Women’s rights have improved in North Africa, but the struggle continues

By Maro Youssef, Meriem Aissa, and Suzie Abdou

It has been a decade since the Arab Spring uprisings and the subsequent calls for reform that resonated across North Africa and the Middle East. But how has life changed for women in the Maghreb in the years since?

In efforts to answer that question, we used survey data, field observations and interviews with women’s rights organisations and political parties to paint a clear picture of women’s rights in the region. Here’s what we found.

Algerian women take to the streets

Algeria is known for women’s participation as combatants in the War of Independence, which began in 1954 and ended with the nation’s independence in 1962.

But despite women’s efforts, in 1984 the state adopted a conservative family code that restricted their rights: requiring a male marriage guardian, barring Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men, and restricting grounds for divorce for women.

Despite these challenges, however, women continued to resist – and have in recent years marked important milestones.

After Algeria adopted a gender quota to increase women’s political participation, women were in 2012 elected to 31.6% of the seats in parliament – the highest representation in the Arab world at the time. Currently, women hold 26% of seats in parliament.

Three years later, the nation adopted a comprehensive law prohibiting violence against women. Yet such violence continues to be a problem – and has worsened since the global COVID-19 pandemic, leading prominent Algerian actresses to launch a campaign against feminicides in October 2020.

Then when Algeria witnessed the start of a historic revolution in February 2019, women’s and youth participation were particularly notable. For more than a year, large protests took place across the country – including on 8 March 2019 and on the same day in 2020, when thousands of Algerian women from all sectors of society participated in demonstrations in celebration of International Women’s Day.

A new Moroccan feminism

In Morocco, the women’s movement was a key player in the 2004 family law reforms, which granted women the rights to self-guardianship, to divorce, and to child custody.

Moroccan women were also instrumental during the country’s 2011 mass protests, which became known as the ‘20 February Movement’. This movement produced a new form of feminism, which calls for democratic reforms pertaining to all Moroccans.

It was thanks in part to these feminists, that in 2019, after ten years of fighting for their rights, rural Soulalyat women – who are often poor, unskilled and uneducated – won equal access to communal land. The women had mobilised to form groups to confront their tribes and local authorities, and some have since been appointed to the boards of such land.

Another major legislative change brought about by women was the 2014 amendment to Article 475 of the Penal Code, which allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims.

Other recent legal gains for women include the raising of the minimum marriage age to 18; a law granting a woman the ability to divorce her husband in case of violence; and another requiring a man to have the permission of his first wife to marry a second woman, which has reduced polygamy.

But even now, many laws passed in support of women’s rights are not implemented by the courts or enforced by the police – and there’s a lack of political will by the Islamist government to follow Article 19 of the constitution, which states: “The man and the woman enjoy, in equality, the rights and freedoms of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental character.”

Inheritance reform remains a key concern for feminists, with daughters currently entitled to inherit half of what their male relatives receive. Rape is still categorised as public indecency and marital rape is still not recognised as a crime.

What’s more, the country still has a long way to go on political representation. Only one woman minister was appointed after the 2011 elections that followed the 20 February Movement. But while women make up only 12% of local government, their numbers in parliament rose to 21% in the 2016 elections, up from 17% in 2011.

In Tunisia, women drive gender reform

No country in the region has made as many advances in women’s rights in the past decade as Tunisia. Women activists have worked closely with politicians to pass progressive gender reforms and served as watchdogs throughout the democratic transition. But many of them remain deeply concerned about potential backsliding on their rights.

Women were at the forefront of Tunisia’s revolution in 2010-11. Since then, they have been increasingly active in civil society and created between 183 and 300 new women’s organisations – including Islamists for the first time. (Before the revolution there were just two secularist organisations.)

Tunisian women activists pressured the state to commit to legal reform and provided input on all gender-related legislation especially the constitution and electoral quotas.

In 2011, Tunisia passed a gender quota that required political parties to alternate between women and men on their candidate lists. As a result, the same year, women secured 27% of seats in the constitutional drafting body, which helped women secularist activists and previously marginalised Islamists enter politics.

To further increase women’s presence in politics, Tunisia also passed one of the most progressive gender parity laws in the world in 2018, which requires political parties to alternate between women and men (vertical parity), but also requires that half of party lists are led by women (horizontal equality). As a result, women held 47% of seats in local assemblies after the 2018 local elections. After the 2019 legislative elections, women now hold 25% of seats in the national legislature.

In addition to gender quotas, in 2014 Tunisia passed one of the most progressive constitutions in the region, ensuring gender equality. Three years later it also passed Organic Law No. 58, which recognises marital rape and political violence.

Despite historical gains, the fight is not over. Women continue to suffer from violence, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and street harassment and domestic violence have also both increased since the revolution.

Political violence has also worsened, especially during elections, particularly against secularists who speak out about women’s rights, such as the politician Bochra Belhaj Hmida, gender studies professor Amel Grami, and former spokesperson for the Presidency Saida Garrache.

Secularist activists are also concerned about inheritance inequality. In 2018, President Beji Caid Essebsi presented parliament with a draft inheritance law that gives families the right to choose between the existing inheritance law rooted in Islam or civil law, which would grant women equal inheritance.

Islamists reject the bill since it would divorce women’s inheritance from Islamic codes. Islamist party Ennahda called for a referendum and national dialogue instead of legal reform. This inheritance stalemate captures how women’s rights remain contested in Tunisia today.

The way forward

If Tunisia’s goal is to become a consolidated democracy, it must prevent backsliding on women’s rights and conservative backlash against women.

Both Tunisia and Algeria must fully implement their gender-based violence laws and take political violence against outspoken feminists and women politicians seriously. Morocco must implement and enforce recent legislations, otherwise any current or future legal reform will be nothing but a symbolic one.

Governments and civil society in the Maghreb have a responsibility to continue to educate all segments of the population on women’s rights. They must run comprehensive national awareness campaigns that include tribal leaders, community leaders and religious leaders – to reach all demographics. A diversity of partners lends legitimacy to a campaign and builds trust within communities.

Such campaigns can shift cultural and societal attitudes towards women. Governments and public education systems can work together with support from foreign donors, to reform education curricula in order to challenge gender norms. In this way, future generations can then transform their countries and families into more equitable structures.

Real change cannot be achieved with new laws alone, it requires practical implementation of all legal reforms by governments. It also requires the judiciary to prioritise appointing women judges to the higher courts, and especially those who practice ijtihad, or (re)interpretation of Islamic Jurisprudence. Ijtihad can increase women’s rights when it comes to issues based on Islam, including inheritance, polygamy and child marriage.

Protecting women also requires an increase in the number of women police officers or the establishment of units within the police that deal only with women’s safety. Foreign donors can support this through police or Ministry of Interior reform initiatives. This creates a safe space for women who suffer from domestic violence to come forward to report their abusers.

Despite these challenges, women will likely continue to draw on universal human rights standards and local and religious sources to fight for gender equality, whether it is within a monarchy or in a budding democracy.

This op-Ed was recently published in Opendemocracy.

Melissa Wilde on “Birth Control Battles: How Race and Class Divided American Religion”

By: Katarina Huss

As the US approaches the 2020 presidential election and the Senate clashes over a new Supreme Court appointment, issues of reproductive justice are vitally important to US politics. Political conversations about reproductive rights are greatly influenced by religion, and religion seemingly has come to define conservative and progressive groups. However, even within religion, conservative and progressive religious groups are divided on issues of sex, gender, and reproductive rights. For religious groups that are progressive on issues related to reproductive justice, what does it mean to be progressive in conservative spaces? When and why did religious groups in America become divided on reproductive justice?

On October 1, Dr. Melissa Wilde, Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, posed these questions during her presentation for the UT Austin Department of Sociology’s Colloquium Series. During the colloquium, Dr. Wilde presented findings from her recently published book “Birth Control Battles: How Race and Class Divided American Religion.” The book examines the history of American religious liberalization on contraception in the 1930s and the effects of this liberalization. Through this research, Wilde demonstrates that despite the modern centering of women’s rights in the reproductive rights conversation, religious groups’ support for contraception was historically linked to white supremeist views on race and immigration. Wilde uses this research to urge sociologists to consider religion alongside inequality and social structures, a concept Wilde terms complex religion.

Below are a few takeaways from Dr. Wilde’s presentation:

1. Early religious liberalization on contraception was linked to religious group support for eugenics, fear of race suicide, and belief in the social gospel movement. Wilde studied 31 religious groups that composed 90% of American religious membership in the 1920s and found that nine religious groups broke from the existing religious consensus on contraception and liberalized their stance between 1929 and 1931. The liberalized groups did not have the highest birth rate nor was their memberships’ use of contraceptives a major religious concern prior to this moment. Half of the groups that liberalized were not feminist and not all of the progressive religious groups of the time period liberalized.

Through extensive archival research, Wilde found that the nine religious groups chose to liberalize due to racialized concerns. At the time of liberalization, there was a large birth rate differential between native white women and immigrant women, specifically Catholic and Jewish women. While many religious groups were concerned about the birth rate differential and race in America, Wilde argues the nine early liberalizers all supported eugenics, feared race suicide, and believed in the social gospel movement. The combination of all three elements explains why only the nine groups were part of early liberalization.

Wilde explains that at the time of liberalization, the American Eugenics Society promoted the idea that Americans could “engineer” a better race by encouraging desirable parents to have children and discouraging undesirables from having children. Eugenicist groups in America were pursuing policy that forced involuntary sterilization of Catholic women as a strategy to limit Catholic births. The eugenicists soon realized they could not get the legislation to sterilize every Catholic woman. Eugenicists turned to contraception as a way of discouraging “undesirable” women from having more children.

Supporting eugenics alone was not enough to prompt religious groups to change their stance on contraception. In addition to eugenics, some religious groups feared that native white women were not having enough children to support their population, thus creating race suicide. Wilde found documents stating that “every marriage must have a minimum of three children to fulfill social obligation to maintain the population.” Among groups that believed in both race suicide and eugenics, liberalization on contraception seemed to be a way to limit birth for some women rather than convincing congregations to have more children. In addition to eugenics and race suicide, the religious groups that were early liberalizers also believed in the social gospel movement. This movement, broadly, believed it was the duty of all Christians to decrease class inequality. Gospelers saw contraceptives as a way to alleviate poverty for poor immigrants. The theory easily merged with ideas about eugenics and race suicide.

Based on this understanding, Wilde broadly sorted religious groups during the time of early liberalization into four categories: early liberalizers, silent supporters, critics, and the silent, based on their belief in eugenics, race suicide, and the social gospel movement. Early liberalizers, the nine that liberalized by 1931, all supported eugenics, feared race suicide, and believed in social gospel. These beliefs explain why the groups would choose to liberalize on contraceptives. Wilde classifies religious groups that believed in the social gospel movement but did not fear race suicide as silent supporters of liberalization. These groups never officially liberalized but supported the decision. Religious groups that did not believe in the social gospel and did not fear race suicide were critics of liberalization. Finally, religious groups that did not fear race suicide, but believed in the social gospel movement were silent. These groups were reluctant to identify the racism implicit in the social gospel movement.

Wilde’s findings show how religion is historically connected to issues of race and class in America so profoundly that the history of contraceptive liberalization is explained by eugenics, race suicide, and the social gospel movement, all of which are racialized perspectives on society.

2. Later religious group liberalization on contraception was still informed by racialized beliefs, but the early liberalizers are distinct from later liberalizing groups. After World War II, there was less conversation around liberalizing contraception in religious groups and a shift away from eugenics. Some other religious groups that did not liberalize maintained that it was not their place as religious institutions to endorse or recommend contraceptives. Wilde found that religious groups that chose to liberalize on contraception after WWII, especially in the 1960s, were still informed by racialized ideas about demographics. However, these religious groups were more concerned about population explosion outside of the US. The groups focused on the necessity for contraception in “third world” countries. This further supports Wilde’s claims about religion and race and class in America, but there is also a difference, even in modern politics between these later liberalizers and the nine early liberalizers. There is a lasting legacy for early liberalizers in the U.S. The early liberalizers and their unofficial supporters, as classified by Wilde’s research, are the religious progressives of modern politics. Wilde states that the United Church of Christ, for example, advocates for contraception as a right and has been advocating for contraception in the U.S. for nearly a century. It is significant that these groups remain the seeming progressive religious groups in conservative spaces on topics of sex, gender, and reproductive rights. It is also important that while we understand them as progressive, there is a history of these progressive religious groups that is not about women’s rights or justice.

3. Religion should not be taken for granted as a social fact. Rather, sociologists must recognize the ways religion is linked to race and class.
Wilde’s book and other research makes an important contribution to the field of sociology. Wilde argues, as a sociologist of religion, that religion has been taken for granted as a social fact and sociologists have misunderstood how it still intersects with class and religion. Wilde’s research suggests that complex religion reveals the effects of religion on sex, gender, and politics. Complex religion recognizes the way that religious institutions are intertwined with inequality and intersect with social structures of race and class. As Wilde’s research exemplifies, religion is historically linked to whiteness and class in America and remains highly segregated. She argues that religion can be used as proxy for class in America, and in different historical contexts religion can be either whitening or darkening for religious and ethnic groups in America. She argues that the importance of her research is in how it theoretically highlights an understanding of religion as it intersects with class and race in ways that are important to modern politics. The research does not necessarily map onto all modern religious debates about reproductive rights and religion, but it should exemplify the important role that religion still plays in the US and how religion is connected to other issues in society.

Katarina Huss is a graduate student in the UT Austin Sociology Department

Rashawn Ray on Bad Apples and Rotten Trees in Policing

By Derek Sandoval, UT Austin Sociology Graduate Program

Popular police reform often takes the form of body worn cameras and implicit bias training. These strategies focus on the individual, with the implication that there are just a few bad apples in need of reformation. However, these reforms fail to address the rotten tree—the very institution of policing—that produces the fruit.

Through his research, Dr. Rashawn Ray, Professor of Sociology and Executive Director of the Lab for Applied Social Science Research at the University of Maryland at College Park and a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution, indicates the shortcomings of such reforms and addresses the mechanisms tied to the core of policing that perpetuate racial and social inequality. Dr. Ray’s work also emphasizes the power of racial uplift activism and social policy to combat inequality.

On September 17, Dr. Ray presented his work, “Systematic Racism in Policing: How Bad Apples Come from Rotten Trees” for the UT Austin Department of Sociology’s Colloquium Series. Within his presentation, Dr. Ray discussed the evolution of #BlackLivesMatter, racializing the criminal justice system, the social psychology of criminalization, police views on BLM, his results from an extensive police-civilian body camera study, implicit bias and virtual reality decision-making training, and policies aimed to improve relationships between police and civilians.

Dr. Ray demonstrated that the police operate on split-second decision-making informed by biases regarding race, and a lack of communication from the dispatcher. He reminded us of the immense impact social media has in exposing police brutality and state-sanctioned violence against Black people to the public and how it motivated mobilization through protests and policy advocacy work. He warned us of the lack of accountability police departments face for their violence, and what can be done for a better future.

Below are just a few takeaways from Dr. Ray’s presentation:

  1. Social media analysis is crucial for studying social movements and effecting policy changes.

Dr. Ray stresses that the United States is currently experiencing not one, but two pandemics, the first being COVID-19, and the second, an awakening that, mostly white Americans, as many Black communities were already forced to confront this reality—are facing, as they are confronted with massive exposure to a hostile and racist society through the police and other forms of structural violence against Black communities: Racism in the United States is a problem. Social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc., are the primary vehicles that carry this exposure through images and videos and stories capturing state-sanctioned violence of the police that targets Black people and Black communities.

As police departments try to push their own narratives that herald law enforcement as the friendly neighborhood cop, social media can also reveal a different reality (cw: police brutality, gunshots, injuries, violence against minors). Similarly, social media shows the work of activists, protests across the nation, and the formation of a collective identity, such as the growth from #BlackLivesMatter to the social movement of Black Lives Matter. And if utilized correctly, that exposure and identity can open a policy window. That is, as these issues come to the eye of the public, policy solutions can be attempted with majority public support.

2. Police departments are not held accountable for their violence.

There are no fiscal consequences for police departments after an “officer-involved shooting”—a term deployed after an officer shoots a civilian (Durán, 2016). In fact, qualified immunity makes it difficult to hold police legally responsible for many of their misdeeds (Fisher, 2020). Instead, cities use taxpayer money to pay for civil lawsuits against police departments (Ray, 2020). If the family of the deceased lived in the same city as the victim of police violence, that means that if they successfully sued the police department for the death of their family member, some part of that already small payout came out of their pockets.

Those funds that could be going to public libraries, public education, public works, or resources for low-income neighborhoods is instead used when law enforcement kills someone. The police are not held accountable, and do not have an incentive to hold themselves accountable for their actions.

3. Changes aimed at individual officers are ineffective.

Implicit bias training is often suggested in police reform. It is implemented with the goal that officers will recognize and manage their unconscious racial biases through education and discussion (Lee Jackson, 2018). After conducting thorough investigations with the Lab for Applied Social Science Research through leading implicit bias training courses with approximately 2,500 police officers, however, Dr. Ray suggested that officers do not recognize their own prejudices through implicit bias training. And after putting officers through 90 virtual reality scenarios, Dr. Ray concluded that while we can control for explicit bias, implicit bias will remain.

Similarly, Dr. Ray found that body cameras may be ineffective. While the desire of body cameras revolves around accountability, regulations vary, and access to the general public is limited (Ray, 2020; Ray, Marsh, & Powelson, 2017). What do body cameras and implicit bias training have in common? They’re both solutions that attempt to change the individual officer’s behavior, rather than addressing the structure and culture of policing. The goal then becomes to reform the rotten apple, rather than to toss rotten fruit. Or, perhaps, even uproot the rotten tree that produced the fruit (McDowell, & Fernandez, 2018).

Dr. Ray emphasized the importance of action. He works toward policy advocacy and reform, yet doesn’t discourage abolition. Rather, he pointed out in the Q&A portion of the presentation, as abolition is pursued, policies can be as well. Many of these policies are based around increasing accountability for police departments, such as restructuring the civilian payout process in instances of police misconduct from taxpayer money to police departments, and firing police officers who abuse their power.

In a time of two pandemics, in which technology has laid bare to the nation the clear and precedent threat that is the police, Dr. Ray’s presentation is a necessary reminder of what the police are, what we cannot do to change them, and perhaps, how we can begin to hold them accountable.


Durán, R. (2016). NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE: Examining Controversial Officer Involved Shootings. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 13(1), 61-83. doi:10.1017/S1742058X16000059

Fisher, J. M. (2020). Shoot at Me Once: Shame on You! Shoot at Me Twice: Qualified Immunity. Qualified Immunity Applies Where Police Target Innocent Bystanders. Mercer Law Review, 71(4), 1171–1190.

Lee Jackson, J. (2018). The Non-Performativity of Implicit Bias Training. Radical Teacher, 112, 46–54. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/10.5195/rt.2018.497

McDowell, M. G., and Fernandez, L. A. (2018). ‘Disband, Disempower, and Disarm’: Amplifying the Theory and Practice of Police Abolition. Critical Criminology, 26(3), 373–391. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/10.1007/s10612-018-9400-4

Ray, R. (2020), Restructuring Civilian Payouts for Police Misconduct. Social Forum, 35: 806-812. doi:10.1111/socf.12618

Ray, R., Marsh, K., and Powelson, C. (2017). “Can Cameras Stop the Killings? Racial Differences in Perceptions of the Effectiveness of Body‐Worn Cameras in Police Encounters.” Sociological Forum 32: S1: 1032–1050. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/10.1111/socf.12359.


Statement on Graduate Student Strikes

We, the graduate students in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, stand in solidarity with our fellow graduate students who are demanding a fair, equitable level of compensation. Over the last few weeks, we have seen graduate students stretching coast to coast, from Harvard University to UC Santa Cruz, use their collective voices in the name of justice. Despite our work being integral to the very functioning of the university, too many administrations exploit our labor through unjust compensation and poverty wages. The demands our fellow graduate students are making are a necessary first step to ensure that they can continue their duties as employees while simultaneously producing scholarship as students. So, to those engaging in this struggle, we want you to know that we see you, we are inspired by you, and we stand in solidarity with you.

In solidarity,

UT-Austin sociology graduate students

On the Market: Sam Simon

Our “On the Market” series is back, featuring UT-Austin graduate students who are on the job market! This series provides sociology graduate students a space to share their research and exchange advice and insights about the job search process.

This installment features Sam Simon, a doctoral candidate and Urban Ethnography Lab fellow:

Tell us about your research. What are you working on?

In my dissertation, I examine the role that hiring and training practices at police departments play in patterns of racist police violence. I spent last year conducting field work at police hiring units and training academies and interviewing police officers, and am now working on publications and writing the dissertation. In other work, I have studied the sexist and racist organizational structures of Hollywood talent agencies, how civilians are taught to conceptualize and use violence at firearms training schools, why women and racial minorities attrite from STEM fields at disproportionate rates, and how gender shapes access to workplace amenities.

How did you prepare for the process of going on the market (preparing materials, selecting the right job openings, sending out applications, etc.)?

I participated in the job market workshop that Ken organized for students the summer before I started applying to jobs, and sought out feedback on my materials from friends in academia and my advisors. I also gave a practice job talk in several settings to gain experience in front of an audience who have expertise in different methodological and substantive areas.

How do you stay organized when it comes to the job market?

I created an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of job postings that I may be a fit for, listed in order by deadline. In the Excel sheet, I list the institution, department, specialty area they are hiring in (i.e. Criminology, Race/Ethnicity, Gender, etc.), link to the job posting on ASA’s website, submission link, job ID (from ASA’s postings), what materials are required, how letters should be submitted (some require your recommender sends them directly via email), the name of the search committee chair if it was listed, and any other notes. I color-coded the Excel sheet to designate the status of my application: green means I applied, white means I did not apply, yellow means I got an interview, and red means I was informed that I would not be going further in the process. I granted access to this Excel sheet to my letter writers so they could reference it, if needed.

To find out about jobs, I primarily used the ASA job bank, but was also subscribed to the ASA job listserv, and checked emails from ASA sections and other sociological organizations (like SSS and ESS) for job listings.

How are you balancing all of your responsibilities this semester?

Good question! I have designated 2 days roughly every 2 weeks to devote to job applications. On those days, I sit at a coffee shop and crank out the applications that are due that month. The rest of the time, I work on my dissertation, publications, or my research assistant responsibilities.

What is it like being on the market at ASA? What are the keys to success?

I found that being on the market at ASA was not all that different than when you are not on the market. The primary difference was that I was more strategic about which panels I attended based on if I wanted to meet someone presenting, I participated in the ASA job fair, I attended a panel about preparing a job talk, and I prioritized attending receptions and other social events in order to network. Some people go all out at ASA and set up a ton of meetings based on which institutions are hiring. That’s one way to do it, but it was not my approach.

How are you practicing self-care?

During graduate school generally, it has been critical that I spend time pursuing non-academic interests and hobbies. I am the creative director of a dance team in Austin, which has been fantastic both creatively and socially, I lift weights almost every day, and I take the weekends completely off (with a few exceptions) to spend time with friends and relax. Taking weekends off has helped both my mental health and my work, actually – my writing on Monday is significantly better because I take time to think about and experience other things, which I then often bring into my work.

What is your biggest piece(s) of advice for those going on the market next year or in the next few years?

The best advice that I have received is to remember that most of this is beyond your control, so not to spend too much time obsessing or worrying. Spend time preparing your materials in advance so you have plenty of time to make edits, sign up for practice job talks even though it’s nerve-wracking, and seek out support from faculty and fellow students.

On the Market: Robert Ressler

Our “On the Market” series is back, featuring UT-Austin graduate students who are on the job market! This series provides sociology graduate students a space to share their research and exchange advice and insights about the job search process.

This installment features Robert W. Ressler, a doctoral candidate and Population Research Center Trainee:

Robert reflects on his previous experiences on the market and discusses the insights that he has gained. When asked about his advice for graduate students going on the academic job market, he writes:
Keep up the hard work, and go easy on yourselves. Honestly, looking back over the last two years I can acknowledge that things have not necessarily gone “according to plan,” but also that plans and priorities change. Just like everything else, the tenure-track system is rigged in favor of those with the most resources (social, cultural, and economic), so I’ve felt like it’s important to remember to pursue opportunities that reflect the reasons that I went to graduate school to begin with: to make a meaningful impact in the communities to which I belong. I moved away from Texas during my last year of graduate school for my husband to pursue a job opportunity, finished my dissertation from afar because it was a requirement for a fellowship from the department, graduated (!!), learned a lot, and began working in new places that I would never have predicted. While I’m still applying for jobs in search of what feels like an ever elusive tenure-track position, I’m also teaching adjunct at Gonzaga University, continuing my research projects in partnership with working groups at UT, contracting for an educational nonprofit in the midst of a program evaluation, and will be picking up teaching an online course at Washington State University next spring, too. All of these opportunities came about not because of my applications, but because of personal and professional connections to communities that had a need that I could fill. During these past two years I’ve also started singing in a community choir, explored a new city, and made some wonderful new friends.
I still feel like a sociologist, and still see myself as an academic researcher and teacher, and plan to continue pursuing this career. In that endeavor I’m maintaining my participation in professional organizations, and I’m still publishing new work (a recent article in Social Science Research on Latina/o enrollment in early childhood education, for example, can be found here). That one took nearly five years from running the first models to publication! Last cycle I had a few on campus interviews that I received very positive feedback over, and my C.V. is constantly improving, so I am trying to remain optimistic for this year. I’ve expanded my application pool this year, and have currently applied to 24 positions and counting in Sociology, Public Policy and Administration, and Human Development and Family Sciences. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, right?
Some practical advice that’s gotten me even this far would be to consider all the opportunities that are available to you, try not to hold yourselves to someone else’s metric of success (but do try to get a sole-authored publication ASAP), find and maintain positive working and professional relationships with your advisers (mine have been a life-line; don’t settle for anything less), and remember that each of us is on our own unique journey.

Katherine Hill’s research featured in Work in Progress

UT Austin sociology doctoral candidate Katherine Hill has written about her dissertation research findings for Work in Progress on the experiences of people with disabilities who work in the gig economy.

She writes:

During the recent government shutdown, approximately 800,000 workers went without pay. Some government workers turned to gig work to make ends meet: Twitter is filled with stories of workers who began driving for Uber or Lyft during the shutdown as a stopgap measure.

Government workers are not alone in turning to gig work to make ends meet. The government shutdown is one example of systemic failures that leave many Americans without a safety net. In an ongoing study, I find that people with a disability also turn to gig work to get by. People with disabilities do gig work because they need a flexible job that allows them to stop working when they can no longer work that day, and to take breaks as needed. […]

Many gig workers experience income volatility, not knowing how much they will earn in a given week and unable to meet their expenses as a result. Additionally, gig workers are not given benefits like paid sick leave, and they are only paid for the time spent completing a task. For example: rideshare drivers are not paid to drive to the passenger when picking them up or to wait for the passenger if they are running late. […]

Despite financial hardships and health issues, many of the people I interviewed said that they will continue to do gig work, for one main reason: for most, there is no other option. Even Jonathan, recovering from multiple heart surgeries, said, “I figured if I can sit in front of the TV, then I can sit in the car and drive. It hurts my chest a lot to drive. But I still do it because there’s nothing else.”

To read the full piece, see Work in Progress.

Katherine Hill is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is also a Population Research Center trainee and Urban Ethnography Lab Fellow. Her research examines issues of inequality at the intersection of work and organizations, race and identity, and health and healthcare. Katherine’s dissertation uses mixed methods to examine the material and cultural characteristics of the gig economy that contribute to inequality. 

Alex Diamond writes about Colombia’s peace process in NACLA

UT Austin sociology PhD student, Alex Diamond, recently published a piece for North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) (available in both English and Spanish) on the impact of mining and energy megaprojects on Colombia’s peace process.

He writes:

El Orejón, an isolated rural community in the northern Colombian department of Antioquia, is slowly emptying out. A few years ago, 88 people lived on family farms on the valley walls above the Cauca river. Only 48 remain. The neatly cultivated plots of corn, beans, coffee, sugar cane, and yuca of the families still there stand out from the abandoned lands that the jungle is gradually reclaiming. But in contrast to the classic model of rural communities abandoned by the state, the Colombian government has invested significantly in El Orejón, a crucial area for Colombia’s peace process.

El Orejón was the site for the 2015 demining program that marked the first collaboration between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), before being chosen during negotiations of the peace accord as one of 11 hamlets in the municipality of Briceño to launch the pilot coca substitution program in 2017. Little more than two years ago, coca plants covered the hillsides above the river. Now the plants are gone, pulled out voluntarily by local campesinos seeking a transition to legal agriculture.

As El Orejón declines, a settlement across the river, complete with tennis courts and swimming pools, has emerged in the last ten years. This is the camp for workers who are constructing Hidroituango, the largest hydroelectric dam project in the history of Colombia, which lies directly below El Orejón. Public Enterprises of Medellín (EPM), the public-private partnership that is building Hidroituango, has recently come under fire for illegal and irresponsible construction practices with disastrous consequences. In May 2018, a tunnel built to divert river waters during the construction blocked up for weeks and then subsequently burst, leading to massive flooding that displaced 25,000 people in downstream communities.

But the displacement in El Orejón and other communities near the project has nothing to do with flooding or engineering mistakes. Instead, these communities speak to a deeper and less discussed aspect of the Hidroituango project: the way it has disrupted local livelihoods, primarily by limiting their access to the river. This exclusion goes hand in hand with coca substitution and the peace process. Together, they comprise a broader process of pacification in the region that at first deployed violence, and now peace, to serve elite interests at the expense of campesino ways of life. […]

To read the full op-ed, see NACLA.

Alex Diamond is a Sociology PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin. His research seeks to understand the local experience of the post-peace agreement transition in rural areas of Colombia with a long history of insurgent control. Based on interviews and in-depth ethnographic participant observation in the northern Antioquian village of Briceño, his work centers on three major themes: the implementation of the peace accords, particularly the parts that are related to coca substitution and rural reform; the intersection between the peace process, rural dispossession, and mining and energy megaprojects; and the emergence (or lack thereof) of campesino resistance and organizing.

UEL Speaker Series “Transnational Ethnography: Interconnected Lives and Social Processes”

By Ruijie Peng

Four distinguished scholars from outside of the University of Texas are visiting the Department of Sociology in the Fall and Spring semesters of 2019/2010 to participate in the graduate student-organized speaker series “Transnational Ethnography: Interconnected Lives and Social Processes.” This series features scholarly research that uses qualitative, especially ethnographic approaches, to study transnational processes and social lives. Their projects span across a wide range of contexts, such as Latin America, North America, East and South Asia. They explore how histories, politics, and human experiences in different national and social contexts are interconnected in the age of globalization and large-scale human movements. These projects not only expand the scope of phenomena more commonly studied in single-country contexts, but their unique methods also bring innovative transnational perspective to social science in general.


In the Fall 2019 semester, two speakers are visiting to give the following talks and workshops:

Rebecca Tarlau,  September 26, 2019

Pennsylvania State University

Talk: “Occupying Schools, Occupying Land: How the Landless Workers Movement Transformed Brazilian Education”

September 26, 2019, 12:00 pm

RLP 1.302D

Rebecca Tarlau is an Assistant Professor of Education and Labor and Employment Relations at the Pennsylvania State University. Her work examines how class, race, and gender hierarchies are reproduced through schools, as well as how social movements use education to contest these inequalities. Rebecca’s forthcoming book, Occupying Schools, Occupying Land: How the Landless Workers Movement Transformed Brazilian Education (Oxford University Press), explores the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) and the attempt to transform public education across the country. This work analyzes the micro-politics of grassroots educational reform, that is, the strategies activists use to convince state actors to adopt their initiatives and the political and economic conditions that affect state-society interactions. Her current research project compares teachers’ movements in Brazil, Mexico, and the United States, examining the conditions and strategies that enable teachers and their unions to transcend narrow economic interests and participate in broader struggles for social justice.

Bin Xu, October 8, 2019

Emory University

Talk: “Chairman Mao’s Children and China’s Difficult Past: Generation and Memory.”

October 8, 2019, 12:00 pm

RLP 1.302E

Workshop: “Reflexivity and Reflections: Two International Ethnographies”

October 8, 2019, 3:00 pm

The Ethnography Lab, RLP 3.214F

RSVP through email (TBD)

Bin Xu is an Associate Professor of Sociology and China Studies at Emory University. His research focuses on collective memory of revolutionary China, cultural sociology of civic life, disaster research, and social movements. His award-winning book, Compassionate Politics: The Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China, examines the unprecedented wave of self-organized civic engagement involving hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. Currently, he is working on a book project, Chairman Mao’s Children and China’s Difficult Past: Generation and Memory. The book examines the memory of China’s “zhiqing (知青)” (short for zhishi qingnian, the “educated youth”) generation—the 17 million urban, secondary school graduates were transferred to settle in villages, semi-military corps, and state farms in the 1960s and 1970s.


In the Spring 2020 semester, two speakers are visiting to give the following talks and workshops:

Abigail Andrews, February 13, 2020

University of California-San Diego

Talk and workshop titles TBA

Abigail Andrews is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Urban Studies at the University of California-San Diego, and the co-director of Mexican Migration Field Research and Training Program in UCSD. Her research interests are in gender, migration, state power, and grassroots agency. She particularly focuses on the struggles of marginalized groups in Mexico and the United States, including indigenous peasants, deportees, and undocumented immigrants. Her well-acclaimed book, Undocumented Politics: Place, Gender, and the Pathways of Mexican Migrants (University of California Press 2018), examines the communities’ struggles for rights and resources across the U.S.-Mexico divide.


Hae Yeon Choo, April 13, 2020

University of Toronto

Talk and workshop titles TBA

Hae Yeon Choo is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Her research centers on gender, citizenship, transnational migration, and urban sociology to examine global social inequality. In her empirical and theoretical work, she employs an intersectional approach to social inequalities, integrating gender, race, and class in her analyses. Her latest book, Decentering Citizenship: Gender, Labor, and Migrant Rights in South Korea, is a multi-sited and comparative ethnographic research that offers an account of how inequalities of gender, race, and class affect migrants’ practice of rights through studying three groups of Filipina women in South Korea. Her previous works include “The Cost of Rights: Migrant Women, Feminist Advocacy, and Gendered Morality in South Korea” (Gender & Society 2013), and “The Transnational Journey of Intersectionality” (Gender & Society 2012).


In addition to a public lecture, each speaker will host a workshop session with graduate students on conducting transnational ethnographic research to study globalization, migration, political mobilization, and racialization. These workshops will cover processes such as conceptualizing research questions; negotiating access to study sites; conducting multi-sited fieldwork; collecting and organizing data; critically analyzing data; using intersectional and/or transnational feminist frameworks throughout the research processes; and diffusing research findings to the broader public to initiate positive social transformations.

The “Transnational Ethnography” speaker series is part of an ongoing student-led initiative in the Urban Ethnography Lab called “Ethnographic Approaches,” which was established with the support of the Academic Enrichment Fund. In the 2018-2019 academic year, the “Critical Criminology” speaker series brought prominent scholars from across the U.S. to campus, including Nikki Jones (UC-Berkeley), Cecilia Menjívar (UCLA), and Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera (GMU).

This speaker series is organized by hosted by UT Austin graduate students Chen Liang (PhD student) and Ruijie Peng (PhD candidate). It is hosted by the Urban Ethnography Lab and generously supported by the Academic Enrichment Fund, Asian Studies Department, Center for Asian American Studies, Center for East Asian Studies, Center for Mexican American Studies,  LLILAS and POSCO Chair in Korean Studies Endowment. If you need more information or would like to volunteer to support the events, please contact the student organizers Chen Liang (chenliang1224@utexas.edu) and Ruijie Peng (ruijie.peng@utexas.edu).


Ruijie Peng is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Ruijie researches labor, gender, race and ethnicity, political economy, development, global and transnational sociology. Her current research is a 15-month ethnographic study of home support and women’s labor against the backdrop of rural-urban migration in southwest China.


Shannon Cavanagh, Gloria González-López Receive President’s Teaching Award

In January, UT Austin Sociology faculty Shannon Cavanagh and Gloria González-López were awarded the President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award for the 2018-19 academic year. They were honored last Friday evening at a dinner with UT Austin President Greg Fenves.

Associate Professor of Sociology Shannon Cavanagh receives 2018-19 President’s Associates Teaching Award from UT Austin President Gregory Fenves

Professor of Sociology Gloria González-López receives 2018-19 President’s Associates Teaching Award from UT Austin President Gregory Fenves

Professors Cavanagh and González-López are two among eight UT Austin faculty who received the award this year. According to a university news release:

The award recognizes the university’s educational innovators who demonstrate exceptional undergraduate teaching in the core curriculum, including signature courses, and engage with curriculum reform and educational innovation.

“These eight faculty members have dedicated themselves to teaching and mentoring,” said Gregory L. Fenves, president of UT Austin. “They build connections with their students and strive to unlock their potential with knowledge and creativity.”

This is the first time that two faculty members from Sociology have received the award during the same year. Moreover, among this year’s awardees, ours was the only department represented by more than one faculty winner.

Graduate Sociology Blog