My research examines how organizations transform and reproduce social inequality. Using ethnographic methods, interviews, social network analysis, and qualitative comparative analysis, I have investigated these processes across several projects. To date, I have focused on two institutions that shape and are shaped in significant ways by unequal social conditions: education and philanthropy.
My work has received awards from several sections of the American Sociological Association (Organizations, Occupations and Work; Sociology of Education; and Emotions) and is published in Sociology of Education, Sociological Forum, Symbolic Interaction, and Du Bois Review. I have co-authored pieces with Annette Lareau (University of Pennsylvania) and Elliot Weininger (SUNY Brockport) that appear in Teachers College Record, The New York Times, The Hechinger Report, and Social Class and Changing Families in an Unequal America (Stanford University Press, edited by Marcia Carlson and Paula England).
To read about my publications, click the links above or “Publications” in the menu to the left. To learn more about my projects, continue reading below.
Launch: Preparation for Upward Social Mobility
Schools are vehicles for both social mobility and the reproduction of social inequalities. This project focused on an organization that sits at the nexus of the transformative and reproductive possibilities of education: a “pipeline” program that prepares low-income students of color to attend elite boarding schools and go on to elite colleges. Using data from ethnographic methods and in-depth interviews, I asked and answered a number of questions in this project: How can an organization help participants increase their social capital? How can an organization’s discursive framing (it’s answer to the question, “What’s going on here?”) mobilize participants and build their commitment to the organization? How do actors within an organization function as emotional socializers and emotional gatekeepers, monitoring and evaluating newcomers’ compliance with particular feeling rules? How might explicit preparation for upward social mobility sharpen or neutralize students’ potential critique of elite educational institutions and the structures of inequality that support them?
I address these questions in articles published in Sociology of Education, Sociological Forum, Du Bois Review, and Symbolic Interaction. Two of the papers from this project received awards from the American Sociological Association’s sections on Organizations, Occupations, and Work; Sociology of Emotions; and Sociology of Education.
Social Capital and Social Networks: School- and Neighborhood-Based Networks of Urban Parents
Initially funded by a grant from the Spencer Foundation, this project is a collaboration among myself, Rand Quinn (University of Pennsylvania), and Amy Steinbugler (Dickinson College). We are investigating the school- and neighborhood-based social networks of parents sending their children to an urban magnet school. Such schools tend to exacerbate existing racial and socioeconomic inequalities, yet they may also provide disadvantaged parents with resource-rich school-based social networks—perhaps while weakening neighborhood-based networks. We use social network analysis, regression techniques, and qualitative comparative analysis to address questions related to these tensions: What factors shape the size of urban parents’ school and neighborhood networks? Is social status or network participation more consequential in shaping access to resources in a social network? What types of network characteristics matter for accessing different types of resources?
Democratization from Above: Organizational Attempts to Redistribute Power
While my ethnographic study of the pipeline program focused on a type of organization that works within—and at times, embraces—the contours of its highly stratified institutional sphere, this project shifts the focus to organizations seeking to change a fundamental aspect of their respective institutional realms: the balance of power among participants. In this project I explore the process of “democratization from above,” a phenomenon that can be seen in new institutional arrangements such as participatory budgeting and community policing—but that existing theories of power do not illuminate. Using ethnographic methods and in-depth interviews, I investigate this process at two sites: a large philanthropic foundation seeking to transfer control over its grant-making to a community-based board, and a democratic school in which students and adults have equal voice in decisions. Here I ask a new set of questions about organizations and inequality: How do democratizing efforts take place in organizations trying to redistribute power, and how might they fail? What types of organizational structures, interactions, and overarching discourses facilitate or hinder the redistribution of power across institutional roles? Do (and if so, how do) attempts to redistribute power make use of mechanisms that have not been included in existing theories of power? How might large-scale, foundation-based philanthropy contribute to, rather than erode, democratic participation?
Philanthropy in a Democratic Society
Alongside the investigation of foundation-based philanthropy that I am pursuing as part of my Democratization from Above project, this project focuses more squarely on the role of philanthropy in a democratic society. As economic inequality increases, we are experiencing a new golden age of philanthropy. This philanthropic explosion places otherwise-taxable dollars under private rather than public control, raising questions about how philanthropy may erode democracy. Here I am interested in the following questions: How might new models of philanthropy challenge or reproduce patterns of social inequality? How have public justifications for large-scale philanthropic giving changed over time?
In addition to the projects above, my research with other collaborators has focused on additional aspects of organizations and inequality. My work with Annette Lareau included in-depth interviews with White and Black middle-class, working-class, and poor families about parents’ management of their children’s experiences in institutions as the children transitioned into adulthood. In a chapter in Social Class and Changing Families in an Unequal America (Stanford University Press, edited by Marcia Carlson and Paula England), we identify class-based cultural resources that helped middle-class parents foresee, forestall, and solve problems that surfaced in the youths’ experiences with institutions such as schools.
In another project with Annette Lareau, we studied a year-long process during which an affluent school district redrew its attendance boundaries. Using observations, interviews, transcriptions of school board meetings, emails and letters to the district, and thousands of postings to online message boards, we analyzed the interplay between parents and the district administration. In a paper published in Teachers College Record (with Annette Lareau and Elliot Weininger), we show how shifting coalitions of parents pooled their stores of cultural, social, and symbolic capital to oppose district officials’ plans. We argue that elite school districts may be prone to a distinctive type of conflict between policymakers and residents. A 2018 op-ed in The New York Times gave us an opportunity to spark a broader conversation about these findings.