American Sociological Association

Sociology in Action: Stephanie Malin

Stephanie Malin, Colorado State University, has worked with a number of different grassroots organizations throughout Colorado on environmental justice issues. ASA asked Malin about her work:

What are the missions of the organizations? On some projects, my community partners focus on the public health, environmental justice, and quality-of-life impacts of unconventional oil and gas production (especially “fracking”). Each group works in different ways to represent local concerns, bringing the concerns, needs, and environmental justice and health experiences of citizens to the table as Colorado discusses related regulations. These groups are focused on attaining procedural equity. Other groups I work with focus on environmental justice and health implications of nuclear facilities, such as the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant in Arvada, Colorado. These groups work to bring attention to related contamination, current concerns over proximate housing development, lack of transparency and effective information, and ongoing health concerns.

Could you describe your work with these organizations? The oil and gas project is funded by National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (an arm of the NIH) and is three years long. We use social scientific, public health, and epidemiological data related to quality of life and stress impacts, if any, of living near unconventional oil and gas activity. It involved multi-community surveys, biomarker collection, ethnographic fieldwork, and in-depth interviews with affected citizens and institutional reps.

My research related to the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant is community-based. My research team works to capture oral histories of individuals with rare cancers or diseases with which they or members of their families have been diagnosed and which they link to exposure to plutonium and other contaminants. We are also working with several groups focused on increasing public awareness of the issue and transparency and signage in new neighborhoods, parks, refuges, and roadways built near the former plant.

What sociological knowledge and/or skills did you use? Qualitative methods, specifically ethnographic and interview; participatory methods; survey methods; political-economic theory; environmental justice and health; and governance.

How did you connect with the organizations you worked with? I conduct ethnographic and participatory action research, and these groups have worked with me as community partners for various studies. But the first step is just getting my feet on the ground and making connections with community members. Once I’ve identified them, these community groups help us ensure thatwe're asking effective questions and working on the ground with grassroots groups, especially given that my research focuses on environmental justice, health, and governance.

How long have the projects run? NIH-funded project: 40 months; Rocky Flats project: Two years.