Jun 25, 2020
In this episode, we switch gears to shine some light on an area of the food system that may not be overtly understood as critical by many. Dr. Matthew Sanderson, Randall C. Hill Distinguished Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work and professor of sociology at Kansas Statue University joins our three hosts in discussion. Sanderson's research aims to better understand the social aspects of human nature as major drivers in approaches to relations between people and the ecosphere. His research includes a focus on social processes that integrate economies, politics, and cultures into an increasingly shared — but sometimes contested — space.
Human Dynamics Within Systems - The Sociological Application in Globalization, Development, Migration and Environment, with Dr. Matthew Sanderson Professor of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work.
We want those students also engaging with two other groups, right? We want them not just engaging with each other in their academic silos, which we are very good at doing, but to get them out of their comfort zone and be able to sit take the engineer and the sociologist and the agricultural economist and the agronomist, take them out into the field with the farmer and have them understand the system, the agricultural food energy water system from the perspective of the stakeholder. That may seem simple, but that's a pretty radical move for a PhD science science level training.
Something to Chew On is a podcast devoted to the exploration and discussion of Global Food Systems produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University. I'm Maureen Olewnik, coordinator of Global Food Systems.
I’m Scott Tanona. I'm a Philosopher of Science.
And I'm Jon Faubion. I'm a Food Scientist.
Hello everybody, and welcome back to the K State Global Food Systems podcast something to chew on. In today's podcast, we are switching gears to shine some light on an area of the food system that may not be overtly understood as critical by many. But in many ways human interactions and relationships within a given culture will guide people on how they eat, accept scientific findings in producing food and interact with one another in economic, political and sometimes contested spaces. The social aspects of human nature are major drivers in approaches to critical questions, willingness to adjust lifestyles are working norms, and interest in social drivers of using natural resources in a much divided time. Today's guest is Dr. Matt Sanderson. The Randall C. Hill Distinguished Professor of Sociology, Anthropology and social work, and professor of sociology at Kansas State University. Matt is currently exploring social drivers of natural resource use. This work concentrates especially on agricultural production, and water consumption in the High Plains Ogallala Aquifer region of the United States, our guest today is Dr. Matt Sanderson. Matt is coming to us from the sociology department at Kansas State University. And we're really excited to have you here today Matt, and understand better where the sociological aspects of your research into the global food system overall, before we get started in a discussion, as we normally do, I'd like to hear from you a little background on who you are, and what brought you to the point of your area of study what got you interested in sociology and, and working in this area?
Oh, gosh, well, thank you for having me on today. It's a real pleasure, glad to be here. And I usually, most people that know me know, I don't really like talking all that much about myself. But how I got interested in sociology and sort of how that connects with the global food system. Long story short, I was an undergraduate major here at K State. In business, I was a finance major with a minor in economics and decided after right around 911. It was 2001, 911. And I decided, there were some big questions that I still had after completing that the bachelor's degree. And so I made a big shift and went back to try to study something that I thought would give me more insight into humans, and how humans work and why the world sort of works the way it does. I was very interested. I didn't know what at the time I didn't have the language or the way of framing these questions, but I was very interested in questions about the market, and about power and about inequality and about how that works to shape human behavior and influence things like culture and social structure and norms and values around us and so on. So, sociology, I took a jump, I applied and looked at different programs in political science and sociology. I landed in sociology mainly because if I didn't have a great reason other than it seemed broad enough to answer the questions that I had, which were very big. And, you know, that's a strength and a weakness of the field. Its breadth But I loved it. And so I thought, well, I could do anything for four semesters. And if I don't like it, you know, trying a master's degree I can, I can go back and find a job in the banking world, the banking sector, the finance sector, and after two years, it'll still be okay. And I did the Masters, I loved it. I said, Well, I never really set out to get a PhD. I never thought about being a college professor. But here I am. So I guess this is the next step is to try. Look at the PhD. So did that. And long story short, I went to a small but very focused, concentrated, pretty respected program at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, and comparative international sociology. And I was really studying what is now called Global comparative sociology was comparative international then. And so I'm a comparativist. I'm a historical comparative sociologist, I'm very interested in making comparisons, analyzing social change over long periods of time, and across cases or across places. So sort of longitudinal comparative designs, finished a PhD, I got my first job in the middle of the right at the onset of the Great Recession in 2008. August of oh eight, I started my job first job at Lehigh University. In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was a joint appointment and as a sociologist, and they're global studies, new initiative and Global Studies, which is this interdisciplinary center that tried to integrate different types of work going on at the university, around issues of global importance around health, environment, community, social change, those sorts of things. And I love that. And I left that job only, because there was an opening back at Kansas State, my alma mater, and it was this was 2011. And I decided that if I was offered the job, I'd come back, and here I am. So I've been back at K State back home and my alma mater, since 2011. As my parents would probably tell you, they were very pleased. But they were also very surprised that we brought the grandkids back home and everything back home, because I had spent most of my life trying to escape Kansas, and especially rural Kansas, where I had grown up. And so to come back in your 30s, I had never thought I'd come back ever. And here I am. But I decided that what would give me the most meaning is something that's driven me since the very beginning, is not the attempt to not the chance to make the most money, I could have done that with my business degree, because I made a lot more money. But the chance to really try to impact have positive change impact the place that I places I call home and in Kansas, and especially rural Kansas, and with the knowledge and skills that I have. And so it was time to come back home. And since 2011, I've been engaged in a number of areas. A number of different types of work in Kansas and the broader Great Plains, but mostly engaging with rural communities around food, agriculture, rural community change. So in a nutshell, I mean, that's the last what 25, you know, 20-25 years? Yeah. That's that's how we ended up on this call. And and, you know, a couple minutes.
That sounds great. Just a curiosity. We're in rural Kansas, did you grow up?
Yeah, it's not so rural anymore. But I'm from Spring Hills where I went to high school, Spring Hill, Kansas. Southern Johnson County, northern Miami County on the line there. It's now a bedroom community for Kansas City. 40 years ago, it was the friend rural, outlying area of Kansas City, but it's changed a lot, a lot of subdivisions around now and so on. And my parents, my folks still live there, and my brother still lives in that area, as well. So still call at home. And I've been watching the change, kind of, you know, sort of urban encroachment into that space for a long, long time and seeing that change. And I also have family, you know, throughout the Great Plains, Nebraska, Lester, Kansas, Oklahoma. So this region really is home in a number of ways.
How was your training up to this point and your experience up to this point, or has it conditioned, the way you look back at those times? 40 years ago, when you were in Spring Hill, do you come to different conclusions now?
That's a great question. I mean, I one thing that sociology gets view that I'll never be able to fully repay my teachers and professors, but it gives you what we come to call the sociological imagination. And so what that means is that it gives you a lens through which you can understand yourself in the context of the larger society around you. And you understand much better about the forces and factors around you that shaped you and are in your head and have interacted with you're literally the DNA in your body to help shape how you see and interact with the world and vice versa. It shows you how you change that very context that shapes people, the society that you have an impact through every thought, and every action that you have every day, there are literally 1000s we don't think about them. But every thought every action is consciously remaking the very structures around us that make people that shaped people of who they are and who they can become. And so, as I've gotten older and approaching, you know, middle age now, I definitely look at home and think about home differently. And I can't unsee what I've learned about the society around us and how that shapes people, so to have more sort of theoretical or even philosophical view, yes, for sure. Having sociological training has reshaped how I think about home and what it what that means. And also given me an analytical lens to diagnose and think about what's happening there, and why and what to do about it.
I noticed that a lot of your work focuses on migration and the impact of migration in various, obviously globally, various parts of the world. Focusing down in on Kansas and the agricultural economy in Kansas view, have you done any work? Or do you focus it all on that aspect, that migration aspect on agricultural economy in Kansas?
Yeah, sure, sure. So I'll back up a little bit and tell you how I got into this spot. I seem to I don't think of myself, as you know, trying to be very comfortable with very controversial things. But I sort of end up in the middle of these things. I think I'm more so now because I study migration, and I study water. And those are those things in rural Kansas, are can be very tension can generate tension and be, you know, controversial. So, but I am a social scientist, or I think of myself that way. And so I try to understand and analyze with the lens and the tools that science gives us. And so with migration, yes, that was actually my entry point into studying rural environment issues, real water issues, caught up with groundwater conservation, so on. I wrote my dissertation on the relationship between migration and development. And this was a very across national study and playing, you know, overnight, 92 countries and over the past 50 years looking at, statistically what are the drivers of why people are moving across boundaries? And secondly, what are the consequences of those movements of those migrations, those inflows on communities? How do we measure that? Is it quote, good or bad? And for whom? And for what and over what time period? These are the questions that I was motivated with in the dissertation, I didn't start studying migration because I was thought of myself as a necessarily an immigration expert. I study it from the aspect of development. That's first and foremost, what I'm interested in this idea of social change, this idea of incessant growth economically, socially, culturally, for positive benefit, this idea of development, that's what I was really, fundamentally after, by going in sociology. And so I started becoming more interested in migration because everywhere I looked with development, you see people moving and they're either moving out or they're moving in people move that is the, it's endemic to human societies. It goes back south is it is the human story, it goes back to the beginning of humanity, people move now. The difference now is that we have things called national boundaries that never existed. So we have something called international migration that didn't exist 2000 years ago, for that matter, even 600 years ago, or 500 years ago. And so now International, the movement of people seems more complex because we are fixed by national boundaries in places. But that is, by far the anomaly of the human condition. I mean, most humans have never lived, most humans that have ever lived in the face of the earth have never lived in one place their entire life. Most humans have walked around figure moved around across all kinds of borders, and so on all through all that. So I was very interested in migration that way. And that led me Of course, from my experience in Kansas, I began being becoming very interested in southwest Kansas, because that was where growing up and throughout my childhood, and youth and so on, I had heard about all the stories of immigration. So I naturally went to the place I was most comfortable with. And that was southwest Kansas, I tried to understand, given the tools I had, what's going on here, why in Kansas, of all places, do we have this, these inflows of immigrants, particularly Latino immigrants, but in the early 80s, also Southeast Asian immigrants as well, and today, Somalis, Burmese and so on? How can we explain that? And what are the consequences of that? So I started looking at that published a lot of work on that I was trained as a social demographer. So I'm trained to look at population change, fertility, mortality, and migration. And found a lot of things about that, some of which are interesting, and some of which are not probably, but I'm fascinated in all of it. And that we could talk later if you want to, but that's what led me ultimately into looking into groundwater conservation issues as well. On the environment side, because I was trained in population and environment, those were the two substance barriers of training. On the population side, I looked at migration, that was the first part of my career up through tenure, I looked at migration issues. And then the sort of second part of my career now is looking more on the environment side and water, groundwater conservation, and food and agriculture, integrated food system sort of stuff. And it all comes together. For me out there in western Kansas, we have, it's just a fascinating place. It's got, there's water challenges, it has rural community challenges, it has population challenges, and also lots of opportunities and these things as well. So I'm naturally find myself constantly, although people are leaving that area, and they have been for a long time, I find myself going in the opposite way with my students. I'm traveling out in the middle of nowhere, Western Nebraska, western Kansas, panhandle of Oklahoma, spending a lot of time out there trying to figure out what's going on. And really, how do we, how do we encourage, how can I help facilitate a more regenerative, resilient rural community in these places?
What's the if you had to pick, two or three top limiting factors to flourishing of those communities flipped over? What might those be? Yeah, wow, too much. I mean, there's, there's immigration, but then there's diversity within the spot that has they've been immigrating to, if you will, are migrating to?
Yeah, well, I think, I think 10 years ago, I would have said, the limiting factor is something on sort of the population side, the human side, so something around immigrant density, and those sorts of things trust, those sorts of things in the community. Today, I think, I think actually less and less about, and this may be an estimate to as a social scientist to say, but today, I think less and less about the human side than I do the limiting factor of water, quite frankly. Because without water out there, none of that exists. Period. You don't have anything like a garden city without the Ogallala Aquifer underneath that period. So you'll have a lot fewer people. As the groundwater levels decline, and we shift back to dry land on dry land agriculture out there with something is inevitable. And we're arguing over the timeline over which that happens, and more importantly, why that might be worth why the water might be worth saving. But I spend less and less time actually out there talking about community level dynamics, People to People relationships, than I do, thinking about people to nature, people to environment, people to water relationships, and why that's so difficult. For a lot of sociologists environmental sociology, which I'm sort of a part I guess, is a real challenge to the field and my discipline because sociology developed as a purely, it was developed in the late summer. There's a question over when I developed but 19th century post enlightenment, right industrial revolution, there's a lot of change going on the transition from a rural to an urban society is fully in place in the late 19th century. Sociology really arises, you know, is birthed in that transition from a rural agricultural society to a modern, quote, modern industrial, manufacturing based society and all the tensions and traumas that, that brought about, that's really what sociology focuses on. And we're still there. It and one of the founders, Emile Durkheim, a French Swiss sociologist, was really trying to set sociology apart from psychology, and from some other social sciences that were emerging. So really think he went too far in trying to remove humans from the natural environment and make everything about humans themselves. So environmental sociology emerges in the mid late 20th century very recently, to try to re embed put humans back in the natural environment and talk about things like physics, and chemistry and biology, and these sorts of things, to sort of re re wed the human component that we've been looking about to these kind of biological chemistry, physics, relationships that we're looking at.
I know that at least one part of the state in the South East has been depopulated, and had significant problems because of their success in mining and the consequence of of them there is this sociology, seek to understand those horses as well, and any attempts at finding other ways for those communities to if not prosper, at least continue to stay together and not self disperse.
Yeah, so that's a good question. And the analogy, the analogy, or the case you bring up of mining communities, is for better or worse now being applied to groundwater dependent communities. Why and so, yes, and that's controversial as well. I know, I know that. But if you talk with more than a few irrigators, they'll tell you, yeah, we're miners, we mined the water. This is not, this is not a renewable resource out here. This is a finite resource, just like a coal seam. And when it's gone, it's gone. You know, and then we get into some really deep stories about what that means for human values and why that's happening and whether that should happen. But more than a few also say, You know what, no, we need to pull back. And we can extend the life of this thing, unlike a mining community in Southeast Kansas, or West Virginia for that matter. And we should have communities out here as long as we possibly can, because I or whoever goes back four or five generations, this place has meaning it's worth saving. And the water allows us to live out here. So let's get organized and try to figure out how we extend the life of this. So I can pass it down to my kids and so on. And that's the conversation going on, in a lot of these communities is even though it's not talked about that explicitly, it's do we want to look like this will be controversial, but do we want to look like a rural West Virginia? Or do we want to look like a more scaled down version of a sustainable version of, you know, eastern Nebraska type rural community? What do we want to do and those conversations that's active right now, in western Kansas, in church basements, in home now, maybe not as much with COVID? Because we can't get face to face patient. So we'll say, oh, we'll say over zoom, or wherever. I mean, those are the conversations that are taking place out there. And they're not only talking explicitly like that, but they're really talking about in a number of conversations, you know, who do we want to be? Where are we going humans are always trying to figure out what this means and who I am, and where are we and how are we good? Where are we going forward? And we do as sociologists I do as a sociologist work on issues of transition. So there are a number of tools, you know, what do we want this place to look like? And who do we want around us? And why? And are we troubled by who's around us and why and what gives us meaning and, and hope, and what challenges that and so on? So we work with those very issues. And I was struck by your mining example, because there are increasingly examples being drawn between southeast Kansas and southwest Kansas. Yeah,
It's hard to imagine the difference between Coffeyville and I don't know. Yeah, right. Southwestern Kansas. Amazing.
Yeah, or a place like the Ullyses. Syracuse. So, yeah, some place out over the over the aquifer where or if you go north right around west of Scott City where the water and in that area is already pretty low, what's left and some wells are off now or so on at Northwest Kansas, you've got some areas too that are that are having some challenging times. So working on a USDA project and on the Ogallala, and a number of us are starting to think about given we've been on this project, well, this will be the fifth year we're going to be wrapping it up this year, but a number of us are looking ahead and thinking about what's next. And a lot of the work that I did on that project is pointing to really pointing to this idea of transitions, that some places are going to want to save the water as best they can conserve it as best they can extend the life as best they can. And some are not. And that's community lead change choice, sort of self determination, right? So how do we facilitate how do we ease the transition back into a dry land form of agriculture with that base, with a lot fewer people operating a lot more land when a lot less capital? And in other areas, we're going to still have water to go after for 150 years or so it looks like so highly variable places to place to.
Yeah, sounds interesting. I spent a number of years in Minnesota. And in that case, it was communities redefining themselves, when there was no longer a timber industry to rely on. Were they going to keep an alive or further north when taconite mining was no longer profit. Yeah, but they Yeah, they stay there. They have to leave and it's there. In each case, the solution was somewhat similar, but somewhat different. And they were well underway by the time I got there. But it would have been interesting to, to see before to see the before side of that.
Yeah, exactly, another interesting comparison in with the forestry industry, the logging industry. And also think about, think about how to transition really what that means for the people that are living through those changes. And it's the same sort of dynamics, but the sort of population environment relations aren't exactly analogous. But the same sort of process here is in people's minds, because we're talking really there about culture, about norms, values and beliefs. And those don't change very easily or rapidly. And that's really what I think, you know, we've come to find out and a lot of areas in our, in our world in our in our society is the economy moves, the population shifts, things, it's a very dynamic market driven economy, it shifts quickly, the structures change, but culture does not culture lags. It does not automatically change when the economy changes. And that tension or that slippage between the economic change. And the cultural lag is really the source of a lot of tension and contradiction and confusion, argument in our society a lot.
Stigmatization people are tagged with, with being adverse to whatever play ever amounted to progress or old fashioned or inflexible, there you go in their views.
Yeah, yeah. Right. And then we argue over how fast should the change be? or not, and who benefits from those changes. And that's, that's really what we're, I think we're looking at over a lot of dimensions of society is a very dynamic market driven economy, if we're going to have that we're going to have incessant continual change, transformation. But humans, that's a very new thing in human affairs, if you go back over the scope of human history, 150-180,000 years, most humans, most humans that have ever walked on the earth, right? They were born into one family, they had one role in that group, and then they died and their kids would likely have the very same status. Right? And so we don't we don't live in that world. We live in a world that is much more open dynamic. I'm worrying about unsustainable on the resource side, but it's a much more dynamic, fast paced change world. But evolutionarily, I mean, we evolved in groups that were changed was very slow and incremental over time. 1000s of years. So we haven't caught up our culture lags the things in our head around our values, norms and beliefs. Those things get shaped In a context, but the economy and the material parts are always moving forward and outpacing us. So we're arguing over where we should be and who we are all the time. And that's a new idea for human humans, those who are given those are given questions for most of our species history, who you are and what you were was, where you were born and where you are. Now, we now we invent now we have to invent those things, and they're constantly being changes. And so we have identity crises. And we have them at various stages of our life, kids middle age. So anyway, well,
So Matt, you talked a little bit about some projects that you had worked on at K State one that was wrapping up, can you give us some notion of some of the interdisciplinary research activities you've been involved with maybe some specifics of different groups you're working with and some of the outcomes that you're looking for in those works?
Yeah, sure. So just real quick rundown of those there was there's a USDA cap, coordinated ag project cap led by Chuck rice here at K State and Megan Szczepanski and Regan Alaska met Colorado State involving collaborators. I think there's I mean, the team is huge. It's 70 to 80 people total, across the seven states over the aquifer, that project is you know, in the in the no cost extension, fifth year right now, it'll wrap up. And really what we're looking at there is, on the social side, I can't speak to the natural side of things, the agronomy side, and so on, but on the social side, trying to understand and build an integrated model of, of producer decision making. So under conditions of climate change, under conditions of market change, and under conditions of social change, and trying to build with a team of agricultural economists, and agronomist and hydrologist, and sociologists, and a single model that can A predict what has explained what has happened in this region, but also B look ahead a little bit and say, Okay, if these things change, then we can expect these sorts of scenarios going forward in this region. And bottom line, we can expect these scenarios to affect groundwater levels, over this time, time horizon, that's really the outcome we're trying to get is, is what will this do to the groundwater levels, if we change this price, this quantity, this value, this social cultural component, what happens to groundwater levels, that is a fascinating project to have been involved with. And to some degree, five years feels like we're just getting started. I mean, it's crazy. But that's a massive, massive undertaking. And that's why it hadn't been done it these, you know, I worry about the timeframe we're up against with some of these challenges. In the in the material world, but five years, we just, we built the dataset, we've got the model running, but it feels like we need another five years. And I'm not just you know, trying to ask USDA for more money, although we're going to be doing that. But five years feels like you know, now we need to see how this works, really, because it took that long to build this thing and communicate with people and learn how they these other folks how they talk and how we think as a team. So been involved with interdisciplinary things a long time. That's, one example.
Another example I worked on was with Marcellus Callidus and Jessica Heier Stamm, and many others, some of them have left K State on an NSF project on couple of natural human systems, where we were looking in the Smoky Hill River Basin to try to again develop an integrated model of how humans in the environment interact with water over time, in this particular place, and what that means for levels in the Smoky Hill water and what that means for biodiversity in our in our streams and river and Smoky Hill River and our creeks and tributaries. And what that means for farmers who are farming over this particular area, trying to build a model of how if you change the some factors on the human side, what happens to the environmental aspects of that system, the water levels, the fish levels and so on. Vice versa, if you have some external forcing event, like a changing climate under different scenarios, what happens to the environment side? And how does that feed back into effect the human dynamics of that system in a feedback loop? Right? So we're trying to build this integrative loop model of how this thing works over time in this in that particular region of the smoky hills. So that's another project I was involved with.
And another project I'm involved with, and I'm involved with right now is is called the NRT. It's a national research traineeship award to Melanie Derby from the National Science Foundation, Melanie, Dr. Derby in engineering, and the team was Stacy Hutchinson and Nathan Hendricks and others, big team as well, where we're trying to now it's a graduate traineeship award. So all most all the money goes into funding graduate students in an interdisciplinary approach to science. And the top the focus of that project is the Ogallala Aquifer and farming systems over the Ogallala. So it's it has a bunch of acronyms, but it's R cubed rural resource resiliency, national research, traineeship, and we're trying to figure out with students, And a little sort of sketch together curriculum that we're still building and developing as part of this project. How do we train the next generation of students scientists, to work with each other on very complex problems to try to get some traction on the things actually, so NSF putting money into this sort of a program as as a spearhead to kind of, I think, okay, my own interpretation, really to try to get people out of their disciplines and into rooms thinking about complex problems together as a part of their graduate training, so that when they leave the world, they leave that their PhD, they're ready to talk with an engineer is ready to talk with a sociologist, and may not know be an expert, but but at least can have a conversation about what a model should look like and what sort of things a sociologist brings to the table and vice versa, how a sociologist could understand how an engineer what they bring to the table? And what are their how do they look at the world as a starting point, as another extract to that project, we want those students also engaging with two other groups, right? We want them not just engaging with each other in their academic silos, which we are very good at doing. But to get them out of their comfort zone, and be able to sit take the engineer and the sociologist and the agricultural economist and the agronomist, take them out into the field with the farmer and have them understand the system, the agricultural food energy water system from the perspective of the stakeholder. That may seem simple, but that's a pretty radical move for a PhD Science, Science level training, is to actually have people talking with stakeholders who are acting out the system that we're studying, but that's a part of it. So these students will spend time in southwest Kansas with the research and extension folks out there, Jonathan Aguilar and Garden City, they'll spend time with farmers for a week or so this summer, and again, a little later. And then another group, we want them interacting with our policymakers in Topeka. So these students, graduate students, PhD and Master's students will spend time during when the legislature is in session. And with COVID, that has been a real interesting deal. But try to get them together with you know, have face time with policymakers to learn vice versa, about how policymakers look at food, energy, water issues, as well, to get some understanding of really trying to get between the farmers, the policymakers and the scientists trying to get some traction on what this system actually looks like, from what depending on the position you're in, in the system, if that makes sense.
So involved there to what this nerd I'm very excited about it. And it's high risk, high reward is challenged me in a number of ways when I teach in that PhD seminar, some sessions go well, some, some don't go well, because we have a very diverse group of people all very smart. But we it forces us as instructors, professors to say, how do we teach this? How do we, how do we how do we have to go back to basic pedagogy? Like, how do we, you know, where do we start trying to teach systems thinking? And how do we get people seeing this from different angles so that we can actually use science to solve problems and not just study them? That motivates me. And so that challenge is very, the big challenge, but it's very exciting. It motivates. So those are the three projects on interdisciplinary things.
The last thing I'll say there so I don't turn this entirely into a monolog is that with interdisciplinarity I've increasingly finding myself spending less time in sociology and and that I don't like that some days because I feel very like much like a fish out of water a lot of days, swimming with the engineers and so on. But, but but but when you are in that world, it's also a exhilarating because it's refreshing, it's new. And you really have to have a committed group of people that are willing to sit with each other and endure lots of communication problems. And, yeah, you got to be dedicated to learning how another person thinks, because we will not get anywhere, if you just sit down and, you know, give the traditional spiel that you give to, you know, your sociology students or your engineering students. So that's been challenging in this kind of second part of my career. But it's been a lot of fun working in interdisciplinary teams. And, I think that's really how we're going to if we're going to solve any of these big problems, we're going to have to get outside of our department, I think.
I was wondering, yeah, if you could give an example of one of the kinds of things about the human environment interaction that really, really matter, for understanding these systems. Right. So what were the kinds of values or beliefs or norms that that you're talking about, that that come up that are, you know, maybe interesting or surprising about the effects they have? Or about the ways the changes in the environment are affecting those? Because that's, you know, you're studying both ways, right?
That's right. So that's a great question. So one of the things that I've sort of zeroed in on over the years and narrowed the focus on is culture, I didn't set out to study culture, but I'm open like to think I'm somewhat open minded about, as a social scientist, I sort of am driven, led down the path that the data lead me and they've increasingly led me to culture. When I opened up that box of culture, it was a black box. It there are a lot of moving parts, but I don't know how they all work theory, there's theories about how culture works at the collective level, at the group level, but also at the individual level within the mind itself. And as I've sort of focused more on culture, I've become very interested in how culture responds to environmental changes, both in the social environment, but also in the natural environment, and vice versa. How culture human ideas, really non material ideas in their head, shape, the landscape, shapes, the atmosphere, shapes, the water systems. Right? So I'm very interested in that two way feedback and looking at culture and these relationships. So there are a lot of findings coming out from this work. I'll point to a few, I think, I think one of the bigger ones is the this idea that values held values affect natural outcomes. Right? So with held values, we're talking about fundamental ideas, guiding principles about right and wrong, good and bad, just unjust, fair, unfair. These are human constructs. These are made up ideas. They all come from somewhere. But ultimately, they're held in human minds and humans can change them. And we do. We change these things on various timescales, and they are malleable. That gives us some hope. That change is possible in our relationship with the natural environment, that change is possible in our relations with other humans. These things, these values, while they're very deeply held, and they don't change quickly, often, they can change and they do change on varying timescales and varying spatial scales. So what we found what I found with a bunch of graduate students, and I would listen, Steven Lauer just graduated fantastic graduate students, and Mariah Fisher in the Geography Department working with her lots of good students working on these things. What we found is that there are different types of values. First of all, not a huge surprise. But more importantly, that these value sets seem to drive worldviews, ideas about the world. And those values and worldviews together really shaped something as material as the flow of water in a stream. Okay, that sounds maybe far out, far fetched. But you can see these effects in the models in the statistics and the data, right. So people there are different types of values. They're really like five different types of values set. From this perspective, I'm working within their environmental or biospheric values. There are more humanistic altruistic values, there are values that are oriented more towards traditionalism. There are values oriented towards self interest, egoistic values, we call them and their values around openness to change and change itself, these five types of values that really shaped landscapes, and they also shaped interactions in group settings. What we found in a nutshell is that people not surprisingly, holding stronger environmental values, more deeply held values around relations between humans and the environment, right and wrong, what we should or should not do with, or to the natural environment. People holding stronger environmental values farm differently. When they farm differently, that as different as clear effects on things like land use, and land cover change, that has very clear effects on water levels, that has very clear effect at a scale way beyond the farm level, or even western Kansas that has very clear effects on atmospheric levels of carbon. So people, vice versa, that have, and I'm speaking generically here the day to get more nuanced and complex. And that's all in journal articles. But people that hold more strong traditional values, and self interest values, farm differently than people with stronger altruistic and environmental values.
I'll step back and say that in a couple things about that. People over the Ogallala Aquifer, the producers, the farmers, and so on, they hold each of these values to varying degrees. No one scores zero on any of these five values. And I talk a lot about that with students in a world where we polarize ourselves and put ourselves into camp, I'm a Republican, I'm a Democrat, I'm a progressive, I'm a conservative, I'm a farmer, I'm a urban citizen, you know, we have all these values we put on people, I give these tests, these values, tests, often the students in class, and one thing that always strikes them is that nobody scores zero on any of the values, we all hold them to varying degrees. And so in that there's a lot of commonality in shared values, there's just different degrees of commonality or difference. And that breaks down a lot of barriers, when you can start thinking about values that way, and shared values in that way, that breaks down a lot of barriers to trust and, and and in trying to produce some sort of positive change. So nobody holds no farmer holds these zero on any of them or or five on all of them, for that matter, all of our high levels on all of them, either. They're all sharing them to some degree, and there's some difference. The next thing I'll say is that in places that get labeled as flyover country, and more pejoratively is redneck land, and places where there's just a lot of backwards, people and so on and conservative in this that the other, ie much of rural America, when you actually give when you actually look at values, when you actually look at beliefs, you actually look at norms, you measure them, you see a lot of diversity out there, that's struck. There's a lot of diversity. And yeah, and you can see it in the data in the data, right? And we look at we talked with urban folks as well. And we give them the same questions. And we look at the data. Yes, there is a rural urban difference on sort of conjunctions or groups of these clusters. But there's also a lot of shared values between these two groups that I think get drowned out in the noise and the day to day sort of were different, or they're backward or were better, or whatever it is, right? So And here, I'm just talking about farmers. I'm not I just surveyed farmers, and there's tremendous diversity and farmers in western Kansas who would have known. They're not all the same. They have different ideas, and they have different worldviews. And some of them are operating under more constraints, financial social than others. But there is a degree of shared values operating there amidst diversity is one thing. So long way of answering that was we sort of look narrowed down on culture and especially on values and worldviews to try to understand how that shapes landscape change, how that shapes environmental change, and vice versa, how those changes then come back and reshape culture, reshape the ideas that are in humans heads about farming over long time periods, right.
So yeah, so what's the best way to be? Or what are some different ways about thinking about that diversity, right? Instead of looking at the map and seeing, you know, off Kansas or all of Western Kansas, like, one color, right, but once you see the diversity and everybody's views? How should that shift? Our thinking about land use about water use? And how to how to like adjust policy, because you're talking about, on the one hand, like individual values, right, but then we're also talking about, you know, collective decisions and general policies and individual actions that affect other people. So how do you translate that, that understanding of the diversity of views into thinking about water use and farming?
Well, yeah, so it's a good question. And it really gets back to this agency structure debate that's been going on in sociology, social science. Sure, Humanities philosophy, as well for a very long time. And that debate basically is about individual and society, self and society. How To what degree are these aligned or misaligned and when we when we talk about natural resource management, there have a common pool resource, which is what we have with the Ogallala, they're all drawing, essentially, from the same bathtub, they each put a straw, right each irrigator put the straw down into the, into the tub, and when they pull it out, it lowers the levels, other places. So we have a common pool resource problem, where one person's actions affect another person. And in some degree in unknown ways, still, now the hydrogeology geology has gotten a lot better about that. We can measure love well levels, and so on. And Kansas geological survey does that very well annually, and so on. Not my area. But my understanding is Kansas is really a leader in being able to measure this resource, this water compared to places like California, Central Valley, and so on. But we do have a common pool resource raises questions about fairness, about power of any one actor and what they can do to other actors in the system, fairly or unfairly. And so, enter, you know, a project where we're asking questions about, what should we do with the water that's left? And that raises all these questions of, well, if Joe or Jill, or Susie or Bob pulls this water out, you know, I'm out, I'm out of luck, and they've got more wells, and they've got more money and so on. These people working on these have been wrestling with these questions long before a little, you know, token sociologist comes along and starts asking these questions. I think what a sociologist can bring to that conversation is to try is that is the skills to try to make our values more explicit, and put them on the table in a structured discussion facilitation environment, and allow people who are at the table to make decisions about this shared resource that they otherwise wouldn't make in their own house or with their own farm family, or they'd otherwise, I don't want to say we're facilitators or adjudicators, like, you know, mediators are legal process by any means, but where otherwise, you would resort to, you know, you know, suing the neighbor or doing this, that or the other, make sure that your water was protected, say, okay, as a community level, at a community level, what, what do we want to happen? And why? And there, as you just heard from the discussion about values, there's a lot of diversity in the responses about what should happen with that water and why it should happen. But very few people are explicitly acknowledging their fundamental ideas about right and wrong in those conversations. They're drawing on what we call a cultural toolbox that they're given. And they don't really question it, because it's so deep in their mind. They've been so socialized, they don't. It's just not their opinion is right. And it's natural, because it just is that's the only thing that they know it's right. It's fair, you know, when you open up that box and allow conversations about, well, why do we want to save water? For who? Who benefits about that? And why do why would we want to conserve this? Why would we not want to conserve it? You don't you do start up discussions about tradition, and convention and outreach And toward others, or lack thereof, and the environment, and you really more deeply at the deepest level. And this is what we've been looking a lot at over the past year to really open up bigger conversations about identity, and who people are, and what gives their life meaning. And the water out there is really allowing these things to have these conversations, these feelings, these ideas about who they are to, to manifest sort of on the landscape, but they're asking questions about fundamentally about who I am I, and what am I doing? And those are questions in turn about. And this gets very provocative, but about humans and the natural world, at the deepest level about God, and about your idea of reality. And about often, as I said, in some public talks, whether you ultimately think that God put the water in the ground for you to use it, or whether that's not the case. And those discussions are rarely happening in policy circles. Those are never happening. We're arguing there about rights and legalities underlying all that what I'm trying to say underlying all that is a whole nother level that isn't talked about, but is really driving those discussions. And that's where I want to be, I want to be at the underneath level of the real driving motivations for people to action. Right. And that's what we're trying to do with this with these in very humbly and with these projects.
That's incredibly hard work. But I guess the idea, yeah, right, then. But yeah, you make these underlying things a little bit more explicit. And then you're also able to point out where, where there are commonalities, right, and give a place for discussion. So that there's a possibility for agreement to another level, I guess.
Yes. And so Exactly. So who am I to say whether we should conserve water in Western Kansas? That's a controversial statement as well, because of course, Kansas water law says the water in the under the ground, again, is to be used for the benefit of all Kansans. And I'm not maybe not a lot of people are aware of that. But Kansas has a very, very interesting water law that Texas does not have, Texas has right of capture, which says if the water is under your ground, you do with it what you want. And for your benefit. Kansas doesn't say that Kansas water law says the water under your ground is to be used for the it's called the beneficial use clause. The water under your property is your right property, right. But it is to be used for the benefit of the citizens of the state of Kansas. Right. So bringing people together. And at least making explicit why we're doing what we're doing with water in this place. is I think the least that should be done. Because if even if it does, we it's pumped dry, we will know why we did it. There will be no mistake about why it was done if we talk about our values. Otherwise, if we never if we never have that conversation, it'll be which we may never get to that level on the scale we need. But if we never have that conversation, we're going to argue a lot about this water law or that water law or this, this, this farmer or that farmer. And the conversation I'm much more interested in is about why we did why we're doing what we're doing. And if we collectively, as a group, decide that it's not we're saving or we're not we don't think it's this is there's a reason why this isn't the ground, it's the US and so on. At least our heirs and our ancestors will know why we did what we did. Whether we conserved it or not. And we'll be explicit about that. I don't think it's too much to ask, but it's very controversial and very hard work for sure.
I really appreciate the input that you gave us. This was very, very interesting discussion and brought to light a lot of areas to consider when we are looking at some of the hard science problems. You know, water usage is obviously one of the areas that you've been most heavily focused on, but I really appreciate your time and this has been really great.
No, this has been a great conversation. Thanks so much for joining us.
No, I'm glad to have the opportunity to share something about what I've learned and what we've been doing and, and why we're doing it. One last thing, Maureen and not to get on you, this is a very common thing, but you listen to what I been talking about and so on, I think we'll have to start talking about all sciences as the hard sciences now. Engineering into it's always like hard science and soft science. And I'm not at all opposed that many things about what I do are soft in the sense that they're fuzzy. They're unknown. There's a lot of uncertainty. We don't have a lot of precision in the measures and so on. I feel like what we're doing is maybe the hardest science, I never missed an opportunity to point out so I'm not calling you out directly. I'm just saying in general, hard and soft sciences. I don't know maybe we need a new dichotomies ation of our Science. But more on that later for another podcast.
Very, very fair. Fair comment. Yeah, no, the conversation. You guys helped me out here. You'll have to help me come up with the right word to differentiate between the two approaches, but Well, again, I really appreciate your time. This has been an enlightening conversation.
It's been really great. Keep up the good work.
Thanks so much.
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Our music was adapted from Dr. Wayne Goins’s album Chronicles of Carmela. Special thanks to him for providing that to us. Something to Chew On is produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University.