Inquiring minds

Original academic research by three young professors enriches their disciplines and informs their classroom teaching.

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By Kate Rix • Photos by Dana Davis

From the lecture hall to the seminar room, Mills professors are known for their great teaching, but they’re also deeply engaged in research that enriches their field and student experience. Some of the freshest scholarly work happens all across the Mills campus, adding new dimensions to the College’s already robust academic culture.

We recently sat down for conversations with three young faculty members and asked them to describe their research focus, their studies before Mills, and what excites them about their work. It came as no surprise that each of these women conducts research that challenges the status quo within their disciplines. Each has undertaken pioneering lines of inquiry that leave no assumption unexamined and often fly in the face of conventional thinking.

Margaret Hunter, associate professor of sociology, looks at the tangible benefits of lighter skin and Caucasian facial features in the global market. Along with examining issues of gender and race, Hunter has also published cutting-edge research on the sociology of hip-hop culture and serves as a peer reviewer for nearly a dozen academic journals.

Martha Johnson, assistant professor of government, focuses on Africa and the continent’s complex policies related to food and agriculture. Combining her extensive field research and data analysis, she has discovered surprising trends: rather than being dictated by foreign governments, international agencies, and entrenched systems of favoritism, African democracies are far more independent and responsive to citizen lobbying than previous studies suggest.

Finally, Associate Professor of Psychology Christie Chung shared results of her studies on the changes in emotional memory that take place with aging. Chung, who has taught previously at Claremont Graduate University and California State University at Fullerton, involves her students directly in research studies and has listed two Mills students as co-authors on published papers.

The relevant and insightful studies by these professors is the heart of the vital teaching and research at Mills. Inquiry such as theirs is taking scholarship to another level, a deeper level, where humanism and the intrinsic value of critical thinking thrive.

Pale by comparison

Margaret Hunter on skin tone and privilege
Margaret Hunter

There’s an expression: The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice. It can mean that things get better with age—the riper, the better—or that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Or it can be a compliment about the beauty of dark skin.

Margaret Hunter offers this expression as an exception to the rule in our society. It’s an anomaly, she says, for darker to be more desirable. In general, it’s quite the opposite.

Hunter came to Mills in 2007 and is now head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and holder of the Edward Hohfeld Chair. As a mixed-race person, she wanted to understand the dynamics of skin tone—specifically the benefits that light skin and Anglo facial features confer—and has integrated that inquiry into her sociological research on gender and race relations.

“Lighter-skinned people of color enjoy privileges that dark-skinned people of color do not,” Hunter says. “We know this because we see such different outcomes for people of color based on skin tone.”

In college she worked on a project studying skin color stratification for African Americans in schools. While in graduate school at UCLA, she expanded her work to compare skin tone in the Latina population of Southern California.

In one study, she found that of women of color with similar family backgrounds who have the same level of education and live in similar types of cities, the lighter-skinned women earn about $6,000 more a year than the darker-skinned women.

“I was surprised myself,” she says. “Everyone senses that it’s true, but these statistics quantified that understanding.”

Her findings dovetail with work by other researchers that shows that lighter-skinned men of color receive more lenient prison sentences than darker-skinned men for similar crimes. And the list goes on: Lighter-skinned people achieve more years of education, marry higher-educated spouses, and live in more integrated neighborhoods. They also suffer from less depression and have higher self-esteem.

Hunter’s research has found links between skin tone and what a potential employer or teacher might call a “cue of competency.” Lighter skinned people are more associated with qualities like ability, intelligence, and kindness. As one example, she asserts that teachers are more likely to send darkskinned children to the principal’s office.  

“Light skin is a form of social capital,” she says. “In our society there is discrimination against darker skin even within racial groups.”

This work has evolved into a broader look at the concept of beauty as an investment. Women spend mightily on their appearances because they expect a return on their money spent. They’re more likely to get that return, Hunter argues, if they invest in plastic surgery, hair straightening, and skin lightening products.

The global marketplace favors Caucasian features, Hunter argues, and around the world people of color will go to great lengths to make themselves look whiter. Creams that actually bleach the skin are less common in the United States, largely because the FDA does not approve their active ingredients—some of which can potentially damage organs or cause cancer—but in India, Latin America, and Japan, the market is exploding. By 2015 the global market is expected to reach $10 billion, due in part to a growing market for products aimed at men. (In India one of the most popular products is “Fair & Lovely,” which has a companion product for men called “Fair & Handsome.”)

“Skin tone is connected to status and labor,” Hunter says. “In former colonies, people may be trying to look like the group who was in charge.”

Another major point of inquiry in Hunter’s work brings a fresh, scholarly examination of the ways that race, gender, and conspicuous consumption intersect in the media of the hip-hop movement. Her course on the sociology of hip-hop looks at the roots of the movement and its trajectory into a multi-billion dollar music industry.

“I grew up on early hip-hop,” she says, “which grew out of the end of the civil rights movement and the divestment of public services in the 1980s.”

Race and gender representation in hip-hop music have always been problematic, she notes, but with huge commercial success certain themes have surfaced, particularly in music videos, invoking imagery from strip clubs and pornography.

“The ‘rap lifestyle,’ marketed to consumers through multiple media outlets, focuses on the consumption of designer clothes, jewelry, cars, and liquor, often sold by the rap moguls’ companies,” Hunter wrote in an article published last year in Sociological Perspectives. “Rap music videos advertise these products, as well as the consumption of women of colors’ sexual performances.”

Some of the world’s wealthiest entertainers are successful hip-hop artists. Some, including Snoop Dogg, even produce their own porn videos.

“They are shot drawing from the conventions of porn,” Hunter says. “He’s called the host and he’s surrounded by a cadre of scantily clad women.” These videos are extremely lucrative—so much so that Forbes magazine features the “Cash Kings” list, an annual accounting of hip-hop’s top earners.

“This rap culture isn’t the only expression of hip-hop today, but it’s the most popular and has edged out much of the diversity of earlier hip-hop,” Hunter says. “The more violent and crazy and outrageous, the better. Everybody seems to like things that are over-the-top.”

A chicken in every pot

Martha Johnson on food policy and political power in Africa
Martha Johnson

In the academic field of African studies, African governments are commonly described as corrupt and motivated by patronage. Martha Johnson’s research looks at the exceptions to that rule.

An assistant professor of government at Mills since 2010, Johnson’s work examines African continental politics on several levels, but most extensively focuses on food policy.

In particular, she studies the ways that West African governments have responded to increased imports of food from the United States and Europe into Senegal, Ghana, and Cameroon. By comparing these three countries, Johnson’s research reveals shifting incentives and sources of political influence.

“So much of what is written about African policy describes it as being dictated by outside countries and international agencies,” Johnson says. “In fact, the cases I studied looked a lot like politics in any developed country.”

Since the mid-1990s, West African countries have experienced major surges in food imports. Many food staples entered the region from Europe and the United States at such a high rate that domestic food producers couldn’t compete. Imported chicken, onions, rice, wheat, powdered milk, vegetable oil, and tomato paste filled marketplaces at prices African consumers couldn’t refuse. In some communities, imports began to replace local products and undermine domestic food production.

Johnson has examined how West African governments responded to the import surges and, more specifically, to demands for stricter trade policies from domestic producers. Rather than following the narrative of past research of African politics, Johnson’s analysis reveals an ideological shift in Africa itself.

Each of the three countries she studied demonstrated a high degree of trade independence; each governement was motivated not by patronage or outside pressure, but by citizen lobbying.

In Ghana, farmers went directly to the government to push for a new tax on imported chicken. In Cameroon, farmers developed a media campaign to convince consumers that imported chicken was dangerous to eat. Senegalese poultry producers took this strategy a step further, lobbying their government to enforce the “cold chain” of refrigeration requirements. These inspections were so cumbersome and expensive that imported chicken disappeared from the Senegalese market for a brief period.

“I was surprised to find that these changes did not come from the outside,” Johnson says. “There is in fact a larger shift taking place in a growing number of Africa’s countries that looks different from the colonial model. Senegal and Ghana have been democratic for a while. People in those countries talk about median voters and public opinion. Cameroon is more authoritarian, but even they were responsive to lobbying by the public.”

Across the region, West African chicken farmers organized and conducted trainings in how to lobby government and do public relations. They also coordinated with political activist groups in Europe. Democracy, especially in Senegal and Ghana, is mature enough at this point to foster this type of citizen initiative, Johnson says.

She published the results of this research late last year in the Journal of Modern Africa Studies and is developing a book that builds on her work comparing the lobbying strategies of West African farmers.

Johnson first became interested in Africa as an undergraduate at Smith College, where she worked closely with a government professor who specialized in North African politics. As a graduate student in political science at Berkeley, she worked with political science professors David Leonard and Leonardo Arriola and spent time in both Senegal and Burkina Faso as a research associate with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

She continues to collaborate with Arriola in an ongoing survey of female political leaders in Africa. By combing through a massive data set drawn from 47 countries between 1975 and 2005, Johnson and Arriola are determining the conditions that make a country more likely to have women in executive governmental posts.

“The true measure of political worth in African politics is becoming a minister,” Johnson says. “Members of parliament are elected, but they just provide a rubber stamp. Ministers are appointed. This study will measure women’s political influence.”

Becoming a minister requires a level of political acumen typically reserved for men in African countries. Ministers generally act as agents on behalf of presidents, working in the home districts to bring in votes. The process of cementing and maintaining district power is highly fraternal, and female politicians have typically struggled to compete for power.

Women can achieve a certain level of political momentum and clout, but they come up against age-old customs that reward bosses, brokers, and “big men” with political posts in exchange for services and favors. The only exception, Johnson says, are countries that have committed to maintaining a certain quota of women in governmental leadership.  

“It doesn’t matter how wealthy a country is, or how literate its female population may be,” Johnson says. “What does seem to have a political effect is whether the country has a quota to guarantee more women in legislature.”

The persistence of memory

Christie Chung on aging and cognition
Christie Chung

Whether you’re likely to describe gray hair as distinguished or dowdy, the changes to our bodies and brains as we age are inevitable. Some would even say depressing.

But there’s one change we can look forward to. Research shows that as we get older we experience fewer negative emotions. It’s not that we don’t retain sad memories; we simply choose not to retrieve them. The phenomenon is called the positivity effect. “Older people do tend to regulate their emotions better,” says Associate Professor of Psychology Christie Chung. “The brain shrinks and there is some loss in short term memory. Perhaps we don’t want to use those limited resources to remember negative things.”

Chung, who joined Mills faculty in 2007 and directs the Mills Cognition Laboratory, studies changes in emotional memory throughout aging. Her research is now focused on asking, Does this effect exist across cultures, and does it influence an older person’s attitude about aging itself?

Collaborating with student research assistants to select test participants, conduct interviews, and process results, Chung has interviewed older adults in the United States, China, Hong Kong, and Afghanistan, and has found that the positivity effect is widespread, but not universal.

Her two most recently published scholarly articles were co-written with student researchers from the Mills Cognition Lab. This year, the International Journal of Aging and Human Development is publishing “A Cross-Cultural Examination of the Positivity Effect in Memory: U.S. vs. China,” which Chung co-authored with Ziyong Lin ’12.

Another research assistant, Frishta Sharifi ’08, traveled to Afghanistan to interview elders. Sharifi’s first surprise was that she was not able to find many adults over the age of 70. The second was that she found no positivity effect at all among those interviewed.

“It was very sad. The war likely affected older adults’ way of processing emotional memory,” Chung says of the Afghani subjects.

Their comparative work has revealed other differences. Older adults in both the United States and China clearly demonstrated the positivity effect in the types of memories they recalled, but their shared positivity didn’t extend to their attitudes about aging. When asked to give five words or phrases to describe the changes that take place as we age, American adults used negative terms. Chinese older adults used more positive words like “wisdom” and “helping others.” Not only was their outlook on aging significantly rosier, they also recalled less negative information.

“This shows that cultural differences do make a difference in cognitive processing of information,” Chung says.

Interestingly, her work also found that Chinese American immigrant elders have a negative view of aging, reflecting western culture, even if they live exclusively with other Chinese American immigrants.

The attitudes of a person’s current geographical location, Chung says, is a much bigger factor in determining a person’s attitude about growing old than researchers expected. “You would expect that immigrants who have just come here from China would bring their attitudes with them,” she says, “yet they were surprisingly similar to older adults born in the United States.”

Chung became interested in memory while studying cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, where her thesis advisor was Professor Lynn Hasher. Hasher developed the Inhibition Deficit Theory, which proposes that as we age we aren’t as good at regulating which information enters our working memory, making us more distractable. Chung’s interest in aging and memory was also spurred by her own grandfather’s struggle with memory loss.

“My grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and spent the last few years of his life in a nursing home in Hong Kong,” Chung says. “I wanted to learn more about cognitive aging so that I could understand the reasons for his sufferings. Due to some of his experiences, I was also determined to someday examine the cross-cultural effects of aging.”

She completed her graduate work at Claremont Graduate University and post-doctoral research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now teaches courses in the fundamentals of psychology, statistics, and cognitive psychology at Mills. She is also a frequent speaker at College and alumnae events and has presented her research at conferences of the American Psychological Association, the International Neuropsychological Society, and others.

For all of the nuanced ways that older people struggle to keep their brain capacity strong and robust, there are also some real physiological benefits to a few more candles on the birthday cake, Chung adds. As the brain ages, it shrinks—but not uniformly. The hippocampus, a part of the brain that is involved in forming and storing memory, doesn’t shrink much. Neither does the amygdala, which processes emotion.

“Older adults can remember bigger vocabularies than younger people. Our semantic memory increases as we grow older,” Chung says. “Our memory function does change, but those changes may not be as big as people used to think.”