Institute Research Past and Present
The current vitality of the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues (formerly Institute for the Study of Social Change) is built upon a rich and active history of more than 40 years of fruitful interaction among researchers, faculty, visiting scholars, and students meeting in an interdisciplinary world, applying diverse and complementary research methodologies to varied and intersecting projects on the broad theme of social stratification and inequality. The primary focus has been on institutional patterns that impact marginalized communities - in the United States and around the world – as well as social and political movements that disrupt such patterns. The power and efficacy of the Institute research is anchored in the supportive interactions where faculty, visiting scholars, students, and other researchers meet informally or more formally and informally through working groups, presentations of work-in-progress, and brown bag discussions. The Institute’s research projects have resulted in a range of scholarly publications – including books, book chapters and journal articles – which have influenced public debate and social policy and helped to expand the boundaries of the social sciences. Many of the Institute initiatives have been housed in centers at the Institute; the centers change in response to the times and the interests of faculty, students, and funders. The Institute endures, serving as a research hub that spurs collaboration and innovation, particularly among faculty and students of color as well as others from marginalized groups.
"Understanding Change, Changing our Understanding: Thirty Years of the Institute for the Study of Social Change” is a video oral history created in 2006 by Eric Pido and Oscar Medina.
View the video on our YouTube site here.
Selected Institute Research Projects Over the Decades
Unsettling Traditions of Work and Family: The 1970s and Beyond
In the 1970’s, a small group of Latinx scholars at the Institute formed the Chicano Political Economy Collective. David Montejano, Phillip Gonzales, Larry Trujillo, Andrés Jimenez, Regino Chavez, Patricia Chavez, Jorge Chapa, Elena Flores, Hisauro Garza, and Tomás Almaguer were among the founding members, taking on new approaches to interpreting Chicano history, analyzing workers and capital investment in the raisin industry, and more. This group then evolved into the Chicano Latino Policy Project, which became the Center for Latino Policy Research, which is now the Latinx Research Center, one of the ISSI centers. While the university administration has pledged to keep the Latinx Research Center if ISSI is closed, thus far they have not found another unit to take on the center.
In 1979, UC Berkeley Professor of Sociology Arlie Hochschild began her study of dual work families, based at the Institute. At the time, dual work families broke the middle-class tradition of male bread-winner and female homemaker. Hochschild’s research exposed the costs of breaking this tradition–-especially with regard to how men and women in dual work families distributed commitment to work, parenting and marriage–-and became the basis for her critically acclaimed book The Second Shift.
Reconceptualizing Diversity and Health Research: The 1980s and Beyond
During the 1980’s, there was a tremendous change in the racial and ethnic composition of the undergraduate student body at Berkeley. Professor Troy Duster, who was Director of the Institute at the time, led a team of researchers to study the way Berkeley’s undergraduates were adjusting to the new diversity of the campus. A core group of researchers ran a series of focus groups with undergraduate students at Berkeley in ethnoracially separate as well as mixed groups. Then the transcripts were analyzed in dynamic group meetings, where faculty, graduate students and visiting scholars from the Institute and other parts of the University would gather together to discuss and argue about the meaning and significance of the opinions and experiences expressed in these student focus groups. All participants were welcome to engage with this unfolding process of making sense of the focus group transcripts and their significance for undergraduate education with a newly diversifying student body at a historically white and male academic institution. The Diversity Project ended up being featured in the New York Times. And regular inquiries came about how to duplicate similar research at other campuses and in other states. What began as an inquiry into the effects of diversity among college students grew into a research model that other universities would replicate. True to the Institute’s tradition of doing research with a conscience, the Diversity Project reframed questions of race and ethnicity on college campuses and laid the foundation for innovative policy changes.
Beginning in the early 1980s, public health became an important focus of the Institute with projects ranging from collaborative research on stress and hypertension among MUNI bus drivers, to community interventions to improve health including Richmond Quits. The Berkeley Project on Bioscience and Society, founded in 1989 by Professor Troy Duster, led to the Pathways to Genetic Screening project, a ground-breaking application of social science to the then nascent field of genetic testing. The study of families in the US at high risk for sickle cell, cystic fibrosis, or thalassemia showed that responses to genetic screening were patterned along social, cultural, and economic dimensions.
Understanding Social Movements: The 1990s and Beyond
The Mobilizations and Social Movements Project examined paradigms of racial, ethnic, class, and gender politics that emerged during the 1960s and 1970’s—paradigms that continue to shape not only social movement theory but also official policymaking. Led by Professors Waldo E. Martin, Jr and Ling-chi Wang, an interdisciplinary group of faculty and graduate students collected and identified primary materials on social movements, made these materials accessible both to scholars and a broader public audience, and generated new scholarship on social movements that is both historical and global in orientation. Researchers created the H. K. Yuen Collection, a unique archive of primary materials on Bay Area movements in the 1960s and 1970s, now housed on the Berkeley campus.
The focus on diversity and achievement in education continued throughout the decades. To mention just one additional project on this theme, in the late 90’s Professor Pedro Noguera led another Diversity Project, this one focused on race, ethnicity, and achievement at Berkeley High School. The research team tracked the Class of 2000 over four years, but rather than focus on individuals, they showed how racial disparities in academic outcomes are influenced by the structure of opportunity within schools and how efforts to address inequities often become politicized.
Arlie Hochschild built on her previous research at the Institute to start the Center for Working Families in 1998 with Professor Barrie Thorne. With funding from the Sloan Foundation, the center served as an incubator and site for the innovative and growing sub-field of care work – with a focus on differences and hierarchies in gendered roles and work in families and child rearing of varied class and cultural backgrounds.
Youth, Culture and Power: The 2000’s and Beyond
The Center on Culture, Immigration, and Youth Violence, led by Professor Franklin Zimring, was funded with a $4 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Taking a public health perspective on youth violence, the center brought together long-standing Institute expertise in crime and punishment, public health, and culture and institutions. Over the course of five years, the center engaged in research, training, and community mobilization, with a focus on Latinx and Asian immigrant communities in Oakland.
At the same time, Institute affiliates were engaged in a separate but synergistic study of political socialization in mixed-citizenship-status families of Mexican, Chinese, and Vietnamese origin, during a period of national mobilization around immigrant rights and immigrant contributions to the U.S. economy and society. Funded by the Russell Sage Foundation, this study examined the political socialization that children receive in mixed-status immigrant families and the ways in which US-born children socialize their immigrant parents into American civic and political norms and behaviors. Led by Professor Irene Bloemraad and Christine Trost, who was then Associate Director of the Institute, the project was made possible by the deep involvement of many graduate and undergraduate students from communities that were the focus of the project.
A hallmark of Institute projects is the involvement of students as research apprentices and also as research collaborators, shaping the data collection and analysis from their own knowledge and experiences. In 2003, then director Rachel Moran restructured the long-standing graduate student training at the Institute into the Graduate Fellows Program (GFP), a two-year program for UC Berkeley graduate students researching social change in the U.S. The key contribution of the GFP has been to ensure the retention and success of students of color, as well as white students, in the completion of their doctorates and to assist them in securing tenure track jobs in the academy. The university administration has committed to continue the GFP, but it may lose its power if it is removed from the generative research environment of the Institute. Beyond the GFP, the Institute continues to provide informal support, intellectual community, research training, and a place of belonging to about 30 graduate students each year, many of them students of color.
The Berkeley Center for Right Wing Studies (CRWS), one of the current ISSI centers, extends the Institute’s engagement with social and political movements and commitment to creating archival resources. Founded in 2009, CRWS is the first academic center in the U.S. dedicated to the study of right-wing movements past and present, staying at the cutting-edge of the evolving right-wing. For example, the center’s conference on the Tea Party in 2010 was the first to analyze the then-nascent movement from a scholarly perspective. CRWS also houses significant archives of right-wing materials, making them available to researchers from around the world.
Bridging the University and the Community: The 2010’s and Beyond
Foundational to all Institute research are the premises that marginalized communities should be subjects and not objects of research and that as much attention needs to be paid to systems of oppression as to the oppressed. This epistemological perspective is in striking contrast to the way most university research on Native Americans has been conducted. Professors Martín Sánchez-Jankowski (Yaqui) and Joseph Myers (Pomo) founded the Joseph A. Myers Center for Research on Native American Issues at the Institute in 2010 in order to bring the resources of the university to Indian country. For example, the Native American Museum Studies Institute, one of the center’s projects, trains staff and volunteers of tribal museums and cultural centers in museum skills, with funding from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. These skills are especially needed now since many tribes are reclaiming their art and cultural items (as well as their ancestors) from university and other museums, giving them more control over how and to whom they share their history.
Drawing on the long history of institute research on health in social context, the Berkeley Center for Social Medicine (BCSM) was founded at the Institute in 2013. BCSM critically engages the intersection of social systems, social difference, health and health care in the United States and across the globe and has a number of active working groups and projects. One notable example is BCSM’s “Case Studies in Social Medicine” project, which communicates the social structures affecting the health and well-being of patients to health professionals. Led by Professor Seth Holmes and funded by the Open Society Foundations, the project has resulted in a series published in two of the most prestigious (and highest impact) medical journals in the world, the New England Journal of Medicine and the British Medical Journal.
Following in the Institute’s tradition of researching human behavior in the community, not in a lab, Professor Qing Zhou’s ambitious project on socio-emotional development among bilingual children studies preschool-aged children in their homes and school settings over a three-year period. The Language and Emotion Development Project, funded by a $3 million grant from the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, is especially powerful because it includes both Mexican-American and Chinese-American families.
Social Justice Futures: The 2020’s and Beyond
The Institute’s latest center, the Asian American Research Center (AARC), opened in the fall of 2020. Led by Professor Michael Omi, the AARC advances innovative research, curricula, and programs to address a multiplicity of national and global issues facing Asian American communities.
ISSI's newest working group, Collective Reason, provides community for early career faculty from Geography, Art Practice, Political Science, Ethnic Studies, and Gender & Women's Studies. Drawing on the Caribbean intellectual praxis of ‘reasoning,’ which is a tradition of mutually supportive and intellectually generative discussions and debates, the group pushes our collective thinking on our society’s pressing questions and challenges. Collective Reason takes the diversity of members' interests and expertise and applies them to think about and through our current moment. Through small scale research activities, seminars with invited speakers, the workshopping of papers/manuscripts, and conversations, we take the opportunity of community to think and imagine freely around a series of intellectual themes.
As the decade begins with global pandemic, economic disruption, and renewed focus on systemic racism, the generative, collaborative, interdisciplinary research of the Institute is needed more than ever. If the university administration reverses their decision to close the Institute, we can continue to build on the legacy of the past.