Professor; Co-Director, Undergraduate Studies in Sociology
Mather Memorial Building 223B
Mary Patrice Erdmans received her PhD in sociology from Northwestern University in 1992. Her areas of interest include immigration and ethnicity (with research on Poles and Polish Americans), the intersection of gender, class, and race (with research on immigrant home health care workers, white working-class women, adolescent mothers, and, currently, aged auto workers), and narrative research methods (e.g., life stories and oral histories). Her research has been published as book-length manuscripts — On Becoming A Teen Mom: Life Before Pregnancy with Tim Black, (University of California Press, 2015), which was recently featured on ideastream 90.3 WCPN in a segment entitled “Be Well: Teen Moms and Their Lives”; The Grasinski Girls: The Choices They Had and the Choices They Made (Ohio University Press, 2004); and Opposite Poles: Immigrants and Ethnics in Chicago, 1976-1990 (Penn State Press, 1998). Her articles have appeared in The Sociological Quarterly, Journal of American Ethnic History, Sociological Inquiry, Qualitative Health Research, Polish American Studies, Humanity and Society, and North American Review.
Research and Scholarly Interests
My areas of research are immigration and ethnicity, life trajectories formed by the intersection of gender, class and race, and narrative research methods. I am interested in how identities and trajectories are shaped by social, political and economic forces; and the narrative compositions of those constructions.
My research career began with a study of new Polish immigrants (many were refugees from the Solidarnosc movement) who settled in Chicago alongside the large, centenarian Polish American community. During the 1980s, these Polish newcomers and Polish Americans shared an ancestral homeland, social space, and the goal of a free Polish nation. These common factors led them to believe they ought to work together, however, they often found themselves at opposite poles (1998). The Polish immigrants and Polish American ethnics had different resources, networks, and social identities – as immigrants and ethnics – that influenced collective action efforts (1994, 1995). The ethnic identity was located in the United States, and ethnic work involved maintaining a tie (usually more symbolic than concrete) to their ancestral homeland. In comparison, the immigrant identity was formed in the sending country, and immigrant work was embodied in the receiving country. Differences between the social categories of immigrant and ethnic created internal borders that became sites of identity construction, defining such things as in- and out-group membership, social ranking, and division of labor.
This initial study led to other research on Polish newcomers including: moral conflicts related to Polish refugees’ decision to emigrate (1992); factors influencing labor market satisfaction for undocumented Polish immigrants working as home care providers for the elderly (1996); narratives of immigration in the Polish press in the post-communist era (1999); and the emergence of Polish immigrant enclaves in Chicago suburbs at the turn of the twenty-first century (2006). Currently I am collecting oral histories of Solidarnosc refugees who returned to Poland.
I moved into researching white working-class women in the 1990s because of a gap, at that time, in the literature. Much scholarly research conflated race and class — studies of white women were de facto studies of the middle class, and women of color were usually poor and working-class women. This bifurcation muddied understandings of white working-class women: combined with the white middle class, class disadvantage was overlooked; grouped with working-class racial minorities, white privilege was less visible.
I studied white working-class women by collecting the life stories of five sisters who came of age in the post-WWII period when a robust economy and strong labor unions paid a living wage that made it possible for families to survive on one income. In this economically strong patriarchy, many women stayed home to care for children, husband and the household. Focusing on their lived experience in the private sphere, I looked at how family, faith, and motherhood shaped their life trajectories, how social location structured the choices they had, and how agency guided the choices they made. This study challenged social science orthodoxy as the five sisters were my aunts and mother who became active participants in the public construction of their life stories presented in The Grasinski Girls (2004). Reflexive interpretation was necessary. I examined my imprint as the researcher/daughter/niece in the construction of the story. The text includes the disagreements we had over how to tell their life stories: how to write the text (in prosaic prose or working-class aural); what parts of their lives should be emphasized (motherhood or singlehood); how were behaviors to be interpreted (as defiance or acquiescence); and whose interpretation was “right” (2004, 2009).
The Grasinski Girls’ study reinforced my commitment to write and do sociology using narrative methods – a form that blends the academic and poetic, empirical and interpretive, spoken and written (2007). It also solidified my interest in how perception shapes experience, and how life choices are influenced by social location. For example, most white working-class women in the post-WWII era did not have college degrees or professional career expectations. They expected to become full-time mothers. An expanding economy made it possible and gendered cultural messages (gendered habitus) made it probable that they would bear children and spend their lives primarily at home caring for them. As their perceived expectations coincided with objective conditions, they experienced their choices as satisfactory and their life outcomes as success.
Building on this work, I am currently studying the life trajectories of aged U.S. autoworkers born between 1930 and 1945 who also lived during an era when the economy was strong and industrial workers had decent unions. This project explores their perceptions of unions, their memories of work, and their experience in retirement with a focus on material well-being, family relations and friendship, daily routines, and existential self-evaluations. I have a particular interest in skilled hourly workers who earned a living wage and had good health care; men who retired with most of their fingers and fringes, a good pension (income, health, and stocks), a house with the mortgage paid, and a strong social safety net (Social Security and Medicare). The micro-level data on the lived experiences of aged auto workers will be analyzed using a critical paradigm to explore the privileged-end of structured inequalities (gender and race), the dialectics of capitalism played out in the auto industry in the twentieth century, and the effect of public policy on the well-being of this particular cohort.
In my/our book, with Timothy Black, On Becoming a Teen Mom: Life Before Pregnancy, we examine the life stories of 108 adolescent mothers – white, Latino, and black, from poor to working-class families in Connecticut – to identify the varying trajectories to young motherhood. We argue that early childbearing is often taken out of context and reified as a social problem; as a corrective, we tried to interpret their narratives looking at the social conditions that shaped their trajectories. The pathways to becoming a teen mom were complex and overlapping including first loves and statutory rape, child sexual abuse (2008) and white-picket fences, failing urban schools (2012) and college student-moms, concentrated poverty and working-class neighborhoods, violence against women and ways they fight back. While numerous individual problems are correlated with early childbirth, our research focuses on the larger social problems that originate in systemic inequalities — patriarchy, poverty, and racism — that preceded the births and shaped their biographies. Click here to read a review that was recently published July 2016 in Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews by Stephanie Mollborn.
Erdmans, Mary Patrice; Black, Timothy. 2015. On Becoming a Teen Mom: Life Before Pregnancy. University of California Press.
Erdmans, Mary Patrice. 2012. “Title IX and the School Experiences of Pregnant and Mothering Students.”Humanity & Society 36(1): 50-75.
Erdmans, Mary Patrice. 2009. “The Problems of Articulating Beingness in Women’s Oral Histories.” In Oral History: The Challenges of Dialogue, ed. Marta Kurkowska-Budzan and Krzysztof Zamorski, 87-97. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.
Erdmans, Mary Patrice. 2007. “The Personal is Political but is It Academic: Women’s life stories and oral histories”Journal of American Ethnic History 26(4): 7-23.
Erdmans, Mary Patrice. 2006. “New Chicago Polonia: Urban and Suburban.” In The New Chicago: A Social and Cultural Analysis, ed. John Koval, Larry Bennet, Michael Bennet, Fassil Demissie, Roberta Garner, & Kiljoong Kim, 115-127. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Erdmans, Mary Patrice. 2005. “The Poles, the Dutch, and the Grand Rapids Furniture Strike of 1911.” Polish American Studies 62:(2): 5-22.
Erdmans, Mary Patrice. 2004. “Looking for Angel: White Working-Class Women Lost between Identities.” Race, Gender & Class 11(4): 48-62.
Erdmans, Mary Patrice. 2004. The Grasinski Girls: The Choices They Had and the Choices They Made. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
Erdmans, Mary Patrice. 1999. “Portraits of Emigration: Sour Milk and Honey in the Promised Land.” Sociological Inquiry 69(3): 337-363.
Erdmans, Mary Patrice. 1998. Opposite Poles: Immigrants and Ethnics in Polish Chicago, 1976-1990. University Park, PA: Penn State Press.
Erdmans, Mary Patrice. 1996. “Nielegalni imigranci I domowa opieka pielegniarska: Pozarynkowe warunki osiagania zadowolenia z pracy.” (“Illegal Immigrant Home Care Workers: Non-market Conditions of Job Satisfaction.”) Przeglad Polonijny 22(2): 53-69. Krakow, Poland: Jagiellonian University.