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New Faces: Ranita Ray

The new ethnographer explores the reasons it's so hard to escape poverty.

People  |  Oct 28, 2013  |  By UNLV News Center

Assistant Professor of Sociology Ranita Ray brings her talents as an ethnographer to bear on the valley's underprivileged. (Aaron Mayes / UNLV Photo Services)

You could say Ranita Ray cheers for the underdog, but that may not be entirely accurate. It’s more a case of trying to understand the plight of the underdog that compels her.

Poverty and social mobility in the urban setting was the research emphasis for Ray’s University of Connecticut dissertation. As an ethnographer, she has spent the past few years interviewing and living with inner-city teens in Connecticut to gain a better understanding of why so few children in these situations can make it to college and complete degrees.

A slew of factors can alter a child’s position and his or her ability to achieve some level of social mobility — issues like access to transportation, labor market impacts on households, unemployment, family evictions, and declining public assistance.

“The bottom line is, it’s hard to get out of poverty no matter how smart you are, no matter how good your grades are,” she said.

Unfortunately, Ray found very few silver linings in her research, but hopes the information she compiled can influence future policy to help impoverished urban families and children.

Now an assistant professor of sociology at UNLV, Ray will teach classes on contemporary social issues, and Las Vegas will now be her research lab.


Why UNLV?

For one, the sociology department puts ethnographic research at its center. Las Vegas itself is an ethnographer’s dream. You’re looking at a large urban town, a challenged education system, poverty — it’s a social laboratory that makes for very interesting research. Also a huge percentage of the faculty is doing research similar to mine.

Where did you grow up?

Calcutta, which is a very hot climate. But I grew up close to the Himalayas, in a sort of wintery, snowy place. I went to a boarding school close to the Nepal border. I chose graduate school in the United States because the type of sociology research being done here was exciting to me.

What’s the biggest misconception about your field?

One of the biggest misconceptions I’ve encountered, not only among those in other majors but even among friends, is that sociology is opinion — it’s your opinion that poverty is reproduced because of a structure versus there being facts that prove it. But it is a science, although we define it differently. It is empirical science. It is data. There is this thinking that whatever we teach is an opinion and that it can be challenged without providing facts.

What’s the biggest challenge in your field?

As an urban scholar, ethnographer, one of the biggest challenges I face is access to the field. It can be hard because it takes a long time to establish a rapport with people (you study). Given the fact that you’re expected to produce research, it can be difficult because you may not have as much time as you need. I worked on my dissertation for three years and was lucky to gain access quickly. But there are people who have never been able to do research that makes a mark on the field because they’ve never been able to get access.

What inspired you to get into your field?

I was always really passionate about social justice and studying inequality. It's crucial to understand inequalities in our society so we can make policies, and perhaps work toward a society that serves the majority versus the rich few.

This research has opened up opportunities to be involved in social justice issues, too. We helped organize a nonprofit in the field while doing our research (in Connecticut). It was really exciting to work with the community and use my data to actually form the background of the nonprofit. The information helped the community urge the board of the education system to make some changes.

One tip for success?

The honest and pragmatic answer is networking. And the optimist’s answer is hard work. But if you look at it as a sociologist, social networks always come up with more results than hard work. So, network and hard work too.

If you could fix one thing in the world, what would it be?

Discrimination.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

This is my first real job.

What kind of professor do you want to be known as?

I want to be known as the professor who taught the class that actually made a difference in their lives. I want to be the one they remember for that.

Who is your hero?

I would say one of the kids I got to know in the past three years of my life. Of course I can’t divulge her name, but she is one of the most enterprising and hard working people I have ever seen, and also one of the most optimistic. She cannot be brought down no matter what. I have learned more about life in general from this person than ever.

Hobbies?

Reading things other than what I read (for work). But I really do enjoy reading within the purview of my work. For a lot of people that’s unheard of. But there are so many interesting ethnography works. I also like watching movies and traveling.