Selected Faculty Research Projects

Scott Feld

Project: Ego-Networks As Biased Windows on Society

Other Investigators: Shawn Bauldry, Alec McGale (Cornell graduate student)

Data Sources: various friendship and communication networks

Methods: logic (analytic theory), simulations, descriptive statistics


People are disproportionately “friends” with others with many “friends” who are unrepresentative of the overall population. These biases are especially large in the most common types of social networks where most people find that their friends have more friends than average, and an even larger majority find that their friends have more friends than they do. We explore theoretical and empirical effects of various types of inequality, homophily, and underlying focused organization of social ties, for experience of individuals, for network sampling, and for consequences of interventions.

Kenneth Ferraro

Project: Early Origins of Adult Health among Black, White, and Hispanic Americans

Funding: National Institute on Aging

Other Investigators: Patricia Thomas (Assistant Professor of Sociology, Purdue University); Lisa Barnes (Alla V. and Solomon Jesmer Professor of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine, Rush Medical College), and Patricia Morton (Assistant Professor of Sociology, Wayne State University)

Former Purdue University graduate student collaborators on the project (past 10 years): Blakelee R. Kemp (Post-doctoral Fellow, Aging Studies Institute and Department of Sociology, Syracuse University); Patricia M. Morton (Assistant Professor of Sociology, Wayne State University); Markus H. Schafer (Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Toronto); Tetyana P. Shippee (Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota); Lindsay R. Wilkinson (Assistant Professor of Sociology, Baylor University)

Data Sources: (1) Health and Retirement Study and (2) Midlife in the US: A National Longitudinal Study of Health and Well-Being

Methods: analysis of survey and biometric data using OLS regression, negative binomial regression, event history analysis, and mediation analyses


How do people with substantial childhood misfortune manage to age well? The study draws from cumulative inequality theory to address two specific aims: (1) identify mediators of the relationship between childhood exposures and risk of health decline among Black, White, and Hispanic adults and (2) explicate relationships between childhood exposures and exceptional longevity among Black, White, and Hispanic adults.

Spencer Headworth

Project: Policing Welfare: Investigation and Punishment in Public Assistance

Data Sources: original data collection

Methods: interviews


Policing Welfare is the first in-depth study of dedicated welfare fraud investigation units in the United States. Focusing specifically on five diverse states, it describes welfare fraud investigation and explains why it is the way it is. The book makes two central claims. First, it argues that fraud units are legal and bureaucratic responses to basic governance questions regarding the social safety net: who to help, how, and with what conditions. Dedicated fraud units stand out as a particular type of response to social safety net administration questions; they are a police-style way to perform information verification and program oversight functions, fundamentally treating clients’ rule violations as a crime problem, not a public administration problem. With a police-style mandate, fraud workers’ default is to think and act like police, embracing the criminal legal system’s core principles of individual responsibility, deterrence, and just deserts.

Policing Welfare’s second claim is that this governmental response entails important consequences for the poor. Fraud units further the institutionalization of suspicion, surveillance, and sanction in ostensibly helping-oriented agencies. Their operations shape clients’ experiences, and augment mechanisms for suspensions, disqualifications, and criminal prosecutions. These measures increase pressure on clients to adopt (or at least espouse) normative thinking and behavior. They also exacerbate stigmatization and penalization. By carving out bureaucratic space for police-style initiatives within welfare systems, fraud units bring the specific principles of the criminal legal system to bear on clients in this generally law-saturated environment.

David McElhattan

Project: Background Screening and the Management of Organizational Risks

Data Sources: original collection of textual data

Methods: content analysis


This project examines the role of the human resources profession in institutionalizing criminal background screening as a solution to problems of risk in the workplace. In the past several decades background checks have emerged as a routine feature of participation in the U.S. labor market. Legal scholarship and recent sociological research indicate that the threat of lawsuits under the doctrine of negligent hiring features prominently in employer decisions to conduct criminal record inquiries. Thus, organizations may face liability for failing to investigate the background of an employee who later harms a third party. At the same time, a body of socio-legal scholarship shows that legal doctrines are only given meaning in their translation through institutional environments. Bridging these two literatures and using a qualitative content analysis approach, this study draws from a sample of articles in top human resources trade journals to examine how the profession characterizes the risks posed by people with criminal records and the role of background screening in managing these risks. In particular, the project explores the function of background screening as a form of “symbolic compliance” (Edelman 2016), where the utility of the practice is found in insulating organizations from negligence liability, despite well-documented concerns about the accuracy of screening services and the limited predictive value of criminal records.

Trenton Mize

Project: Intersecting Dimensions of Inequality in the Labor Market

Data Sources: original data collection (survey experiments), National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, General Social Survey

Methods: survey experiments, randomized block sampling, multilevel modeling


What factors influence how a job applicant is viewed? In addition to the obvious factors that should—and do—influence evaluations such as qualifications, prior performance, and other markers of competence and capability, other personal characteristics influence evaluations and judgments. This project examines how the intersecting factors of gender, race, age, masculinity and femininity, and sexual orientation combine to influence—and sometimes bias—evaluations. Relying primarily on original survey experiments, we use factorial experimental methods to simultaneously examine each of these dimensions—allowing for tests of their individual and combined effects on evaluations. In addition, using novel sampling techniques, we obtain a diverse sample of evaluators as well, allowing for fully intersectional analyses that take into account both the characters of the evaluator as well as the characteristics of the job applicant.

Dan Olson

Project: The Influence of Local Religious Subcultures on the Behavior and Attitudes of People (Even Non-Religious People) Living in the Same Geographic Area

Data Sources: GSS, National Study of Youth and Religion, and (potentially) other individual-level survey data sets, merged with Religious Congregations and Membership Study, and county-level census and other data (e.g., crime reports) for the counties in which individual respondents live

Methods: regression methods, including multilevel regression


In past research I and my coauthors have examined how the religious composition of geographic areas (e.g., the percent Catholic, the diversity of religion in an area) affect level and types of religious commitment of people living in the same area. My current and future work takes it inspiration from Weber’s Protestant Ethic argument. It focuses on the way that the religious composition of people living in an area influences the behavior and attitudes of everyone living in the same area, even people with no religion and people whose religion is different from the majority religion. The hypothesis is that religions create strong religious subcultures. These influence local secular subcultures, and local subcultures, in turn, influence the behavior and attitudes of individuals living in the area. My recent findings, published with graduate students (see my CV), shows how the religious composition of cities and counties affects dependent variables as varied as the willingness of survey respondents to trust others and frequency of underage drinking among young respondents. This is a newly developing area of research. Other researchers have recently found that religious composition variables influence divorce and teen pregnancy rates, county-level mortality and infant mortality rates, and rates for certain kinds of crimes. Not all of these influences are positive.

I am looking to work with quantitatively-inclined graduate students who want to explore how other kinds of dependent variables (e.g., attitudes toward gun-control, support for different kinds of government spending, and other variables of interest to graduate students) are influenced by the religious composition of the areas where respondents live (while controlling for economic, political, and other characteristics of the individuals and the areas where the respondents live).

Linda Renzulli

Project: Parent-Teacher Organizations and Stratification Within and Across Schools

Funding: National Science Foundation

Other Investigators: Rebecca Boylan (post-doctoral researcher), Amy Petts (graduate student), Thurston Domina (UNC professsor), Brittany Murray (UNC graduate student)

Data Sources: IRS data, NCES data, North Carolina School data, original data collection

Methods: HLM, regression, content analysis, NVIVO coding interview data


This project uses parent-teacher organizations (PTOs) as a lens to view the collective processes involved in the intergenerational reproduction of inequality. The collective action that parents undertake via PTOs often contributes to the definition of school cultures and shapes the distribution of learning opportunities within schools. Since PTO participation rates, as well as access to the financial, organizational, and social capital resources that PTOs generate, vary substantially across racial/ethnic and socio-economic groups; PTOs may simultaneously benefit some students and play a significant role in the reproduction of inequality across and within schools. Our analyses thus investigate the consequences of parents’ collective actions in their children’s schools- examining differences in school sectors (charter schools vs traditional schools), tracing how PTOs influence school practices, student achievement, and inequality both between and within schools. We construct an unprecedented data archive describing elementary school parent-teacher organizations. The work contributes to the field of sociology of education by asking the following questions: How do parent-teacher organizations affect elementary student behavioral and academic outcomes? To what extent do parent-teacher organizations contribute to educational inequality both between and within schools?

Jeremy Reynolds

Project: Work Schedules and the Gig Economy

Other Investigators: Reilly Kincaid

Data Sources: original data collection from Mturk workers

Methods: regression, sequence analysis


Relatively few American workers have control over their weekly work schedules: Their employers dictate where, when, and how long they work. In recent years, workers have pushed back. They have fought, for instance, for work hours that are flexible and the right to work from home. So far, however, typically only the most privileged workers get those perks, and in exchange, they often have to work very long weeks. Workers with less control over their schedules have a variety of problems. They may have work weeks that are too long or too short, schedules that are inflexible or unstable, and no choice regarding where they work. These constraints have substantial costs for workers, their families, communities, and organizations.

The rise of the “gig economy,” however, has highlighted other ways of organizing work. The gig economy is a labor market dominated by short-term, temporary jobs. Workers often interact with employers for very short periods of time. Many perform or find the work on-line through platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk, Uber, or PeoplePerHour. They are often paid by the task. These jobs do not offer standard, long-term employment contracts, retirement accounts, health insurance, or other benefits. Workers, however, can typically set their own schedules. They have substantial if not complete control over how long, when, and where they work.

I am currently working with a small team of graduate students to collect data from people who earn at least some of their money by completing tasks through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform. These workers are, by definition, part of the "gig economy." Our goal is to learn about their experiences and the potential advantages and disadvantages of working in the gig economy. Drawing on data about all the paid work they perform during a one-week period, we will examine 1) the different combinations of paid work they do 2) their expected, actual, and preferred weekly work schedules, and 3) how their work arrangements and work schedules are related to outcomes such as work-family conflict, earnings, stress, health, and sleep. Our central research questions are: 1) How do workers combine work in the gig economy with other forms of employment? 2) To what extent does work in the gig economy help workers get the work schedules they prefer? and 3) Under what circumstances is working in the gig economy associated with increased worker well-being?

J. Jill Suitor

Project: Within-Family Differences Study

Funding: T1 (NIA 2001-2005); T2 (NIA 2007-2014); T3 pilot (VPRP, Purdue, 2017)

Other Investigators: Megan Gilligan T2 & T3 (Iowa State), Karl Pillemer, T1 & T2 (Cornell)

Data Sources: original data collection from multiple members of 550 multigenerational families, T1 Louisiana State University; T2 Purdue University

Methods: mixed methods (quantitative and qualitative data collected in face-to-face and telephone interviews)


The Within Family Differences Study (WFDS) is a mixed-method longitudinal project focused on understanding the relationships between parents and their adult children and among adult siblings. We are particularly concerned with the ways in which these ties affect the well-being of both generations, especially during caregiving. In the third phase of the study we plan to investigate the effects of the deaths of mothers and fathers in the oldest generation on the psychological, physical, and relational well-being of adult children and adult grandchildren. Our goals are to contribute to the scientific study of adult family relationships and provide a basis for the development of strategies for practitioners to employ when working with later-life families. For information on the Within-Family Differences Study, visit the project web page (link).

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