Sociologists Address Race, Gender and Inequality in South Africa
This fall two assistant professors in the Sociology Department, Enobong (Anna) Hannah Branch and Melissa Wooten, traveled to South Africa as part of an American delegation, organized by the People to People Citizen Ambassadors Program. For ten days Branch and Wooten addressed issues of race, gender and inequality in post-apartheid South Africa with scholars, government officials and NGOs.
“My goal for the trip,” says Branch, who studies issues around race, racism and inequality, “was to lay the groundwork for a new cross-national research project aimed at understanding the importance of race and gender as they relate to occupational opportunity in countries with a legacy of racial oppression. It was an amazing opportunity to build relationships with South African and American scholars and engage in conversations that are rare between scholars doing cross-national work. Without the support of a Mellon Mutual Mentoring grant, the Department of Sociology, the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and the Vice Provost for Research, the research that is an outgrowth of this trip would not be possible.”
Wooten, who uses sociological theories to investigate organizational processes, focuses on historically black colleges and universities. She is interested specifically in how these organizations adapted to the demands of a racially segregated society and how they transformed themselves to maintain their relevance in a racially integrated society. “I’ve wanted to study historically black colleges in South Africa for quite some time as a comparison to my work in the U.S., so I was thrilled when Anna asked me to participate.”
Wooten notes that they also visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent most of his time in jail, and the Constitutional Court of South Africa, built on the site of a former political prison. When Wooten was a child, Mandela came to speak in Detroit, and her parents boycotted Coke and Pepsi products because of their apartheid investments, but she didn’t fully grasp these events. Visiting South Africa with a better appreciation of its history and the significance of its remarkably peaceful transition to democracy, she notes, was a terrific experience.
Branch came to UMass Amherst in 2007, she says, “to join an intellectually vibrant department that is engaged in all the major social issues of our time: race, gender, genocide, carework, immigration, crime, employment inequality, and so much more. I enjoy the intellectual mix of the students who come from all walks of life and bring these different experiences to the classroom. And I work with at least one undergraduate research assistant a semester. That’s a great opportunity for those who are interested in graduate school.”
Wooten arrived on campus the same year. “When I was interviewing, I found that not only do the faculty enjoy their work and interacting with each other, but also that they have vibrant lives outside of work. One is a member of a jazz band, several have young families, and others are involved in outdoor activities. At many other schools, you get the impression that faculty only have time to teach and do research. But here, maintaining balance is encouraged—and I like that. Personally, I do that by trying my best to concentrate on one thing at a time. When I’m in class, I’m not thinking about that paragraph I was writing earlier in the day. When I’m doing research, I avoid surfing the web or other distractions. And when I’m home or out with friends, I’m focused on spending time with them.”
Research and teaching for Branch are centered in application. “Statistics,” she says, “is a tool that students can use to make themselves more marketable. It has applications in every field from marketing and advertising to politics. Being cognizant of racial issues and knowing how to manage racial tensions are invaluable skills, and in courses like Hate Crime or Racial Inequality, we tackle these issues head on.”
Branch’s research on employment inequality around race and gender for black women in particular has major implications for “how we should think about the need for policy and government interventions to attain this ever-evasive goal.” Similarly, Branch’s research on performance and persistence differences among women and men in computer science has implications “for the way we structure interventions and address boundaries that will help us broaden participation in this field.”
Wooten, too, does research that translates into practical applications by focusing on the ways in which people can effectively advocate for disenfranchised and disempowered groups. Language chosen by an advocate, she says, “determines the success or failure of their advocacy. My research focuses on the effectiveness of those advocating for black education in the mid-20th century, but my findings have implications for modern struggles as well. It’s not easy to convince a power holder that it is in his/her best interest to cede their power, but language can go a long way toward making the case.”
“Sociology is a fabulous discipline,” declares Branch, who entered the field after two years of teaching history and critical thinking to high school students in the South Bronx. “Sociology teaches you to look at a world you thought you knew and see it differently. Being able to see things and analyze them from other perspectives is an invaluable skill for many aspects of life."
December 1, 2008