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Social Sciences

Predoctoral fellows have been nominated by their programs and are selected through a competitive review process based on the creativity and impact of the research they are pursuing. The abstracts for recipients in the social sciences describe the framework, aims, and significance of each fellow’s dissertation and demonstrate the breadth of Rackham doctoral programs.

Paradoxical Practice: Marginality, Visibility, and the Science of Care for LGBTQ+ Detroit Youth
Kathryn Berringer, Social Work and Anthropology

My dissertation ethnographically examines one non-profit organization in metropolitan Detroit as its vision shifts from producing “safe space” for LGBTQ+ youth to “creating a world where LGBTQ+ youth are safe wherever they are.” Here, practitioners of various kinds encounter myriad obstacles in their efforts to confront marginalization, enact care, and establish the validity of their practice in the context of increasingly hostile anti-LGBTQ political movements and ongoing crises of racial, economic, and environmental injustice. This project grapples with a central paradox: how is it possible to enact care that disrupts marginalization while also preserving the protections which strategic marginality might afford? I examine interconnected paradoxes that emerge in the practice of subverting marginalization and institutionalizing care work—in tensions between visibility and surveillance, between experiential and scientific knowledge, and between queer kinship and state-mediated forms of relatedness—and the ways my interlocutors attend to these tensions in practice.

Patronage as Insurance: Precarity, Clientelism and Political Engagement in Africa
Peter Carroll, Political Science

My dissertation addresses a significant omission in the study of poverty and political behavior in low-income countries. Political science research has long been concerned with how economic status influences political engagement. Yet, because poverty is too often conceptualized as a static condition, this literature misses the critical element of how people experience poverty over time. There is significant temporal variation in economic hardship even among the poor. I demonstrate that people in poverty experience both relatively static resource deficiencies as well as privation, that is, periodic acute need. I then develop a theory of how the lived experience of precarity (the combination of poverty and privation) helps explain political engagement. Precarity links voters to politicians by encouraging engagement as a form of insurance. I use existing and original data from Africa to show how precarity drives the seeking of patronage and how expectations around precarity link poor voters to parties.

Staying Put in a Turbulent World: An Ethnography of Non-Migration in Honduras
Sylvia Darling, Information

For decades, Hondurans’ aspirations for a better life have pointed north. Disillusioned by extreme poverty, rampant drug-trafficking violence, unchecked political patronage, and some of the highest rates of homicide in the world, almost a tenth of the population has fled Honduras, searching for more desirable prospects in the United States. Even so, some Hondurans have sought to stay in their country despite experiencing the same hostile forces that provoke their fellow citizens to migrate. Based on 20 months of participant observation in the heartland of Honduras, my dissertation investigates how grassroots activists, return migrants, and humanitarian organizations refocus their efforts on making rootedness possible. How do they reframe non-migration as desirable, specifically in a place characterized by extensive mobility? Drawing on theories of aspiration-capability in migration, transnational information politics, and critical diaspora studies, I analyze the determinants of non-migration amid persistent social inequalities and displacement.

The Wealth of Pensions: The Stratifying Role of America’s Most Innocuous Asset
Asher Dvir-Djerassi , Public Policy and Sociology

Wealth is back. Over the last 40 years, wealth stratification has risen to heights not seen since prior to the Great Depression. Joining a chorus of inequality scholars, this dissertation project centers wealth dynamics in the co-development and simultaneous explosion of income inequality. While income dynamics have been well studied, wealth has not been. In large part, this is due to inadequate data infrastructure for understanding the dynamics of wealth in the United States. This dissertation project helps to remedy the inadequacy of existing data on wealth by creating the first ever population-level panel dataset of U.S. income and wealth. Via this data, historical counterfactual microsimulation techniques, and historical institutionalist methods, this dissertation seeks to provide an entirely original story of wealth inequality’s stratospheric rise that centers the role of the most innocuous of assets: pensions.

Brain Basis of Word Reading in Bilingual Children with Dyslexia: A Strengths-Based Examination
Rachel Eggleston, Education and Psychology

Dyslexia, a life-long reading impairment, is the most diagnosed learning disability during the elementary school years. Many children with dyslexia in the U.S. are bilingual. These children speak both English and a heritage language, which is the language of their family. Bilinguals’ language and reading proficiency vary greatly across their two languages, which makes this population difficult to diagnose and treat. I aim to uncover strengths in learning to read in bilingual children with dyslexia. My project will inform education policy and practice through the examination of two strengths: heritage language use and morphological awareness, or sensitivity to the smallest units of meaning in language. Through two interrelated dissertation studies, I will examine how bilingual children with dyslexia leverage their heritage language to facilitate English word reading. It is critical to understand literacy development in bilingual children with dyslexia to develop research-based methods of supporting them.

What To Do About That Dam Thing? Local Government Dam Owner Decision Making
Mirit Friedman, Urban and Regional Planning

Local governments responsible for managing dams face challenging trade offs about community needs, budgetary priorities, and climate change vulnerabilities. Trade-offs between high visibility infrastructure and hidden infrastructure like dams, lead to underinvestment, neglect, and in some cases, failure. Communities rely on dams for many services including water supply control, flood control, and hydropower, however, dams also present catastrophic threats to downstream communities when they fail. In this project, I examine the understudied decisions about dams owned by local governments. I will survey 1,205 local governments and perform four case studies to triangulate the contexts and processes that lead dam owners to remove, modify, or not update their dams. Through evidence of proactive dam management and cases of inaction I will develop new empirical evidence to better support proactive management of locally-owned dams that is community and climate responsive.

Entrepreneurs and the Search for Dignity in Post-Castro Cuba
Miranda Garcia, Anthropology

This dissertation is about societal transformation. It is not about big, watershed moments like the fall of a wall or the triumph of a revolution. It is about the everyday lived experience of transformation—the kind exemplified in contemporary Cuba, where new economic actors, commercial media, and digital platforms are creating new public spheres and redefining old debates. This dissertation studies these changing discourses across four key areas: the nascent private sector, the emergent advertising industry, social media influencers, and the digitally-connected Cuban diaspora entangled with each. I investigate how individuals contend with new socioeconomic roles, debate evolving ideals and expectations, and envision new futures. Ultimately, these discourses reflect larger questions about the “dignified life”: What is la vida digna and how to achieve this socialist promise amid a changing socioeconomic landscape? Entrepreneurs’ visions of alternative futures have helped shape Cuba’s slow transition, engendering broader societal changes in the process.

Formalization and Its Discontents: Exploring the Microfoundations of New Venture Growth
Hilary Hoyt Hendricks, Business Administration

Economies depend on the growth of entrepreneurial ventures. But little is known about a major partner in that growth: the venture’s early employees. Sometimes called “joiners,” these recruits often work alongside founders to bring a shared vision into being. If joiners’ work is successful, what emerges is a more elaborate organizational structure, with new processes of coordination that, paradoxically, distance joiners from the founders and decrease possibilities for the agentic, autonomous action that drew joiners to the startup in the first place. To explore the experiences of joiners, my dissertation draws from two years of observations and interviews in a medical lab that grew from 25 to 250 employees in just a few months. Findings demonstrate how joiners lost influence as their company scaled—and the actions they took to reassert their agency. I then propose a new “microfoundations” lens to help companies address the people side of scaling.

From Oversight to Overlook: How Governments Leverage Technology to Generate Seemingly Credible but Inaccurate Information
Guoer Liu, Political Science

Using automation technology to gather and disseminate information to the public is commonly viewed as a government-led effort to enhance oversight and address the principal-agent problem in bureaucracy. However, focusing on the expansion of China’s automatic ambient air quality monitoring network in the last decade (2012-2022), I argue that technology is being utilized as a tool to emphasize optics but overlook the substantive problems. I illustrate the idea with multiple original georeferenced data sets on the automatic monitoring network, pollution sources, and satellite-derived vegetation density across time and space. I show that, while automation initiative has improved the data quality in some ways, the undersupply of automatic monitoring stations, over-represented clean locations, and non-random missing pollution records continue to contribute to inaccurate air pollution information. As long as political incentives to manipulate information persists, actors can mold technology that operates without human intervention to serve their own interests.

Reconstructing Southern African Landscapes during the Last Glacial Maximum: Seasonality, Habitat Heterogeneity and the Human Response
Alexandra Norwood, Anthropology

Southern Africa is a region defined by extreme habitat heterogeneity and distinct rainfall regimes that sub-divide the sub-continent. Humans have been exploiting these diverse habitats since our species’ origins, adapting to changing climate and environmental shifts for over 100,000 years. The southern African archaeological record reveals periods of intense complex tools use, phasing in and out alongside dramatic demographic changes involving shifting population densities and social networks. During a period of acute climate change approximately 20,000 years ago—the Last Glacial Maximum, technological and demographic changes occurred in tandem, suggesting that environmental change spurred culture change. This dissertation reconstructs how southern Africa’s different climate regimes and ecotones shifted during the crucial period, providing a novel perspective on how global climate change manifests locally and how human cultural change maps on to shifting landscapes.

Red and Blue in the News: Polarization and the Politics of (Non)Partisan Identity
Gavin Plogr, Communication and Media

News coverage of partisan conflict suggests to the public that U.S. politics is fundamentally polarized. But not everyone responds to polarization in the same way, and the way in which they do so has important consequences for how they orient themselves toward politics. Drawing together research on news effects, social identity, and perceived polarization, I derive a novel theoretical account of how partisans and non-partisans respond to coverage of polarization. I argue that, for people with strong partisan identity, news coverage of polarization makes that identity salient, promoting extremity and combative partisanship. For people with weak partisan identity, however, coverage of polarization paints partisanship and political involvement in a negative light, leading to moderation and disengagement. To test my theory, I use a series of survey experiments designed to investigate why people come to believe that U.S. politics is polarized and what that means for public opinion and political behavior.

Frontier Futures: Corporation, Culture, and Capitalism in a Burmese Oilfield, 1886-1942
Chao Ren, History

Around the turn of the twentieth century, a small town in the remote hinterlands of colonial Burma named Yenangyaung suddenly emerged as a major center of the global petroleum industry. My dissertation examines the relationship between the material conditions of petroleum production and the ethical formations in this colonial resource frontier through the making of what I call a “future-oriented capitalist vision” in the resource frontier. Focusing on individual lived experiences and aspirations, this local history of global capitalism demonstrates how corporate activities cultivated a future-oriented capitalist vision that mediated between natural conditions of oil, systems of land ownership, and skilled labor regimes to reconfigure the social and political relations in this colonial frontier. This framework of “future-oriented capitalist vision” is not only a formation about economic life, but also a deeply ethical one: It points to the historical actors’ relationship with their perceived individual future being, and argues that historical actions can be better understood if situated in, and seen through, this individual ethical relationship between one’s present and their perceived futures. Ultimately, I argue that the material conditions of the nascent oil industry, which enabled this future-oriented capitalist vision, contributed to the consolidation of the colonial legal regime in this new resource frontier of British colonial Asia.

Emergency Management: Race and Democracy in Post-Industrial Urban Governance
Reuben Riggs-Bookman, Anthropology and History

This project ethnographically and historically compares two Detroit suburbs that recently emerged from Michigan’s Emergency Management policy. Under this law, the state of Michigan took near total control over a dozen elected governments in ‘fiscal emergencies.’ During the policy’s peak use, 51% of the state’s black residents lived under periods of emergency control compared to just 3% of white residents. This research asks: How does deliberately unrepresentative government affect local governance, if at all? Particularly, what kinds of effects does unrepresentative government have on the practices (i.e., policies and agendas) of government and ultimately, ideas about democratic representation and socially uneven experiences of governance? 24 months of fieldwork were spent following municipal employees, residents’ associations, and activists as they navigated annual budgeting and economic development. Especially in light of non-democratic, racially disparate policies in post-PROMESA Puerto Rico and post-Katrina New Orleans, this study helps clarify what democracy means in actual practice.

Placing the American Dream: Latina/o Geographic Dispersion, Socioeconomic Well-Being, and Belonging Across the American Landscape
Giovanni Roman-Torres, Sociology

Since the 1990s, recent Latina/o immigrants have not only continued settling in gateway cities like Los Angeles but have also begun settling across the American landscape. Latina/o immigrants are one of the largest growing foreign born populations in the Midwest and South. Leveraging a mixed-methods approach, this dissertation investigates the geographic dispersal of recent Latina/o immigrants across the American landscape over time, the socioeconomic well-being of recent Latina/o immigrants across the U.S. South, and the racialization and placemaking processes among Latina/o immigrants in a southern state. This dissertation offers a rich understanding of the role place may have for shaping the socioeconomic well-being and racial/ethnic identity formation of Latina/os in new places. I demonstrate that changes in immigrant destinations have continued to grow in Southern regions of the U.S. and show how well-being and racial hierarchies and placemaking processes evolve in places that have historically been Black and White.

Roman Sanctuary (400 BCE to 200 CE)
William Soergel, Ancient History

Romans sought refuge from persecution in the gods’ protection. This crucial self-help institution has been overlooked—and in some cases even outright denied—in contemporary scholarship on Roman history, which prefers to highlight Romans’ bellicosity. After an introduction that sketches how Roman sacred space protected refugees, chapter one embeds sanctuaries into communities’ social life as “zones of peace.” chapters two and three look at how refugees claimed protection from their pursuers through morally-laden speech acts that became influential parts of Roman law and civic rights, and at how bystander commentary expressed intense moral outrage that could inspire political consequences when refugees were attacked. Chapter four demonstrates that scholars’ long reliance on the Romans’ own sacred / profane dichotomy to frame their concept of sanctuary is misplaced. The last chapter highlights Romans’ conceptions of bodily integrity that applied to all free citizens and explores how queerness challenged Romans’ ideas about refuge.

Racialized Neoliberalism & Its Mechanisms: Historically Tracing U.S. Policy and the Social Patterning of Racial Health Inequities
Maren Spolum, Health Behavior and Health Education

In an unprecedented and disturbing trend, life expectancy in the United States continued to decline for the third year in a row in 2022, largely due to the unmitigated spread of COVID-19. This trend is impacting people of color differentially, groups who throughout history as well as contemporarily have lower life expectancies as compared to white Americans. This trend is also in contrast to other high-income countries whose life expectancies have rebounded despite the continuing pandemic. Importantly, this divergence in U.S. life expectancy in comparison to other wealthy countries is not new. Researchers have demonstrated that it began decades earlier in the 1980s. This entrenched trend prompted demographer Jennifer Montez to highlight that the U.S. has been building “a house of cards to live in, and the pandemic was a wind that just blew the house down.” If we want to understand why COVID-19 wrought such unparalleled harm on the health of Americans, and what changes we must make as a society to reverse these catastrophic declines, we must expand our analysis to understand the mechanics of the house we have been constructing for last 60 years. My research aims to accomplish this through synthesizing theoretical frameworks from multiple disciplines and applying them to empirical research questions examining the relationship between neoliberal governmental policies, resource allocation, and population health outcomes.

Construction “Wet Markets”: Places of Risk and Tradition In Vietnam
Emma Willoughby, Health Services Organization and Policy

One Health is an interdisciplinary field that includes the study of both the spread of foodborne illness and emergence of novel diseases internationally. However, there is little research on the politics of food-related One Health programs, and how regulatory food policy comes about in non-democracies. Using elite interviews, policy analysis, and observations in Vietnam, this dissertation considers the social construction of “wet markets” as a public health term among both national and international stakeholders. My first aim is to test the term “wet markets” by studying the regulatory and historical contexts of Vietnam. I will then look into elite perceptions of traditional markets and One Health-related challenges. Lastly, I will study the international perspective on national efforts in Vietnam. This dissertation offers incremental advancement on understanding how international global health security affects food regulation and systems in developing countries.

Crime Is Other People: Racial Politics of Law-and-Order in Trump’s America
Jesse Yeh, Public Policy and Sociology

Electoral appeals to harsher punishment and law enforcement are deeply resonant among American voters and contributed to current racialized mass imprisonment. Yet, the popularity of such appeals corresponds poorly with crime rates. How do voters come to support tough-on-crime policies when the premises of these policies are uncorroborated by their experiences? I interviewed a multiracial group of 65 liberal and conservative activists to understand how they make sense of three recent law-and-order contentions: “Build the Wall,” “Defund the Police,” and the January 6th Capitol riot. I first demonstrate that people rarely consider punishments as something that apply to people like themselves, even if the lawbreaker in question belong to the same social group. In turn, people assess the harshness of the punishment not on the basis of the lawbreaking behavior in question, but through how they construct the three-way relationship between the self, the state, and the lawbreaking other.

Sources of Heterogeneity in Developing Theory of Mind: A Multimethod Perspective
Chi-Lin Yu, Psychology

In this multiple-manuscript dissertation, I present four studies that develop a more comprehensive picture of theory of mind (ToM)— people’s understanding of others’ mental states, such as beliefs, desires, and intentions—in developing children. These studies explore different aspects of ToM development and span investigations of early, middle, and late childhood in typical and atypical child populations across various cultures worldwide. Utilizing an interdisciplinary perspective, these studies use a variety of methodologies, including meta-analyses, behavioral experiments, computational modeling, and neuroimaging techniques, substantially deepening our understanding of childhood cognitive development in general and ToM development more specifically. At the same time, they widen the research tools available to developmental scientists. Results illuminate the mechanisms, processing, and progressions underlying ToM and exemplify how these factors intertwine to produce typical and atypical ToM competence and development.