Amity Doolittle’s research focuses on property rights and how control over and access to natural resources is defined, negotiated, and contested by different stakeholders. She is 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. Her research often takes on a historical approach focusing on issues of legal and cultural pluralism. Her 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. Her research has been primarily in Southeast Asia, but she has also worked on projects in Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, and Peru. Current research is focused on history of land use change in New Haven, Connecticut.
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.
I annually advise 10-12 masters’ students on the design of their research projects, facilitate their placement in research sites around the world, and supervise the write up of their masters’ theses. I have also designed and taught five interdisciplinary courses. Four courses are for F&ES graduate students. These are Qualitative Research Methods; Environmental Justice; Property Rights and Natural Resource Management; Globalization and the Environment, Environmental Justice and Leaves, Livelihoods and Landscapes in Borneo (with Lisa Curran). At the under graduate level, I teach Political Ecology. I also advise undergraduate students in the environmental studies major on courses available to F&ES and on their senior essays.
I am a firm believer in active, collaborative learning, and I try to maintain an engaging and interactive classroom. In each class session I bring some background conceptual material to the class through a short lecture. Then I work to stimulate discussion in which students can question and critique the theories, concepts, and empirical material from the reading. I try to accomplish an engaging approach not only in the classroom, but also in writing assignments. For example, in my research methods class I have students listen to transcripts of environment-related interviews from National Public Radio and read the transcripts of oral histories from resource-dependent people around the world. Students then analyze this primary data in terms of what makes a good interview, how to record interviews and what constitutes valuable qualitative data. Social science is not a collection of facts, but rather, field of inquiry that is alive with problems to solve. Only through the hands-on experiences with other people in other countries can tools be mastered to develop workable solutions.
Graduate courses taught annually: Qualitative Research Methods; Environmental Justice; Property Rights and Natural Resource Management
Graduate course descriptions:
F&ES 551 Social Science Qualitative Research Methods: This course is designed to provide a broad introduction to issues of social sciences research methods and design.Emphasis in the readings and lectures is placed on qualitative methods; although, consideration is given to both quantitative and qualitative approaches to research. No prior knowledge of methodology or statistics is expected or assumed. The course is intended for both doctoral students who are in the beginning stage of their dissertation research, as well as for master’s students developing research proposals for their thesis projects. The course will cover the basic techniques for collecting, interpreting, and analyzing certain types of qualitative data. During the semester, we will explore three interrelated dimension of research, one focuses on the theoretical foundations of science and research, another focuses on the various methods available to researchers for data collection and analysis, and finally we will complete exercises in the practical application of various methods.
Theoretically we will consider questions such as: What is qualitative research? Is qualitative research scientific? What are the roles of induction and deduction in qualitative research? What is the role of a hypothesis or research question in qualitative research? What role does grounded theory play in qualitative research? Does ethnographic research have a small-n problem (lack of generalizability of the results)? Is replication possible in ethnographic, or interview-based, studies?
Practically we will consider questions such as: What makes a good key informant? How can you triangulate social data? What goes into field notes? Should you use a tape recorder? How do you code data? What is snowball (or purposive) sampling? How can you judge the qualitative of ethnographic research? How do you interpret qualitative data? What techniques can we borrow from Rapid Rural Appraisal? What role do surveys or archival data play in qualitative research? In what ways do cultural assumptions about race, class, gender and nationality shape the very terms of discussion and analysis used in environmental science and environmental studies?
F&ES 846 Topics in Environmental Justice: In this seminar we will explore global—domestic and international—environmental issues from a perspective that foregrounds questions of social justice. The field of environmental justice asks for fair treatment of all people regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, economic capacity, national origin, and education level with respect to environmental politics and their implementations. In this and other aspects, the environmental justice perspective differs from traditional environmental philosophies in that it seeks to combine a concern for the natural world with a consciousness of ethnic, class, and gender discrimination. From this vantage point it is argued that throughout the world there are marked and increasing disparities between those who have access to clean and safe resources and those who do not. Often poor and minority communities bear a disproportionately large burden of toxic contamination and suffer the health problems that result from it, while the elite and powerful tend to control the valuable resources. Disparities of this nature may be the result of historical circumstances, contemporary economic and trade relations, and inadequate or inappropriate governmental regulation. They may also be the result of deliberate targeting of disenfranchised communities or weak nations to bear the burden of powerful communities’ and nations’ unsustainable consumption patterns. Perceived as “paths of least resistance”, minority and low-income communities or nations are targets as sites for dumping of toxic waste and environmentally hazardous substances.
This course is based on two fundamental premises: All individuals and communities, regardless of their social or economic conditions, have the right to a clean and healthy environment; and there is a connection between environmental exploitation, human exploitation and social justice. With these premises as a starting point, we will first define “What is environmental justice?”. Then we will turn to more difficult questions such as: Why and through what political, social and economic processes are some people are denied this basic right to a clean and safe environment? Why is it that certain groups of people are denied basic resource rights or are burdened with pollution of environmental hazards to a greater extent than other groups? What are the social relations of production and power that contribute to these outcomes? And finally we will consider the most important question of all: What can be done to correct these histories of inequality?
FES 615/EVST 285 Political Ecology of Conservation and Restoration of Tropical Forest Landscapes: This is a joint undergraduate and graduate student seminar on the relationship between society and the environment, specifically focusing on literature from the interdisciplinary field of political ecology. Political ecology is based on the belief that environmental conflicts and management cannot be studied without careful examination of the pertinent political, economic, cultural and historical factors. The field of political ecology has grown in response to other phases in the scholarship surrounding mankind’s place in the environment. Specifically political ecology draws on the scholarship from the fields of human ecology and political economy. Rather than focusing on the supposedly closed relationship between a society and their ecosystem (as human ecologists tend to) or solely on events occurring in the larger political economy and their effect on the environment, practitioners of political ecology try to explain environmental conflicts in terms of the particularities of place, culture and history. The nuances of local level details are set in relation to larger events occurring in the broader political economy since both local and non-local factors influence the decisions of a resources user. The field is predicated on the assumption that our environmental problems are often common, but their causes are complex and changing therefore solutions must be specific to time and place.
B.A., Harvard University; M.E.S., Ph.D., Yale University