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Research Projects

My research projects share a common theme: the politics and paradoxes of solving social problems. How do organizations and activists interpret and mobilize around policies aimed at addressing problems such as racial discrimination and environmental devastation? How do they navigate legal constraints and political opposition? I have a particular interest in how cultural ideals—such as diversity, fairness, and sustainability—get mobilized by decision-makers, organizational actors, and activists and then institutionalized (or not) in law and organizations. Theoretically, my scholarship has centered largely on explaining the cultural dynamics of inequality in institutional environments and the interactive interface of movements and organizations. To date, my work has examined the substantive topics of diversity discourse and policies, employment discrimination law, affirmative action in higher education, political activism of many stripes, sustainability planning, and corporate law. Analytically, my approach is interpretive and relational. Through qualitative data, mixed methods, and historical sources, I show how people on the ground make meaning as they engage with other people, organizations, and law. More recently, I have incorporated quantitative methods to capture and contextualize these phenomena nationally and internationally.

Ongoing Projects

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Anti-Racism Campus Protest and University and Police Responses in the U.S. and Canada

The wave of anti-racism protests on university campuses in the 2010s has been the most significant in decades. Coinciding with the Black Lives Matter movement and led by students of colour, activists have drawn attention to interpersonal hostility from white students, administrators’ inaction, and their other experiences of racism within higher education. Although the protests seemed to spread like wildfire, in fact, they occurred in some contexts and not in others. And, though many university administrations appeared, at first glance, unresponsive to student demands, their responses also varied, from surveillance by campus police to long-term policy change. In this mixed-methods project, Alex Hanna and I are studying campus protest, universities’ responses, and protest policing in the United States and Canada between 2012 and 2018 to understand protest mobilization and the interactive dynamics between movements and organizations. We expect to identify contextual factors that explain where antiracism protest took place, reasons why the movement spread nationally and cross-nationally, and strategies that universities use to manage, contain, or act upon students’ demands. We analytically focus on protest involving anti-racism and far-right extremism, but we also are studying the full range of higher ed protest by students, faculty and staff, and non-campus members on issues ranging from free speech to divestment in dirty energy to abortion. With the assistance of a team of  26 RAs, we are creating a quantitative dataset on protest events using computational text analysis methods and hand coding of student newspapers, supplemented with qualitative content analysis. Support provided by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the University of Toronto’s Department of Sociology and Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology.  

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The Far Right Movement against Sustainability and the Cultural Politics of Misinformation

Conspiracy theories can be a means for expressing skepticism about authority, Yet when conspiracy theories are based on misinformation and motivate people to act, they can destabilize democracy and prompt havoc, even violence. This project examines the symbolic politics and political impacts of the right-wing populist campaign promoting the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory in United States, based on a historical case study. The anti-Agenda 21 mobilization targeted sustainability planning by local and regional governments. Activists claimed that sustainability initiatives such as bike lanes and traffic calming were, in fact, a dangerous plot masterminded by the United Nations to undermine Americans' freedoms, property and gun rights, and Christianity. Abetted by grassroots organizing, conservative news media, and online technologies, the mobilization had demonstrable political and cultural impacts: the cancelation of  city and county-level plans across the country, the introduction of anti-Agenda 21 legislation in twenty-six states and its passage in five, and the Republican National Committee's addition of an anti-Agenda 21 position to its presidential platform. This project examines the campaign and its dynamic interactions with professionals, politicians, and the broader public. The goal is to advance a scholarly understanding of the symbolic politics of sustainability, the impacts of political mobilization, conspiracy theories and the delegitimation of authority, and communication strategies for managing misinformed but motivated constituents. Funding and support provided by  the University of Toronto Jackman Humanities Institute Scholars-in-Residence program and the University of Toronto Mississauga Department of Sociology.

Completed Projects

Affirmative Action in U.S. University Admissions

Students of color in the U.S. are less likely than their White peers to attend university in general and elite universities in particular. Yet universities' policies to bolster the admissions of students of color have become extremely controversial, in large measure due to a successful conservative movement against affirmative action. In a series of collaborative articles, I have examined race-conscious admissions policies from a variety of perspectives, using a range of methods. My collaborative historical-ethnographic study, with Dan Hirschman and Fiona Rose Greenland, examines the quantification and dequantification of the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions policy from the 1960s to the 2000s to theorize the limits of bureaucratization. In a quantitative study with Dan Hirschman, I found a precipitous drop in the use of affirmative action admissions policies between 1994 and 2014. In an ongoing quantitative study with Prabhdeep Kehal and Dan Hirschman, I am showing how enrollments by demographic groups change when universities decide to stop considering race in their admissions decisions. Research funding provided by Brown University’s Program in Business, Entrepreneurship and Organizations.

The Symbolic Politics of Diversity

What, exactly, do organizational and political leaders accomplish when they take on the goal of “diversity”? My research on diversity politics investigates the modern day legacy of the U.S. civil rights struggle. As my work shows, the goal of equality for African Americans has been reinterpreted in terms of a broad concept of diversity and institutionalized through law, policies, and activism—and therein is the object of power struggles. The project's analytic leverage comes from my ability to demonstrate how a common phenomenon—the value of diversity—gets implemented across different institutional contexts, legal regimes, and systems of inequality. Using ethnographic fieldwork, archival research, and doctrinal analysis, I study three cases, each representing a domain of social life long at the center of contestation over integration:

Affirmative action in admissions at the University of Michigan: A case study of the Gratz and Grutter litigation that challenged the university's race-conscious admissions policies, the related public relations and activism , and the mechanics of affirmative action inside the admissions office.


Housing politics in a Chicago neighborhood: A case study of the political contests over gentrification that ensue between local politicans, developers, community advocates, and grassroots organizersespecially the hot-button issues of rapid-pace condo conversions and the loss of low-income housing. 


Human resource management in a Fortune 500 company: A case study of the internal operations of a Diversity Management Department and the everyday work of managing workplace differences, often without the managerial power to make meaningful change. 


There are promises and pitfalls in treating race as diversity. The ideal of diversity is inspiring for many. It provides a basis for forging a collective interest in racial integration and pluralism. At times, diversity advocates effectively create opportunities for people of color and other minority groups. But, so often, they simply create the appearance that they are breaking down obstacles while they fail to address the institutional conditions that actually create and perpetuate disadvantage. Research funding provided by the American Bar Foundation (ABF), Law and Social Science Program of the National Science Foundation (Grant No. 0418547), John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Chicago Community Trust, University at Buffalo–SUNY Julian Park Fund, and the Law School’s Baldy Center on Law and Social Policy, as well as Northwestern University’s Center for Legal Studies, Department of Sociology, and Graduate School. Fellowships from the ABF and through Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research and Joint Center for Poverty Research also supported this project.

Employment Discrimination Litigation

In the United States, job applicants and employees have legal protection against discrimination. Employment decisions such as hiring and firing are not supposed to be based on an individual's race, sex, age, disability, or other statuses covered by civil rights law. If someone believes they have been a target of discrimination, their primary recourse (besides keeping their mouth shut or approaching a manager) is to file a lawsuit. With Robert Nelson and Laura Beth Nielsen, I am working on collaborative study of employment discrimination litigation that shows the profound unfairness of litigation. The project is based on a state-of-the-art multimethod, multiperspectival design. We combine a random national sample of legal claims filed in federal court with qualitative cases selected by sampling for range. This enables us to explain both broad caseload dynamics and the lived experience of litigation for the plaintiffs, employers, and attorneys we interviewed. Our approach situates discrimination in the institutions, relationships, and resources that influence how people engage law. As we show, the system of litigation reinforces inequalities by individualizing the struggle against discrimination: sole, unexperienced plaintiffs, often without an attorney, are up against repeat players with more know-how and money. Litigation also reinscribes the racial, sex, disability, and age-based hierarchies that civil rights laws were designed to ameliorate. All the while, plaintiffs understand their cases as a fight for fairness, the very idea of which obscures the uneven playing field of litigation. Support provided by the  American Bar Foundation, the National Science Foundation (#SES-0417389), and the Searle Foundation. The research benefited from participation in the Discrimination Research Group, a joint effort funded by the American Bar Foundation, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Ford Foundation (#1045– 0189).

Social Enterprise, Corporate Law, and the Politics of Sustainability

Can capitalism do good for the environment? Can it be socially just? Or are the contradictions inherent? Profit making is widely viewed as the goal of private business, but critics see it as a key cause of ecological degradation and social exploitation. However, over the past decade, new types of companies have emerged that have the potential to upset those dynamics. In the U.S., the most popular of these are benefit corporations, which are legally structured so that profits, environmental protection, and the social good can simultaneously be interests. Using quantitative data and legislative and discourse analysis, my research investigates the prevalence, objectives, and actions of benefit companies in order to understand the implementation of social enterprise. It shows what movement advocates are doing in the name of “the triple bottom line” of people, planet, and profits. Funding support provided by the University of Toronto Mississauga Department of Sociology. 

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