Dr. Ellen Berrey studies the spread of student-led social justice movements

November 12, 2018 by Kate Paik

Professor Ellen Berrey recently received a SSHRC Insight Development Grant to investigate student protests and universities’ responses in the U.S. and Canada, with a focus on anti-racism mobilization. She and her collaborator, Dr. Alex Hanna (Google, Inc.), are working with a team of student research assistants to gather and analyze data from student newspapers chronicling student protests from January, 2012 to December, 2016.

Berrey is endeavoring to learn the contextual factors that explain where student protests took place, and why movements spread through the U.S. and Canada. She seeks to shed light on the determinants and diffusion of social movements. Going into this research, she expects that some institutional contexts will be more likely to instill a culture of protest than others, and that anti-racism actors on campus will also be influenced by activism occurring off campus, especially in the Black Lives Matter movement, and at different colleges and universities. She is also curious to see how protest movements moved across national boundaries and how university administrations manage protest. The findings from this research will allow for a broad understanding of political mobilization trends and the impact of social media, as well as a deeper understanding of the interactions between movements and their organizational settings. Moreover, the analysis of activists' substantive claims will shed light on the experiences, hopes, and needs that students of colour (as a marginalized population) bring to predominantly white universities and colleges, including their understanding of the resources that they need to thrive.

Professor Berrey and her team have begun the first stage of this work -- creating an extensive dataset of student protest events based on campus newspapers. They are gathering data through computational text analysis methods to capture relevant articles, then using hand-coding to record details. This dataset documents where, when, and why students have recently mobilized to protest a wide range of issues, including racism as well as climate change, tuition and fees, free speech, and other topics. The dataset also records universities’ reactions to student protest. The next step will be to analyze this dataset in conjunction with existing data on U.S. and Canadian universities’ organizational characteristics, Black Lives Matter events, and social media. Finally, once this stage is complete, the team will choose at least four sites from among the locations identified in the dataset to study in greater depth.  For those campuses, the team will conduct interviews with student activists and administrators and gather relevant secondary documents. By analyzing both a comprehensive dataset and case studies, the study will provide both a broad and a deep understanding of student mobilization and universities’ responses in the twenty-first century. In the future, they anticipate extending the research to include the 2016-2020 period, to demonstrate the changes and continuities in student mobilization in the Trump era.

Professor Berrey's areas of research engage with multiple sociological subfields, most notably law, inequality, race and diversity, culture, and organizations. Her work is focused on the politics and paradoxes of solving social problems. She has a particular interest in how organizational and political actors mobilize, contest, and institutionalize cultural ideals and in the interactive relationships between activists and organizations. In addition to her teaching duties as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, she is an affiliated scholar of the American Bar Foundation, and she is internationally recognized for her research on the discourse and politics of diversity.