Sociologist, ISSR Scholar Focused on Work-Based Inequality in America

Enobong (Anna) Branch
Thursday, April 11, 2013

by Jackie Hennessy '13

“I am a sociologist interested in race, racism, inequality,” says Enobong (Anna) Branch, assistant professor of sociology who is also an ISSR Scholar for 2012-13 with the Institute for Social Science Research. Her academic focus is examining how race, gender and class shape work-based inequality in America. She strives to explain the ways that race/ethnicity and gender are embedded in multilevel social processes leading to occupational segregation, social stratification, and differential life chances.

Branch’s recent book Opportunity Denied: Limiting Black Women to Devalued Work (Rutgers University Press, 2011) examines labor force experiences of black women compared to white women, white men, and black men from 1860-2008. Says Branch, “It merges empirical data with rich historical detail and reveals how black women’s lack of occupational opportunities was shaped by the dynamics of race and gender across time.”

The first book to comprehensively examine this topic, it has been well received by sociological scholars and was a finalist for the American Sociological Association’s 2012 Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Award for two sections: the Race, Gender, and Class; and Organizations, Occupations, and Work. The book has given Branch the opportunity to share her work through blogs, newspapers, magazines, and radio shows around the world.

Branch’s work challenges the common notion that black women are poor because they don’t work. Indeed, they have always worked but were actively restricted to jobs that kept them in poverty. As an ISSR Scholar this year, Branch has been able to think through her ideas and get feedback. “ISSR is a research space and allows you to set aside the time to put the research first, acquire additional skills or techniques needed, engage with other colleagues and move forward. It has been invaluable.” She has been developing a project with Caroline Hanley of the College of William and Mary that looks at how the growth of bad jobs in the U.S. economy from 1970 to 2010 created new avenues of racial inequality among low wage women.

Despite Branch’s dedication to her research, she wasn’t always on the sociological path. With an undergraduate degree in biology, Branch was preparing to enter medicine. However, while teaching at a middle/high school in the South Bronx and earning her master’s at Columbia University, she realized that what really intrigued her was the importance of the relationship between what happens in the classroom, the surrounding community and the economic security of the family. Ultimately, she decided to attend graduate school at University at Albany, SUNY for a PhD in sociology. “I decided that gaining a better understanding of the causes of educational and economic inequality, which are inseparable for minority communities, and working to address those issues were what I really wanted to do.”

The UMass Sociology Department’s reputation as one of the best in the country for scholars interested in gender, work, and inequality brought Branch to campus in 2007. Teaching both graduate and undergraduate level courses, she mentors graduate students on comprehensive papers and dissertations, meets with undergraduate and graduate research assistants, and still finds time to carve out space for her own work and her many service obligations.

Branch values the vibrancy of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the opportunities it offers. “SBS is full of engaged faculty and students working on a wide-range of topics, pursuing professional goals and recognition, but equally committed to outreach and uplift through the application of their work,” she says.

In addition, Branch has a high regard for her students. Working with undergraduate and graduate research assistants, Branch helps them learn first-hand how to conduct effective research. “You learn by doing, and I am happy to provide the opportunity. UMass students work hard. They are often juggling multiple responsibilities, but are committed to being here and doing well. I admire that.”

To say the least, Branch’s life is excitingly busy. Managing her packed schedule, she aims to create a balance of work and free time, “I can’t be all things to all people all the time. Acknowledging that upfront is freeing. So I apportion my time so that I can be some things to some people on some days and keep that other time for myself, my work, my husband and three-year-old daughter, who reminds me to laugh and of the importance of being carefree. Our gang of three keeps things interesting!”

As her professional and academic career evolves, Branch is grateful for the help she has received along the way and the ability to give back. “I have benefitted from wonderful mentorship throughout my professional career, by people who believed in me and what I brought to the table. It is thrilling to be able to come full circle and provide that mentorship to others.”

Jackie Hennessy '13, who is majoring in communication, is an intern in the SBS Dean's Office and a Communication Peer Advisor.