PhD Research - Mary B. Collins

Mary Collins is an environmental sociologist interested in environmental inequality, a concept that she defines broadly as the inequitable distribution of both environmental privileges and problems across social groups. She tends to take a quantitative, systems-based approach in seeking to learn more about the sociopolitical factors and social problems that influence the creation of ecological harm and environmental injustice. Her most recent work attempts to explicate the societal mechanisms that allow heavy users and economic beneficiaries of the environmental commons to impose the consequences of environmental degradation on disadvantaged populations. By linking these two faces of inequality, her work contributes to the ongoing conversation in sociology about the nature of environmental injustice while elucidating the social systems and correlates that govern the distribution of environmental resources. Her hope is to emphasize not only what sociology has to contribute to the study of human-environmental interactions, but also what the study of the physical world can contribute to the broader field of sociology.

Currently, Dr. Collins is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland's National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).


Dissertation Summary

Several key studies have revealed the existence of a small number of heavily polluting industrial facilities that are responsible for generating the majority of emissions-based relative human health risk. Early work has also suggested that such outlier facilities tend to be poor performers economically as well as environmentally, that they place disadvantaged communities at particular risk, and that regulatory responses are not aligned with levels of risk production. To date, little scholarly attention has been devoted to these extreme variations in facility-based risk and to their significance from environmental equity and policy points-of-view. This research moves beyond the traditional community-based environmental justice frame to focus on facility characteristics and how they interact with community and regulatory factors to predict levels of relative health risk. It will contrast the riskiest polluters (“toxic outliers”) to the lower-risk polluters (“mainstreamers”) in regard to these predictors. In doing so, it will test the hypothesis that toxic outliers disproportionately affect low-power communities, that they show unfavorable economic performance relative to their peers, and that they exist in areas where regulatory surveillance is low. Findings will shed light on the factors that cause and perpetuate inequality in the production and distribution of environmental harm while suggesting possible strategies for improving environmental policy.


"Double Disproportionality: a Framework for Integrating Environmental Privileges and Problems" Social Problems (under review)

2013. “Temporal Myopia: A Case of Promising New Technologies, the Federal Government, and Inherent Conflicts of Interest.” In Research in Social Problems and Public Policy. Ed. Susan Maret Emerald Group Publishing Limited. (forthcoming) (With William R. Freudenburg)

2012. “Public Responses to Nanotechnology: Risks to the Social Fabric?” In The Social Life of Nanotechnology. Eds. Barbara Herr-Harthorn and John Mohr (pps 241-264). Routledge Studies in Science, Technology and Society: New York, NY. (With William R. Freudenburg)

2011. “Risk-Based Targeting: Identifying Disproportionalities In The Sources And Effects Of Industrial Pollution.” American Journal of Public Health. 101(S1): S231-237.