Professor Mary Erdmans

Ph.D Northwestern University, 1992
Associate Professor of Sociology

Co-Director, Undergraduate Studies in Sociology

Department of Sociology
Case Western Reserve University
10900 Euclid Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44106-7124

223B Mather Memorial

Phone: 216-368-2164
Fax: 216-368-2676


Fall 2014 Course Information

SOCI 302: Race and Ethnic Minorities in American Society

TuTh 1:15 PM - 2:30 PM


Recognizing Race and Ethnicity: Power, Privilege, and Inequality

by Kathleen Fitzgerald

March 11, 2014 0813349303 978-0813349305


The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism

by Nancy Ditomaso

December 17, 2012 0871540800 978-0871540805




SOCI 355 / 455: Oral History / Life Story Methods

Tu 4:30 PM - 7:00 PM


Oral History: Understanding Qualitative Research

by Patricia Leavy

February 24, 2011 0195395093 978-0195395099


Autobiography of a Generation: Italy, 1968

by Luisa Passerini

October 25, 1996 0819563021 978-0819563026







Research and Scholarly Interests

My areas of research are immigration and ethnicity (with a particular focus on Polish immigrants and white ethnics), life trajectories formed at the intersection of gender, class and race (with studies of white working-class women and adolescent mothers), and narrative research methods. I am interested in how identities are constructed, the social, political and economic forces that influence their construction, 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 in Chicago, and the common goal of wanting to see Poland become an independent noncommunist nation. These common factors made the groups believe they ought to work together but too 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 (1994, 1995).  The ethnic identity is located in the United States and ethnic work involves maintaining a tie (usually more symbolic than concrete) to an ancestral homeland. In contrast, the immigrant identity is formed in the sending country and immigrant work involves incorporation into the receiving country. Differences between immigrants and ethnics create internal borders, or sites of identity construction, defining such things as in-group and out-group membership, social ranking, and division of labor.


This initial study led to other research in this area including: moral conflicts related to the 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-1989 period (1999); and the emergence of immigrant enclaves in suburban communities at the turn of the twenty-first century (2006).


I moved into researching white working-class women, a group underrepresented in sociological research. Most early feminist writing documented the lives of white middle-class women. Later scholarship focused more on the lives of women marginalized by race and poverty. Often scholars conflated race and class so that studies of white women were de facto studies of the middle class, and studies of women of color were studies of poor and working-class women. This bifurcation obfuscated our understanding of white working-class women. When combined with white middle-class women, class disadvantage was overlooked, and when grouped with working-class racial minorities, white privilege was overlooked. Focusing at the intersections of race, class and gender, this research showed the complex reality of social actors who are simultaneously privileged  and disadvantaged (2004).


I studied their life worlds 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 allowed many working-class families to survive on one income, and many women to stay home to care for children and the household. Focusing on the private spheres, the study explores the role of faith and religion in their everyday lives, and looks at how their trajectories and life choices were shaped by class, gender, ethnicity and race. Referred to by one reviewer as “gusty, honest, innovative, and controversial,” 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). My inquiry bypassed positivist claims of objectivity and necessitated a reflexive understanding of the role of the researcher in the construction of knowledge. The manuscript includes the numerous disagreements we had over how to construct their life stories: in whose words should the text be written; what parts of their lives should be emphasized (motherhood or singlehood); and how behaviors were interpreted (as defiance or acquiescence) and whose interpretation was “right” (2004, 2009).


This 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). Emergent from this work was also an interest in epistemological discussions about how perception shapes experience, and, more concretely, 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 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.


My current work (with co-principal investigator Timothy Black), based on life-story interviews with 108 adolescent mothers – black, white, and Latino, from poor to working-class families in Connecticut– explores the varying trajectories to young motherhood. We argue that early childbearing has been largely decontexualized and reified as a social problem and we are working to recontextualize their lives by looking at the social conditions that shaped their life trajectories including child sexual abuse (2008), failing urban schools (2012), concentrated poverty, and violence against women. While numerous problems are correlated with early childbirth, we argue that the focus on the timing of the birth distracts us from larger social problems that originate in systemic racial, class, and gender inequalities.






Selected Publications

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. 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.