I am a sociologist of law, science, and medicine with interests in gender inequality and families. My research investigates how law shapes the development and use of technologies. My dissertation examines the home pregnancy test, the diagnostic device that is most widely used by lay people. I use a range of qualitative methods and data sources such as historical interviews and archival data, ethnographic field observations and interviews, and legal sources of all kinds. While my work is primarily qualitative, I have published quantitative work as well. Below, I outline prior and ongoing projects as well as the direction of my future research.

Dissertation: “Bodies of Knowledge: Diagnosis and Control on the Maternal-Fetal Frontier”

The popular narrative about the home pregnancy test is that it is a liberating tool used by women for privacy away from the medical gaze, but I find something more complex. Once the test became available outside of the doctor's office, it became a tool of surveillance potentially available to partners, employers, parents, and the user herself. I argue that the knowledge and power facilitated by the device did not simply transfer to women, but rather became redistributed along other axes of power. I combine interviews of users, partners, and doctors with historical and legal research to examine the ecologies of knowledge and power around the device. The first chapter of the dissertation examines how the American legal system sought to accommodate the new technology in the 1970s without compromising its own credibility. The findings of this chapter were recently published in a sole-authored article in Social Studies of Science. The second chapter examines the use of the device over the life course of American women, ranging from teenage users hiding the test from their parents to women desperately trying to conceive. The third chapter investigates the nonuser’s role in the reproductive equation, in particular, the partner’s and medical provider’s changing roles as support-providers and diagnosers. Finally, using case law, I examine how the home pregnancy test has been used as a tool of abuse and coercion, particularly against low-income women of color. While prevailing models in law and technology would frame the home pregnancy test in terms of constraint/liberation, I seek to move this field toward a better understanding of the distribution and dynamics of power in technical, legal, medical, and interpersonal networks. 

Regulating Personal Genome Testing

Whereas the first chapter of my dissertation examines a technology developed over 40 years ago, in another project I examine a technology currently in development in which disputes are still unsettled – the personal genome service 23andMe. The past two decades have brought much-needed sociological attention to claims about the genetic basis of “race” and ancestry with the advent of direct-to-consumer testing, but prior research had not examined the regulatory jurisdiction of FDA oversight over this testing. Given my legal background, my advisor Alondra Nelson invited me to co-author a chapter with her for the Routledge Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, in which we combined a social history with a legal history and analysis. This case study of the regulatory controversies surrounding 23andMe deepen the sociological understanding of the relationship between developing technologies and legal oversight, challenging simplistic narratives about the regulatory control of organizational behavior.

The Relationship between Family Breadwinning and Financial Satisfaction

In another project, I used the General Social Survey to examine financial satisfaction among breadwinning heterosexuals, that is, individuals who earned the majority of their household’s income (same-sex couple data was unavailable). The common narrative about breadwinning is that men prefer to be breadwinners and women prefer to be secondary earners, but I found that both male and female breadwinners reported equal levels of financial satisfaction, while male and female secondary earners reported equal levels of dissatisfaction. In other words, breadwinning satisfaction among men and dissatisfaction among women are likely not about raw earnings, contrary to popular assumptions. Other research on the distribution of housework and child care supports this finding. The results bear important implications for our understanding of gender in family life. I asked Greg Eirich to co-author, and the paper was published this year in the Journal of Family Issues.

Ongoing and Future Research

The larger topic of home medical diagnosis has several rich cases, but for the dissertation, I opted to do a deep study rather than a broad one. While I have been collecting data on the home pregnancy test, I have also been collecting data on other diagnostic devices available in the U.S. such as infectious disease tests (e.g., HIV), home drug tests (e.g., marijuana), and personal health tracking (e.g., FitBit). My goal in examining diagnostic tests that occur outside of a doctor’s control is to understand the complex social landscape that the tests are entering and even creating. These tests are in various stages of development and provide interesting comparative cases to the home pregnancy test. I would like to expand the research further to include “point-of-care” diagnostics, currently in development in labs in the U.S. and to be used by medical providers and laypeople in the next several years. I plan to observe the technological and legal development of these tests from the labs to the scientists’ intended “end users” in Ghana and Rwanda, and I have developed contacts accordingly. Imagined as a boon to global health, these tests have profound implications for our relationships with medical care, with our families, and with our personal information.

My research interest in law comes after five years working as an attorney at The Legal Aid Society in New York City, the oldest, largest, and most influential legal services provider in the U.S., where I represented low-income families in civil litigation. I chose to work in the South Bronx, the poorest Congressional district in the country. As an attorney, I could make a change in someone’s life on a daily basis, which was incredibly rewarding, but often it did not provide the intellectual stimulation that I crave. An academic trajectory allows me to pursue my intellectual goals while still providing an outlet for my deep commitment to service, as shown in my departmental teaching award and community involvement. My combined backgrounds in sociology and law, which I have used effectively in several sole-authored and co-authored projects, provide a basis for an ambitious research agenda that addresses core theoretical issues in sociology.