The work of Associate Professor of Sociology Chris Henke stands at a crossroads between social and natural sciences. When he was a student at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, he was set on becoming an engineer. However, three years into his education, he decided that the engineering world did not deal with the kinds of problems that he truly cared about.
“I think the thing that did not appeal to me when I was studying engineering was that it was so detached from political and policy issues…I think that I wanted to understand it, but I wanted to make a difference while understanding it as well,” Professor Henke said.
Now that he is a Professor of Sociology at Colgate, his life is at another crossroads. But this time, Professor Henke embraces all fields of study and incorporates them into his research.
“Most of my research has been looking at the kind of interface of the politics and science of the environment through agriculture,” Professor Henke said.
More specifically, Professor Henke deals with the legal issues that crop up between farming practices and their effects on the environment. Recently, he has focused on the relationship between biotechnology and modern agriculture. In his latest project, he studies the debate about how a certain strain of genetically modified corn affects the well-being of monarch butterflies.
“Caterpillars of some varieties munch on the corn and harm it. Farmers do not like that, so they engineered this corn to be toxic to the caterpillars if they ate it,” Professor Henke said.
Scientists were concerned about whether this genetic modification might harm caterpillars of the ‘non-target variety’ as well. It became a controversy when the public learned that this modification could potentially harm innocent species of butterfly.
“I am studying that controversy. Controversies are useful to study sociologically because, whenever there are people on different sides of an issue, they give arguments that expose the presuppositions and assumptions that they have,” Professor Henke said.
Professor Henke makes an analogy between his research and watching a political debate: the more one listens, the more one comes to understand the participants and their underlying motives. The purpose of his work is to discover a “methodology for understanding how, in our society, some of these debates get worked out,” Professor Henke said.
Professor Henke believes that, while his findings are somewhat useful as ends in themselves, his ultimate goal is to influence policy and inform the population.
Henke doesn’t leave this dedication at work. He makes the most of his free time through his work with Colgate’s Community Garden. Growing up in Wisconsin also made him a die-hard Packers fan.
“[The garden] is another way that I feel like I can get students to appreciate where food comes from and how challenging it is to have healthy, environmentally sustainable food,” Professor Henke said.
In the end, Professor Henke believes that the most exciting things to come out of sociology these days are the projects that involve other disciplines. This is exactly the kind of work that he appreciates the most.
“Agriculture is a sociological phenomenon, but it’s also biological, geological, geographical and it even has a humanitarian component. You really have to look at things from multiple perspectives,” Professor Henke said.
Contact Matthew Knowles at [email protected]