Our Work (2024)

Spring 2024 Environment and Society Lab Senior Capstone

For the spring 2024 edition, we organized our work collectively and collaboratively around a common theme: the social dimensions and aftermath of the February 2023 East Palestine, Ohio toxic train derailment. We dedicated the first weeks of the course to an in-depth review of media coverage of the East Palestine derailment and subsequent disaster. We engaged in conceptual mapping and analytical “calibration” by reviewing relevant literature in anthropology and the critical social sciences and humanities surrounding the socio-environmental dimensions of chemical and toxic exposures; industrial disasters, risk and vulnerability; occupational and environmental histories of vinyl chloride production; and the meanings and consequences of living in a “petrochemical planet.” Students wrote annotated bibliographies and literature reviews on more specialized themes and then developed research questions to orient their work for the rest of the semester. Three research groups organized around the following themes: fenceline communities, structural vulnerability, and unseen harm; contested illness, toxic uncertainty, and community mobilization; and regulatory capture, knowledge gaps, and citizen science. After establishing research themes and developing focused research questions, the groups decided on and engaged in appropriate ethnographic methodologies, including site visits and participant observation, semi-structured interviews, photographic documentation, social media analysis, and reviews of published reports. Towards the end of the semester, we had the privilege of welcoming two prominent visitors to our class: Rebecca Kiger, a documentary photographer whose work Time Magazine featured in an investigative report on the East Palestine disaster; and Misti Allison, a local East Palestine resident, mother of two children, public health crusader and dedicated citizen scientist. While conducting ethnographic fieldwork, students engaged in first-level reporting and analysis through field notes, leading to the collaborative writing of research papers and ultimately publishing highlights of their work on our public-facing website.


We invite you to check out our Environment and Society Lab website! You can find photo galleries and videos, research project abstracts, and the course syllabus (under the "Our Work 2024" tab); research overviews, analyses and features, photos, maps, and other visuals (under the "2024 Projects" tab); a listing of 2024 Lab Team members (under "Team"), and links to various relevant grassroots and advocacy groups (under "Resources").

Photo by Sean McCallister and Tolu Olasoji/Center for Contemporary Documentation

Group 1: Unseen Risk and Structural Vulnerability in Fenceline Communities

Through the lens of fenceline communities affected by mobile toxic infrastructure, this research project examines the unseen risks of environmental catastrophes and the structural vulnerabilities that cause them. Our research is based on the following three-part question: How does the East Palestine disaster prompt us to view small, rural communities along the transportation line of industrial chemical products as "fenceline communities"? How does corporate influence impact at-risk communities’ vulnerability to toxic exposure? What are the unseen risks and harms of chemical exposure in fenceline communities? Methods included primary data collection from semi-structured interviews, and secondary data from a literature review and a comprehensive search and analysis of media sources. 

Group 2: Toxic Uncertainty, Contested Illness, and Community Mobilization 

The East Palestine train derailment and subsequent burn has had rather severe health impacts on residents and visitors, leading to feelings of frustration, anxiety, and uncertainty in the face of future health issues. Some residents do not share this concern, hoping to just move on. Others have mobilized politically with the aim of helping the town get back on its feet. This project analyzes the ways in which toxic uncertainty and contested illness have manifested in East Palestine in the aftermath of the derailment, as well as how these processes have impacted public trust and local political mobilization efforts.

Group 3: "The Creek Is Not Ok": Regulatory Capture, Knowledge Gaps, and Citizen Science 

Following the environmental and health impacts, and the uncertainty and distrust surrounding the East Palestine train derailment and toxic disaster, this project seeks to understand the following question: "What are the public debates surrounding the environmental health, personal health, and testing surrounding this disaster and how have they sparked a wave of citizen science in East Palestine?" This project examines the reasons residents resort to citizen science. These include responses to the effects of slow violence, stationary displacement, and the uncertainties they create. Regulatory capture and willful ignorance further distrust in official testing done by regulatory agencies, which many citizens claim prioritize their relationship with the industries they regulate over public safety. Knowledge gaps and poor risk communication are other factors that lead to the turn to citizen science.

ANTH 488 Environment and Society Lab Spring 2024 SYLLABUS



ANTH 488

T-Th 10:00-11:15 Hodges 340

Spring 2024


Instructor: Dr. Daniel Renfrew

Office: Knapp Hall 318

Office hours: Virtual only, by appointment

E-mail: Daniel.Renfrew@mail.wvu.edu


Course Description:

This senior capstone course is designed as both a theoretical and practice-based advanced introduction to ethnography. It combines individual and collective efforts in conceptualizing, designing, and carrying out ethnographic research. Students will be introduced to the basic principles of research design, and to the methods, analytics, and ethics of ethnographic inquiry. The course focuses on a specific topic of anthropological interest and of relevance to the people of West Virginia and/or the Appalachian region, which is then studied collectively through collaborative ethnographic research. This semester’s theme is the social dimensions and aftermath of the 2023 East Palestine, OH train derailment and toxic disaster. Following the principles of a “multi-modal” anthropology that engages digital formats and attempts a close collaboration with our publics, we will seek to transcend traditional classroom learning by publishing our work publicly on the Environment and Society Lab webpage platform www.wvenvsoc.org.


Learning Objectives:

By the end of the course, students should be able to:

·       Organize and engage in collective, collaborative, and original research.

·       Demonstrate proficiency in basic ethnographic methods and tools of data collection.

·       Collect original (primary) ethnographic data, as well as secondary sources.

·       Identify and apply appropriate theory to the analysis of ethnographic data and secondary sources.

·       Demonstrate proficiency in both academic and public-facing writing.

·       Communicate ideas effectively and concisely through oral, written, and visual/digital formats.


Required Readings:

Books: (available at local textbook retailers, or through online ordering)

·       Rajan, S. Ravi. 2023. Risk, Disaster, and Vulnerability: An Essay on Humanity and Environmental Catastrophe. Oakland: University of California Press. (Required)


Several articles and book chapters are also required and available in PDF format through eCampus.


SOCA 488 has been designated as a SpeakWrite course by the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. As part of the Eberly College’s commitment to fostering effective communication skills, this course will:

·       Emphasize informal and formal modes of communication

·       Teach discipline-specific communication techniques

·       Use a process-based approach to learning that provides opportunities for feedback and revision

·       Base 95% of the final grade on successful spoken and/or written performance

For more information about the SpeakWrite program, please visit SpeakWrite.wvu.edu.  Students are also encouraged to visit the Eberly Writing Studio for assistance and feedback on writing and/or oral presentation assignments: http://speakwrite.wvu.edu/writing-studio

Class format:  Classes meet twice a week and involve discussion, informal lectures, student presentations, and collective workshops. The class format is primarily seminar style and horizontally collaborative. Lectures will be kept at a minimum, with a greater emphasis placed on collaborative student engagement and collective learning. I will provide prompts, guidance, and basic analytical building blocks, but the expectation is that we will learn and research collectively and collaboratively. This means students must keep up with all assigned work, complete the assigned readings for each class, diligently pursue outside research, and be prepared to participate in small-group or full class discussion.  Students will be placed into research groups (of 3) that they will keep for the duration of the semester. A significant portion of student efforts will be designated to research outside of class. Students will be graded both collectively and individually. In other words, everyone is counting on each other! We will be collectively building website content as the public face of our research efforts. I expect the highest levels of care and professionalism in putting together final materials.

A general theoretical, contextual, and methodological orientation (including all assigned readings) characterizes the first two-fifths of the course. The rest of the course will be dedicated fully to a guided but independent group research process. Class time will consist of sharing, reflection, and strategizing. This is the time students will be expected to collect ethnographic data, write field notes, and plan the various dimensions of the final project. I may add some methods-oriented readings and guides, as necessary.

Attendance will be taken daily. Although there is no point system linked to attending class, given the collaborative nature of this course, I expect every student to be in class every day and to engage fully in out-of-class activities, barring exceptional circumstances (such as illness, extreme weather events, and/or university excused/unavoidable travel). I reserve the right to make changes to the syllabus, and I will notify students with as much advance warning as possible. The course schedule is subject to change, and I ask that we all be flexible and understanding should the need arise to ‘pivot’ online (due to extreme weather or Covid-related constraints) or to outright cancel class.

SUPPLIES AND LINKS: No specific equipment or supplies are mandatory for the success of this course.  However, students will be expected to engage in ethnographic interviewing and participant observation, when possible. In these cases, some kind of audio and/or visual recording device might be helpful to have. 

GRADING AND EVALUATION:  Students will be evaluated on their understanding and use of the course material, their successful engagement in collaborative research, and their ability to express this knowledge in written assignments and group presentations. 

Your final grade will be based on the following point distribution (as measured by percentage):

Analytical Short Essays (3 x 5 points each, Individual):                                        15 points

Ethnographic Field Notes/Journaling (4 x 5 pts- Individual):                              20 points

Final Project:

Literature review (10 Individual; 5 Group)                                               15 points

Methods section (Group):                                                                           5 points                                                     Data analysis/write up (Group):                                                                                 25 points

Presentation (Group, 5-in class; 10-website):                                     15 points

Participation (Peer-evaluated, Individual):                                                        5 points

(Total possible):                                                                                                      (100 points)


Analytical short essays (15 points): There will be three assignments asking students to apply the three respective analytical themes covered by Ravi Rajan (risk, disaster, vulnerability) to secondary data gathered from media coverage of the East Palestine train derailment. These short essays (750-1000 words) are meant to help sharpen analytical skills and serve as building blocks for literature reviews, data collection, and theoretical analysis. Essays are due by 11:59 p.m. on the day the corresponding readings are scheduled.


Ethnographic Fieldnotes (20 points): Students are expected to write at least four ethnographic fieldnotes based on their research experiences. Fieldnotes serve as a way of documenting the research process by providing a combination of rich detail, summary, incipient analysis, and personal reflection. They are meant to serve as the basis for more formal written analysis. I will provide details and examples for you to follow. Students are encouraged to submit field notes directly following each fieldwork/data collection experience. All final un-submitted field notes are due on the second-to-last day of class and will not be accepted following that day. Each fieldnote is worth up to 5 points. Additional (up to 3) field notes beyond the required minimum of 4 are eligible for one bonus point each.


Research Project (60 points): For the research project, students will engage in collaborative ethnographic research on a particular topic/theme/site related to the East Palestine train disaster. Groups should choose an overarching theme to examine collectively, with the three class groups engaged in related but complementary research projects. Potential themes and topics to choose from are quite varied and could focus on any of the following, for example: social movement/environmental justice analysis of activist groups demanding accountability; critical analysis of corporate discourse and public relations; content analysis of mass media coverage; the politics of science, technology and regulation; oral histories, framing, and meaning-making among victims/residents; material cultural and/or visual analysis of the post-disaster site; the risk and vulnerability of petrochemical infrastructures; biocultural approaches to environmental hazards and disease; medical/critical medical anthropological engagements with environmental or contested illness; the construction of illness narratives, etc…. Topics need to be developed collectively and in consultation with the rest of the class (to ensure complementary research), and the professor. Research will be conducted both individually and collectively within your groups. The point breakdown for the research project is as follows:

-Literature review (15 points; 10 individual/5 group): utilizing library-based research and concept mapping, individuals will compile a short annotated bibliography (4-6 sources, 3-4 pages). Following grading, your groups will be expected to compile a full literature review (12-18 sources, 6-8 pages) that will be a core component of your group research project.

-Methods (5 points, group): This section will be short (1-3 pages) and turned in as a group.

-Data analysis/write up (25 points, group): Students will work together with their research group to submit a collective write up of their research results. This will be the core of your final project and should be 10-15 pages long.

-Presentations (15 points, group): You will be asked to engage in short, 20-minute presentations (5 points) on the last day of class (in class or through Zoom, TBD). The second “presentation” (10 points) is the final visual group project in condensed form that we will post to the website. This is due during finals week. There may be an additional requirement of taking part in a Department-wide capstone presentation, TBD. If this is the case, it will supplant the in-class presentation.

More detailed guidelines on all of these components will be forthcoming.


Participation (5 points):

Students are expected to participate actively in class and within their research groups, and you will be assigned a grade for your participation. Grades will come from peer-evaluation within your research groups. Participation means: You participate equitably within your research groups. You share responsibilities and contribute your portion to group outcomes. You keep up with schedules and deadlines and offer feedback to your group members in your collective projects.

There is no formal attendance policy.  You are advanced students preparing to embark into graduate school or the “real” world, and therefore I leave it to you to be responsible and take full advantage of this experience. I will take attendance regularly for accounting purposes. However, if you regularly miss class (i.e. more than a few absences throughout the semester) you will not be able to fully or adequately “participate,” and therefore your participation grade will likely suffer. Students egregiously failing to adhere to the above criteria may receive as few as 0 points, at the instructor’s discretion.


Grading criteria:         

The following grades will be assigned for written work according to the designated criteria:

A (90% or more): A superior performance surpassing assigned work in unique and novel ways and integrating diverse ideas from a wide range of sources in addition to those discussed in class.
B (80-89%): Excellent work surpassing the expectations of the assignment and demonstrating initiative
and a willingness to move beyond the basic requirements of the assigned work.
C (70-79%): Satisfactory work meeting all basic requirements of the assignment.
D (60-69%): Work in some way less than satisfactory. Although conforming to basic requirements in some way, the completed work is nevertheless not a coherent response to the assignment.
F (59% or lower): A profoundly unsatisfactory performance that does not meet
the intent of the assignment at any level.


Statement on Academic Integrity

The integrity of the classes offered by any academic institution solidifies the foundation of its mission and cannot be sacrificed to expediency, ignorance, or blatant fraud. Therefore, I will enforce rigorous standards of academic integrity in all aspects and assignments of this course. For the detailed policy of West Virginia University regarding the definitions of acts considered to fall under academic dishonesty and possible ensuing sanctions, please see the Student Conduct Code at http://studentlife.wvu.edu/studentconductcode.html. Should you have any questions about possibly improper research citations or references, or any other activity that may be interpreted as an attempt at academic dishonesty, please see me before the assignment is due to discuss the matter. 


Inclement Weather: Make your own decisions on whether to attend class on days of inclement weather. You will not be specifically penalized, and I encourage you to consider your physical safety above course attendance.   Additionally, I reserve the right to cancel class should I personally deem it unsafe to make it to campus. Alternately, we may pivot to online learning via Zoom on those days.

Inclusivity Statement

The West Virginia University community is committed to creating and fostering a positive learning and working environment based on open communication, mutual respect, and inclusion.  Any suggestions as to how to further such a positive and open environment in this class will be appreciated and given serious consideration.  If you are a person with a disability and anticipate needing any type of accommodation in order to participate in this class, please make appropriate arrangements with the Office of Disability Services (293-6700).



(readings should be finished for the day on which they are assigned, listed next to the date)


Week 1: The East Palestine Train Disaster: An Introduction

9 Jan: Overview of Course

           -Homework: peruse Environment and Society Lab website: www.wvenvsoc.org

11 Jan: Read: East Palestine media stories (selection provided)

           -Rajan, Preface (xi-xii) and Chapter 1 (pp. 1-8)


Week 2: Dimensions of our Petrochemical Planet: PVC

16 Jan: Read: Alice Mah (2023) Preface (ix-xv) and Introduction (pp. 1-24) to Petrochemical Planet:

Multiscalar Battles of Industrial Transformation, Durham and London: Duke University Press, (*available on eCampus and online through WVU Libraries)

18 Jan: Read [heavy skim]: Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner (2002) Ch’s 6, 7, and 10, from Deceit and

Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, Berkeley: University of California Press (*available on eCampus and online through WVU Libraries)


Week 3: A Multimodal Anthropology of Toxic Disasters

23 Jan: Read [heavy skim]: Roberto E. Barrios (2017) “What does Catastrophe Reveal for Whom? The

Anthropology of Crises and Disasters at the Onset of the Anthropocene,” Annual Review of Anthropology 46: 151-66.

-Alex Nading (2020) “Living in a Toxic World,” Annual Review of Anthropology 49: 209-24.

**Choose Research Groups**

25 Jan:  Read: Collins, Samuel, Matthew Durington, and Harjant Gill (2017) “Multimodality: An

Invitation,” American Anthropologist 119(1): 142-53.

           - Collins, Samuel, Matthew Durington, and Harjant Gill (2021) “The Uncertain Present and the

Multimodal Future,” American Anthropologist 123(1): 191-93.

           -Benton, Adia, and Yarimar Bonilla (2017) “Rethinking Public Anthropologies in the Digital Age:

Toward a New Dialogue,” American Anthropologist 119(1): 154-56.

Lecture/Discussion: The Research Process


Week 4: Risk; Beginning Research

30 Jan: (Asynchronous) Read: Rajan, Chapter 2 (8-48)

           Due: Analytical Short Essay, Thinking of “Risk” through East Palestine

1 Feb:   Preliminary Research Ideas Due (Group)

           Discussion: Research Ideas and Plans


Week 5: Disaster; Research Design

6 Feb: (Asynchronous) Read: Rajan, Ch. 3 (49-80)

           Due: Analytical Short Essay, Thinking of “Disaster” through East Palestine

8 Feb:  Revised Research Plan Due (Group)

           Discussion: Research Plans; Research Design


Week 6: Vulnerability; Library Research Skills

13 Feb: (Asynchronous) Read: Rajan, Ch’s. 4-5 (81-123)

           Due: Analytical Short Essay, Thinking of “Vulnerability” through East Palestine

15 Feb: Library Research Session (with Catherine Fonseca, WVU Libraries; meet at

Downtown Campus library, room 2036; please bring laptops)


Week 7: Concept Mapping and Literature Reviews

20 Feb: Lecture/Discussion: Concept Mapping, Annotated Bibliographies, and Literature Reviews

           Review eCampus guides

22 Feb: In-class update and feedback on research progress

           Due: Research synopsis, guiding research questions, methods (Group)

           Discussion: Methods


Week 8: Annotated Bibliography

27 Feb: In-class discussion of bibliographies and Literature Review

29 Feb: (Asynchronous) Due: Annotated Bibliography (Individual)


Week 9: Data Collection

5 Mar:  Discussion: Writing fieldnotes; Research Plan updated

7 Mar: In-class reflection and strategizing




Week 10: Ethnographic Research

19 Mar: In-class reflection and strategizing

21 Mar: (Asynchronous) Group Research Work


Week 11: Ethnographic Research

26 Mar: Literature Review Due (Group)

In-class reflection and strategizing

28 Mar: (Asynchronous) Group Research Work


Week 12: Ethnographic Research

2 Apr:  Discussion: Writing about Methods

4 April: In-class reflection and strategizing


**TBD/Save the Date: Class Field Trip to East Palestine, Saturday, April 6th (all day)**


Week 13: Analysis/Write up

9 April: Discussion: From fieldnotes to analysis to narrative

Methods Section Due (Group)

11 April: In-class reflection and strategizing


Week 14: Analysis/Write up

16 April: (Asynchronous) Group research work

18 April: In-class reflection and strategizing


Week 15: Final Research Projects and Presentations

23 April: In-class: Prep and discuss presentations

           Last Day to Submit Fieldnotes (Individual)

25 April: (In Class or ZOOM) Research Presentations

           Research Projects Due (Group)


** Website-ready Final Projects Due on or before Thursday, May 2nd, 5-7 p.m.**