Friday, September 9, 2011

How does a person form a self-concept?
What aspects of society affect the ways we conceive of ourselves as individuals?
How do group dynamics and group structures affect our actions?
What personal characteristics are most valued in different group settings?

For Donna Lancianese, a doctoral candidate in sociology, questions like these are key tools for helping individuals thrive in group settings. “Like any sociologist, I study groups, but with a special focus on processes that occur within groups,” says Lancianese.

“I am interested in how culture and structure—especially axes of inequality like gender and social class—affect individual’s self-conception and life outcomes.” Among her goals is to help organizations such as schools and workplaces maximize human potential by examining and adjusting group structures.

Lancianese is an experimental sociologist, a rarity in the field of sociology. As an experimentalist, her expertise in the lab stems from facilitating over 900 experiments. Data from these laboratory experiments yield detailed views of group structures and individual behaviors within them. Since experimental data is gathered in controlled settings, Lancianese also analyzes complex survey data, using nationally represented samples.

To date, her research shows that “group structures and group dynamics override personal convictions. What we’ve found is that individual behaviors, choices, and actions are more likely to follow group dynamics, even when those dynamics run contrary to personal belief.”

As a result, Lancianese is conducting further research to examine ways in which individuals might be disadvantaged in group settings where authority structures prevent full participation or adequate expression of individual views.

As part of her ongoing studies, Lancianese asks, “Are there ways to intervene with groups to encourage greater participation of members regardless of characteristics that normally disadvantage people in group settings?”

Her work is not about changing people or their personal beliefs, she says. Rather, the research can illuminate processes that can lead to techniques that can effect small changes in group structure. These structural shifts can make a positive change in individual behavior such that group success equals individual success.

The lab studies offer only part of the story. Lancianese’s survey analysis examines adolescents’ extracurricular activities, noting how those activities affect both self-development and market outcomes (e.g., what kind of job). “With the nationally representative data, I want to analyze the role of social class and gender as adolescents develop, and how the intersection of these social statuses affects later-life outcomes such as mental health and social mobility.”