Associate Professor of Sociology

Faculty, Health and Society Program,
Institute of Behavioral Science (IBS)

Research interests

My policy-relevant research concentrates on the mechanisms and theoretical explanations that underlie demographic trends. Both statistical analyses of longitudinal national surveys and multimethod ethnographic data collection are important for achieving this goal. Current and recent funders include the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Although I study other topics such as smoking, sexual minority health, and mental health, most of my work fits into two research programs.

My first strand of multimethod research focuses on teenage childbearing and its consequences for young people and their children. Teen mothers and fathers are an important marginalized group in the United States, and children of teen mothers make up the majority of kids living in poverty. Understanding how teen parenthood is related to negative life consequences for families is fundamental for reducing socioeconomic inequalities in our society. But teen parenthood is also an important cultural phenomenon. We are fascinated with reality shows focused on teen moms but also strongly condemn teen mothers in our midst. Teens hear mixed cultural messages about sex and pregnancy, and people and institutions try to enforce these messages in ways that may backfire. Studying norms and social control around teen sex and childbearing is another major focus of this research program.

My second strand analyzes inequalities in early childhood development and health. When children enter kindergarten, major inequalities in their school readiness are already in place that set them on a largely fixed track to future school success. School readiness is not just academic, but also includes children's socioemotional behavior and health. But how and why do those inequalities take root in the preschool years? I study what I call children's developmental ecologies, or their interrelated proximate contexts that are shaped by sociodemographic inequalities and that structure children's interactions with others. These developmental ecologies are very important for understanding why children from some groups are much more ready for school than others. My newest work focuses on young people's health lifestyles, or their interrelated health behaviors and health-focused identities. How do young children's health lifestyles form, and how do they change as children get older and start to make their own behavioral choices? I also study links between these lifestyles and children's development and health.