Alissa Cordner

Associate Professor of Sociology and Garrett Fellow

Biography

Alissa Cordner is Associate Professor of Sociology and Paul Garrett Fellow at Whitman College. She teaches courses in sociology and environmental studies, including Environmental Sociology, Environmental Health, Social Research Methods, Sociology of Health and Illness and Environmental Justice.

Professor Cordner’s research focuses on environmental sociology, the sociology of risk and disasters, environmental health and justice, and politics and participation. Her two major areas of research are the social and political aspects of wildfire risk management and the social and scientific discoveries of perfluorinated chemicals.

Her award-winning 2016 book, "Toxic Safety: Flame Retardants, Chemical Controversies, and Environmental Health," examines how environmental health risks are defined and contested, in the face of unavoidable scientific uncertainty and competing, powerful stakeholders. Drawing on in-depth qualitative research on a controversial class of chemicals used as flame retardants, "Toxic Safety" shows that stakeholders' strategic interpretations and presentations of scientific rationality, uncertainty and evidence directly impact environmental and public health.

Professor Cordner is the co-director of the PFAS Project Lab (PFAS are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) with researchers at Northeastern University. The lab focuses on social and scientific questions related to perfluorinated chemicals. This project engages Whitman students every year as research assistants. Alissa also serves on the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Management (NASEM) Standing Committee on the Use of Emerging Science for Environmental Health Decisions.

Professor Cordner has published articles in numerous journals, including Environmental Sociology, The American Journal of Sociology, Health Affairs, Social Movement Studies, Environmental Science & Technology, Social Studies of Science, the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Teaching Sociology and Social Science & Medicine. She has also collaborated with a team at Brown University and New York University on a multi-sited collective ethnography in Providence, RI. Their 2014 book, The Civic Imagination: Making a Difference in American Political Life, focuses on civic engagement in Providence, Rhode Island.

Cordner grew up in Oregon's Willamette Valley. She attended Bowdoin College and majored in sociology and French. After graduating, she taught English and history courses at a university in France, worked as an environmental organizer in Oregon and she worked in youth wilderness programs in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. She joined the faculty at Whitman in 2013. In addition to her academic research, she is a volunteer wildland firefighter with Walla Walla County Fire District #4.

Education

Ph.D. Sociology
Brown University
2013

M.A. Sociology
Brown University
2010

B.A. Sociology and French
Bowdoin College
2004

Courses Taught by Professor Cordner

Professor Cordner teaches a range of courses in sociology and environmental studies. Please email her for copies of any of the following syllabi.

  • Environmental Sociology 
  • Environmental Health
  • Environmental Justice
  • Sociology of Disasters 
  • Sociology of Health and Illness
  • Social Research Methods
  • Current Issues in Sociology 
  • Senior Thesis 

Research Areas and Student-Faculty Research Opportunities

Associate Professor Cordner's research currently involves two major areas of focus: risk, power, and uncertainty related to industrial chemicals and wildland fire risk management.

Cordner regularly involve students in her research. If you are a Whitman student and interested in working with Professor Cordner as a research assistant, please contact her by email or visit her office during office hours.

Risk, Power, and Uncertainty in Environmental Health Controversies

Industrial chemicals are ubiquitous in contemporary life, yet significant controversy and scientific uncertainty surrounds how they are produced, studied and regulated. Cordner uses mixed qualitative methods to investigate how chemical risk and safety are socially constructed and scientifically defended. She is currently working on a collaborative NSF-funded project to investigate the social and scientific discovery of perfluorinated compounds, with a focus on PFAS-related advocacy and governance. They also maintain the only publicly-available database of PFAS contamination sites in the United States. 

Social and Environmental Impacts of Wildfires and Wildfire Management

The risks of wildfires involve complex intersections of social and ecological systems, and wildfire management practices face growing pressures from a hotter and drier climate, the changing wildland-urban interface, huge fuel stocks due to the legacy of fire suppression practices, changing occupational characteristics of wildland firefighting and ecological health concerns about fire suppression technologies. Cordner conducted three fire seasons worth of ethnographic observations, working with fire personnel with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management including firefighting crews, operations directors and incident management teams. Her ongoing analysis asks: How are wildfire impacts distributed across populations? What are the social impacts of wildfire management practices? How are risk management policies and practices developed, and how are they actually implemented on the ground? What can wildland fire risk management practices teach us about risk in an era of climate crisis?

Select Publications

(For a full list, please visit Cordner's website or see her current CV)

Books

Alissa Cordner. 2016. Toxic Safety: Flame Retardants, Chemical Controversies, and Environmental Health. New York: Columbia University Press.

Award: American Sociological Association’s Section on Environmental Sociology Schnaiberg Outstanding Publication Award, 2018

Reviewed in: American Journal of Sociology, Contemporary Sociology, The Social Science Journal, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Choice

Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Elizabeth Bennett, Alissa Cordner, Peter T. Klein, and Stephanie Savell. 2014. The Civic Imagination: Making a Difference in American Political Life. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Reviewed in: Contemporary Sociology, Political Science Quarterly, Choice                            

Refereed Journal Articles

(student co-authors underlined)

Alissa Cordner. 2021. “Staring at the Sun during Wildfire Season: The 2017 Solar Eclipse and Simultaneous Disaster Preparedness.” Qualitative Sociology  DOI: 10.1007/s11133-020-09470-z.

Martha Powers, Phil Brown, Grace Poudrier¸Jennifer Ohayon, Alissa Cordner, Cole Alder, and Marina Atlas. “COVID-19 as Eco-Pandemic Injustice: Opportunities for Collective and Anti-racist Approaches to Environmental Health.” Accepted at Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Marianne Sullivan, Chris Sellers, Leif Fredrickson, Alissa Cordner, Ellen Kohl, and Jennifer Liss Ohayon. 2021. “Re-envisioning EPA and Its Work in the Post-Trump Era: Perspectives from EPA Employees.” Journal of Public Health Policy DOI: 10.1057/s41271-021-00276-z.

Lauren Richter, Alissa Cordner, and Phil Brown. 2020. “Producing Environmental Ignorance Through Regulatory Structure: The Case of Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS).” Sociological Perspectives DOI: 10.1177/0731121420964827.

Alissa Cordner, Vanessa Y. De La Rosa, Laurel A. Schaider, Ruthann A. Rudel, Lauren Richter, and Phil Brown. 2019. “Guideline Levels for PFOA and PFOS in Drinking Water: The Role of Scientific Uncertainty, Risk Assessment Decisions, and Social Factors.” Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology 29:157–171.

Award: 2020 International Society of Exposure Science Paper of the Year Award the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology 

Alissa Cordner, Grace Poudrier, Jesse DiVali, and Phil Brown. 2019. “Combining Social Science and Environmental Health Research for Community Engagement.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 16(8).

Alissa Cordner, Lauren Richter, and Phil Brown. 2019. “Environmental Chemicals and Public Sociology: Engaged Scholarship on Highly Fluorinated Compounds.” Environmental Sociology 5(4):339-351.

Cousins, Elicia, Lauren Richter, Alissa Cordner, Sokona Diallo, and Phil Brown. 2019. “Risky Business? Manufacturer and Retailer Action to Remove Per- and Polyfluorinated Chemicals from Consumer Products.” New Solutions 29(2):242-265.

Alissa Cordner and Eliana Schwartz. 2019. “Covering Wildfires: Media Emphasis and Silence after the Carlton and Okanogan Complex Wildfires.” Society & Natural Resources 32(5):489-507.

Featured research brief by the Northwest Fire Science Consortium, Summer 2019.

Lauren Richter, Alissa Cordner, and Phil Brown. 2018. “Non-Stick Science: Sixty Years of Research and (In)Action on Fluorinated Compounds.” Social Studies of Science 48(5):691-714.

Alissa Cordner, Lauren Richter, and Phil Brown. 2016. “Can chemical-class based approaches replace chemical-by-chemical strategies? Lessons from recent U.S. FDA regulatory action on perfluorinated compounds.” Environmental Science & Technology 50(23):12584-12591

International Society of Exposure Science Paper of the Year Award in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, 2020.

G. Thomas Edwards Award for Excellence in the Integration of Teaching and Scholarship (campus wide), Whitman College, 2020.

American Sociological Association’s Section on Environmental Sociology Schnaiberg Outstanding Publication Award for "Toxic Safety," 2018.