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Social Sciences

Pre-doctoral 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.

Enhancing Equity: Assessing the Effects of Higher Education Policies on Student Mental Health
Sara Abelson, Health Behavior and Health Education

Mental health problems are common, consequential, and largely untreated on U.S. college campuses. Marginalized students, including students of color and gender minorities, face additional mental health burdens and barriers to care compared to their peers. Scant empirical research examines how school factors affect the mental health of marginalized groups and if higher education policies can be modified to improve mental health equity. This dissertation examines how higher education policies affect student mental health, particularly for marginalized populations. I use three multi-institution datasets to estimate 1) nondiscrimination policy effects on gender minority mental health as schools did and did not add gender identity when updating their policy, (2) impact of Affirmative Action bans on racial-minority mental health using 25 years of data from institutions in states that did and did not ban Affirmative Action, and 3) the association between student awareness of institutional diversity, equity, and inclusion policies and mental health.

“It Is a Way of Life:” Confessional Identity as Everyday Practice Among the Rum Orthodox of Beirut
Roxana-Maria Aras, Anthropology and History

This project applies a nexus of sensorial aesthetics, social networks, and lived religion to the case of the Rum Orthodox in Lebanon. I ask how members of this Arab Christian minority negotiate their identity through sensory codes, discursive representations, and urban material culture. Based on archival and ethnographic research conducted between 2019 and 2020, the dissertation maps the multi-confessional environment of Beirut, disrupted by sectarian encounters, nationwide uprisings, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Weaving a grand narrative of Orthodoxy as a “way of life,” I focus on two intertwined dimensions of religion as lived experience. First, I investigate how Rum Orthodox forge confessional identities through religious practice that combines distinct sensorial aesthetics, ethical sensibilities, and scripted traditions. Second, I explore how Rum Orthodox negotiate their status as a religious minority by mapping everyday sensoria onto urban space, within the confessionalized topography of Beirut, even during regimes of extreme precarity and uncertainty.

Constructing the American Family: Debates on Incest in U.S. Law and Culture
Grace Argo, History and Women’s and Gender Studies

Many Americans believe laws against incest are intended to prevent genetically close matings between consenting adults. However, even the eugenicists who first cautioned against “inbreeding” cited instances of father-daughter rape. My dissertation argues that the white supremacist, patriarchal, and bourgeois formation of the incest taboo in U.S. culture has suppressed knowledge of and distorted attitudes toward incest as patriarchal violence. Using a wide array of sources, from enslaved girls’ freedom petitions to literature from the 1970s feminist rape reform movement, I demonstrate that legal debates about the significance and meanings of incest have more often been a site of intense conflict and confrontation among abusers, their victims, and the state than about whether first cousins should be permitted to marry. My project contributes to feminist scholarship on paternity, family, and the law by introducing incest as an epistemological tool that illuminates the historical construction of the idealized American nuclear family.

Better Life, Better Nature: The Politics of Ethical Interaction in a Korean Buddhist Return-to-the-Farm Village
Yeon-Ju Bae, Anthropology

My dissertation explores the everyday politics of ethics in a Buddhist return-to-the-farm village in South Korea. A local Buddhist temple initiated a return-to-the-farm (guinong) movement by providing Buddhist philosophical foundation after the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. Many progressive educated urbanites moved into the village, pursuing an alternative way of life apart from capitalistic hierarchy. As they encounter local elderly farmers who aspire to mainstream values and place emphasis on traditional kin-based hierarchies, the two groups’ different understandings of hierarchy/equality become a source of everyday village dynamics. This village dynamic can be best studied through the lens of ethical interaction, because of their engaging questions of what constitutes “better” life and nature. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in 2018-2020 in the Korean Buddhist return-to-the-farm village, this research investigates how people negotiate the meaning of “better life” and navigate ethical boundaries through which new ethical meanings are emergently created and altered.

A Direct Approach to Understanding How Electoral Systems Affect Election Results
Samuel Baltz, Political Science and Scientific Computing

After people vote in an election, their votes are used to determine which candidates won. A rule that turns votes into winners and losers is called an electoral system, and these systems can shape election results. But all electoral systems have drawbacks. For example, American elections are a collection of regional contests, which makes it possible for a party to win control of the government without getting the most votes. Governments sometimes consider replacing their country’s electoral system, but that raises the question of how exactly that country’s election results might change. The common approach is to simply re-calculate past election results using an alternative electoral system. But that incorrectly assumes that people would cast the same votes under any electoral system. Instead, I explicitly simulate how people might vote under alternative electoral systems, to better understand how election results might change if a specific country reformed its election rules.

Essays on Growth, Technology Adoption, and Industrial Policy
Jaedo Choi, Business Administration

In these essays, I examine empirically and theoretically the effect of technology adoption and industrial policy on long-term growth combining unique historical data hand-collected from the National Archives of Korea with a natural experiment, South Korea’s 1972 political crisis. The first chapter studies how the adoption of advanced foreign technology and its positive local spillovers contributed to Korea’s rapid economic growth and industrialization during the 1970s. Technology adoption increased the efficiency of both adopters and firms located near adopters through positive spillovers. The existence of externalities implies that the private return of technology adoption is lower than social returns, which justifies the government’s policy. The second chapter studies the long-term effect of industrial policy. I find that temporary subsidies had a persistent impact on a firm’s long-run performance that lasted over 40 years, in contrast to the predictions of the standard neoclassical growth model.

The Promise of Free-Tuition: The Case of Chile
Paula Clasing, Higher Education

My dissertation research, titled The Promise of Free-Tuition: The Case of Chile, focuses on examining a free-tuition policy implemented in the Chilean higher education system in 2015. This case study will contribute to the limited literature about free-tuition policies in Chile and around the world. Using a mixed-methods approach, I aim to understand whether the implementation of this policy leads to a more equitable higher education system by increasing low-income student’s access to and persistence in high quality institutions. I examine three distinctive aspects of the policy, each one based on relevant theoretical frameworks and methodologies: 1) policy formation and implementation; 2) the impact of the policy on student’s access to and persistence in college; and 3) the effect of the policy at the institutional level. This work will support improvements in the Chilean policy by providing empirical evidence of the program’s impact on students and higher education institutions.

Impact of a Heightened Anti-Immigrant Milieu on Mental Health Among Latinx in Connecticut by Documentation Status
Monika Doshi, Health Behavior and Health Education

Immigrant-, immigration-, and enforcement-related policies/laws have the potential to profoundly impact health and pose serious public health threats. Through this mixed-methods dissertation, I examine implications of the heightened anti-immigrant sociopolitical milieu following the 2016 U.S. presidential election for Latinx mental health. Leveraging data from health records of individuals served by Connecticut-based federally qualified health centers, I analyze changes in depression pre- and post-2016 election for documented Latinx, undocumented Latinx, and white residents. Utilizing policing data, I assess the impact of variability in policing practices across Connecticut towns on depression among these groups over the same time period. Finally, through qualitative interviews, I explore experiences of undocumented Latinx immigrants and behavioral health care providers with mental health services to identify unmet needs within this changing anti-immigrant milieu. Collectively, the studies will inform public health practice and policy and urge, through empirically-based recommendations, sustainable shifts in arenas that support Latinx mental health.

A Study of Monument Diversity: A Holistic Analysis of Scioto Hopewell Monumentality
Timothy Everhart, Anthropology

Monumentality is the attendant relations and interactions between monuments, individuals, and communities. This project takes up one of the most dramatic global examples of monumentality—the 2,000-year-old geometric earthworks formed of mounds and miles-long ditch-and-embankments built by Scioto Hopewell peoples in southern Ohio. To understand this monumentality, my dissertation reexamines the social milieu of the Scioto Hopewell; analyzes the timing and tempo of monument construction; examines the myriad ways people used monuments; assesses the role monuments played in social identity formation; and traces how these monuments facilitated social memory for the last two millennia. What emerges is a novel understanding of the Scioto Hopewell, a people whose construction of and relations with monuments carries many lessons pertinent to today’s debates, wherein American consciousnesses struggle over the legacy and future of the nation’s many monuments.

Civilian Victimization During Wars: Evidence from the Korean War
Hojung Joo, Political Science

Why do armed groups engage in intentional killing of civilians, and what information do they rely on when they identify potential defectors within the civilian population? I argue that wars in which armed groups do not have access to visual cues that provide information about civilian allegiance, civilians gain agency as armed groups delegate the identification and oftentimes the killing to the local sympathizers. I argue that civilian agency in turn amplifies the effect of prewar civilian behavior and conflict—such as prewar class conflict among neighbors—on wartime killings. The project will explore ways in which armed groups gain access to information about civilians, and what information takes precedence over others during different phases of the war.

Understanding and Improving the Experience of Software Updates for People with Visual Impairments
Vaishnav Kameswaran, Information

Software updates introducing novel features, user-interface changes, bug fixes, and security patches are primary mechanisms for improving user interactions with technology. However, updates are periodically disruptive, negatively affecting these interactions. While the topic of disruptive software updates has received significant attention in human-computer interaction (HCI), existing research has focused solely on the experiences of sighted users. My dissertation addresses this gap by studying the software update experiences of people with visual impairments (VI). Using interviews and participatory design methods, I investigate (1) how updates disrupt people with VI and affect their sense of independence, (2) how they recover from disruptions, and (3) ways to improve their software update experiences. Thus, this research makes two contributions to HCI: (1) guidelines to inform the design of inclusive software update experiences, (2) a broadened theoretical understanding of “independence,” a metric used in HCI to evaluate the effectiveness of technologies for people with disabilities.

(Re)imagining Peace: Conceptualizing an Everyday Meaning of Peace Through Media in Israel/Palestine
Yuval Katz, Communication Studies

Most peace studies focus on nation-states and the interactions between them. Recently, there has been a growing interest in understanding peace as a part of everyday life, a difficult task due to the evasiveness of mundane interactions. My dissertation explores everyday peace through media that either afford or represent such interactions. Geographically, I focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where diplomatic efforts by state officials to achieve peace have constantly failed. I argue that hybrid identities are expressed on television shows, undermining the ideological division between Jews and Palestinians. The creative process behind these shows allows media professionals to work through difficult issues like trauma or prejudice that fuel the conflict. Additionally, digital culture provides social activists platforms where they can advocate for peace and urge others to care about it. However, when digital surveillance endangers people’s freedom, peace can also be found in efforts to avoid and evade the media.

Pandemic Technopolitics: Digital Infrastructures and Data Publics in the Quest of a Nation’s Health
Youngrim Kim, Communication Studies

This dissertation examines how emerging information technologies are reconfiguring the ways global health emergencies are understood and governed in postcolonial South Korea. Conducting a critical cultural analysis of two recent outbreaks in South Korea, the 2015 MERS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic, I investigate how various platforms and data infrastructures—such as contact tracing systems, quarantine enforcement applications, and participatory mapping websites—become integrated into Korea’s disaster management. Specifically, based on 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Seoul, I chart the shifting relationships among the state, industry, and citizen activists in cultivating Korea’s technogovernance for global health emergencies. The dissertation demonstrates that the current state of Korea’s pandemic governance is a product of multiple factors, including post-war modernization projects that linked technological advancement to national identity, data politics between the state and society in prior epidemics, and the tech industry’s branding of their products as security projects that promise safety from foreign risks.

The Political Legacy of Trauma
Anil Menon, Political Science

How does trauma from political violence shape subsequent political outcomes? My dissertation investigates this question across three different settings: Germany, China, and Northern Ireland. The paper on Germany combines archival, electoral, and qualitative evidence spanning a century to examine the long-term sociopolitical legacy of forced migration in receiving areas. It advances existing research by exploring the political agency of refugees once resettled. The paper on China employs survey data over twenty years to explore the existence of an enduring Maoist generation, bridging scholarship on the legacies of political violence with research into political generations. The paper on Northern Ireland leverages nearly 100 face-to-face interviews—with politicians, paramilitaries, their victims, journalists, and others—to gain novel insight into the mechanisms that lead legacies of political violence to manifest and endure. Collectively, these papers improve our understanding of why and how past political violence continues to shape contemporary politics.

The Role of Armies in the Sexual Imaginary of France and the Holy Roman Empire, 1500-1650
Aidyn Osgood, History and Women’s and Gender Studies

An unfolding research agenda in early modern military history has attempted to explore how armies fitted into systems of meaning in Europe between 1500 and 1800. At the same time, historians of sexuality have recently considered why certain sexual configurations become culturally charged in specific historical moments. My dissertation contributes to both research programs by examining how armies acted as a forum in which artists and authors made claims about prostitution, marriage, syphilis, chastity, sodomy, and rape. By reading visual art, prescriptive military sources, philosophical literature, and religious literature about marriage and the household, I show how armies as a forum projected, contained, fantasized about, and made sense of gender and sexuality. This history shows how militaries acted as partners in contesting and shaping evolving understandings of gender and sexuality.

Sex Differences in the Effects of Neuroimmune Activation on Learning and Memory Mechanisms
Caitlin Posillico, Psychology

In the brain, a specialized immune system is critical for regulating normal behavior and neural function in addition to responding to illness, injury, and stress. Notably, dysregulation of this neuroimmune system has been implicated in Alzheimer’s Disease and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, both of which have a higher prevalence in women compared with men. While we do know that neuroimmune cells and signaling cascades are at the convergence of pathological and normal function, we do not know how they specifically modulate learning and memory mechanisms. Thus, we investigated the interaction of neuroimmune activation with hippocampal-dependent memory mechanisms in both female and male mice. Our data showed that neuroimmune activation disrupted learning in both sexes, but via different cellular mechanisms. Importantly, these sex differences may contribute to the sex bias seen in memory-related disease prevalence and provide an avenue of targets for treatment for these debilitating disorders in both women and men.

Designing to Support Episode-Driven Sensemaking with Personal Health Data
Shriti Raj, Information

Patients with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, are now able to capture large amounts of health data every day owing to improved medical and consumer sensing technology. Despite the increasing ability to capture personal health data, informatics tools provide limited support to enable the routine use of data for disease management. For patients, this lack of support challenges informed decision-making, which results in missed opportunities to improve care, suboptimal control, and adverse health consequences. How can we design technology to help patients understand personally generated health data to inform self-care of chronic health conditions? My dissertation answers this question by contributing a descriptive model of sensemaking practices with personal health data, novel mobile interfaces for presenting multi-dimensional health data to patients, and design principles for technology to support sensemaking with personal health data.

Second Temple Jewish Messianism as Social Political Discourse
Joshua Scott, Middle East Studies

Ancient authors have written extensively on the topic of Jewish and Christian messiahs, or charismatic figures, from the perspective of their religious tradition. Within traditional and recent research on messianism, there has not been an acknowledgement of the pervasiveness, function, or social location of messianism as a discourse of power. My project reframes messianism as a linguistic discourse, in that the concept of a real or imagined messiah is accentuated in literature as a response to specific ideological concerns. I argue that messianism was a discursive technique deployed to create social and political boundaries rather than a broad or even a universal concept among ancient Jews. Through the analysis of four case studies, I demonstrate that ancient authors employed messianism to unify or separate their target community in relation to other people groups. This study offers a methodological approach to further study messianic discourse in ancient and contemporary political discourse.

From “Too Much” to “Too Little:” Privatization in an Israeli Kibbutz
Omri Senderowicz, Anthropology and History

This is a study of how a society transitions from socialism to capitalism. It focuses on the Israeli kibbutz, a network of socialist communes that was established in the beginning of the 20th century. Through the collectivization of all areas of social life kibbutz sought to establish a total alternative to capitalism. However, following a global shift towards neoliberalism, most kibbutzim underwent privatization in the 1990s. This study brings to the fore the relations of political economy to culture and ethics in the context of postsocialist transformation. First, it argues that the elimination of the market in socialism created an ongoing crisis of social mediation, which contributed to its subsequent collapse. On the other hand, it shows how the introduction of market relations in privatization makes the cultivation of a shared culture redundant, which accounts for the sense of cultural impoverishment that accompanies so many narratives of postsocialist transformation.

Excludable: Cubans, Migration, and Carceral States
Alexander Stephens, History

This dissertation assesses how the process of racial criminalization evolved and became embedded in state institutions in two countries typically framed in stark contrast to one another. It traces the paths of Cubans who migrated to the United States in the 1980 Mariel boatlift, with a focus on those who spent time in a carceral institution in Cuba, the United States, or both. This group was overwhelmingly poor or working-class and consisted of a disproportionate number of people of African descent. Their trajectories reveal fundamental elements of the economic, political, and social processes that marked particular types of people as “criminal,” and their stories illustrate how they organized against resulting forms carceral control. Through an exploration of these dynamics in transnational context, this study advances efforts to explain the development of coercive dimensions of state power by examining criminalization as a persistent feature of what states do.

Hope During a Pandemic: Can Institutional Hybridity Improve the Response to Crisis?
Taru Taru, Urban and Regional Planning

During the COVID-19 induced nation-wide lockdown in India, millions of migrant workers were forced to leave their places of work and find their way back to their native towns and villages. It is estimated that almost twenty million workers were reduced to extreme desperation. The State Government of Jharkhand, civil society organizations, and indigenous communities responded to this dual crisis by forming a hybrid institution called the Jharkhand State Control Room (JSCR). Through a mix of participant observation, surveys, semi-structured interviews, and secondary data analysis, this project seeks to generate grounded theory on hybrid institutions and asks: How can hybrid institutions leverage networks, technology, and resources to address and manage disasters and plan effectively in the face of difference? This project will contribute to the emerging procedural planning literature on planning pluralism, institutional hybridity, and indigenous planning.