Dr. Richelle Winkler gave the inaugural Michigan Tech Research Forum Distinguished Lecture in October 2016. She discussed Making Research Matter: Democratizing Science and Other Lofty Goals.
Professor Hugh Gorman nominated Winkler, an associate professor of sociology and demography, for “community engaged scholarship" that extends across the Michigan Tech campus.
Examples of Winkler's projects include examining the feasibility—social and technical—of using mine water for geothermal heating systems in Calumet and examining the social, economic, and technical aspects of improving recycling in Houghton County. Both projects involve students and community members, and both have real impact in the communities.
Winkler also conducts research on the changing demographics of anglers and hunters—and the implications for policy. She presented on this subject at the Department of Biological Sciences last spring.
Eleven questions with Richelle Winkler
Q: You are a multidisciplinary scholar operating at the intersections of sociology, demography, geography, community development, and applied social science. Rural communities are your primary topic of study. How did you come to choose this path? Or, did it choose you?
I choose this path in large part because of my life experiences, but also because I believe that investing in the sustainability of rural communities is important for our global path forward. Globally, we are experiencing rapid urbanization, which has both positive and negative outcomes. Much of that urbanization is driven by a combination of social, economic, and environmental problems in rural areas. Rural areas tend to be forgotten about, but that doesn't mean they aren't important. A large proportion of the world's population still lives in rural areas and that is where most of our environmental services and natural resources come from. Most of my work is guided by a concern about spatial inequalities—the fact that life and well-being is better in some places than others. I try to understand the implications of these differences for things like migration and environmental protection. I don't like the idea that we just write off some places (and the people who live there) as being inherently bad or somehow disposable. I think my concern about such places comes from the fact that I grew up in rural Indiana, a place that has often been written off in many ways.
Q: When was the moment you knew sociology was the field for you?
When I went to college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do for my career. I was curious about just about everything. I took a sociology class because it fulfilled general education requirements, and I learned that it was possible to study just about anything from a sociological perspective. This meant I didn’t have to choose! I also wanted a career where I could help people and make a positive difference in the world, and it seemed to me then (and still) that sociology is a field where I could focus on that.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you face in your work?
Finding time to devote to all of the worthwhile projects out there.
Q: What has changed the most in sociology over the past decade (or two)?
For the field as a whole, I think the biggest changes I see are: (1) a continuing expansion of the types of research methods that sociologists use and a growing acceptance of combining multiple kinds of research methods to understand complex issues. (2) Continually increasing attention to environmental issues. Environmental Sociology is relatively new sub-field within sociology but its importance has grown considerably and become increasingly mainstream in the last 10 years or so. (3) Growing acceptance of and interest in what is called “Public Sociology” or more applied projects that work with communities and practitioners directly to solve problems.
Q: How do your specialties—migration, community engaged scholarship, and environmental sustainability, to name a few—complement each other?
I see these things as interrelated. Social and environmental well-being complement one another. I see migration as both a cause and a consequence of socio-ecological well-being. People move toward places they see as good, or at least better than where they are coming from. So migration can serve as a sort of indicator of where things are going well, and at the same time both in-migration and out-migration can impact community development in positive and negative ways. It’s a circular pattern. The community-engaged research piece just puts the whole pattern into practice. I really enjoy seeing how these things play out on the ground and working directly with community groups who are working to improve conditions. It’s an opportunity to apply theory, attempt to solve real problems, offer students real-world practice, and to gain insight from community members into what really matters to them- what questions and problems are most important. In these ways, working with community groups really drives my research agenda because it shows me where the issues exist.
Q: What is your most surprising research finding to date?
One of the things that has surprised me most is finding how divided our society is by age and then starting to understand what this means for how decisions are made and access to all kinds of services. I kind of stumbled upon this when investigating class-based (income) inequalities in a rural community that is experiencing a lot of tourism, second homes, and in-migration of retirees. In that case I found that even more than income or some notion of urban-rural, age really divided the community so that older people live in some areas and younger people in others and these spatial divisions led to differences in what kinds of services were given preference. Even though peoples’ greatest concerns in this community were in providing opportunities for the young people to stay, they were mostly an older community and believed their economic development was best served by attracting retirees. So, they invested in services for older people at the expense of services that benefit a younger population. Heart care instead of reproductive health care. Senior services over schools. Senior living over affordable family housing. These choices made life more difficult for younger people and ultimately drove them away. This is just one example of how age-based segregation can work. It’s not what I expected to find, but since then I’ve worked on this more and have continually found more examples. Our country, and our communities, are increasingly divided in many ways but age is an important one (and one that is particularly important in rural communities). It hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.
Q: What’s one thing that few of your colleagues know about you?
I am a volleyball coach.
Q: You earned your BA in sociology at the University of South Carolina. Did you grow up there?
No, I grew up in Indiana. But I wanted to get out of there. I didn’t know much of anything about South Carolina when I decided to go except that they offered me a scholarship, so it was the cheapest place for me to go to college and I saw it as a ticket out of town.
Q: What drew you to the Midwest for your graduate studies at UW Madison, and what has kept you here, in the UP?
After college, I was living in Montana and working two jobs and having a hard time paying the rent. I had known since undergrad that I probably wanted to go to grad school and had been encouraged by some extraordinarily helpful faculty to do so. So, I decided it was time. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has the best sociology program in the world and, at that time, was one of the relatively few places with a large group of environmental sociologists. They also were one of the few places with a Rural Sociology department. And, coming back to the Midwest was like coming home for me. So, for a lot of reasons it was the best place to go. I love Wisconsin and still sort of feel like it is my home. I lived there for almost 11 years in total. Moving to the UP—the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—was great because in many ways I didn’t feel like I had to go so far- it still feels a little like Wisconsin to me. Plus it’s a little more wild here and my family and I really appreciate that. My husband is from Montana. So this is our Montana of the Midwest.
Q: How does Michigan Tech work for you as a home base?
Michigan Tech works great for me as a home base. I love the community. There are plenty of rural issues to work on the UP. And, I have found Michigan Tech to really value the kind of work that I do, which tends to be more integrative across disciplines and research-practice.
Q: What's next in your research?
I’m currently on sabbatical in Costa Rica starting a new project with colleagues here looking at Costa Rican migration. I’m exploring relationships between internal migration between different places within the country and social and environmental well-being here now. I’m also investigating migration from rich countries (like the US) into Costa Rica and how that is changing local community dynamics and environmental consumption.