Social inequality and stratification; urban poverty; cultural sociology; social media; gender and sexuality; qualitative methods; the transition to adulthood.
Blending urban and cultural sociology, I am an ethnographer studying social inequality and the transition to adulthood. With a focus on peer dynamics among marginalized young women and sexual and gender minority youth, I ask questions about poverty, gender, and social media. I write primarily on two broad themes: First, I examine the formation and effect of social networks among young people. I am particularly interested in how adolescents manage to meet the full spectrum of each other’s needs in the absence of robust state, family, or institutional support. Second, I consider how new forms of communication and interaction shape how young people form bonds and make sense of their lives.
In my research, I deploy and develop qualitative methods to learn how macro- and meso-level structures come to bear on the most intimate parts of daily life. By attending to all the spaces in which life is lived, including, increasingly, online spaces, I generate theoretical insights from close empirical observations.
Abstract: How do some children break the cycle of poverty? Adolescence is a critical window for long-term life chances. Social scientists have studied several things that help poor teens get ahead during these years, when future trajectories are often set in motion. They explore how factors like parenting styles, school resources, and after-school programs can promote young people’s well-being and success. But the most important social context for most adolescents–the peer group–is often overlooked by researchers, if not vilified. This project tells a new story about young people trying to make it. It focuses on teenaged girls who lived in public housing projects in North Cambridge, Massachusetts, following them as they grew from high school students into young women. Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted over four years, this project shows that the peer group can powerfully promote adolescent well-being, success, and even, mobility. The girls in Cambridge shared diverse, unyielding support through their friendships, helping each other cope, aspire, and achieve. By mitigating poverty’s hardships, the girls compensated for neighborhood and family disadvantage. The project presents new theoretical insights that contribute to current debates in sociology, social policy, education, and communication studies about social networks and social mobility.
This book is forthcoming with Princeton University Press.
Urban ethnographies typically explore how people survive social and economic isolation. In my work, however, I examine how the constant connection facilitated by cell phones adds a new dimension to contemporary poverty research. Social media complicates many assumptions of classical interaction theories, as well as our understanding of concentrated disadvantage and its consequences. Much like the 89% of American teens—with little variation over racial or class lines—who report using the internet “several times per day” or “almost constantly” (Pew 2018), the young women in my research were quick and skilled communicators. Cell phones were non-negotiable, even at the cost of clothes or subway fare, and the girls’ days consisted of ongoing, multi-platform interactions. They knew how to be physically together while attentively distant, and vice versa.
My working paper addresses how ethnographers should confront this new social landscape, and considers methodological, ontological, and ethical implications of these new but ubiquitous forms of interaction. I also call for a more consistent and robust integration of digital communication into studies of everyday life, because social media alter not only people’s presentations of self, but also their experiences of time, their relationships, their access to cultural forms, and more. From Goffman’s definition of a social encounter as an “occasion of face-to-face interaction,” to Bourdieu’s emphasis on bodily comportment and physical signals to systems of stratification, I suggest our analytical foregrounding of co-presence may no longer be productive.
Unaccompanied LGBTQ+ Homeless Young People in New York City
Abstract: Drawing on fieldwork and interviews with homeless young people, shelter staff, policy advocates, lawyers, and service providers, this project explores the trajectories and experiences of the fastest growing but least researched subgroup of the homeless population: unaccompanied homeless youth. This group is made up of an estimated 1.6 – 1.7 million young people aged 14-24 who experience homelessness with no parent or guardian each year. Focusing especially on LGBTQ+ young people, who are significantly overrepresented in the population of homeless youth, it challenges the extant belief that homelessness is the result of a single catastrophic event, like a family rejection, and offers new insights about young people's trajectories into homelessness. In doing so, it explores undertheorized connections between identity-based stigmatization, family poverty, and youth homelessness.
Landlord Harassment Among Rent-Stabilized Tenants in New York City
Abstract: Under laws passed in 1974 to shield tenants from steep jumps in rent, over half of New York City’s rental apartments are rent-stabilized. But, as housing prices have soared, landlords have spied opportunity: “flipping” stabilized units to market rate can double or triple rents overnight. Although rent-stabilized tenants are legally protected from eviction, the financial incentive to “flip” homes has exposed tenants to a new form of housing hardship: bribery or harassment by landlords eager for tenants to leave voluntarily. I conducted sixteen months of fieldwork with low-income, rent-stabilized tenants in Brooklyn and Manhattan, interviewing them in their homes, meeting with housing organizers and activists, and attending tenant meetings, housing rallies, and public hearings. The paper shows three categories of harassment that tenants faced and documented: construction and building disturbance; bureaucratic and legal harassment; and intimidation. I reveal tenants’ strategies of resistance, which hinged on their social networks and on the legal system. Many tenants lacked the requisite resources—including time, money, and energy—to secure their extant rights. But social networks could sometimes help tenants access the capital to successfully engage the legal system.
Interviewer, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
PI: Professor Robert Putnam, Harvard University