March 29, 2012
Multi-faceted Demographer Heads SADRI
Jennifer Lundquist, right, with her family.“I am a social demographer,” says Associate Professor Jennifer Lundquist (sociology), who has taken over the helm of the Social and Demographic Research Institute (SADRI). “My research is unified by a predominant interest in inequality, with several, often overlapping, themes: families; race; ethnic and gender disparities; and intimate interracial relationships. I particularly aim to provide a novel perspective on causes of persistent racial/ethnic and family differentials in the U.S. As it turns out, the military is a surprisingly family friendly institution where racial equality comes closest to realization.”
Much of Lundquist’s research is structured by a quasi-experimental framework that compares various demographic outcomes in the military to those of our larger society. Recently, several top sociology journals, media and an award from the Centers for Disease Control have recognized the importance of her analytical framework, which offers a counterfactual perspective on why persisting race differentials in U.S. society continue.
One project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is exploring racial disparities in low birth weight and infant mortality. Of all developed countries, the U.S. is among the highest in infant death rates, largely because black babies are more than twice as likely to die than white babies—but this is not so in the military community with its reduced racial stratification and universal health care. “Based on emerging evidence that psychological stress is linked to physiological outcomes, I believe the experience of racism, as well as pervasive social and economic inequality, are at the root of racial differences in infant mortality,” says Lundquist.
Most of Lundquist’s research is quantitative, but she has great appreciation for qualitative research approaches, honed while doing ethnographic research as an undergraduate cultural anthropology major. “Increasingly I am integrating mixed methods in my research,” she says.
Last year, for example, as a Humboldt Fellow in Germany, Lundquist came face-to-face with U.S. soldiers stationed there, conducting in-depth interviews, rather than using statistics within secondary datasets, and teaching sociology to enlistees. “Given the nature of military service, I expected some resistance to examining social conventions and analyzing the social construction of power and hierarchy, but that wasn’t the case. At the time, the dismantling of the Wisconsin public sector unions was big news, so we often focused on this theme. They really ‘got’ sociological concepts and sympathized with the unions.”
Lundquist believes that is because the military is, in many ways, a socialistic welfare state, offering various universalisms—healthcare, pension, higher education, employment—and soldiers realize it. “It’s a fascinating place to do comparative research—because it is so contradictory! Normal rules that apply to civilian society often do not apply there.” Lundquist’s research has many other intriguing aspects (click here for more).
SADRI has a long history supporting research within sociology, but this past year the Sociology Department proposed that SADRI become a general resource for social science across the campus. In her leadership role, Lundquist has big plans for SADRI. “I want to develop more research infrastructure to promote interdisciplinary collaborations,” she says. “SADRI will be a broker to assemble social science research teams to support interdisciplinary proposals across the university.”
Providing grant-writing support is a key goal. “A SADRI Social Science Scholars Program will offer formal mentorship and consultation expertise for proposal development,” Lundquist says. “We’re off to a great start. The Dean gave us twelve course releases, allowing for two mentoring programs next year.” Plans also include workshops and speakers series for faculty and graduate students to facilitate research and grant proposal generation. SADRI will be a research incubator, with resources to support faculty initiated research clusters, a visiting scholars program, and mock proposal review panels. In addition to SBS, the Provost and Vice Chancellor of Research and Engagement enthusiastically support SADRI and will provide significant funding for its future expansion.
Numerous qualitative and quantitative research training support opportunities are scheduled this spring and summer. “Demand is high,” Lundquist says. “We expect to regularize workshops, statistical consulting services, and be a clearinghouse to develop and promote graduate methods courses with cross-disciplinary appeal. I envision faculty across disciplines co-teaching courses around a popular secondary dataset, for example. Offering help with pedagogical methods for bringing research into the classroom and developing a competitive undergraduate research assistant program are also on the agenda, as is expansion of our computational, database and research infrastructure.”
One would think that Lundquist’s multi-faceted research, teaching undergraduate and graduate students, and running a major center would be enough to fill her days, but there’s more. She’s the mother of two young children, ages three and six. “We spend a lot of time hiking, camping and snowboarding. Right now my partner and I are training for a tongue-in-cheek post-apocalypse 5K race in Boston. Called ‘Run for Your Lives,’ it involves zombies chasing runners over obstacles and through rivers”
Family balance is always a challenge among academics. “Work seeps into evening and weekend time, and promotion tends to occur at the same life stage when many are starting families,” says Lundquist. “The parental leave policy at UMass made an enormous difference for me. It’s pretty great that my department is so supportive of families, like holding faculty meetings in the middle of the day instead of at the end and being unfazed by child presence in the office. I think it attracts and retains excellent faculty.”
That’s not the only thing makes UMass appealing to Lundquist. “I like that it is a public university with a substantial percentage of first-generation college students. I appreciate Massachusetts’ history of progressivism—in abolition, transcendentalism, education—that continues today with healthcare and same-sex marriage. Despite troubling budget cuts and tuition hikes, we are offering an important public good here and I would not want to be anywhere else.”