KAMP Interview Series 2023: Harrison Schmitt
Interviewer: Javier Mendoza
Interviewee: Harrison Schmidt
Date Interviewed: February 13, 2023
Edited By: Liam Larkin-Smith
Link to Youtube Upload: https://youtu.be/rf-hF8vsGoc
Link to Sound Cloud Audio: https://on.soundcloud.com/KXBzG
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Javier: Good evening, everybody. Welcome to KAMP Student Radio. My name is Javier, and I will be hosting this week's KAMP Interview series. So, yes, this is brought to you by the KAMP News Team. I have the honor to introduce our guest, Harrison Schmidt. Harrison, would you like to introduce yourself? Say your pronouns, hobbies, activities, et cetera? What do you do here at the U of A? Feel free.
Harrison: Yeah, for sure. Thanks so much for having me on. My name is Harrison Schmidt. I'm getting my PhD in social psychology here at the University of Arizona. I'm in my fifth year, so that's my last semester. And after this, I'll be starting as an assistant professor at Skidmore College in upstate New York. But outside of all that oh, and by the way, I use he/him pronouns. Outside of all that, I play music and I watch movies.
Javier: Oh, nice. And broadly speaking, what field catches your interest? What do you study here?
Harrison: Yeah, so I'm getting my PhD in social psychology, but more specifically, I kind of cross a lot of boundaries between what's called cultural psychology. So studying how people's cultural backgrounds shape their psychology, as well as public health, so trying to understand what kinds of factors from our environment and so on shape various health outcomes.
Javier: Very nice, very nice. So what exactly is culture, and how does culture shape our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors?
Harrison: That's a good question. It's also a complicated question, a difficult one to answer. Yeah. Let's see. I would say that in part, culture is kind of this constellation of different things, things like values and ideas and norms and so on, that come to a certain extent from other people, the groups that we belong to. But beyond this, culture is also dynamic. It's something that's changing all the time, right? Sometimes it depends on things like borders that are totally man made and constructed. And sometimes it depends more on things like shared values like religion and things like that. And so it's this sort of nebulous kind of thing that's hard to tack down. But I think it's also something that's really important in shaping how we think and feel and behave as humans.
Javier: Right, right. Correct. Very interesting. Now, what differs culture psychology from other branches of psychology?
Harrison: Yeah, I would say there are a few things at a sort of abstract level, I think a lot of psychology tries to understand universal processes, so things that shape how all people think and behave. But as cultural psychologists, we try to understand things that are not universal, or at least that are manifested in different ways across different cultural contexts and cultural groups and so on. So trying to understand how these factors that are beyond the individual, be it the groups that we belong to, the histories of the places that we live, these kinds of things, we try to understand how these things also shape people's behavior apart from biological or kind of hardwired evolutionary kinds of factors.
Javier: Right. And yeah. Just to segue into what you're interested in, right. And you mainly focus on community oriented work, correct? So how are you aiding your community? And what resources do you wish your community had more available?
Harrison: Yeah. So I'm curious if you're referring specifically to Southside Tucson or more broadly?
Javier: More broadly, whatever community you identify with.
Harrison: Yeah, that's a good question. In a broad sense, I think that a lot of things should be human rights that we don't see as being human rights. I think people have a right to shelter and health care and all these things. So in a broad sense, I just wish that all of these things were seen as human rights and provided as such. And I think that would benefit not just my community, but all communities.
Javier: As of 2018. Correct me if I'm wrong. You came here to the very severe zone in Tucson to pursue your social psychology PhD, correct? So what sets multiculturalism in Tucson apart from other cities?
Harrison: That's interesting. I grew up in a suburb north of Los Angeles and just to give some context from where I'm coming from and then I did my undergrad degree in Fresno, California. So it's kind of right in the middle geographic center of California. It's like this agricultural hub kind of like the Central Valley in California. And so Fresno was a much more diverse place than where I grew up. So in the suburbs north of LA. It was a largely white middle class community. Fresno had a lot more socioeconomic diversity, but also racial and ethnic diversity in a lot of kind of unique ways. And actually I see Fresno and Tucson
as being similar in that way. There's this sort of kind of diversity that you only get in these like mid size cities, I think. So yeah. In that way it felt sort of similar. But obviously I'd be remiss to say that something about being so close to the border, the Mexican border here in Tucson, I think this certainly shapes how we think about cultural diversity in Tucson and so on. Things like refugee populations and ah, you know, migrant populations and all these different things definitely shape, kind of the multicultural fabric of of Tucson.
Javier: Gotcha. Yeah. Now more specifically, what is the University of Arizona doing or not doing in regards to multiculturalism?
Harrison: That's a good question. I think in some ways I'm not like the perfect person to ask this question to, just given my sort of intersection of various identities. But at the same time, I feel like there are things that the university is doing or has done well. So in my research, I think a lot about kind of, moving psychology outside of the lab where we traditionally do all of our research in psychology and moving out into various communities. And so this is something that I think parts of the University of Arizona do very well at getting us outside of the lab and into the communities affected by various issues. And so that's something I think that we do well in certain parts of the University, such as in the College of Public Health and so on. But I think it's something that's really lacking in other areas. So by and large, many people in the psychology department don't do that kind of work. And I think that's definitely an area of growth for us.
Javier: Right. And as a researcher, more specifically a social psychologist, what is the role of a social psychologist in the context of community?
Harrison: Wow. Yeah. So this sort of taps into maybe a broader kind of schism in the field of psychology broadly and social psychology specifically. Like I mentioned, most social psychology research is conducted in this sort of abstract way where we bring people into our sort of sanitized lab lab spaces and social psychology, maybe put them into a weird situation and see how they respond or something like that. And I think this kind of work can obviously teach us a lot, but it's also sort of limited in that we're totally controlling the environments that we study people in. And so I think it's really important for us to take social psychology out of the lab and out into communities to really understand how people think and behave and feel in their social and cultural and ecological contexts, not just in these abstracted lab spaces. And so I would say I'm kind of a weird social psychologist in that way, in that I do really try to focus my work in these more naturalistic contexts and in people's lived worlds and so on, rather than in these lab spaces. So it's hard to say what exactly the role of a social psychologist is in these communities because it's sort of uncharted territory, at least for traditional social psych. But there is a field that's been around for a long time called community psychology, which often shares elements with things like cultural and social psychology. But it's a bit- like there isn't a program for it here at the University of Arizona, for instance. And so these people, community psychologists, have done much more to really be active in their communities. And so what a community psychologist does, and what I try to do in my work as well, is to understand people's behavior and attitudes and so on and health broadly defined in the context of their lives and then also to work towards, you know, preventing future health issues from arising and different things like that. Yeah.
Javier: So your dissertation focuses on chronic environmental contamination, correct? And it's psychosocial effects. Can you explain to us the consequences that chronic environmental contamination has as well as the environmental racism that imposes on communities?
Harrison: Yeah, for sure. So chronic environmental contamination is the experience of living in an area where there are hazardous substances in the environment that are either known to be there or at least perceived to be there, often for a prolonged and unknown period of time. And so this kind of experience of chronic environmental contamination is shockingly common all across the world. But in the United States, for instance, there are thousands of what's called Superfund sites. So these are areas of land with known environmental contamination, whether it's groundwater contamination or air pollution or soil contamination and so on, radiation. And these areas of land are then sort of monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency or the EPA, and they offer funding and institutional support to help clean up those sites. And the unfortunate reality of these kinds of chronic environmental contamination events is that they are far more common in low income communities and communities of color. And so that's why people call these environmental justice issues or environmental racism issues, right? Because communities of color and so on are often to varying degrees targeted by environmental issues. And so thinking about the psychosocial or psychological or mental health impacts of these issues has sort of been sidelined by a lot of the literature, right, We're rightly, often focused on the health impacts of drinking contaminated water or something like that, right. Flint, Michigan, having lead in their water, we want to know about the physical health consequences or something like that, but we often sort of ignore the mental health and stress experience of going through something like that. And it's my opinion that this is actually a really important thing for us to study in this context how stressed people are in the wake of these kinds of events. In part because when people are more stressed, our immune systems don't work as well and so on. And so being stressed on top of being exposed to contaminants can also make the physical health effects worse, right. Because your immune system is dysregulated and so on. And so yeah, basically my research tries to kind of document and understand the psychological stress experience of living through something like water contamination or what have you.
Javier: Gotcha. So what exactly sparked your interest in studying Southside Tucson rather than any other community here in Tucson?
Harrison: Yeah, for sure. I mean, broadly speaking, the community in Southside Tucson was exposed for decades to contaminated drinking water. So from between the 1950s and approximately the late 1970s, folks in Southside Tucson were unknowingly served contaminated drinking water. And this came from a sort of combination of factors from Hughes Aircraft, which is now Raytheon on the south side, the Air Force and Air National Guard bases and the Tucson International Airport. And basically these this, you know, people were or these various industrial kinds of factors, people often were kind of irresponsible in how they got rid of various kinds of industrial chemicals and these leached into the groundwater and then were served to something like 50,000 people on the south side for decades. And so, that kind of context, obviously, this is a really a crazy issue, right? A crazy thing for this community to have experienced. And also, we don't know much about the mental health and ongoing mental health concerns among people in in this community. And even though people have been served clean drinking water, as far as we know, for the past 40 years or so, that doesn't negate decades of actively drinking contaminated water and then possibly experiencing physical health complications right in the wake of that exposure. And so I'm really trying to understand and work with communities that were this community that was exposed for all those decades to try to understand the stress.
Javier: Gotcha. Can you discuss quickly the role of community, family and social networks in supporting an individual coping with suffering?
Harrison: Yeah, for sure. So as a cultural psychologist, and specifically one of the kind of areas of study for me is also existential psychology. So trying to understand how people cope with and make meaning from experiences of suffering and trauma and so on, I'm really interested in how culture shapes the ways that people cope with these kinds of, ah, difficult issues that all humans face and so on. And we believe very firmly that that culture plays a huge role in kind of helping people understand and move through difficulties in their lives. And so, yeah, something that we find, obviously, across all cultural groups is that, to varying degrees, having healthy networks of support with family and friends and so on, is super important for coping with stress from any kind of experience. But specifically too, one way that a lot of people cope with stress is through economic resources though too, right? So people that have higher incomes and are more maybe residentially, mobile and stuff like that, you can cope with difficulties by turning to your material resources, but for folks that don't have those material resources, oftentimes those relationships can be kind of maybe the only or a more important kind of buffer and way of coping with stressors. So yeah, that's I think super important.
Javier: Yeah, I think you cover that really well. So, as far as a community that's been as marginalized as Southside Tucson, how do policy makers repair the relationship that they had or make a relationship to begin with with a community like Southside Tucson?
Harrison: That's a good question and it sort of brings up a pretty complex, I don't know, like, I guess complicated histories in this community specifically. And so one thing that we see, right, once you've been exposed to something like water contamination, there's this author that's written a lot about these kinds of experiences named Michael Edelstein. And he talks about the way that once you've been exposed or you discover that your community has been exposed to something like water contamination, it can kind of flip your whole worldview upside down, right? Often as humans, we don't even maybe realize it, but we have these sort of core assumptions that we move through the world with, right? We might assume that our environment is safe, that our home is a safe place to live. Some people, to varying degrees, might believe that various institutions are there to protect them and that these institutions work, right? But experiencing something like water contamination can sort of flip these on their head, right? The environment is no longer safe. The environment is something dangerous, right? I was drinking contaminated water without knowing it. And also you'll kind of lose that naive trust that you might have had in these institutions, right? I thought that things like the water department and the health department were there to protect me from something like water contamination in the first place. And so once that has happened and those kind of world views have been flipped on their head, it can be really hard to trust those institutions again. But at the same time, something like water contamination, that's this huge issue that's affected maybe thousands of people. And it takes millions of dollars to remediate something like that and then also to care for people who are experiencing health complications from something like that. It's the kind of thing that you can't solve on your own. You can't solve it just as a few community members working together. There has to be this kind of trusting collaboration between these powerful institutions that have the money to fix a problem, the money and the power and the political sway and so on, to fix an issue like water contamination, and you need the community input, right? You need to know what the community members actually want. So basically, all this is a preamble to say that it's really important that we do rebuild these trusting relationships between communities and local institutions. But it's often very hard, right, because there's these deep histories of pain and anger and lack of understanding and so on. And so one thing that I see as being my role or our role as researchers in this context is kind of using our institutional connections to try and at least make these conversations happen, right. Help folks that have been exposed to water contamination historically, help them have productive dialogue and rebuild these kinds of relationships through empathic listening and so on, between people at the water department and the health department and the EPA and just kind of help these conversations to happen in a productive way.
Javier: Gotcha. And like many politicians and policymakers sometimes question the accuracy of social psychology research, and the validity of those experiments often say that they're biased or sometimes manipulated. What do you have to say about policymakers who still do not trust social scientists?
Harrison: Yeah, that's interesting. It's not something I've thought about too much in my personal experience, I know this happens out there. In my personal experience, I feel like the folks that I've talked to at the Tucson Water Department, the Health Department, the National Institutes of Health and so on, these people tend to be pretty receptive to the kind of research that we've done. So, yeah, in my personal experience, I haven't seen it much, but I think that a lot of the criticisms, to be honest, are fair, right? I mean, I think social psychology in recent years with things like the replication crisis and so on have received a little bit of a sort of some damage, I guess, to their perceived legitimacy. But at the same time, I think that all we can do is just continue doing our research and try to just build on the weaknesses of traditional research and social psychology and just continue to prove that we do have some important things to say about what's going on in the world.
Javier: Right. So you, personally right. What are some of the current and future directions that you see cultural psychology heading towards?
Harrison: Yeah, I think a few things. So first, I hope and I am trying to encourage my colleagues and so on to do the kind of work that we've been doing here in Tucson, right? Taking our research outside of the lab and into communities and so on. And so that's something in general that I think is important and that I'm trying to encourage people to do. And I hope it's a continuing kind of movement in cultural and social psychology. And I guess part of that is also moving away from some of the methods that we've traditionally used in social psychology or not necessarily moving away from them, but using them in combination with different methodologies. And so specifically, in my own research, just to give some context, traditional social psychology tends to use the scientific method and experiments and so on, like I said, where you're bringing people into the lab and sort of putting them in one situation or a different situation and seeing how they behave. This experimental method is super powerful and important and can help us get at some really important things in psychology. But at the same time, we also need to get out of the lab and observe people in the real world and so on. So that kind of method, I think is important. But then also doing things like using qualitative methods so interviewing people and really hearing about people's stories and about their experiences in more depth, right? Not just focusing on bringing 100 people into the lab and averaging across all of them, but bringing in a few people and really hearing their stories and understanding them and validating them. And so that's kind of something that I hope and something we've done in our work. But it's something I hope that social and cultural psychologists can also start to adopt.
Javier: Gotcha. And as you wrap up your last semester here at the U of A, congrats, by the way.
Harrison: Thank you.
Javier: What is one thing you have learned from working closely with the community of Southside Tucson that you wish was given more attention to?
Harrison: Yeah, that's a good question. In so many ways it's just like the people in Southside Tucson, obviously some people see Southside Tucson as having a bad reputation or whatever, but honestly the people in Southside Tucson are normal people and they just happen to have gone through, many of them, some really harrowing experiences including with these environmental justice, environmental racism issues. And so something I feel like I've seen through my work is just the importance and the power of storytelling in the South Side community. So we've interviewed a lot of people that have been activists surrounding this water contamination issue over the past few decades. And in our interviews, I mean, the stories they tell about their experiences are truly harrowing but they're also inspiring, right? And I think these stories are powerful. And what I see often is that when we actually do get to have these conversations happen between impacted community members and people from relatively powerful institutions and so on, the stories that community members tell are truly powerful and they can really inspire political action and institutional action on behalf of the community. And that's something that I guess I wasn't necessarily expecting to see, but I've seen quite a bit in this research.
Javier: Gotcha. And what do you hope to accomplish as a social psychologist?
Harrison: I think in line with some of the things I've been saying. I hope to help move the field towards doing this more community engaged research. And a huge part of that is adopting what we might call cultural humility or epistemic humility. And so kind of trying to help social psychologists sort of move away from assuming that we know more about humans than normal humans do, right?
Harrison: And so helping to really value like, people's lived experiences, essentially. So doing more of these qualitative methods and sort of centering the voices and the experiences and the stories of people that have actually gone through the kinds of issues that we study as psychologists. So really hearing from and centering and validating the the experiences of, you know, impacted community members essentially.
Javier: Gotcha, gotcha, gotcha. And this is the first semester you have a teaching position, correct?
Javier: And how is teaching in front of students, how does that differ from lab work?
Harrison: It's entirely different, especially. Yeah. So I'm teaching Intro to Social Psychology this semester, which is a 250 person class, so it's pretty big. I have a microphone and everything up there, so yeah, it feels more like I'm performing than, I don't know, researching is often like a solo or a one on one kind of a situation. So it feels very different. But at the same time, I really enjoy it. I think it's great to kind of try to create a sort of co-learning space right. And help students learn about social psychology. But I'm also learning about social psychology by teaching in this context and hearing from people's stories and things like that.
Javier: And it also helps that you're passionate about the subject.
Harrison: Right, right.
Javier: I was talking to Tabria, your fiance, on
Harrison: Saturday right?
Javier: Saturday. And I remember I told her I made the comparison. I was like, Harrison in front of the mic, in front of all the students is like Mick Jagger on stage. Just so confident.
Harrison: Okay, that's good. I'm glad I exude the confidence.
Javier: You nailed that right down. Harrison, I think your work is very admirable. I really appreciate what you're doing for a community that I grew up in. Yeah. So thank you on behalf of Southside Tucson and yeah. What is one thing you're going to miss about Tucson when you leave?
Harrison: Oh, man, the list is too long. I'm going to miss the food, the weather, the people.
Javier: Are you going to miss TaliasVan, the greatest musician and to ever come out of Tucson?
Harrison: I am absolutely going to miss TaliasVan. Absolutely. But luckily, they stream worldwide, so I'll tune in online
Javier: And you can always find their music on Spotify and Apple Music.
Javier: Just to close off this interview, Harrison, I have, I guess you can say, a tongue in cheek question, right? Something more for me than anything. So you consider yourself a cinephile, even going on record saying, and I quote, I never give a movie five stars on my first watch. If aliens came down to Earth at this very second right. And asked you to recommend three movies that represents the human experience best, which ones would you recommend?
Harrison: Man. Can I look at my Letterboxd?
Javier: You can pull out the Letterboxd. You can plug it in as well, if you want.
Harrison: This is tough. These are the kind of questions, you should know this. These are the
kind of questions that cinephiles fear.
Javier: What better place to ask you this than on live air, right?
Harrison: Yeah, true. Okay. Three movies.
Javier: Three movies. Human experience.
Harrison: Okay, so I thought of two movies without looking at my letterbox, and they ended up being on my top one. So I think I'll say those at least. But then, yeah, the third is tough. Okay. And also, I have a weird human experience, right? Because I've been spending the last ten years of my life studying psychology. So I might be a little more in my head than other people, but okay, let's see. So I think one has to be a Tarkovsky movie. Russian director. And I think I was going to say Stalker because I think that's my favorite of his movies. But I think in terms of human experience, his movie Mirror is maybe more, like fundamental. It's like super dreamlike and poetic and he just plays with time and space. super well, like, I think it's really something uniquely human. And then this is so hard. Okay. Another one, though, would be Synecdoche, New York.
Javier: Oh, yeah.
Harrison: So a Charlie Kaufman film starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman. And it's very social and cultural, psychological in nature, that movie, because it's about how we are playing different roles in our life and there's like this meta theater that happens in daily life, essentially. I won't say anything more than that. And then oh, man, I think the third one, I would say this is a little more harrowing, but maybe Incendies, the Denis Villeneuve movie.
Javier: That's one of his first ones, right?
Harrison: Yeah, I think it's maybe his second movie or something. But yeah, I won't say anything about that one. All right, so Mirror, Synecdoche, New York and Incendies.
Javier: Great choices. I thought you were going to say the Banshees of Inisherin for a second, especially as a social psychologist.
Harrison: Yeah, it's a little too new. Yeah, it hasn't seeped in yet.
Javier: Well, Harrison, is there anything else you'd like to say?
Harrison: That's a great question. No, I don't think so. Other than thank you for having me and I don't know, everyone should care deeply about the environment.
Javier: Exactly. Couldn't have said it better. Well, thank you once again, Harrison, you are listening to KAMP Student Radio. We'll take it back to Robo DJ. Let's see what he is playing.
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