Amity Doolittle

Senior Lecturer and Research Scientist

Research Overview

My research focuses on how control over and access to natural resources is defined, negotiated and contested by civil society and state.  I am interested in understanding the social and political processes that result in centuries of social inequities and unequal distribution of the benefits and burdens of natural resources.  My research approach is interdisciplinary, combining perspectives from anthropology, political science, environmental history, and political ecology to explore environmental histories, property relations and conflicts over resources use.

The Urban Landscape: This research explores the changing urban landscape in New Haven by focusing on the role of ecology, demographics, economic shifts, and changing patterns of land distribution in the shaping of neighborhoods and public spaces in New Haven.  Specially focusing on Beaver Ponds Park, this research explores the changing ways in which New Haven residents valued this bit of swampy lowland.  In 1660 this region of New Haven was described as “outlands” with valuable meadows and sources of water for mills; in the early 1800s it was feared as an unsanitary cesspool that bred malaria and was called Hell’s Alley in reference to the unsavory Polish shantytowns which surrounded the pond.  By the early 20th century the commissioner of parks proclaimed a future in which Beaver Pond Park would be “one of the chief ornaments of New Haven.”

Evaluation of Urban Resources Initiative Greenspace Program Stewardship of Greening Vacant Lots: The goal of the study is to support the ongoing work of URI by learning how to better serve communities with Greenspace projects that start out as vacant lots.  Community Greenspace groups work in vacant lots, streetscapes, parks, public housing, and schoolyards.  URI works with approximately 50 groups each summer, including about seven new groups each year.  In recent years, new groups have made fewer requests for working in vacant lots and many of the current leaders of these groups are approaching retirement from the program.  This research will help URI learn more about the dynamics of working in vacant lots and the leadership and support required to sustain them.

Indigenous Peoples Rights and Global Climate Change: Indigenous environmental activists have clearly articulated their views on global climate change policy. This research examines the rhetorical strategies indigenous leaders from around the world use to gain political recognition and legitimacy in climate change negotiations. Two core principles, relating to a particular representation of indigenous environmental knowledge are identified as fundamental rhetorical tools. These are a belief that the earth is a living being with rights and the conviction that it is the responsibility of indigenous peoples to protect the earth from over-exploitation. However, reference to indigenous environmental knowledge is not the only rhetorical mechanism used by indigenous leaders in the climate debates. When faced with specific United Nations policies to combat climate change that could have a profound impact on their land rights, some indigenous leaders adopt a more confrontational response. Fearing that new polices would reinforce historical trends of marginalization, indigenous leaders seeking recognition in climate change debates speak less about their ecological knowledge and responsibility to the earth and more about their shared histories of political and economic marginalization and land dispossession, experienced first through colonialism and more recently through globalization.

The critical role of social and environmental histories in effective policy-making: In my monograph, Property and Politics in Sabah, Malaysia (North Borneo): A Century of Native Struggles over Land Rights, 1881-1996, I provide an analysis of changing property rights that explores a sweep of history, spanning more than one hundred years, and analyze data from both the state and local level.  My research demonstrates with empirical data from Malaysia that without detailed historical and social analyses that focuses on human values, discourses, and practices, polices aimed at environmental conservation and sustainable development are sure to fail.

Colonial and postcolonial discourses of rule and resource control: My research explores the discourses and practices of British colonial rule over native people in North Borneo, with particular attention on native property rights and the imposition colonial land laws.  This work demonstrates the remarkable parallels between colonial notions of progress (law and “rational” resource commercialization) and postcolonial notions of modernity, development and nationalism (ideas of “productive”, commercial agriculture and governable citizens).  Both the colonial and postcolonial states in Malaysia have encouraged years of forest mining and monoculture development by private industry, discursively promoted as in the “nation common interest”.  At the same time the blame for biodiversity loss is placed on rural smallholders.  This trend in state-society relations over natural resource management is one that needs to be redirected in order to achieve more equitable policies of resource management.

Legal pluralism and the transformation of property relations: Changes in property rights rarely follow an evolutionary trajectory from open access to common property to private and state property.  Instead people are motivated to alter property regimes and increase their opportunities through their struggles for wealth, power, and identity.  The resulting changes in property regimes can be unexpected and can have unanticipated impacts on natural resources.  Understanding both the formal and informal property relations, and the social institutions that are linked to particular property regimes, is critical in for resource management, particularly in countries where land rights are still contested.