered but there’s a process when doing this research and pinpointing answers. There’s still debate about it. Second, how can we organize a society that is ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable? That’s a big question, not only for sociology, but for a variety of areas of study. These aren’t easy questions to answer, and they may not be completely answerable but we can at least understand parts of what is required in order to organize that society. I don’t think that there’s any one answer to it and it’s all place and time dependent. I think we can at least develop some answers to the most important components of that big question.
Is there a subject in the field that you wish you knew more about?
There are a lot of subjects in the field that I wish I knew more about, which is part of my problem. I’m interested in so many areas in the field. For example, my recent experience of becoming a parent and starting a family has made me way more interested in the sociology of family, marriage, and the life course. But I always try to tie those interests back into my interest in the political economy and the environment, so I’d be looking at how current political-economic circumstances create certain challenges for modern families. I think about these challenges in economic ways, in terms of the cost of healthcare and daycare and schools and educational options, things like that. I’m also very interested in work and labor, which is also part of the political economy. And, of course, social inequality, which is really a foundation for what we’re doing in sociology. It’s always in the background of what I’m thinking about and it ties into what I’m doing in environmental sociology because there are issues of environmental justice. So, social stratification-inequality is always something that I could develop more in my own research.
What is the most significant or exciting piece of scholarship that you’ve read in the last year?
Probably, Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You by Agustín Fuentes. I’m very interested in the notion of human nature and how these general, normative ideas about gender, sex, and race are developed, but also the academic and scientific discourse about what human nature is. For me, this all kind of ties into the sociology of science, which is another area I want to know more about. It ties into these rigid notions of human nature and how we conduct research in the academy with preconceived notions about how the world works, even natural scientists have them, and they kind of spill over into the rest of the world. It’s closely related to books by Stephen Jay Gould like The Mismeasure of Man, which I read a while ago. It’s more a history of how we’ve developed certain views about race, intelligence, and biological determinism, and how those views shaped social understanding about what it means to be human. Another good one is Managed Annihilation by Dean Bavington, where he talks about the failed management of cod fishing off the coast of Canada. It’s fascinating and also tied to the sociology of science and, of course, marine sociology because of how the fishery scientists developed these models for how much we should catch and what we can do, a lot of which comes from a faith in technology and in their models that doesn’t necessarily reflect reality as the case of the cod points out. It was a very closely-managed fishery that collapsed.
Do you have any words of wisdom for young scholars trying to chart a career path for themselves?
You need to be really passionate about what you do. That’s one of the things that drives me. One of the central characteristics that make me do what I do is my passion for the subject matter. These things that we’re talking about, about ecological sustainability and long-term ecological problems and trying to solve them, I’m really passionate about. And that’s one of the great things about this job. At least you get to do something that you care about. So, I would say be passionate, and not in a superficial way. It has to be real. You have to have something internal that drives you. You may not make a lot of money and you’re running around a lot, but at least you get to pursue, teach, and write about the research that you really care about. In the long run that’s essential for success. Of course, you also have to have skills, reading, writing, organizational, and analytical skills. Those things are basic requirements but to be a good researcher, I think you have to have passion for what you’re doing.
Do you have a favorite place? It can be anywhere in the world.
Some of my favorite places, and here you can use the word ‘favorite’ because it’s true, are the islands of southern Italy, Sicily and Sardinia. That’s where I’ve done my research and where I spend a lot of time. Historically and personally for me, Sicily has been important, but more recently, I love Sardinia. The culture, the lifestyle, the art and architecture.
Do you have any free-time activities that you enjoy?
I don’t have any free-time activities because I have no free time. I’m a junior scholar, untenured professor, and I’m a parent of a five year old and a two year old. And I’m a homeowner again. What free time?
We’d like to thank Dr. Longo for his willingness and good humor. If you’re interested in contacting him to discuss his research, you can find his information here: Faculty Listing – Stefano B. Longo.
Until next time,