Weekly Bulletin
November 8, 1999
Vol. 89, No. 8
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News and features
Human-powered vehicles
Cancer: a complex material
Surviving change
United Way Campaign begins November 10
Nassau Notes
Arts & Exhibits
Page one
Research funding announced
Cleveland Tower liberated

Surviving change

Sara Curran (Photo by Denise Applewhite)

Sociologist examines "how individuals make sense of their world through social relations"

By Peter Page

Over the course of 15 years in both the developing world and the United States, Sara Curran, assistant professor of sociology, has documented how social change reshapes the lives of individuals, whether the migration of rural women to urban industrial jobs in Thailand or the influx of northern industries into the southern United States.

"I've seen people survive in a lot of different settings," she said. "That's part of what I like about sociology. Although we tend to study problems, we are hopeful about change.''

At Princeton since 1996, Curran's research interests focus on gender, development and population. She was drawn to sociology as the one discipline that offered solutions to the interwoven dynamics of politics, government, markets and community.

"I think people can effect change in their own lives,'' she said. "The job of the sociologist is to uncover the assumptions that get in the way of change.''

Peace Corps in Philippines

Curran's optimism survived early, disenchanting experiences both in the United States and abroad. In 1984, after earning her BS in natural resource management at the University of Michigan, she joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to a community forestry redevelopment project in the rice-growing region of the northern Philippines. While there, she met her future husband, Ralph Coolman, who is now director of the Community Sustainable Food System Project at Rutgers University.

In the Philippines, she said, "I realized that none of the people in the village who were supposed to get the loans and tree seedlings were getting them. They were all going to people associated with the mayor's office, which was 50 kilometers away. The way the Peace Corps had placed us in the Philippines didn't make sense. We should have been at a much higher level, say in a regional planning office. However, our placement did offer a good vantage point for observing how social and political structures worked to generate inequality.''

Back in the United States, she encountered similar frustrations as a credit negotiator working on behalf of farmers struggling with debt during the farm crisis of the mid-1980s.

"Loan officers were given incentives for the number of loans they approved, and that inflated land prices," she said. "When the bottom dropped out of the land market, farmers were over-extended, and by the time negotiations began, the situation was usually hopeless for the individual farmers.''

This experience, too, "afforded plenty of opportunity for sociological insights on the organization of rural farm life."

Deciding that she needed to learn more, Curran went on to earn her 1990 master's degree in rural sociology and economics at North Carolina State University and then her 1994 PhD in sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Importance of gender

"I see politics, government and the market all as macro pieces for explaining how the world works," she says, "but other important pieces are how individuals make sense of their world through their social relations, interacting within their communities--including government, market, family and kinship structures--to shape their own and others' opportunities.''

In the research for both her master's thesis on economic development in the Southern United States and her PhD dissertation on migration and distribution of educational resources in Thailand, Curran was drawn to the importance of gender in determining economic opportunity.

In Thailand she charted a maze of assumptions and family roles that resulted in uneducated young women flocking to low-skilled factory jobs in Bangkok, while their more educated brothers stay home to care for their parents.

"This migration pattern has caused a shift in family relations," Curran said. "Before the 1970s and the tremendous economic growth of the Thai economy, Thai women were presumed to care for their parents, settle close to their parental household, and inherit more of their parents' resources. Now many women's ties to their familial households are tenuous. The weakening of the tie between daughters and parents was partly compensated for by daughters' increased opportunities in the market. But when the Thai economy was tossed into upheaval in recent years, both female workers and the nation as a whole suffered."

Curran in Thailand with interview subject (r) and her children in 1994. The subject was a migrant urban worker before returning to her home village in Nang Rong district to marry.


Lived experiences

"Because I had so many real-life experiences before I got my doctorate, I believe strongly in the power of lived experiences for providing sociological insights, whether it's through field work or as a participating observer in everyday life," Curran said. "My pedagogical approach emphasizes the need for students to have real-life experiences in order to really perceive how social structures work.''

For example, she finds that many of the students in her undergraduate class on Sex, Sexuality and Gender (SOC225) do not believe that gender discrimination has any bearing on their lives.

"I give them facts about demonstrated differences in behavior and opportunities for men and women," she noted, "but students come to the classroom skeptical of facts and statistics, so right away I have them conduct their own research.''

They don't have to look beyond the campus to see that gender is still a powerful force in shaping people's lives. They begin by looking at the tenured faculty and discover that of 510 tenured Princeton professors, only 75 are women. They learn that in college "education majors are overwhelmingly female, and engineering is overwhelmingly male--that always surprises them,'' Curran said.

And analyzing the Daily Princetonian, "yields results that surprise them the most," she said. "Here's an aspect of their life they take for granted and assume to be a fair representation of who they are. However, they find that that the majority of the articles are about men; most of the photographs are of men; male sporting events get more coverage; and the language of the articles is male centered.

"It's not until students see how gender difference is socially constructed in their own lives that they can understand gender discrimination in other settings."