Assistant Sociology Professor Jackelyn Hwang ’07 has research interests in urban sociology, inequality, immigration and race and ethnicity. She returned to Stanford as a faculty member in 2017 after receiving a Ph.D. in Sociology and Social Policy from Harvard University and working as a postdoctoral research fellow in the Office of Population Research at Princeton University. Today, her research focuses on the causes and consequences of gentrification as well as measures of how neighborhoods change. The Daily sat down with Hwang to talk about her research and her path to academia.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): What has been your path to becoming a professor at Stanford?
Jackelyn Hwang (JH): After graduating from Stanford having studied sociology and math, I ended up working at a charter school in Philly. [Everyone at the school was] thinking about how to create a public school that brought together a lot of issues beyond just education to try to make this full community-based model of a public school in a high-poverty neighborhood in Philly. But we were trying to do it on a public school budget, which turns out to be very difficult.
I worked there for a couple years, and it was a great experience, but I think what drove me to go back to pursue a graduate degree was my wish to understand how the broader societal issues of segregation and concentrated poverty affect kids and families. I went back to graduate school at Harvard to study sociology and social policy. I started studying gentrification, which is the influx of high income people moving into previously disinvested neighborhoods, as an undergrad for my senior thesis and have continued studying it since.
[Gentrification] is a phenomenon that’s been happening in a lot of neighborhoods across a lot of cities, especially over the last few decades. It [provides a] contrast from the story of urban neighborhoods and cities characterized by concentrated and persistent poverty and high levels of segregation. My work tries to understand how these two different caricatures of cities happen. A lot of my work is on how neighborhoods change and what that has to do with the occurrence of segregation.
After getting a Ph.D., I did a postdoc. I was at Princeton in the Office of Population Research, which focuses on demography ― the study of population. It was basically two years to keep pursuing my research under new mentors. Then I applied to this job and ended up here, which is my dream job.
TSD: What drew you to sociology in the first place? How did that interest develop?
JH: I had never heard of sociology prior to college, and I started off as a math major doing pure theoretical math. [Theoretical math] was very challenging, and I didn’t really feel fully satisfied by it since I didn’t understand [math’s] real-world applications. Perhaps I should’ve done applied math. I remember going home over the summer of my freshman year and browsing through the course catalogs on classes that looked interesting. I ended up signing up for a bunch of sociology and psychology classes. For me, sociology was more attractive [because] sociology is more of a bird’s eye view on how groups interact and form. Groups can be neighborhood states, countries or just small groups. I think it was [sociology’s] broader lens that appealed to me more. I finished the requirements to major in math though but ended up pursuing sociology further.
TSD: How did you get from a broader topic like sociology to the narrower one of gentrification?
JH: I grew up in a suburban town right next to Camden, New Jersey and Philly, and the stark inequalities between the two places were really fascinating to me. I remember that my mom would lock the car doors as soon as we drove into Camden and that a lot of people in my town were afraid of the city despite living right next to it. My sisters lived in Philly when I was growing up as well, so I definitely went back and forth everywhere, and I saw that certain areas where my sisters were living were changing. There were these stigmas of the city from where I was growing up that contrasted my own experiences in the city. That was always interesting to me, but I never thought I would actually be interested in studying it. This changed when I took some sociology classes and started to have a lens through which to think about these inequalities and issues.
When I started sociology, I was in the business and organizations track, but a couple of classes changed my perspective [regarding what I wanted to focus on]. One was sociology professor Michael Rosenfeld’s class “The Urban Underclass,” and another class was one in the School of Education on urban education. Those classes opened my eyes up to urban inequality and spoke to things that had interested me on the side when I was growing up.
TSD: What do you think is some of the most important information you’ve found through your research?
JH: How people talk about [gentrification] and how it’s portrayed in the media isn’t always in line with what you actually see in the data. It’s been fascinating and interesting to make sense of these disparate accounts.
In the public conscious, gentrification is something that happens disproportionately in predominantly minority neighborhoods and displaces residents. When you look at neighborhood-level trends over time, you find that most poor, minority neighborhoods remain poor, minority neighborhoods. That speaks to how segregation and concentrated poverty are so persistent. What I found in one study was that minority neighborhoods gentrify but at a much slower pace than neighborhoods with fewer shares of blacks. A lot of studies show that people in the general population least prefer predominantly black neighborhoods because of all of these stigmas that come with it. There are implicit biases that the general population has about predominantly black neighborhoods just because of the historical disinvestment that’s occurred in these neighborhoods. [Gentrification] is widespread, but there’s still a racial hierarchy in how the process unfolds, and I think that shows that these racial hierarchies persist in our society, and that helps maintain segregation.
I’ve [also] been working on with the Federal Reserve Bank [in Philadelphia] but using a data set that has a very large sample of the adult population and tracks where people live every year. So we look at whether and where people move every year, and we examine if their neighborhoods are gentrifying or not.
In the popular discourse and qualitative stories about gentrification, it makes neighborhoods more expensive and ends up pushing low-income residents out of their neighborhood. But when we look at the data, we don’t find that this happens, and we don’t find that people are moving more from gentrifying neighborhoods than they would have had they lived in a neighborhood that didn’t gentrify.
TSD: What are the classes you’re teaching now and some classes you might ideally like to teach in the future?
JH: Of the classes I taught in the fall, one was the required sociology junior/senior seminar for majors. That’s the writing in the major course, and students had to come up with a research question and collect data, analyze it and write a 20 to 30 page paper in ten weeks. I think it was a lot of work, but I think it’s good because as an undergrad you’re not necessarily always exposed to research. Doing my senior thesis made me realize how much I enjoyed asking a question, trying to answer it and collecting data.
I also taught a new course called “The Changing American City,” which is cross-listed in urban studies, Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity (CSRE) and sociology. We touched on topics all about contemporary cities, [like] immigration, gentrification, public housing policy and crime. The students did a mini paper on a neighborhood in San Francisco or Oakland. Students would look up demographic data from the census and then actually go to the neighborhood. I was hoping to have students look at the data and compare it with their own qualitative and quantitative experiences in the neighborhood. It was a lot of work, but I think it was a fun class, and I’m going to be teaching it every other year. I hope eventually to build in an optional service learning component where students can work with actual [community] organizations and get a different perspective.
TSD: What are some of the differences you’ve seen between the Stanford of your undergrad years and Stanford as you see it right now?
JH: I do actually get lost here [now] because Meyer library is gone, and the business school wasn’t there [before]. I think the main difference actually is the small size of the sociology major and how computer science has really taken over. The size [of sociology] is a quarter of what it was when I graduated. More students should discover how great sociology is, but I think we’re on the forefront of knowledge and data is changing ― before we used to always rely on administrative government data surveys, and now we have access to the analytic tools [needed] to be able to process huge amounts of data. It’s exciting to have computer science be so prevalent, and I see a lot of potential opportunities for overlap [between the departments]. I’m working with a computer scientist now, and so it’s been really cool to have this interdisciplinary collaboration. But I encourage people [who] major in computer science to take sociology classes to better understand various aspects of our society and social issues.
This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.
Contact Rebecca Smalbach at smalbach ‘at’ stanford.edu.