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Social and Behavioral 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 and behavioral sciences describe the framework, aims, and significance of each fellow’s dissertation and demonstrate the breadth of Rackham doctoral programs.

Co-Designing Visual Privacy Technologies With Blind and Low Vision People
Rahaf Alharbi, Information

Blind and low vision (BLV) people use mobile assistive applications to gain access to visual information in a world that privileges sight. Despite their benefits, assistive applications are embedded with privacy risks. Prior research argued that artificial intelligence (AI) enabled privacy techniques are the state-of-the-art approach to mitigating harm. However, it is unclear if BLV people would find these technical solutions helpful. My dissertation offers empirical, design, and policy recommendations to support the privacy needs of BLV people. By conducting in-depth research with BLV communities, I provide a rich understanding of BLV peoples’ perspectives on emerging AI-enabled privacy techniques. I co-design prototypes aligned with community values. Moving beyond technology-centric approaches to privacy, I conduct cross-cultural surveys in the United States and Saudi Arabia to uncover BLV peoples’ preferences on privacy regulations. My research underscores the importance of integrating disabled perspectives throughout the research and design process, advocating for equitable technologies and inclusive policies.

Optimizing Battery Use for a More Sustainable Energy System
Joonho Bae, Business Administration

Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) play a crucial role in integrating renewable energy into sustainable grid systems. This dissertation aims to optimize BESS operational policies to enhance profitability. In the first chapter, I investigate energy stacking, a strategy providing multiple services from a single BESS. This research investigates the mechanisms behind stacking’s effectiveness and its impact on profitability factors. The second chapter focuses on dynamically managing battery operations throughout their lifespan, considering different types of battery performance degradation. This work provides practical heuristics with performance guarantees. In the third essay, I explore the benefits of hybrid battery systems, considering rapid technological advancements and the growing availability of batteries. This essay systematically highlights the advantages of diversification within battery portfolios and establishes guiding principles for decision-making in this evolving landscape.

The Hidden Power of Talking about Emotions in the Workplace: How, Why, and When Talking about Our Emotions and the Emotions of Others Improves Workplace Outcomes
Christina Bradley, Business Administration

Emotions are central to social interactions at work. The ways in which people express their own emotions and respond to the emotions of others profoundly affect the emotions, cognition, and behavior of others. While emotion research has generated a vast number of important insights, the majority of this work has focused on non-verbal interactions. However, emotion theories suggest that the quality and quantity of information matters when emotions are involved in interactions. I aim to take the next step in this area to understand 1) how verbal responses to the emotions of others as well as 2) how verbal emotional expressions can enhance individual, team, and organizational effectiveness. In the four chapters of my dissertation, I develop a theoretical framework to understand the contextually-determined effects of responding to the emotions of others followed by three multi-method empirical investigations each focused on specific questions related to talking about emotions at work.

Imperial Encounters: Gender Politics in U.S. Occupied Nicaragua (1912-1933)
Eimeel Castillo Doña, History and Women’s and Gender Studies

This dissertation is the first gender history of the U.S. military occupation in early twentieth-century Nicaragua. By examining how imperial agents and local citizens shaped ideas around gender norms through everyday interactions, this project highlights the importance of the categories of gender and sexuality in understanding the larger U.S. imperial project in Latin America. This dissertation is preoccupied with the varied ways the U.S. military enterprise contributed to the re-configuration of hegemonic models of masculinity and femininity on the ground. Based upon previously unexplored archival records from both countries, I demonstrate how the U.S. presence not only contributed to reinforcing patriarchal authority through competition among men and the creation of the professional military officer but also increasing control over women and children through powerful official, and informal, mechanisms that shaped legal, medical, and sexual understandings of gender relations under occupation.

Communicating Climate Change Efficacy
Soobin Choi, Communication and Media

While the public is increasingly aware of the urgency of climate change, there is still insufficient behavioral engagement with the issue. This dissertation focuses on the perception of efficacy as a key psychological mechanism through which communication can increase support for climate policies. Efficacy refers to the belief that an actor or an action is capable of fulfilling a particular goal. Particularly focusing on the relative roles of the different types of efficacy, the dissertation ultimately examines effective visual communication strategies to increase support for climate policies through a series of three studies. First, the dissertation empirically distinguishes the different types of efficacy constructs and examines their relative contributions to climate change engagement. Second, it develops a valid multi-construct self-report scale of the distinct efficacy constructs. Finally, the dissertation investigates effective visual communication strategies in increasing efficacy beliefs central to increasing support for climate policies.

The Threat of Scarcity in Mexico City: A Biocultural Account of Perceived Water Insecurity and Embodiment of Distress
Paloma Contreras, Anthropology

Water insecurity—the lack of adequate, reliable, and affordable water for a healthy life—can be a source of psychosocial stress with important effects on mental and physical well-being. However, studies addressing the connections between perceived water insecurity, psychosocial stress, and biological indicators of health are limited. This study tests whether the perception, anticipation, or fear of water insecurity is a socio-environmental exposure that impacts women’s health. This inquiry is addressed by measuring and comparing psychosocial and biological stress levels among 400 women from water secure and water insecure neighborhoods in Mexico City. Perceived water insecurity and stress are evaluated using surveys, and biological stress is assessed through hair cortisol and DNA methylation levels on stress-related genes. This project contributes to biocultural studies of embodiment, proposing that perceived resource insecurity, and the practices derived from it, are key factors affecting mental and physical health.

Incorrigible: Youth and Family Policing at the Dawn of Chicago’s Juvenile Legal System, 1899-1937
Allie Goodman, History

My dissertation, “Incorrigible: Youth and Family Policing at the Dawn of Chicago’s Juvenile Legal System, 1899-1937,” examines Chicago’s Progressive Era juvenile legal system from the perspective of those youth experiencing policing and criminalization of family life. Dominant scholarship has highlighted how those activists who built the court understood it to function, advancing rehabilitative logics for punitive incarceration. Centering marginalized youth reveals a fractured system reliant on puzzled-together funding, extra-legal arrangements, and uneasy alliances between charity workers, police, and judges. This dissertation argues that while accessing vital services, poor and working class youth and their families defied, at times expanded, and actively shaped the burgeoning carceral state. As state actors collaborated with each other and with families to create arrangements for so-called problem children, they increasingly relied on incarceration, forging and solidifying pathways between welfare and incarceration. These pathways haunt Chicago’s criminal legal system over a century later.

Living Authentically: Black LGBTQ+ Girls’ Agency in Schools
Mara Johnson, Educational Studies

Much of the small body of research documenting Black girls’ and queer youths’ school experiences privileges narratives of homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and racism. Knowing and sharing these realities is imperative to counteraction; however, portraying Black and queer youths’ lives only in relation to violence is profoundly myopic and promotes the misconception that they cannot thrive in schools. More, telling stories only about oppression preserves the power of dominant forces—even in our intellectual pursuits—and indicates an unwillingness to imagine anything beyond victimization for those living beyond normative bounds. In response, this study centers Black queer girls’ agency—how they work individually and collectively to live authentically in schools given the limits and restraints they encounter in educational spaces. Through semi-structured interviews with Black queer girls attending high school, I document their everyday lives, how they make meaning of their intersectional lived experiences, and the myriad ways they alter school spaces to facilitate their agency and center their subjectivity.

Essays on the Economics of Energy Tax Policy
Owen Kay, Public Policy and Economics

I study the economics of renewable energy subsidies, bringing economic theory and analysis to study unappreciated aspects of current climate policy and how policies might be altered to be more effective. My dissertation consists of three separate chapters, each of which studies features of prominent policies aiming to incentivize an energy transition. The three chapters are all unified by a common theme of considering the political economy implications of renewable energy policy design, in addition to studying the economic consequences.

Blood Veins for Hire: Social Inequality and the Blood Plasma Industry
Analidis Ochoa, Social Work and Sociology

This dissertation contends with how social and economic factors, in conjunction with domestic and international policies, have contributed to millions of people exchanging their blood plasma for money in the United States. How and why have millions of Americans come to rely on exchanging their blood plasma for money to generate income? This project employs a mixed methods approach that incorporates historical analysis of primary sources to explore the evolution of the blood plasma industry, spatial regression analysis to examine the demographic characteristics of US plasma collection sites and where they are expanding, and survey and interview analysis to evaluate the factors that motivate donors to engage in the for-profit blood plasma market. This study reveals how growing inequality and pharma’s power to influence regulations have turned blood plasma donation into a viable income generating strategy. The study grapples with the ethical, societal, and health implications of this growing practice.

Learning Race: The Day-to-Day Politics of Slavery in Colonial New York
Jennifer Playstead, History

Slavery was ubiquitous in colonial New York City. While slaveholders used any number of racial explanations to justify their dependence on it, the material and embodied realities of race were not natural or biologically inherited. They were learned. Learning Race explores the ways that colonists of all socio-economic levels, including enslaved women and men, negotiated, constructed, and even refused the meanings of race through their participation as political actors in questions of governance. I argue that day-to-day activities, concerns, and experiences, shaped by material and sensory realities, affected how New Yorkers engaged in this political world, and how they learned what race was. Beginning in Dutch New Netherland and culminating with the Insurrection of 1712, Learning Race follows six New Yorkers through high-stakes questions of governance ranging from the imperial to the domestic to illustrate how learning race was an instrumental way of participating in their political world.

Enabling Safer Everyday Augmented Reality Experiences: Usable Privacy Interventions for AR Creators and End-Users
Shwetha Rajaram, Information

Augmented reality (AR) is approaching everyday usage, but can give rise to novel privacy concerns for end-users and bystanders, due to how AR devices capture users and process physical environments. My dissertation develops interventions to guide AR creators and end-users to identify and mitigate potential threats in the AR experiences they develop or use. First, I contribute tools for novice AR designers to conduct threat modeling directly within AR prototyping systems. Through elicitation studies with AR and privacy experts, I investigate alternate input, output, and interaction techniques for users to adapt AR interfaces to meet their privacy needs. Lastly, I develop a suite of AI-enabled privacy assistant techniques to raise users’ awareness of privacy risks and help them adapt AR interfaces accordingly. This dissertation will contribute to an AR ecosystem with privacy at the forefront, by embedding privacy expertise into AR systems and investigating the interplay of usability and privacy considerations.

The Fabric of a Nation: A History and Ethnography of Palestinian Dress
Dima Saad, Anthropology and History

Palestinian embroidery is everywhere: it hangs on display in museums, it adorns the body, it furnishes homes and lives across the diaspora. What was once a generational ritual of dressmaking among rural women has become the visual grammar of a dispersed identity. Weaving ethnography with historical analysis, my dissertation traces the cultural biography of Palestinian dress, historicizes its changing meanings, and illuminates the complex social worlds in which it is produced today. My chapters explore passages in time—starting in the late 19th century, leading up to the present—where claims about identity, place, and belonging are stitched into fabric and embodied through dress. Ultimately, I position cloth as a lens for understanding Palestinian social life, and argue that its transformative materiality reveals the everyday ways by which Palestinians fashion their identities, materialize their memories, and imagine their futures.

Econometric and Data Science Tools for Public Policy
David Van Dijcke, Economics

This dissertation introduces innovative methods in econometrics and data science for examining public policy issues. The first chapter develops a unique approach to identify and analyze the economic impacts of internet shutdowns in India, even in the absence of precise information about the timing and locations of these shutdowns. The proposed statistical method can be applied broadly to scenarios where a process is interrupted without clear details on the nature of the disruption. The second chapter proposes a new model of competition for customers and employees in the U.S. grocery market and estimates it using data on credit card transactions, online job postings, and mobile data. The final chapter employs data on people’s movements to explore the dynamics of large-scale protests and conflicts. This work aims to shed light on complex policy questions, offering new insights through cutting-edge data analysis and statistical techniques.

Causes and Consequences of Fiscal Accountability in Education
Brittany Vasquez, Public Policy and Sociology

Recent macroeconomic downturns illuminated a growing problem in U.S. public education: an increasing number of school districts are experiencing serious financial problems. Fiscal distress has forced some school districts to cut payroll, default on loans, and, in the most extreme cases, led them to seek bankruptcy or dissolve. In response, since 1990, over half of U.S. states have enacted fiscal accountability policies (FA). FA policies legislatively establish a process for states to intervene in local government affairs upon identification of fiscal distress. Despite their rapid growth, evidence on the adequacy and effectiveness of these policies remains elusive. My dissertation descriptively documents national trends and the predictors of fiscal accountability and then estimates its impact on district finances and student achievement. Given that the recent COVID-19 pandemic has brought new forms of budget strain as state revenue and enrollment declined, knowing how to mitigate compounding financial disasters is more important than ever before.

Maybe in My Backyard: Dynamics of Refugee-Host Cooperation
Rebecca Wai, Political Science

How does cooperation perpetuate or break down in a diverse population? I examine the process of how cooperation develops among different groups within economic community institutions. According to Allport’s contact theory hypothesis, there should be a reduction in out-group prejudice when four conditions of interaction are met, one of which is intergroup cooperation. To test this, I examine the results from a 1006-person survey with an embedded vignette experiment among refugees and hosts who participate in farmer groups in Uganda. I find that while Ugandan nationals in mixed group are more accepting of refugees as individuals, they are less willing share resources and cooperate with the out-group, than those in homogeneous groups. To explain this contradictory result, I argue that while contact might reduce prejudice, it might not necessarily improve cooperation. I hypothesize that people in diverse groups get “trapped” in an non-cooperative equilibrium because uncooperative initial interactions set a precedent that is repeatedly reinforced.

Cognitive Mechanisms Behind Fairness and Trust: a Developmental Perspective
Yiyan Wang, Psychology

My dissertation examines the psychological foundations that shape individuals’ abilities to navigate, cooperate, and build trust across diverse social contexts. Specifically, my work adopts experimental and computational methods to investigate the developmental trajectories of fairness, inequality, and trust from childhood into adulthood. First, I investigate implicit and explicit fairness preferences that reveal nuances behind inequity aversion. Second, I explore children’s reasoning about merit- and wealth-based inequality, examining the interplay between equity reasoning and their understanding of system-level inequality. Lastly, I probe into the cognitive mechanisms behind adjusting trust based on experienced trustworthiness. Overall, this work will provide insights into the origins and development of human cooperation and hopefully contribute to practical solutions for fostering fairness and trust in the society.

Big Data Insights on Health Equity: Examining Where People Live, Work, and Play
Meixin Yuan, Urban and Regional Planning

Health inequity is a persistent and pressing issue in U.S. cities. Despite the growing evidence that demonstrates the links between urban built environments and health disparities, health equity has rarely become a major urban planning goal. Critical contributors to this policy gap are the lack of holistic understanding of health equity and effective approaches to deliver such knowledge to practitioners to inform action. Taking the seven-county Southeast Michigan region as a case study, my mixed method dissertation contributes to advance health equity by 1) providing big-data-derived novel measures of health equity that not only account for people’s residential neighborhoods but also incorporate where people work and play — their activity spaces, and 2) translating health equity knowledge for decision making by collaboratively developing a prototype design of a health-equity-oriented planning support system (PSS) with local practitioners in multiple disciplines.

Beyond the Screen: Exploring Scientists’ Self-Presentation, Audience Norms, and Their Implications for Strategic Science Communication on Social Media
Annie Zhang, Communication and Media

Tensions between science, scientists, and the public have risen in the last few decades, and equally so, efforts to address them. Amidst the changing media landscape, social media have become pivotal spaces poised to impact these tensions. My dissertation explores these dynamics through the lens of three communication components—the messenger, the audience, and the message. Across interviews with scientists, a national survey, and an experiment, I explore (1) how scientists present themselves on social media to audiences, (2) audiences’ perceived social norms and stereotypes surrounding scientists and science communication on these platforms, and (3) how those might come together to impact the ways in which audiences perceive scientists, evaluate and respond to their messages, and adopt certain scientific attitudes and behaviors. Altogether, the findings provide a stronger understanding of the evolving landscape of science communication and offer a foundation for promoting stronger relationships between science, scientists, and the public.

The Labor of Training Al: Data Infrastructure, Mobility, and Marginality
Zefeng (Ben) Zhang, Information

In the rapidly evolving world of AI (artificial intelligence), AI trainers – the people who meticulously perform tasks like data annotation – are vital, yet overlooked and unacknowledged. The promises of AI bypass these very contributors, relegating them to precarious conditions, low wages, and a subordinate role to machines. Based on long-term fieldwork in China, my dissertation draws attention to AI trainers by exploring the sociotechnical, cultural, and economic dimensions of their experiences as they become intermediaries of technology within large data infrastructures. My arguments and concepts (e.g., sociotechnical mobility) respond directly to the under-theorization of mobility research and ecologically unequal exchange theory in human-computer interaction. Using multi-sited ethnography methods, my dissertation examines the experiences of under-resourced and under-studied Al trainer communities and how AI impacts their work experiences. My research contributes implications for improved technology design for digital labor communities and policy interventions for ethical and sustainable Al training practices.