Michael Warren Murphy

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Graduate Student
A.M. Brown University
B.A. University of San Diego

Research Interests

Environment; Sociological Theory; Political Economy; Race and Ethnicity; Inequality; Comparative, Historical, and Ethnographic Analysis


Year of Entry: 2012

Graduate Program in Development-IGERT Fellow, Spatial Structures in the Social Sciences Fellow, Climate and Development Lab, and the Institute for the Study of Environment and Society 

My dissertation, titled Whiteness in the Web of Life: Race, Environment, and Settler Colonialism in Rhode Island, examines the structural entanglements of race and environment in New England’s past and present. The settling of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (R.I. for short), like North America more broadly, was a brutally violent process whereby people calling themselves white (Christian and civilized) took possession of lands, resources, and other human beings to make use of for their own ends. Based on the analysis of historical materials, ranging from colonial account books, town meeting minutes, and diaries to land deeds and letters of correspondence, in the first two chapters, I demonstrate how whiteness reconfigured the web of life through the dispossession of indigenous territory and the forced transit of African bodies to work on lands wrenched from Native peoples. The third empirical chapter centers on Mashapaug Pond, a large, heavily polluted urban waterbody in Providence, R.I. By attending to the environmental history of Mashapaug over the longue durée, I demonstrate how whiteness in the web of life has had consequences for humans, nonhumans, and ecosystems alike. Using spatial analysis, the final empirical chapter shifts attention to the state’s contemporary landscape to assess the ways in which whiteness remains tethered to environmental privileges, like proximity to greenspace and distance from hazards. I argue that our collective relations to nonhuman nature and the environment in the United States continue to be mediated by terms set by settler colonialism as a social formation premised upon the possessive logics of whiteness, and furthermore that contemporary environmental inequities, like the uneven distribution of environmental burdens and amenities across the color line are manifestations of the socioecological inequality that whiteness in the web of life produces.

This research makes three key contributions to sociological knowledge. First, and foremost, it bridges theory from environmental sociology and the sociology of race to reveal the centrality of racialization processes in the structure of relations between people, nonhuman animals and other beings, and the environments in which their lives unfold. Second, by engaging marginal perspectives often overlooked by sociologists, like W.E.B. Du Bois and indigenous theorists like Aileen Moreton-Robinson, I extend analytic focus beyond the phenomena most often associated with the study of race and environment, such as disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards like air pollution, to previously unexplored sites of socioecological domination like the reservation and plantation. Third, it offers a detailed empirical account and case study of race and environment over the longue durée that illuminates the ecological dynamics underpinning racial formation and domination. As an Assistant Professor, I will turn my attention to revising my dissertation manuscript into a book and to securing a contract with a major university press. I am currently preparing an article, titled “‘Why come the Englishman Hither’: Settler Colonialism, Indigenous Dispossession, and the Rise of the White Environing Group in Rhode Island” based on a dissertation chapter and an early version of another dissertation chapter, titled “Mapping Environmental Privilege in Rhode Island,” was published in the journal Environmental Justice in 2016.