Sociology prof Kimberly Rogers talks her research and teaching
Now entering her second year at the College, Kimberly Rogers has dedicated a great portion of her life to studying social interactions on multiple levels, from culture, to groups within a culture, to individuals within a group. The sociology professor came to Dartmouth in 2015 from Mount Holyoke College. She is originally from Virginia, but did her graduate work at Wake Forest University and Duke University in North Carolina, where she studied psychology and sociology.
She calls herself a “social psychologist on the sociology side.” Sociological social psychologists typically study microstructures, including social interactions, small groups, social networks and organizations, which mediate between the individual and society. These structures affect individual thoughts, feelings and behavior.
Rogers studies how inequalities are reproduced or overturned within these microstructures. She teaches a course at the College on status and power in social interaction, as well as an introductory course that has been selected for the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning Gateway Program, which she hopes will make her classroom environment even more interactive. Rogers is also working with the Neukom Institute for Computational Science to build a software tool that anybody from students to faculty can use to simulate social interactions they are interested in and understand what their likely consequences are.
How does your research on cultures, groups, and individuals tie into everyday life?
KR: I study group process theories. I study how mechanisms that operate within groups affect individuals and how inequalities are reproduced and overturned within groups. Some important mechanisms we study are status and power dynamics. Who gets status, who gets power, how is their higher position within the group legitimated, how do they seem like a legitimate authority figure, how do we form those perceptions, how do those perceptions then affect the dynamics that happen within a group are all questions that my research looks to answer.
For instance, if we had a group of people working on a task, someone becomes the group leader. We perceive the leader’s contributions to the task as more valuable, we let the leader talk more, we defer to the leader’s judgement in various types of ways that only reinforce the pre-existing belief we have that whomever was picked as the leader should be in charge of the group. This is one way that sociological social psychology shows how we reproduce the social order, by basically coming into a situation with perceptions of who people are and having those perceptions bias the way we treat others and feel about them, and how we feel and act in response.
Are there any present day trends that you’ve noticed that relate to your research?
KR: I also study culture and how culture impacts our behavior and emotions, the way that we treat other people, and the way that we feel. Since that is a part of so much of our lives, it relates to a lot of types of current events in different ways. For example, in terms of the current presidential election, one way that what I do and what other social psychologists do is relevant is that it helps us understand gendered beliefs, about what is appropriate for a male versus a female political candidate to do, say, think, and feel. Those types of things shape our perceptions of them in ways that can bias us towards supporting one candidate over another, for thinking, for instance, would Hillary Clinton be a legitimate leader or would Donald Trump be a legitimate leader. So we use gender frames to shape our perceptions of people’s actions, behavior, feelings, and make decisions like in this way.
In terms of thinking about Black Lives Matter, and controversial issues where different groups of our society have really different perceptions of social issues, cultural consensus steps in. A lot of old theory in my discipline talked about culture as being a nice, big, coherent “seamless web” with generalizations like, “America has a culture,” and we all sort-of know what that culture is, and that helps bring us together and understand each other. What a lot of my work actually shows is that many of our cultural beliefs are tied to our own personal experiences, our place in society, and the day-to-day interactions that we have.
What are you currently working on?
KR: The current work that I’m doing right now is actually looking at how we form hypotheses about what is going on at a social event. We have a set of cultural knowledge; the people we’re interacting with have their own set of cultural knowledge, and those things come together. We have to negotiate the interaction and make sense of it, together. In situations when we have really common beliefs with people, it’s really straightforward to accomplish that. But when we have really different beliefs from people, a much more complex process has to happen for us to negotiate an interaction that works and makes sense for everybody.
A lot of my work involves mathematically modeling how we form these inferences and update them by observing other people’s behavior and emotions when we’re interacting with them, so we can make predictions about how that cultural knowledge comes together in interactions. These mathematical models allow for the identification of inflection points where you could intervene to improve interactions.
This has become an increasing interest over time for me because much more sociological work tends to focus on the problem of inequality and where it comes from, rather than how to fix it. More and more of my work has been shifting in that problem-solving direction over time.
Why did you come to Dartmouth, and what do you like to do outside of the classroom?
KR: Dartmouth is both a top research college and a place where a liberal arts curriculum is valued, and I think Dartmouth is very unique in this respect, as many schools are usually just one or the other. It is a great intellectual community where research is supported and even undergraduates can participate. I also have two dogs, Finn and Lilah, who love to go hiking as much as I do, so this is a really fun place for that.