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12 Mar

Faculty Features: David Pettinicchio

March 12, 2018

SPPG’s series, highlighting our faculty and research community, caught up with David Pettinicchio, an assistant professor of sociology cross-appointed to SPPG, whose speciality is disability rights.

David Pettinicchio

Photo credit: Ian Patterson

What research are you working on right now?

I am completing my book titled “Empowering Government” under contract with Stanford University Press. The book is about the struggle in entrenching civil rights policies – namely, disability rights in the U.S. – and how political back-stepping generates social movement mobilization whereby advocacy groups through the use of institutional and direct-action tactics seek to ward off efforts to rollback rights. In the book, I look at the ways in which the disability community was empowered by policies created by political entrepreneurs and later, facing political threats, mobilized to protect policies they now had a stake in. I situate the role of social movements in a wider institutional, organizational and cultural context.  

In addition, my research team (which includes my colleague Michelle Maroto at the University of Alberta) is currently undertaking a major project studying disability-based employment discrimination in Canada. The limited systematic information we have from qualitative studies and the few surveys on the matter suggest that discrimination is pervasive in limiting the economic opportunities of Canadians with disabilities.  

What led you to your focus on the development of social movements?

I think it was a confluence of factors. I became interested in the study of social movements years ago as an undergraduate. As a PhD student, I wanted to tell a story about the development of the disability rights movement but quickly found myself constrained in terms of theoretical tools I had to work with and so I broadened my outlook and found myself telling an exceptionally fascinating story about the dynamic interplay between elites, institutions, organizations and activists. The evolution of the disability rights movement shines light on movement processes most definitely, but also on policy-making, institutional arrangements, the work between institutional and grassroots activists, and the kinds of organizations that help sustain social change projects.

What are you most excited about in your current work?

My current projects are about the relationship between policy and citizens – whether it’s about how citizens mobilize the law or how they are (or are not) benefitting from the kinds of public goods those laws are meant to provide. Right now, in the U.S., decades-old disability rights legislation is being eroded both through proposals in Congress and through efforts by the administration to undermine enforcement and rulemaking. I think my book puts these efforts into perspective as this is not the first time that people with disabilities have had to deal with broken political promises. In terms of thinking about policy intentions and whether they’ve reached their objectives, I think in most industrialized countries, there was a hope that their respective disability rights approach would have done more to change negative attitudes and behaviours, especially when it comes to disability in the labour market. While we were working on several now-published articles on anti-discrimination laws and economic outcomes among disabled Americans, we were surprised and disturbed by the current situation which is worse now than it was before landmark policies like the Americans with Disabilities Act were passed. In Canada, while the situation isn’t quite as dire, this isn’t really saying much. People with disabilities still face high unemployment levels and labour market obstacles. I’m excited about approaching this social and economic problem in Canada using field experiments that allow us to more directly observe what kinds of barriers Canadians with disabilities face.

What has been the biggest challenge in your area of focus?

One important challenge when it comes to explaining social movements involves reconciling competing frameworks about how social change comes about. Additionally, there isn’t really strong consensus about how we know that movements succeed or fail at what they do and so writing about the ways citizens shape political outcomes via social movements requires directly engaging with ambiguous understandings surrounding outcomes. Situating my work on employment discrimination within ongoing debates about whether disability rights legislation has been effective in undermining discrimination poses its own set of challenges. Empirically, the challenge lies in getting at more direct measures of discrimination that go beyond small scale qualitative analyses or large surveys of employers and/or job seekers. Conceptually, I think those interested in disability-based employment discrimination still encounter cognitive and normative barriers when it comes to drawing parallels with discrimination based on other status characteristics – that certain attitudes and practices blocking disabled people from having gainful employment are not understood as forms of discrimination.  

What’s one thing about your findings that you wish more people took into consideration?

One of the neat parts about engaging in large-scale social science projects is that they generate multifaceted findings where different audiences will glean from the findings what they may find especially significant or meaningful (academically, politically or personally). Related to one of the challenges in incorporating disability into mainstream sociological conversations about stratification and inequality is that our research points to persistent misperceptions not only about disability and employment but about the very definition of discrimination. In terms of policy, one of the key implications of my work is that characterizing policies as failures masks the kinds of processes that go into weakening legislation, especially in rule-making and enforcement, which has profound impacts on the everyday lives of constituents and beneficiaries.

What advice can you give students as they refine their own research interests?

My advice to students is first and foremost:  do what you find interesting. The second piece of advice is to make sure you know how to tell a wide audience why they should be interested in your research. Research is interesting not necessarily because it fills a gap (there may be no research on something because it may, in fact, not be especially worth researching) but because it tries to solve a puzzle about how the world works.   

Our last question is for fun! What’s a song you can confidently say you know all the words to?

Total Eclipse of the Heart!  It’s my go-to karaoke song.

David Pettinicchio’s work was profiled in the Autumn 2017 issue of  U of T Magazine.