My research looks broadly at the role art and culture plays in reproducing, eliding, and transforming social inequality. I am interested in unpacking visions of the city as a multiracial utopia, or a place where people from different race, class, and ideological groups can equally participate to re-make the city as a more egalitarian space. I am an ethnographer and qualitative researcher investigating culture, representation, and conflict over time and space from a comparative and visual framework.

My current research looks specifically at media representation, social movements, and race, place, and identity through a qualitative, comparative framework. Outside of Miley Cyrus and social media, I am conducting ongoing research on the use of local identity in the Capitol Region’s struggles over a recent New York State referendum expanding casino gambling. I have several projects on new media, social movements, diversity, and culture in preparation, including an article on the symbolic uses of arts in urban reform (“Discourses of Multiracial Utopia”) and an article on social movements, new media, and local identity (“Gambling On Place”).

I have three primarily areas of investigation, connected by questions about the use of culture and the racialization of conflict:

My primary line of research looks at the relationship among cities, social change, and community-based arts, or “urban arts democracy,” in the words of one of my longtime research informants.

My dissertation, “Imagining the City: Conflict and Ritual in the Urban Art Democracy,” is based on comparative ethnographic research conducted over a period of eight years at three community-arts organizations in a major Mid-Atlantic city. While recent scholarship and public policy ask arts to drive economic growth for urban revitalization, the social life of community-based art and related democratic practices provide another lens into the role of arts and culture within the contemporary city. In the context of diverse, divided American cities, community-based arts provide a testing ground for social interaction across demographic difference. My research examines how diversity is lived in progressive urban arts organizations at the microsociological level. I find that democratic processes focused on diversity and urban transformation often ironically reproduce white privilege while establishing a fictive moral high ground that continues to marginalize people of color and counter the transformative potential of community-based arts.

My longstanding investigation into racialized conflict and the use of culture can be seen in my article “Spelling It Out” in the recent Michigan Sociological Review, and my entries on Waldorf education and conflict theory in the SAGE Encyclopedia of the Sociology of Education.

I am currently analyzing data on the use of local identity in recent expansion of casino gambling in New York State.

I use qualitative methods (visual, historical, and content analysis) to analyze issues of representation in mass media. Current and forthcoming work includes the Sociology of Miley Cyrus and a chapter on gender and race on the TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race.

When a student tweeted a picture of a flier for my recent summer seminar in race, class, gender, and media, I became known as “the sociologist of Miley Cyrus.” The Miley Cyrus course and the media attention allowed me to speak about the importance of critical thought, the power of the visual and social worlds, and the uses of culture. While Miley Cyrus herself remains a controversial topic, I find that her persona and performance illustrate core concepts in sociology and contemporary social issues. Race, class, gender, and representations of power and privilege are played out in real time on Twitter and in other new media outlets, as I explore in my paper “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like?” (in preparation).

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