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Sociology PhD Candidate

Emily Cummins

Emily Cummins is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and a recipient of Northeastern’s 2015 Outstanding Graduate Student Award for Research. Her graduate work has centered on the structural and cultural influences that underpin gender inequality. Continue reading below for more on Emily’s research. 

What is your academic background and what are some of the factors that led you to decide to come to Northeastern to pursue your PhD?

Before coming to Northeastern I lived in Southern New Mexico and worked on various border justice issues, including examining strategies to upgrade city services like electricity and water in the colonias, or the so-called informal neighborhoods along the U.S./Mexico border, as well as working with fair trade advocates and women’s sewing cooperatives from Chiapas, Mexico. I’ve always been interested in struggles around livelihood, trying to understand how people seek greater equality and better lives in the context of economic injustice. I was fascinated by grassroots efforts intended to make spaces more livable and decent through autonomous social movements and solidarity. Inspired by some great, critical sociologists working in the border region I completed a Masters degree in sociology based on some of these issues and decided to continue on to a Ph.D. Northeastern’s strength in urban, feminist, and interdisciplinary research has been an ideal place for me to continue this type of work.

“Northeastern’s strength in urban, feminist, and interdisciplinary research has been an ideal place for me to continue this type of work.”

You have a forthcoming article in the most prominent American journal for the sociology of gender. Can you provide a brief preview of the topic and what you say in it?

The article, co-authored with Professor Linda Blum in the sociology department, examines the practices of a non-profit organization that helps outfit low-income women with gently used business attire as they attempt to secure work. In the article, we study the maternalist interactions that unfold in the organization. We call these interactions “neoliberal maternalism”, which we define as a kind of relation that seeks to promote independent, self-sufficient workers and a display of white, middle-class demeanor required for the post-industrial service economy. These cross-race, cross-class interactions between women remind us of the voluntary activism of privileged women of much earlier eras organized in churches, clubs, and philanthropies to assist low-income immigrant mothers. This late 19th and early 20th century activism was later termed “maternalist” as privileged women sought to extend the domesticity and care of moral motherhood into the community. We also show, though, how the organization fills an important void in the context of austerity and welfare retrenchment,  and the dedication and commitment of volunteers creates genuine moments for bridging social divides based upon race and class.  We saw inspiring instances of cross-class and cross-race interactions that harken back to progressive era calls for social reform that benefitted many poor single mothers.

“Home, the design and creation of it, is where life is made, unfolds, comes apart, and often where people imagine their futures.”

Your dissertation ethnographically examines struggles around the infrastructure and collective consumption in Detroit. What is your research question and what findings have you been able to pull from the research so far?

My dissertation examines the politics of housing and asks questions about the social and technical existence that buildings come to inhabit. I study how “home” is a site of uncertainty about the future, bound up conflicts around designing a new and “revitalized” Detroit, which is a speculative and imaginative project that involves new ways of thinking about who belongs to the city. Drawing from in-depth interviews and active participation with housing advocates, my dissertation shows how narratives of “home” and “future” become bound up in struggles around the design of the built environment, where the material landscape becomes an expression of uncertainty. I study how both social and technical expressions of housing shape residents’ lived experiences.”Home,” for many of my interviewees, is the most important feature of their social lives. Home, the design and creation of it, is where life is made, unfolds, comes apart, and often where people imagine their futures. I examine how designs of home exclude, how they reveal new configurations of racialized and gendered inequality, and how residents and social movement actors place the built environment of the city and the center of their political struggles. I’m interested in how the physical landscape of the city articulates with our social world, shaping narratives of past and future, informing contestations over place and space.

You were recently named a Northeastern Humanities Center Graduate Fellow for next year. Why did you apply to this fellowship and what do you hope to get out of it?

I think the upcoming year’s theme “By Design” is fascinating and really resonates with the work I’m doing in Detroit in terms of examining the politics and importance of the physical landscape of places, how the built environment is shaped and conceived, and the complicated ways that technical design plans unfold in our social world. One of the best things about the fellowship is its commitment interdisciplinary scholarship. The faculty and graduate fellows for next year include a broad range of scholars in different departments, from Computer Science to English and it’s really a unique space for  engaging with innovative and creative work.  As someone whose project is very interdisciplinary in nature I’m excited about the opportunity to take part in a conversation with people I would not otherwise have the chance to work with. I’m looking forward to this interdisciplinary dialogue that happens at the Center as well as having dedicated time for writing.

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