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From behind fast-food counters and in
communities rocked by school shootings . . .

Newman brings thorough research on social problems and ideas for reform to position at Princeton

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- Sociology professor Katherine Newman first met Jamal when he was living in Harlem in a squalid rooming house where six families were squeezed into one apartment. Over the next few years, Newman and Jamal got together twice a month as part of her research on the working poor — those who strive, often unsuccessfully, to support themselves and their families in low-wage jobs.

professor Katherine Newman


Over lunch at coffee shops or at the restaurant where he worked, Jamal would describe for Newman how he made ends meet: the 5 a.m. bus ride he took each day to his job mopping floors and cleaning equipment at a fast-food restaurant, and his efforts to persuade his manager to give him more shifts so he could augment his weekly salary of about $125 a week, which amounted to $6,500 a year.

The story of Jamal’s life and of 300 others in similar situations became the basis for “No Shame in My Game,” Newman’s 1999 book detailing the daily struggles and triumphs of the working poor. The book won the Hillman Prize and the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.

“I followed 10 people closely to give the reader an interior understanding of their lives, but pursued a larger sample in order to explore the broader patterns of labor market participation among the working poor in the inner city,” Newman said.

With “No Shame in My Game” and six other books, Newman vividly portrays people affected by social problems related to poverty, race and urbanism, offering firsthand glimpses into their lives as well as numerous ideas for policy reform. In her 25 years in the classroom, Newman has helped students understand the myriad ways that social policies reverberate in the lives of millions.

After spending eight years teaching at Harvard, where she served as dean of social science at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Newman arrived at Princeton last fall as a professor of sociology and public affairs. Among a cadre of noted scholars who now make their homes in the sociology department (see related story on this page), she holds a joint appointment in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

“Kathy Newman is a marvelously thoughtful and sensitive social scientist, as those who read her books know,” said Robert Putnam, the Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “But more important, more than any other colleague I’ve had in nearly 40 years of teaching, Kathy Newman is a catalyst of collective accomplishment. She worked miracles at Harvard in fostering world-class interdisciplinary research on big social issues, and she will be simply impossible to replace here. We miss her personally and professionally, not least because she made us better social scientists.”

Countering stereotypes

To write “No Shame in My Game,” Newman studied the experiences of Harlem residents — African-Americans and immigrants from the Caribbean islands — who either worked at fast-food restaurants or had sought the same jobs unsuccessfully. The book counteracted stereotypes of the poor as unmotivated and dependent on welfare.

“Kathy’s work has been notable for studying important segments of American society that other social scientists have neglected to study in depth,” said Mario Small, an assistant professor of sociology at Princeton and a former student of Newman’s.

“In ‘No Shame in My Game’ she conducted an outstanding, comprehensive study of the working poor at a time when many experts focused primarily on the jobless, effectively equating poverty with unemployment,” he said. “She pioneered a type of team qualitative research that was very effective at reaching vast numbers of respondents in hard-to-reach populations and conducted extended, in-depth interviews, as opposed to mere surveys. She is clearly at the cutting edge of inequality research.”

Newman currently is working on a follow-up to “No Shame in My Game” titled “Chutes and Ladders,” which examines the effect of tight labor markets on the working poor. The new book opens with an update on Jamal, who moved to a small lumber town in northern California and now earns $30,000 a year working in a factory that produces laminated wood products. He lives with his wife and three children in a two-bedroom mobile home.

“It’s a long, long way from the tenement building he lived in back in the early ’90s,” Newman said.

This is a writing year for Newman, but she is using part of the time to determine how she can contribute most effectively to the Princeton curriculum when she resumes teaching next year. Her return to the classroom means Princeton students will gain access to a gifted mentor, Small said.

“Kathy is one of the best teachers and, by far, the best mentor I have ever known,” he said. “She clearly believes that being a mentor is one of the central pillars of being a university professor, and she provides active guidance to her graduate students in the scholarly and professional realms. She is a role model to all of us.”

Exploring the roots of school violence

Newman’s immersion in her research stems in large part from the field she chose for her doctoral studies: She earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California-Berkeley. She was a lecturer at Berkeley’s law school and a professor of anthropology at Columbia before moving to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 1996 to teach public policy. In 1999 she became the Malcolm Weiner Professor of Urban Studies at the Kennedy School.

“She’s one of the foremost scholars investigating urban inequalities and urban life, and she has distinguished herself with her very efficient research operation,” said Alejandro Portes, chair of the sociology department. “Not only is she very hands-on, as all good ethnographers should be, but she also organizes teams of students to collect material so she can produce, in a shortened period of time, what takes other researchers much longer. She is going to give Princeton students a terrific opportunity to get valuable research experience.”

Newman does not hesitate to take her work in a new direction when she feels there is something she needs to explore. She described her most recent book, “Rampage” (2004) as a “total departure for me.” The book examines the rash of school shootings in the 1990s by studying the communities where two of the most notorious episodes took place — Jonesboro, Ark., and Paducah, Ky. — three years after the incidents. The book explores the roots of school violence and the repercussions for the communities years later.

“It was the most difficult fieldwork I’ve ever done,” Newman said. “We reopened a trauma for these people, including the trauma that split the victims of these shootings from everyone else.”

Newman discovered that the social structure of small-town life, which residents thought would protect them from big-city problems like violence, actually prevented people in the community from heeding warning signs that the shooters were troubled kids.

“The shooters were known to have aberrant features, but for all kinds of reasons that have to do with the close-knit nature of these communities, people didn’t want to confront the problem,” she said. “It was precisely the virtues of small communities that made it impossible for people to see truthfully what was going on.”

As Portes noted, Newman encourages her students to get as deeply enmeshed in the project as she does. For “No Shame in My Game,” several of her graduate students spent months flipping burgers at fast-food restaurants side by side with the subjects of their research. For “Rampage,” the four graduate students who worked on the book moved to the two towns being studied.

Examining trends in Europe and Asia

Recently Newman has expanded her field of interest beyond the United States. Over the next few years, she plans to conduct research in India, Japan and Europe.

While at Harvard, Newman helped create the European Network on Inequality, which provides research opportunities for U.S. graduate students at 13 research institutions in Western Europe. Newman has brought Princeton into the program, and her involvement has spurred her interest in studying a recent phenomenon in Europe: More and more young people are delaying their departure from their family homes. A related phenomenon has emerged in the United States of “boomerang” children who return to the nest when they complete their education, in part because entry into the labor market has become a more complex process.

“In Italy and Spain it’s now quite commonplace for people to stay with their parents until they’re in their 30s,” Newman said. That change has contributed to a rise in the age of marriage, a decline in fertility and below-replacement population in Catholic countries like Italy and Spain, Newman said. The lower population in turn spurs demand for immigration, “but these countries have not had a history of immigration, so the politics of it and the resistance to it are quite pronounced,” she said.

Newman plans to tap Princeton’s demography experts for help with this research. “One of the great benefits of coming to Princeton is its extraordinary strength in demography,” she said. She also plans to visit Japan, where delayed departure from the family home is a longstanding pattern.

In India, Newman expects to launch a study of labor market discrimination in collaboration with Devah Pager, an assistant professor in the sociology department. Newman hopes that her international research will add another facet to the urban program at the Wilson School, as she intends to get graduate students involved in the work.

Newman relishes the opportunity to let her interests take her from Paducah to Periyar. “One of the things I love about being a sociologist,” Newman said, “is that I can drop whatever I’m working on and change focus if I see something really pressing in the culture that I can help shed some light on.”