Q&A faculty spotlight: Becky Mansfield

July 20, 2023

Q&A faculty spotlight: Becky Mansfield

Becky Mansfield

Becky Mansfield studies nature-society geography, political ecology and science studies. She is particularly interested in how traditional ideas about a separation between humans and nature seem to be giving way to new, non-dualist, fluid understandings of nature-society dynamics that undermine any notion of foundational separations. Yet a central focus of her work is how these non-dualist nature-society relationships do not erase but transform and unleash new power dynamics. This raises key questions about who (both human and non-human) will benefit and who will be harmed and in what ways. Questions about race, gender and reproduction are central to these new power dynamics and problems of injustice.

Please list your educational history including degrees earned and universities attended. 

  • PhD, Geography, University of Oregon
  • MS, Environmental Studies, University of Oregon
  • BA, Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz.

Please describe your current research or area(s) of interest.

In an era of rapid environmental change and enormous social upheaval, I am interested in the relationship between people and nature. Most broadly, my research seeks to explain socio-ecological problems and identify pathways to environmental and social justice. Much of my research is about the power dynamics (forms of influence and advantage) that shape what people do, what we know, and the unequal patterns of benefit and harm that result. On the one side, I am interested in understanding the social dimensions of environmental problems: the causes of environmental problems and their uneven effects (e.g., by race, gender, class, location). On the other side, I am interested in understanding the environmental dimensions of social problems: how what seem to be entirely social issues (such as racial injustice) are tied up in both environmental change and our ideas about nature. Bringing these together, my research is often about our changing ideas about the relationship between nature and society, and how that affects what we know and do.

More specifically, my research for the past 15 years has focused on environmental health, with a specific focus on questions of pollution and toxic exposure. This research has several parts:

  • I have identified key features of the enormous paradigm shift that has occurred as scientists increasingly understand how profoundly living organisms—including humans—are influenced by chemical exposures. This generates a new of view of the body as part of the environment rather than as largely separate from it.
  • I have analyzed failures of government regulation to address this new knowledge, such that we continue to live in a harmful, chemically saturated world. My interest is in both the political-economic and scientific dynamics of this lack of protective regulations.
  • Following this, I have identified ways that individuals are made responsible for protecting themselves from toxicity, and ways this burden falls unequally on people who can get pregnant, racialized people and poor people.
  • Following the idea that our biology is open to the environment (rather than fixed in our genes), I have also followed how this has generated desire for new medical and behavioral intervention to make us more “perfect.” This desire suggests that eugenic ideas about improving human life persist, though sometimes in new forms.

Building on all this, I am also part of a collaborative project here at Ohio State called UNIDE: Undergraduate Network for Increasing Diversity in Ecology. We hypothesize that the absence of the ecological experience, knowledge and perspectives of Black, brown and Indigenous people in ecology and environmental science is one of the causes of the lack of racial diversity in these fields. We propose that revising what counts as environmental science to be more inclusive will help diversify these fields.

What influenced you to select your area(s) of study and how has that impacted your career?

When I was 15, growing up in Pennsylvania, I had the opportunity to volunteer for a week at an outdoor school for elementary school students. I had no particular interest in the environment at the time, but it sounded like fun and got me out of school for a week. I came away saying “I want to do this,” and ended up choosing a college where I could major in environmental studies.

In hindsight, my career path has been quite straightforward, as I studied environmental issues through all my degrees, and then became a professor here at Ohio State where I could continue to do so throughout my career.

But there were many points along the way when I didn’t know what I wanted, and of course I couldn’t predict what the outcome of my choices would be. After college I moved to Oregon and worked for a few years on organic farms and plant nurseries. While in graduate school I was very unsure I could get a job as a professor. Once I had my job, I found my specific interests changing in ways that led me into entirely new areas (while now I study environmental health, I used to study the political economy of fisheries!). Letting myself follow winding paths and being open to unexpected opportunities, without too much fear about how it will go, has been key.

What undergraduate classes do you teach? 

Geography 3800 Environment and Society. This course is about how people relate to the natural environment, emphasizing the multiple ways that humans and nature are always entangled. The course provides historical perspective and addresses how ideas about humans and nature have changed very recently, in what is now known as the “Anthropocene.” The course focuses especially on the entangled emergence of ideas about nature and race and the implications for a range of social and environmental issues today.

Geography 3801 Political Ecology. This course introduces students to a unique approach to describing human-environment interactions, explaining socio-ecological problems and offering pathways to environmental and social justice. What makes political ecology “political” is that it insists that nature and society are always intertwined and shaped by power, defined broadly as dynamics of influence and advantage within economic systems and across multiple scales (micro to macro) and intersectional axes (class, gender, race, nationality and so forth).

Why do you think a student should take these classes and why would they be of interest to students majoring in other disciplines?

Both courses are part of the GE curriculum and meet elective requirements for several majors in addition to geography. (Political Ecology is in the Sustainability theme, and Environment and Society in the Lived Environments theme.)

Students from any field who are interested in a deeper understanding of human-environment interactions would find these courses interesting. I regularly have students from a wide variety of majors in these courses. The courses are complementary, but they are not a sequence (take just one, or both in either order). Environment and Society focuses on our ideas about nature and the human, how those have changed, and how they matter for addressing socio-ecological problems. A specific focus of the course is race and nature. Political Ecology focuses on explaining both environmental problems and the failures of mainstream environmentalism thus far (environmental problems continue to get worse!) in terms of intersecting power dynamics. A specific focus of the course is pollution and toxic chemical exposure.

What aspects of your teaching give you the most satisfaction?

Students in my classes regularly say, “I had no idea!” Seeing students have these “aha” moments—learning something new about the everyday world and recognizing its importance—is very exciting to me as a teacher.

If there are opportunities for undergraduates to connect with you for research, please share what this would be and how students should reach out to you.

Students who are interested in the research themes I describe above are welcome to contact me about research opportunities. I can work with students who have an idea about what they want to research—to do an independent project—or I can have students assist me in some aspect of my ongoing research projects. For the work on pollution and chemical exposure, I am currently exploring issues of visual representation, and so I would especially welcome a student with skills in the arts and/or data visualization. If you are interested, please send me an email at mansfield.32@osu.edu and we can discuss possibilities.

What books would you recommend to students? 

I’ll recommend two novels, both of which get at the sorts of nature-society questions that I find fascinating—blurring lines between “human” and “nature” while also raising all sorts of ethical questions about inequality and power.

Babel: An Arcane History, by RF Kuang, is a recent book, published in 2022. Four college students are the protagonists of this historical novel that uses magical realism to portray the extractive nature of the British Empire. It is both fun and thought-provoking.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by RC O’Brien is more of a classic, published in 1971. Talking mice and rats are the protagonists of this kids’ book (middle grades and teens) about animals, intelligence and what it means to be human. This one is also both fun and thought-provoking.

What is the most interesting place you have visited? 

Every place is interesting if you give it enough attention. The most exciting place I visited was probably the top of Mount Hood, Oregon (11,249 ft elevation), arriving at the summit at sunrise after an overnight, mid-winter climb.

What is the best advice you have received? 

Make happiness, interest, satisfaction, connection, having a positive influence and so forth your goals in life, not money or status. Let those goals guide your decisions.

What advice would you give to undergraduate students? 

Use this time in college to be open: explore new ideas, learn new skills, meet new people, have adventures. Our ideas about what life has to offer are often much narrower than they really are (especially our ideas about jobs and careers!). Branch out, discover new things about the world and yourself. As I said about my own life: follow winding paths and be open to unexpected opportunities, without too much fear about how it will go.

Would you like to share a fun/interesting fact about yourself?

I didn’t stop trying new things as I reached middle-age. In recent years I cultivated a previously unknown interest in the arts (I still can’t draw but I make abstract art) and rediscovered rock climbing, which I hadn’t done since college (I climb indoors, with my teenage daughter as my partner).

Learn more about Professor Mansfield’s work, email and office location on her department page.

News Filters: