3 Questions for Marta Tienda

  • Post published:May 12, 2023
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How did you get into Sociology?

My pathway to sociology was serendipitous, the result of a summer internship in Alpena, Michigan between my junior and senior year.  Until that pivotal experience, I was destined to be a high school language teacher and had not taken a single course in sociology. My internship job involved certifying migrant farmworkers for food stamps, but I saw many opportunities to improve the lives of the workers whose families toiled in the fields to make ends meet. The experience tied my childhood with my job:  Twice as a child (ages 9 and 11) I too labored in the fields picking tomatoes and cherries, not as a weekend expedition, but as a family strategy to make ends meet when my father was laid off from the factory. After graduation, I accepted a job at the College of Agriculture experiment station to develop programs for the re-settled migrant workers. These experiences fortified my resolve to pursue training in social science. 

I took my first course in sociology year as a graduate student when I audited Introduction to Sociology and enrolled in an advanced grad/undergrad course about Modern Mexican society.  Harley Browning offered the course and took an interest in my “unique” papers that used literature to interpret social phenomena. I had been admitted to the romance literature department, but he offered to sponsor my transfer to the sociology department and became my lifetime mentor. My formal transition from humanities to sociology occurred at the University of Texas at Austin, but in hindsight, I realize that my undergraduate degree in Spanish literature served as a cultural introduction to sociology—after all, literature reflects social times and problems.

What makes you sociologically curious?

As a professor, I have enjoyed the privilege of the best job in the world because I remade myself several times over a 45-year career.  Harley Browning stimulated my interest in demography, which became the lens through which I approached the study of social inequality broadly construed. But like my serendipitous entry to sociology, my intellectual interests have evolved as new opportunities presented themselves.  At times a random fact piqued my curiosity, and at times, it was a desire to understand a puzzle or circumstances that did not make intuitive sense.  An early example was the claim that economic demographers could estimate the cost of an additional child to India—a huge, diverse country. That claim inspired my dissertation on age and economic dependence in Peru, where children had economic value just as they did in India.

As an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I began research about the Hispanic population in response to a request for proposal that posed several intriguing questions even though, at the time, I had never studied U.S. Hispanics. Learning in a lunch conversation that immigrants were once allowed to vote in national elections inspired my presidential address for the Population Association of America. I was curious about when and why immigrants lost the franchise and why? At the University of Chicago, I was a member of a group asking whether concentrated poverty differed from poverty in general—and if so, how did it differ? My research career evolved again when William Bowen, former President of Princeton and then President of the Mellon Foundation, approached me to investigate the academic experiences of Hispanics who attended elite institutions. I was curious about who beat the odds by not only graduating from high school and attending college, but also enrolling at an elite institution. At the time, I had no idea I would spend the last third of my research career addressing questions about equity and access to higher education. 

My quest to understand was never constrained by artificial distinctions between macro and micro approaches or basic and applied research, and the privilege of working at top-rated universities allowed me to audit courses, learn new methods, collaborate with talented students and post-doctoral fellows, and apply for extramural funding.  I am deeply grateful for the many collaborators who taught me more about social science research than I could have imagined when I began my sociological journey. 

What challenges does sociology face as a science?

Sociology takes many different forms across nations; therefore, the challenges likely differ. In many ways sociology is an inter-discipline that engages other social sciences:  political sociology, cultural sociology, economic sociology, and historical sociology, which can be a strength or a liability, depending on how novel insights and concepts are used to understand social phenomena.  Robert Merton’s “unanticipated consequences” concept made its way into the popular lexicon, but as a theoretical and empirical construct, social capital has had rather inconsistent applications and is often misused.  Most worrisome is that many theoretical approaches and constructs, notably critical race theory and structural racism, have become political fodder for groups seeking to erase decades of social progress dismantling the social infrastructure that sustained and reproduced inequality over time and across generations.  

In the U.S. the field faces a splintering across many dimensions, including within the American Sociological Association, which has witnessed declining membership over many years.  When I began my career, ASA membership stood just shy of 14 thousand; today, the association’s membership is approximately 9,500.  

Marta Tienda is Emerita Professor of Demographic Studies and Sociology at the Princeton University and President of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. She is a member of the selection committee of the Kohli Foundation for Sociology.