Marion W. Dixon is an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, PA. She is a historical and environmental sociologist who studies agriculture and food, with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa. She received her PhD from the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University in 2013.
Her two main research projects are the following:
My book manuscript, The Frontiers of Corporate Food in Egypt [Oxford University Press], examines the growth of corporations in agriculture and food in Egypt during the period of globalization. This project uses mixed qualitative methods, including fieldwork in Egypt between 2008 and 2012, to trace networks of actors, institutions, and policies in agriculture and food at multiple scales.
While there has been a plethora of studies on contestations over land since the food and financial crisis of 2007-2009, the importance of frontiers or new lands has largely been overlooked. In the face of multiple threats to production – rising prices from global warming to fresh water depletion to virulent pathogens – highly-capitalized lands in semi-arid and arid regions are being expanded. And ‘greening the desert’ narratives re-surfaced from the 1970s crises to justify these developments as a sustainable answer to the problem of food insecurity in the face of so-called environmental limits.
This book shows that corporate food has grown not only by dispossessing those who rely on land for their livelihoods and by degrading the environment – but also by re-making local and regional ecosystems for the expansion of cash crop production. The focus on frontiers provides insights on the ecology of commercial agriculture and its industrialization: The volatility of industrial agriculture, and more generally, the degradation of the ecological conditions of production, has led to ever greater controls over the production environment. These controls include movement to lands with virgin soils, farther from existing farms and residential areas.
My second research project is a comparative historical study of chemical fertilizer from the 19th century. Through a combination of archival material and secondary literature, I trace phosphate rock mining in the three main frontier regions (American South, French North Africa, and South Pacific) to the manufacturing of rock into fertilizer in the metropolitan centers to the trade in superphosphate fertilizer throughout the metropoles in the post-US Civil War/Emancipation era of industrial capitalism. This research shows that the development of this new class of chemical fertilizers was only possible through the extension of imperial state power and the institutionalization of a coercive, racial labor regime. And its development bolstered not only commercial agriculture but also chemical industries in the imperial states.
Both of my research projects address a key issue in the sociology of development — the relationship between agri-food industrialization and economic development. And a key methodological and theoretical concern of my research are the relations between nature and society. I address both issues in my teaching by relating local and national phenomena to world systems and by offering an ecological perspective on development and social change.