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I take a social justice approach to socioecological psychology to understand and address a variety of pressing social issues. My goal is to understand how culture and social structure shape the ways that individuals cope with and make meaning from experiences of suffering.
In another line of research, I study the psychosocial impact of living through environmental justice issues such as chronic environmental contamination. The concept of environmental justice, wherein environmental hazards impact communities of color and low-income communities with much greater frequency, has received much attention in the social sciences (e.g., Bullard, 1999). However, there have been relatively few investigations of environmental justice issues in the field of psychology. More specifically, when psychologists have attended too environmental issues, they have tended to focus on acute hazards such as natural disasters, or on abstract threats such as climate change. This means that more "intermediate," long-term hazards like chronic environmental contamination have received little attention in the field. I believe that employing certain psychological methods and theories, in combination with the methods and theories of other disciplines, can produce important justice-oriented research and action in this context.
As with my debt-related work, I have sought to embrace interdisciplinarity and to study environmental justice issues from multiple perspectives and at multiple levels of analysis. I am engaged in ongoing work with collaborators from the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona and community members of Southside Tucson who were exposed for decades to chronic water contamination in the area of the TIAA Superfund Site. This work with the Tucson community concerns issues of inter-generational stress surrounding this long-term public health and environmental justice issue. My master's project involved a mixed-methods investigation into the role of social capital in coping with the stress of living on the TIAA Superfund Site, which was recently published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. I employed geographical, qualitative, and experimental methods in order to examine these phenomena at a broad social-structural level, to then richly contextualize them in the lived experiences of impacted community members, and to then develop an ecologically valid experiment using knowledge and materials gleaned from the qualitative work. My dissertation will extend this work further.
Some of my work in this area has been conducted in collaboration with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's (ATSDR) Community Stress and Resilience Initiative. As part of this initiative, my collaborators and I conducted systematic and narrative reviews of the literature on the psychosocial impact of experiencing chronic environmental contamination. Likewise, we conducted a qualitative investigation of community experiences with PFAS contamination in communities across the US. This work has further culminated in the creation of ATSDR's Community Stress Resource Center which provides guidance and resources for reducing stress and building resilience in communities facing environmental contamination.
Debt, Social Class, and Culture
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (2022), there is currently over $16 trillion of consumer debt in the US, more than at any point in history. In my second line of research, I investigate the psychological impacts of this debt crisis, outlining the ways that social class and culture shape these impacts. My colleagues and I first demonstrated that expectations of future debt were more stressful for lower social class individuals than for their higher social class counterparts because debt threatens perceptions of control over the future for lower social class individuals (Schmitt, et al., 2020, Journal of Social and Political Psychology).
In separate theoretical work that we have conducted on the cultural psychology of temporal and spatial orientations (Schmitt et al., 2021, Review of General Psychology), we argue that in socioecological contexts like the US, near-ubiquitous access to technology in an economic system of neoliberal capitalism affords agentic and commodified psychological orientations toward space and time. These normative spatiotemporal orientations manifest in key ways: using technology to plan for and exercise control over the future, thinking in terms of “clock time”, and flexibly moving through space. Given that debt threatens lower class individuals’ sense of control over the future, it follows that these normative spatiotemporal orientations may play a role in coping with debt for such individuals. Using a combination of geographical, survey, and experimental methods (Schmitt et al., in press, British Journal of Social Psychology), we find that normative spatiotemporal orientations and ecological affordances for these orientations represent a kind of “double-bind” for lower class individuals: They are particularly beneficial because they encourage proactive coping with debt, but they simultaneously come at a cost in the form of higher stress. The demands of navigating debt repayment as a lower social class person are eased by adopting normative orientations toward time and space, but are simultaneously made more burdensome as attempts to behave in future-oriented, flexible ways are challenged by a lack of resources to enact these behaviors. This complicates the social class literature by suggesting that interventions to increase future-oriented thinking may not be unilaterally beneficial, but may have hidden costs.
Our recent work in the British Journal of Social Psychology is also part of a special issue entitled "Toward a Social Psychology of Precarity." We argue that debt represents a key way that lower social class individuals experience precarity under neoliberal capitalism. At the same time, it also represents one way that more privileged individuals experience flexibility under the same system (e.g., debt affords wealthier individuals the opportunity to purchase a home).
Policing, Incarceration, and Neoliberalism
In 2021, the police shot and killed 1,055 people, while almost 2 million people were incarcerated, with people of color disproportionately affected by both issues (Prison Policy Initiative, 2022; Tate et al., 2022). At the same time that these crises of violent policing and mass incarceration have arisen, our political-economic system of neoliberalism – characterized by deregulation, privatization, globalization, and rising social insecurity – has flourished and mass income inequality has increased (Camp, 2016). In my third line of research, I have investigated the connections between policing and incarceration on the one hand, and neoliberalism on the other. Together with Dr. Tyler Jimenez at the University of Washington, I have again employed a mixed-methods approach to outline the connections between these phenomena at the social-structural and individual-psychological level (Schmitt & Jimenez, in prep). We demonstrate that state-level policing and incarceration are strongly related to neoliberal policy and practice, and that individual-level positive attitudes toward policing and incarceration are positively related to pro-neoliberal attitudes. We further demonstrate using multilevel modeling that these state-level variables also predict the attitudes of individuals living in a given state. This work will advance the psychology literature by attending to a dire social issue that impacts already marginalized communities, and by incorporating mixed- and multilevel methods in analyses of such social issues.
A unifying theme in my work is examining how culture, various forms of disadvantage, and suffering experiences are reciprocally related to the psychological understanding and social organization of time. For instance, my work suggests that both social class and the experience of indebtedness can shape how an individual plans for, perceives, and orients towards the future. Likewise, my work on experiences of environment contamination suggests that narratives from disadvantaged individuals who have concrete experiences with contamination tend to focus on a tragic past, while narratives from advantaged individuals from institutions tasked with cleaning up contamination tend to focus on progress toward a miraculous future. Further, my colleagues and I argue that individuals' phenomenological experience and narrative construction of time (and space) represent important ways in which individual lives incarnate broader sociohistorical forces.
Theorizing on the social organization of time, though certainly present in psychology, has predominantly been conducted in adjacent fields. Thus, in my work I have drawn heavily on the sociological theorizing of Anthony Giddens and David Harvey, as well as recent work by my collaborators in psychology, on a construct called Time-Space Distanciation (TSD). TSD refers to the extent to which, within a society, (1) time and space are treated as “separate,” quantifiable and commoditized dimensions, and (2) activities of individuals tend to be “stretched” across physical space and spans of time. It is our position that this cultural, structural, and psychological phenomenon has wide-ranging consequences for many areas of research in social psychology, and that TSD can be leveraged as a tool for decolonizing psychological science.
Broadly, I believe that the field of psychology can benefit from a healthy dialogue with (the critical areas of) other fields such as sociology, anthropology, public health, history, geography, philosophy, political science, and economics. As such, it is my goal to employ social psychological research in pursuit of what Sullivan (2020) calls "Critical-Historical" aims: "theories should be committed to deep interdisciplinarity and historical validity claims—understanding individual and group experiences as part of historically contingent forces... [and] should be critical, containing an awareness of the researcher as implicated in the social process and committed to actively improving society."
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