Interview with Dylan Bugden, Boeing Distinguished Professor in Environmental Sociology

Dylan Bugden.

Dylan Bugden earned a PhD from Cornell in 2019. He then joined the Sociology department at WSU as the Boeing Distinguished Assistant Professor in Environmental Sociology. His work is in the areas of environmental sociology, contentious politics, and public opinion and has been published in journals such as Social Problems, Environmental Sociology, and Socius.

One of his recent important publications, “Environmental Inequality in the American Mind: The Problem of Color-Blind Environmental Racism”, shows that Americans largely do not believe environmental racism exists because they have strongly internalized a colorblind racial ideology. This research was featured in Nature News, The Hill, and the Scientific American.

We are excited to feature Dylan in the latest edition of the newsletter and share more about his background, current research, and plans for the future.

If you would like to join Boeing in supporting the Department of Sociology, gifts are welcome and appreciated and can be made securely online. You may also contact the College of Arts and Sciences Development Office at or 509-335-1096 to support Sociology programs and initiatives through the department’s Excellence Fund.

Tom: Dylan, welcome to Sociology News. Why don’t you tell us about your background?

Dylan: I’m originally from Pennsylvania. When I was a couple of years into undergraduate school, I decided I wanted to be a park ranger, so I moved out to the University of Idaho to go to school to do that.

That was a couple of years post-recession, and there were not many employment opportunities to be a park ranger. So, I decided to go to graduate school at Oregon State University to study environmental policy. There, I realized that I liked research quite a bit as well as teaching. I went to Cornell University for a PhD, where I had an opportunity to work on the shale gas industry in the northeast, particularly in upstate New York. Fracking isn’t discussed so much anymore, but at the time it was a cutting-edge topic. It’s what people were focused on because of its ties to climate change but also because of the impacts that those communities were experiencing. That’s what I wanted to work on, and that’s why Cornell made a lot of sense because we were just a couple of hours away from some of the most densely developed counties. They were counties that had not experienced anything like this before, so there was this boomtown dynamic that was emerging. It raised a lot of questions about the future of the fracking industry and what it was doing to the communities.

I did that for a while at Cornell and worked under a large USDA grant that I managed and then developed a few papers. I eventually became a bit bored with the subject and, for my dissertation, pivoted to exploring the politics of climate change and social movements. More specifically, I was interested in climate change movements and the consequences of their tactics. Oddly enough, we don’t know a lot about what effects social movements have. We kind of assume that social movements show up and are good. It’s not quite that linear or obvious. I was particularly interested in the unintended negative effects that kinds of social movement tactics would have.

This was partly motivated by what was going on in 2015/2016 during the Trump presidential campaign when activists were freaking out. There were very large, serious protests. The rhetoric around politics certainly felt like it had changed, and I already knew quite a bit about polarization, so it seemed like a natural thing to study. In my dissertation, I found that it doesn’t matter—partly because partisanship already makes you very open to activists that you see as being part of your group. If they’re not part of your group, then you don’t care what they’re doing. They can be violent or they can be peaceful. It doesn’t make a difference. You don’t like them.

Then I came to WSU. When I was hired, I was awarded the Boeing Distinguished Assistant Professorship of Environmental Sociology. It’s unusual, of course, to be an assistant professor in an endowed professorship. It is particularly unusual because this specific professorship has been held by some extremely influential people in the field. It’s a little bit of pressure, but I think it’s been good. I was not necessarily going to pursue sociology after the PhD because I was open to interdisciplinary areas. The Boeing Professorship helped me commit to sociology, and I became more committed to the subfield that I currently study than I might have been otherwise without the professorship. It has been a complicated, difficult, and beneficial transition. I’ve been forced to think theoretically, and I’ve been pushed methodologically.

Tom: What has the endowed professorship allowed you to do? How has it helped you?

Dylan: It’s touched on every part of my job. The most explicit way is it gives me the freedom to do the research I want to do. It is an amazing advantage that I don’t have to tailor my research to having no money or to frame research topics around funding sources. There are entire areas of research that I would not be able to do. I’m interested in politics and there’s just no money out there to study politics. In that way, it not only lets me do what I want but it also creates an opportunity to study something that might not get studied otherwise. Outside of my work, it’s not being studied. There’s no money to go out and collect the kinds of data that I want because funders aren’t funding it. It gives me the flexibility to pursue a research agenda that doesn’t need to conform to the expectations of others. The Boeing Professorship gives me the freedom to pursue pure intellectual curiosity with a large research budget.

Tom: That’s an interesting way of framing it. Your experiences suggest that for some research programs in sociology, you don’t need to provide many resources to have a transformative impact on an early-career sociologist.

Dylan: Yes, it doesn’t take much. And the impact goes beyond my personal benefit. The Boeing Professorship has improved my ability to advise and support graduate students. I think that’s one of the coolest things about it. If we have a student interested in an amazing topic, I can support the student. I can hire them in the summer to work on their project. I can provide the money a student needs to collect data. I can fund travel for students to professional conferences, like the American Sociological Association annual meetings, where they can get exposure and start sharing their ideas with other scholars. The funds I provide can meaningfully support students at critical points of their careers. All that is possible because of the Boeing Professorship. The endowment is a backstop for student success.

Tom: What other benefits does the Boeing Professorship provide?

Dylan: As I said, the professorship touches on everything I do. It has allowed me to improve my teaching of the environmental classes. I have a course release that is funded by the Boeing professorship. The extra time has allowed me to develop a new climate change class and I have updated the sustainability and society class. I would not have been able to invest in improving those courses without the extra time.

The experience has been awesome. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made since I arrived at WSU because these courses (I hope) are going to be critical parts of the sociology curriculum and in the larger University. There aren’t any classes like this. They’re the only social scientific climate change and environment classes. The classes are unique. I don’t grab a textbook off the shelf and organize a class around it. Instead, I’ve been able to tailor my courses around issues that are directly affecting students all the time. There’s no textbook out there that does this. I needed time to create unique course content.

I’m currently a couple of weeks into teaching a new course (SOC 332: Sustainability and Society), and I’m having a blast, and the response has been amazing. It’s going great. I’ve never had so much fun teaching. Students are engaged, and they are responding to the changes that I made.

Each week, we consider a different question. For instance, should I be a vegan? We use this very personal question and their own feelings about it to then get into animal agriculture, climate change, and many other topics. So, the course is organized around an important life choice for students or some important aspect of their lives. Does it matter if I recycle? Should I not have kids because of climate change? And then we get into more societal-level questions. Can we even solve climate change? Will technology save us?

Tom: What’s next for your research program and for your use of the Boeing Professorship in particular?

Dylan: The immediate project will be an examination of how the very-far right, the fringe right, in Europe and the United States has framed its stance on immigration issues, particularly of mass immigration. They are using rhetoric around immigration to recruit people into the far right, and that has, of course, direct implications for immigration. But it also has implications for the environment. Immigration is, especially in Europe, a product of environmental change— particularly climate change. It’s also starting to happen in the US where we’re seeing people migrate to the US because of changes in temperature and precipitation that are driving farmers into poverty, so they’re looking to escape.

Immigration is going to become a critical environmental question on both the left and the right, and we’re trying to get ourselves positioned to be at the center of that discussion and to examine what’s happening within the far-right movement.

I think we’re at an amazing juncture in environmental politics, with the rise of populism on the left and the right, a real re-emergence of socialism, and an emergence of authoritarianism on the right. This has implications for environmental policy. I think our whole view of how we think about the environment and how we design policy for the environment is changing, and it’s changing in the most fundamental ways possible.

All of the things we used to assume, whether you’re on the left or the right, about what is possible are disappearing—and that could mean great things for climate policy. It could mean a return of the State to the management of the environment. It could see the environment become a rhetorical lever to push authoritarianism into the United States and Europe. These ideas are part of a very long-term project, and I hope to be working on it for a few years, including going to Europe for a sabbatical.