Social Scientists Named UC President's Research Fellows

By Nicholas Garcia - Associate Professor of History Lisa Materson and Associate Professor of Anthropology Suzana Sawyer have been named UC President's Faculty Research Fellows in the Humanities, which will allow them to devote the 2017-18 academic year to working on their compelling research.

Lisa Materson, History

Lisa Materson is a historian of US women’s and gender history. Her work “centers on women’s involvement in social and political justice movements in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She examines the lives of American women who challenged institutional power and its abuse, often at great cost to themselves, in order to claim the promises of American democracy.” 

With the UC President’s Faculty Research Fellowship, Materson plans to finish the manuscript of her second book, American Nationalists: Ruth Reynolds and the Struggle Against U.S. Colonialism in Puerto Rico, which will explore “the history of women’s anti-imperialist activism and organizing for Puerto Rico’s independence.”

The book “combines a feminist biography of Ruth Reynolds (1916-1989) with a microhistory of the multiple activist communities she inhabited and forged to explore the gendered and transnational history of the Puerto Rican independence struggle.” Ruth Reynolds’ involvement with multiple social and political movements, including the Puerto Rican Independence movement, the Free India Independence movement, and the Civil Rights movement, illuminates women’s role in liberation politics history. 

Through an analysis of Reynold’s actions, Materson both reveals the interconnected nature of activist movements in the United States, and “recovers the history of [the] many women with whom [she] worked with.” Through Ruth Reynolds, the story of Puerto Rican independence, and women’s political activism, moves from the periphery of US history to its center.

In exploring the history of solidarity movements, Materson hopes to answer the following questions: “how does solidarity bind people in unexpected ways, and why do people turn to them in the first place?” And, perhaps more importantly, “how did solidarity movements allow women to contest the gender conventions of the mid-twentieth century?” 

Materson visited archives in Puerto Rico, New York, and Philadelphia while researching this project. She also conducted oral interviews with Puerto Rican independence organizers as well as their family members.

If you are interested in learning more about Materson’s research, the Radical History Review recently published one of her articles entitled “Gender, Generation, and Women’s Independence Organizing in Puerto Rico” (May 2017). This article “analyzes the centrality of intergenerational exchange in facilitating Puerto Rican women’s navigation of gender and institutional barriers against independence organizing,” and thus outlines some of the major themes that will be discussed in American Nationalists

Suzana Sawyer, Anthropology

Suzana Sawyer is an anthropologist whose research “examines struggles over resources in the Ecuadorian Amazon, focusing specifically on conflicts over land and petroleum development among forest peoples, the state, and multinational oil companies.” She plans on using the UC President’s Faculty Research Fellowship to complete her book, titled Suing Chevron: Law, Science, and Contamination in Ecuador and Beyond.

Suing Chevron explores the legal fallout of the Chevron Corporation’s contamination of Ecuador’s rainforests. Sawyer notes that in 2011, “after nearly two-decades of legal proceedings in the US and Ecuador, the Ecuadorian court found Chevron liable for $9 billion—the largest penalty ever imposed in environmental litigation.”

But in 2016, a US federal court determined that the Ecuadorian decision was “illegitimate and unenforceable.” Sawyer’s book traces the complex processes that led to both Ecuador’s landmark decision in 2011 to find Chevron liable, and the subsequent decision by the US federal court to reverse that ruling based on Chevron’s argument that the Ecuadorian ruling had been achieved via fraud. 

More specifically, Sawyer is interested in the intricacies of the transnational legal dispute between indigenous communities and a US oil company, and how a deeper understanding of this conflict might shape how we deal with future “socio-ecological controversies.”

Indeed Sawyer contends that “the [Ecuadorian] lawsuit unfolded as it did not, as Chevron claims, because the judicial process was corrupt, nor, as the plaintiffs claim, because science proved truths…rather, the socio-materiality of ‘facts’ and their making, the limitations and indeterminacies of science, the compromised quality of corporate contractual-arrangements, and expanded experiential modes of recognition enacted a legal reality in Ecuador that led to this unparalleled and fiercely contested ruling.” That is to say, Chevron’s reframing of the Ecuadorian trial as “corrupt” in the US counter-suit is profoundly problematic.

By exploring the actual litigation in Ecuador, Sawyer demonstrates how Ecuador’s unique evidentiary procedures were able to extend legal debate beyond controversy over the science of contamination and the corporate veil by bringing to the fore crucial “statutory, vernacular, and experiential forms of truth garnered through years of on-site inspections.” By contrast, in the US courts, scientific indeterminacy and corporate law technicalities recurrently stymie such legal cases in the US. Although the Ecuadorian legal process is not without its “flaws,” the litigation against Chevron nonetheless “serves as an instructive socio-legal forum for reckoning near-intractable contamination disputes.”

As such, though the Ecuadorian courts have been accused of being more “corrupt” than US courts, the reverse might be true. After all, I would argue that the court that tries to prevent environmental destruction is less corrupt than the court that allows those with silver tongues to bypass environmental safeguards.

Sawyer’s new research, in the end, calls for us to pay “careful attention to how we reconcile challenging socio-ecological controversies—as well as make sense of formidable corporate challenges.” Doing so may be the only way to stave off human-induced ecologic disaster in the future. 

This article originally appeared, in slightly altered form, at the DHI website.

Related: ACLS Fellowship Awarded to Suzana M. Sawyer