As the story of lead contamination in the water of Flint, Michigan, was unfolding in the national news, Elena Sobrino was finishing up her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan at Flint. Now, as a graduate student in MIT’s Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS), the Flint native studies “the questions the water crisis has raised about science, power, and where to go from here.”
“It’s an ongoing water crisis. People are continuing to deal with not knowing if their water is safe or not,” Sobrino says.
Her interest in the societal implications of science drew her to HASTS, despite a common misconception. “People usually think MIT is exclusively focused on STEM research. … I saw this program, HASTS, as a way to be in conversation with physical or biological scientists, as a social scientist myself.”
In addition to bringing the perspective of a Flint resident to her research, Sobrino also draws on her experience as an aid worker. Before she began her studies at MIT, Sobrino volunteered for the American Red Cross in Flint, where she worked on diversity and outreach projects and trained other volunteers. There, she noticed the dramatic shift in the resources that became available when news of the crisis went national.
“There was a public health emergency abruptly taking over everything we were doing. It was like an overnight change,” Sobrino recalls. “One day, the office is empty and quiet, and the next day [volunteers] are everywhere, not just from Michigan — they’re from all over the country.”
Remembering and documenting notable moments like those plays into Sobrino’s current study of Flint, and she refers to them as “protofieldwork.” Now, Sobrino is preparing to embark on one year of continuous ethnographic study in Flint. She aims to capture the interactions between people and institutions, and the stories of people that have been lost in the national news cycle.
Though Sobrino now studies Flint as a graduate student, it wasn’t always an obvious choice.
“Coming into school, it was hard for me to forget everything I’d seen and done in Flint,” Sobrino says. “So I just began to write about it.” She first wrote about the city in the context of social theory in class papers and projects, before deciding to focus on it for her research.
Part of Sobrino’s work involves unpacking some of the terms used to describe places like Flint today: deindustrialized, postindustrial, abandoned, blighted. “These are layers of language that we use but don’t always examine,” Sobrino says. “The language we use matters. The structures we use to a tell a story about a place matter. People are always telling stories about the places they live in and the environments they live in.”
To learn those stories, Sobrino performs ethnographic research — a type of anthropological research in which the researcher is embedded in the community and culture they aim to study. She uses questions to guide her research.
“What do I need to pay attention to that’s maybe getting lost in some of the stories that have already been told?” Sobrino says.
For fieldwork, Sobrino aims to go beyond the sit-down interview, to learn how the lives of residents and workers in Flint have changed as a result of the water crisis. There are no details too mundane, she says.
“What do those tell us about the deeper history of Flint as a place? I think that’s why anthropology is good at telling a longer story, and it takes a longer time,” Sobrino says.
While most graduate research at MIT is documented in the form of journal articles or dissertations, Sobrino’s ethnographic work may take other, additional forms.
“There are so many different histories that get lost because, inevitably, you have to tell a compressed story that depends on whatever kinds of genre or method you commit to,” she says.
In an effort to capture those histories, Sobrino wants to incorporate a visual component into her work. “I have been very drawn to the idea of using film,” she says. “Film can be a very dynamic and valuable archive.”
Sobrino draws some of her enthusiasm for film from 4.354/5 (Introduction to Video and Related Media), a class in the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology, as well as 21A.550J/STS.064J (DV Lab: Documenting Science Through Video and New Media).
“That was such an exciting experience for me — not only getting into the technical issues of editing or just the equipment itself and lighting, but we really explored the politics behind the medium of film as well,” Sobrino says. “That’s a really useful thing for me to think about because [political factors are] something you think about all the time as you’re trained to approach fieldwork, but [film involves] a whole different history: a history of not just research, but art.”
When Sobrino isn’t focusing on capturing the stories of Flint, she’s spending time with peers or engaging in local activism. “Building relationships with people is actually something I’ve really learned to prioritize,” Sobrino says. “In a PhD program, where you divide your time between intensive coursework alongside your peers, and then in other stages spend time away from MIT and in the field, you often need to make a conscious effort to maintain friendships.”
“I can’t imagine doing [the HASTS program] without this kind of network of friends or colleagues who come to support you in really personal ways, not just scholarly ways. They intermingle,” Sobrino says.
Outside of MIT, Sobrino takes part in local water activism with the coalition #DeeperThanWater. The coalition works on water toxicity and contamination in Massachusetts-area prisons.
“This has been incredibly enlightening for me because this is a whole different context from Flint, and yet some of the issues are extremely similar, like prolonged toxic exposure,” Sobrino says.
Sobrino invited the coalition to give talks at Cross-STS, a working group within HASTS that consists of researchers from different backgrounds who focus on science, technology, and society.
“I have learned a lot from just walking out the door and seeing the conversations that are happening all around the city,” Sobrino says, “And it’s a privilege to be part of some local community activism and environmental justice activism.”
As Sobrino embarks on her fieldwork in Flint and prepares for all the uncertainties with it, she’s sure about one thing in particular.
“MIT was just absolutely the ideal choice, even in ways I didn’t quite realize when I was applying,” Sobrino says. “I can learn to be an anthropologist, but I really want to think about science, technology, medicine, and their histories. But I don’t want to do that in a vacuum. I want to be really held accountable in a way for exploring the way knowledge gets created, organized, and shared.”