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Ruth Milkman - Award Statement

This award is given annually to a person or persons who have made exemplary contributions to advance the public understanding of sociology, sociological research, and scholarship among the general public. This year, we honor Ruth Milkman, Professor of Sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center and Academic Director of the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies.


Ruth Milkman provides a model of the engaged public sociologist, focusing on issues of inequality, labor, gender, and immigration. She has done this through a combination of traditional scholarship and presentations to community organizations. In addition, she has presented her research findings to both the U.S. Congress and the California legislature. Notably, she has also headed up research centers – both in California and New York – that focus on issues of employment, labor, and industrial relations.

Professor Milkman received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1981, after having earned her M.A. 4 years earlier from the same institution. She began her academic career at Brown University, where her independent major, “Women in Society,” presaged her later contributions to scholarship on gender. Her academic career then brought her to CUNY, UCLA, and then, a few years ago, back to CUNY. She has authored or co-authored nine books, including her 2010 co-authored book (with Joshua Bloom and Victor Narro) Working for Justice: The L.A. Model of Organizing and Advocacy (which followed up her earlier award-winning book, L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement). In addition, she has produced over 65 chapters and articles, almost as many reviews and review essays, and numerous policy reports. Her research has covered a wide span of issues related to inequality, including work on labor violations, union membership, women and work, immigrant activism, and paid family leave. The Centers she has directed – the UCLA Institute of Industrial Relations, the state-wide University of California Institute for Labor and Employment, and, most recently, the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, have helped academics bring their research to the policy forefront.

Throughout her work, Professor Milkman challenges taken-for-granted assumptions that influence academia, policy, and activism. For example, immigrants have long been thought to be resistant to unionization efforts. However, through research and work with unions in Los Angeles, she and her collaborators have challenged this view, documenting how immigrants have embraced unionization. And in work about California’s state paid-family leave policy, Milkman and collaborator Eileen Appelbaum found that contrary to business lobby fears, the policy did not have a deleterious effect on the economy. This is important in an era when many employers are arguing that it is not possible to provide increased benefits during troubled economic times. In addition, they found that the policy benefited both low and high-waged employees, and that the percent of men taking advantage of the program increased over time. Lastly, they found that there was a lack of awareness about the policy among many workers. Their research and the publicity it garnered have enriched debates about improving employment conditions and workers’ work-life balance.

In his 2004 Presidential address to the American Sociological Association, Michael Burawoy noted that many of us were drawn to sociology because of a “passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better world” (Burawoy, 2005, p. 5) He then bemoaned the fact that often those passions get subsumed by the requirements of academia. However, Ruth Milkman’s career demonstrates that praxis is possible. Sophisticated theories and rigorous research can be put to the service of the public, to further social justice, to work towards economic equality and human rights, and perhaps, to help move us towards a better world. Issues of labor, inequality, gender, and immigration are splashed across the daily newspapers, and in the cacophony of opinions raised on all sides of policies and politics about inequality, it is good to have informed voices inserted into the debates. Thankfully, sociologists such as Professor Ruth Milkman opt not to stay in their ivory towers, but instead jump into the fray and get their hands dirty, so that the public will better understand the underlying social issues governing their lives and politics. It is because of this tireless work, and the impact she has had on alleviating inequality in our society, that we honor Professor Milkman with this year’s “Public Understanding of Sociology” award.

References:
Burawoy, Michael, 2005, “For Public Sociology: 2004 ASA Presidential Address,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 70 (4-28).