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ASA NEWS

August 17, 2002

ASA President Discusses How to Do Research on Social Inequalities

Chicago, IL – Although some of the best sociologists have been studying ascriptive inequality (i.e., inequalities that are a function of race, ethnicity, nativity, sex, age, etc.) in employment for the last 30 years, surprisingly little progress has been made in explaining disparities in this area. Until more scholars turn to the mechanisms that cause the social and economic fates of different groups to vary so widely, there will be neither genuine explanations for inequalities among groups, nor a productive contribution to social policy on related issues according to social scientists.

Focusing on this theme, Barbara F. Reskin, President of the American Sociological Association (ASA), reflected on her own and other’s research on inequality in the workplace in her Presidential Address to the ASA 2002 Annual Meeting in Chicago. Reskin, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington, completes her term as President of the ASA this week.

“Sociologists have a great deal to offer in understanding inequality,” she stated. “We have meticulously demonstrated the disparities across ascriptively defined groups. It is time to investigate the mechanisms that produce and ameliorate these disparities.”

Reskin observed that studies on social stratification and inequality over the past several decades have focused more on individuals’ motives, which cannot be known or measured. For example, dozens of studies are based on a conflict perspective, which emphasizes the motives of dominant-group members, and hypothesizes, for example, that whites are threatened by a disproportionately black labor market.

While this research has examined the effect of race composition on black-white inequality, none of these studies has examined the mechanisms involved. This type of research is handicapped by the fact that the theoretical causes—the motives of those making allocation decisions—are not observed, but inferred in this type of research, according to Reskin.

Reskin said that, without being critical of any specific line of research (except her own), she is increasingly convinced that statistical analyses of data systems from the Bureau of the Census or the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, for example, were not going to explain variability in the work lives and pay of real people.

A more promising approach for understanding inequality is an emphasis on mechanisms—the means through which effects come about, and which are the proximate causes of ascriptively based inequality. “To explain why levels of ascriptive-based stratification vary over time, across contexts, and across ascriptive bases, we must assess the effects of causal mechanisms. We must focus on organizational- and societal-level mechanisms,” said Reskin.

Scholars can find mechanisms for possible study in organizational research, workplace ethnographies, cognitive psychology, and lawsuits. Given substantial evidence of automatic ingroup favoritism, Reskin highlighted mechanisms that permit or check the discretion of those making decisions. Only by systematically studying the effects of specific organizational practices (for example, design of work, promotions, raises, and layoffs) can the link between ascriptive characteristics and inequality in the workplace be understood.

Reskin also discussed the role of discrimination laws, regulations, and judicial interpretations—mechanisms outside the workplace—that affect inequality. She pointed to the weak role of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in changing the behavior of claimants’ employers, noting that the EEOC decides in the employers’ favor about nine times out of ten.

On the other hand, a 1992 law that gave plaintiffs in private lawsuits the right to compensatory and punitive damages has been an effective mechanism. According to Reskin, employers win these cases much more often than they lose them, but the handful of huge settlements in class action suits against big firms like Coca Cola, Ford, Microsoft, and CBS has drawn the attention of other large firms.

In conclusion, Reskin said that the strength of sociological inquiry has been in the analysis of social processes and social structures. “Many of us who study stratification do so because we would like to help make our society a more just one—one in which workers earn a living wage,” she added. “By studying mechanisms, we will do better sociology, and we will contribute to crafting a more just society.”

Reskin served as Study Director on the Committee on Women’s Employment and Related Social Issues for the National Academy of Sciences. Her many publications on gender and race inequality, sex segregation, and affirmative action, including The Realities of Affirmative Action in Employment (American Sociological Association, 1998), are major contributions to social science knowledge. She also has served periodically as an expert witness in employment discrimination litigation, and served as a consultant to public and private organizations on issues related to gender and work.

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The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.