Students Present Sociology Honors Work – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Students Present Sociology Honors Work

Jennifer Abrams ’14 and Aaron O’Brien ’14 presented research conducted as part of their Honors projects during the undergraduate poster session at the Eastern Sociological Society’s 84th Annual Meeting held in Maryland last month.

“Many professors and students engaged with me about my research during the session-asking questions, suggesting books and documentaries to look up, and discussing their own closely related research,” says Abrams, who is a sociology and public policy major, with a concentration in children and families. She is also a sociology teaching fellow and recipient of the Irving Louis Horowitz Prize in Sociology.

Abrams presented, “Life, liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness vs. Peace, Order and Good Governance: Approaches to Urban Revitalization of Low-income Communities in Canada and the U.S.” Her research questions whether distinct approaches to holistic urban revitalization of low-income neighborhoods exist in the Canadian culture of “Peace, Order, and Good Governance” and the American culture of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

In her research, she points to the fact that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) developed a Choice Neighborhoods grant program to combat some of the consequences of urban renewal in the mid- to late-20th century. She uses as an example Baltimore City, which received such a grant to create a holistic plan for the development of a mixed-income neighborhood in Central West Baltimore. In Canada, Toronto’s Regent Park is cited as a project similar to that in Central West Baltimore, as it is also working to create a mixed-income community.

Abrams hypothesizes that the distinct cultures of these countries yield different approaches to engaging the community in the planning process and prioritizing for these urban revitalization projects. Specifically, she believes that Central West Baltimore would have low levels of community engagement and priorities focusing on bringing middle and upper incomes into the neighborhood, while Regent Park would have high levels of community engagement in the planning process and priorities that focus more on existing residents. She conducted interviews with people involved in these initiatives including planners, community members, and leaders of the communities, and analyzed the interviews in terms of the ways interviewees spoke about community engagement and planning priorities of the revitalization initiatives.

“This study is critical because these different approaches to planning the Central West Baltimore and Regent Park projects could lead to different outcomes including high or low levels of displacement of existing residents, destruction of community networks, gentrification, and/or racial segregation,” explains Abrams. “Countries must approach urban revitalization in a way that effectively provides an increase in access to resources without destabilizing communities.”

She found the ability to present this research, as well as observe the presentations of other undergraduates, very rewarding. “I have definitely taken away a sense of accomplishment and confidence that I can speak about this project to a range of different people,” says Abrams.

“Honors is the most demanding academic experience here at the Colleges. Our students who go on to graduate school report it is on the level of master’s work, because of the high level of independent design, research, and analysis it requires,” says Professor of Sociology Jim Spates, who serves as Abrams adviser. “The wonderful thing about Honors is that it allows our best students a chance to ‘follow their sociological dream’ by making a unique contribution to knowledge. Jenn learned of the difference which national cultures make in the creation of cities in a course she took with myself and Associate Professor of Economics Jo Beth Mertens that systematically compared New York and Toronto. Now she is comparing Toronto to another important American city, Baltimore. She is the first to make such a comparison. What could be better than that?”

O’Brien presented, “Good Kids, M.A.A.D City: How Race Affects a Listener’s Response, Internalization and Interpretation of Hip-Hop and Rap.” O’Brien is a sociology major and child advocacy minor, whose focus is on early childhood education and intervention. His presentation noted Hip-hop/rap was born out of the struggles of oppressed minorities in inner city New York in the 1970s.

“Aaron’s research on young men’s responses to and interpretations of rap and hip-hop makes a real contribution to the growing literature on this genre’s relationship to intersecting inequalities of race, class and gender,” explains his Honors adviser Associate Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Renee Monson. “I am delighted that he had an opportunity to present the preliminary findings from this research to a professional audience at the ESS conference, and to network with faculty and students from other institutions who share his research interests.”

“Hip-hop/rap provided a voice through which these artists could criticize the inequality and prejudice they faced in America’s white hegemonic culture,” says O’Brien. “While facing growing criticism that it promotes messages of violence, misogyny and the sexual objectification of women, hip-hop/rap grew into one of America’s most popular music genres, expanding its audience to suburban white listeners.”

His research looks at whether black and white listeners are interpreting the songs differently. Specifically, he questions whether white people are as critical of the white hegemonic culture as black people are, and if race affects how a listener internalizes, interprets and responds to hip-hop/rap.

His primary hypothesis is that white people are more likely to interpret rap in ways that reinforce white hegemonic culture, while black people interpret rap in ways that resist white hegemonic culture. To test this, he conducted an interview with a rap artist and asked him to explain his intended message. O’Brien also used content analysis to analyze the meaning of a given song from his own perspective. Finally, he played the song for three focus groups: white men, black men, and a group comprised of both black and white individuals. He then interviewed each group on the song’s meaning and compared the interpretations of the song by the focus group members, the artist’s intentions and his content analysis.

“It was an awesome experience to present alongside fellow students and professors,” says O’Brien. “It was great to hear positive feedback from professors and students from different institutions and the feedback has pushed me back into my research.”