Fresh Faculty: Hannah Holleman
Issue   |   Wed, 03/06/2013 - 01:04

Sociology Prof. Holleman grew up in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. She graduated from Oklahoma State with a B.A. in English and a B.S. in Sociology. She got her M.S. and Ph.D. in Sociology from the Univ. of Oregon. She has taught courses at the Univ. of Vermont and the Univ. of Oregon before coming to the College.

Q: How did you begin studying sociology and what made you decide to pursue it?
A: I grew up in an interracial extended family in Okmulgee, Okla. — the tribal capital of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and a small city in the center of a ring of historically all-black towns founded to create an independent political force amidst the white-dominated national politics. The diverse intellectual currents there broaden the range of conversations you can have compared to other places I’ve lived. Families are more racially and ethnically integrated than in most parts of the U.S. and there are serious discussions about persistent class and racial inequality, how oil money affects local politics, etc. Given the history of Oklahoma that you have to learn to understand anything there, and all of the great elders we have in our community that have been involved in struggles over civil and tribal rights and so forth, it might go without saying that the origin myths of what we now call the United States certainly were not taken for granted in my upbringing. This probably meant I was more open to social science than some of my peers in college.

Once at university, there were two pivotal experiences that convinced me I needed training in sociology. The first occurred at an international public health conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, which I attended with my professors. I witnessed a debate between North American and African health professionals over the causes of Africa’s public health crises at that time. The professionals from Africa — I don’t remember which countries because they spoke about Africa as a continent in this meeting — talked about all kinds of trade negotiations, the extraction of resources to fuel wealthier economies, the destruction of local agriculture and many other things I don’t remember. This was the first time I connected what was going on globally to what I learned in Oklahoma about colonialism, racism, U.S. foreign and domestic policy and other issues that continue to shape this country. I realized that no matter how smart I was, I was still really ignorant about fundamental social realities. But I wanted to learn.

The second pivotal moment occurred when I walked into a classroom on gender, sexuality and the family to find an older white man in cowboy duds at the head of the class. He had boots, a big buckle — everything you wouldn’t want to see as a young woman in Oklahoma interested in gender and sexuality. But within an hour, this professor blew up all my preconceptions and facilitated an exciting debate over the supposed naturalness or ordained-ness of gender, marriage, monogamy, heterosexuality, capitalism and even nation-states. He wouldn’t let anyone make a lazy argument, the most lazy being that this is just the way it is because it is either genetic or ordained by God (you would get both of these arguments in Oklahoma — I hear them here at Amherst, too). He made clear there is no “natural order” of things wherein oppression and inequality were inevitable and greed and dominance were universally elevated to acceptable principles of social action. Biology conditioned possibilities, but didn’t determine all of social life. We, in fact, have and live a broad range of social options.

The idea that social science could provide tools to investigate all of these issues that are fundamental to our lives, even to our most intimate relationships and identities, without reverting to assumed inevitability, was exhilarating to me. It also opened the door to the idea that if things are not inevitable, they can be changed. Then, of course, you start to wonder why you didn’t know all of this before, how our social myths develop, in whose interests, how they are perpetuated, etc., and you just get further and further into the realm of social science. All the big “why” questions that bothered me so much as a kid about society found expression in the themes of my sociology and anthropology courses.

Q: Why did you decide to teach at Amherst?
A: I love Amherst’s model. For me, the fact that the college has changed over time indicates an intellectual openness that is crucial in avoiding stagnation. It is central to Amherst’s success that we have made an effort to recruit the very best students and faculty regardless of race, class and gender. As a result of these efforts, Amherst is a very attractive place to teach and conduct research.

So, I love the model, I love the promise and trajectory of change at Amherst College. But I didn’t really know that I wanted to teach here specifically until I had my first campus visit. The fabulous students from Anthropology and Sociology took me out to lunch and I spent a couple of days meeting my wonderful faculty colleagues in what is now my home department, as well as scholars from other disciplines, and the Dean of Faculty. The collegiality really came through in the interactions I observed amongst faculty, administration and students. This meant a lot to me.

Q: What is your research? Are you currently working on publishing anything, or have you published anything before?
A: I’ve published quite a few articles on my own and with coauthors in both academic journals, like Rural Sociology and the American Journal of Sociology, as well as in non-academic journals that reach a broader audience. I also have coauthored a couple of book chapters. Most recently (this past month), I finished revisions for an article, originating from my dissertation research, that I expect to appear in one of my favorite sociology of development journals. It brings together ecological and social theory and method to examine ecological inequalities embedded in global trade.

My book project focuses on the history and theory of democratic ecological planning through the lens of water issues and social movements in the Southwest of the United States. I am interested in the Southwest because my roots are deep there, it is an area facing severe drought once again, and it serves as a microcosm of broader issues facing our society and the world right now. I think this lens will help us re-envision possibilities for democratic modes of decision-making — across communities, cultures and borders — in efforts to address long-standing injustices, as well as worsening ecological problems.
The other project I’m working on is related to a paper on the history of Cuba’s socio-ecological regimes and energy policies that I will present this summer at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting.

Q: What classes do you teach?
A: Last semester I taught Footprints on the Earth: The Environmental Consequences of Modernity and Financial Crises and the Future of Democracy. This semester I am teaching Making Peace with the Planet: Environmental Movements and Ideas and Reproducing Social Order: Prisons, Schools, and the Military.

Q: What aspects of Amherst do you like so far?
A: I love the people in Amherst and I love the land, the scenery. I love it that I can walk a few blocks down my street with my dog and pass cows on my way to a trail through the woods. My students, colleagues and other people I have met in the community make me feel very at home here, both at Amherst College and in the Five-Colleges.

Q: What do you hope to contribute to Amherst during your time here?
A: I hope to build on and contribute to the legacy that Amherst already has of preparing great leaders and people who are prepared to meet the challenges that a 21st century society faces. For me, one thing this means is contributing to the further development of spaces on campus for thinking through the relationship between knowledge and purpose, which is connected to the formation of each of our social and intellectual commitments.

For example, if you are going to be the greatest chemist in your particular area of specialization, you are also going to be a private citizen (I mean this in the broad sense) that is responsible, along with the rest of us, for deciding whether the knowledge you help create is used to develop chemical weaponry or put to peaceful purposes. This is the same if you are an investment banker, economist, doctor, politician, analyst, consultant or lawyer and so on. You will have to make ethical choices with respect to what ends your work serves and also what you will support and oppose through your political activities. I’d like to contribute to the creation of more spaces in your career as students to think through these things so that you know what you are about when you go into the working and political world.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?
A: Spare time? What’s that? No one told me we were to expect spare time. Just kidding. I really appreciate my time spent hiking, visiting with friends and family and checking out the local arts and music scene. I also have always spent time in community work of some kind. I volunteer for a non-profit magazine right now, and as I learn about this area I am sure that I’ll participate in initiatives around environmental change and social justice.

-Alissa Rothman ’15