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Sarah Giroux

Lecturer and Research Associate

266 Warren Hall

Research Focus

The bulk of my research interests lie in the intersection of demography and inequality in the modern world, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. Working largely with existing secondary data, I’ve used a range of analytic approaches to understand these issues, including work at both the micro and macro levels, as well as taking descriptive, causal and accounting techniques. Increasingly, my work examines how formal demographic processes both shape, and are shaped by, broader socioeconomic inequalities. I co-authored a paper in Studies in Family Planning, that documented the levels of reproductive inequality within African societies. In this study, my co-authors and I borrowed from the inequality literature to calculate formal measures of fertility inequality and found that historical and especially cross-country comparisons yielded substantially different conclusions about the magnitude and even the direction of inequality patterns and trends, depending on whether differentials or fuller-information measures (i.e. MLD or Gini) are used. While the fertility differentials associated with education have remained relatively stable as national fertility has fallen, but inequality (as calculated by a fuller measure) has increased.
The concern over the disequalizing impacts of fertility transitions has remained a dominant theme in my work since the time, though I’ve explored the issues from a variety of angles. A large part of my efforts have focused on the inference problems associated in trying to understand the impact of fertility transitions on national level social and economic outcomes. Inherently, most of the work faces an aggregation problem: despite policy interest in macro-level outcomes, empirical studies usually focus on the micro-level effects of sibsize on schooling, as the nature of micro-level data allows for more robust estimation techniques. However, even if we can generate reliable causal estimates at the micro level (a major task in and of itself), aggregate implications remain unclear. Analysts who infer aggregate transition effects from micro-level studies risk both a historical and an ecological fallacy. In a piece published in Demography, my co-authors and I address these challenges by using decomposition methods that allow one to shift from macro-level transitions down to the individual experiences and back up to macro-level outcomes.
I’ve also found decomposition methods helpful for identifying the drivers of large scale social change at the macro-level. I use the approach to understand the role of age structure in generating “demographic dividends” in schooling expenditures across sub-Saharan African countries for an article in Journal of Children and Poverty. More recently in a piece in Population Development Review, I use decomposition methods to document patterns in fertility inequality across the African fertility transition to empirically document whether African transitions follow a horizontal, inequality-preserving or a more top-down sequence. This unresolved question has implications for both the pace and dividends of African transitions. Fertility transitions are more likely to stall, and the dividends from these transitions are less likely to be evenly shared, if transitions occur in a top-down manner that increases fertility inequality. Studies of fertility inequality can thus inform both scientific concerns over stalling transitions and policy concerns over the prospects for a shared dividend in sub-Saharan Africa. I am in the process of finishing a co-authored book manuscript entitled Understanding Social Change: Using Decomposition Methods, a methods primer that formally outlines a set of novel decomposition methods that I have used in much of my recent work. I am also writing several papers examining the role of demographic dividends in securing education and health gains across sub-Saharan Africa. In my work, I have sought to combine innovative methods with careful and rigorous analysis-- not for the sake of science alone, but to address “real world” questions—an effort highlighted by a citation in an issue of the Economist magazine.

Teaching Focus

Overview: Substance and Approach
During my tenure at Cornell, I have taught a range of courses including DSOC 313: Research Methods; DSOC 3240 Environment & Society; IARD 2020: Introduction to International Agriculture & Rural Development; DSOC 2010: Population Dynamics; and DSOC 3700: Comparative Social Inequalities. While varied in breadth, they all broadly sought to facilitate my student’s cultivation of the analytic tools (theoretical, conceptual and methodological) needed to effectively produce and consume emergent social science research. My objective is to push students beyond simplistic understandings of social science processes to a place where they can read, question, critique, and contribute to pressing social debates. To achieve this end goal, my teaching is grounded in two pedagogical necessities: to develop enthusiastic and active learners. Below I describe my most relevant classroom experiences in greater detail, with a focus both on my substantive areas and pedagogical approach.

Substantive Areas of Teaching
Research Methods
For the past two years, I’ve taught the department’s undergraduate research methods course (DS 3130: Research Methods). Most broadly, the course is about “how social science research is done.” It has two complementary objectives. On the one hand, it is designed to build basic research skills and to deepen students’ appreciation of the indicators and methods used by social scientists to assess the social world. At the same time, the course extensively discusses the limitations of these methods, namely issues of reliability and validity, sampling biases, and faulty inferences. The ultimate goal is to build skills for critical evaluation of claims and evidence found in popular and technical literature on social problems. Logistically, the course takes students through the research cycle, wherein students learn how to develop questions, identify appropriate data sources, match data collection methods and designs to their questions, analyze quantitative data using SPSS, and draw appropriate inferences from their analyses. The course is structured to rely heavily on applied and active learning, and culminates with a final research project where students use SPSS to analyze secondary datasets (i.e. World Bank and Demographic Health Surveys) and give short presentations of their final posters to invited guests.

Introduction to International Agriculture and Rural Development
In the fall of 2015 and 2016, I co-taught IARD 2020: Introduction to International Agriculture and Rural Development with Dr. Rebecca Nelson. The course is designed to enable students to gain an understanding of the major issues in international agriculture and rural development. We review the global challenges of poverty and hunger; characterize the state of agriculture and rural development in various developing countries; analyze major socioeconomic and biophysical challenges and opportunities related to agricultural production; and examine alternative strategies for improving the productivity and sustainability of agricultural systems, and reducing poverty, hunger and malnutrition through agricultural development. The course includes lectures that give a broad overview of each topic, and presents students with an introduction to how, in broad terms, different institutions and actors approach agricultural development (i.e. how do the views and concerns of economists differ from sociologists or plant breeders, public health workers, etc.). Students work across the semester on a large project, which includes both a poster presentation and final paper.

Population Dynamics
In the fall of 2016, I taught DSOC 2010, Population Dynamics. The course provides students with an introduction to the study of population, including the determinants and consequences of population growth and distribution. More specifically, we examined theoretical perspectives on population processes, fertility (within and outside of marriage), mortality, migration, urbanization, residential segregation, environmental issues, and the relationships between population growth and socioeconomic change. While the course was primarily substantive, the nature and sources of demographic data were discussed, and students used secondary data to conduct basic population-level analyses, using life tables and demographic decomposition methods. Students reported that the latter two activities (conducted with “real world” data and using excel), were among their favorite parts of the course.

Comparative Social Inequalities
In the Spring of 2013, I taught our departments required course on social inequalities. The course provided an overview of the various forms of domestic and global social inequalities that characterize our modern world. The course covered issues related to the size, shape and nature of inequalities; how inequalities are reproduced and evolve; and the consequences of inequality. We began the course with critical assessments of various definitions of inequality, followed by a section on measures, theories, and policies. Each section homework assignments for students to apply material from reading and lecture- for example, in the measures section, students used existing data from the World Bank to calculate global inequality, and to examine the role of population size on this relationship.

Pedagogical Approach
In terms of overarching pedagogy, my courses are organized to move from simple concepts/theories, to analytical frameworks, and to applications and extensions. In all of my teaching, I try to foster experiential and interactive learning. While some classes are lecture format to ensure that students have firm understanding of key concepts, I strive to spend more of my class time on applications. This means grounding new concepts in students’ experience, fostering class discussions, and designing hands-on activities.
Across all of my courses, I seek to generate enthusiasm by keeping the materials relevant – even when reading classic theories (i.e. Marx) or teaching seemingly “dry” methods (i.e. life table analysis). To this end, all of my courses integrate both academic and popular reading materials, and, when I lecture, I spend the bulk of my lecture time drawing upon current news items and stories and working with students to apply concepts to concrete cases. For example, in my recent class on research methods, I frequently drew upon interesting cases from the election to understand processes of sampling. Similarly, for a lecture for IARD 2020, we spent a class working through the “Playpump” case to better understand the importance of unintended consequences in development, as well as issues related to research design and inferences. By keeping the material relevant and case based, I am able to spend more of the class time with students actively discussing and engaging in the concepts, theories, and methods that they have read about prior to class time. My course reviews from students are consistently high, and comments such as “Professor Giroux is very engaging and seems to enjoy teaching the subject matter” and that the course was “very interactive and not just the prof speaking the entire time” lead me to believe that, for the most part, my approaches are effective.
I also incorporate efforts to foster quantitative literacy into all of my undergraduate teaching. In my environmental sociology course, students conduct basic analyses with General Social Survey data to investigate relationships between sociodemographic characteristics and environmental risk perceptions. In my inequality course, students learn how to use World Bank data to calculate income inequality across countries. In Introduction to International Agriculture and Rural Development, students analyze Demographic Health Survey data to gain insights on gender disparities in developing countries. Through these exercises, students not only gain substantive understanding about a particular topic, but also confidence in their ability to generate their own answers to questions that they care about.
While the basic principles described above guide my approach to education more generally, I continually refine the mechanisms through which I achieve my goals in the classroom. Teaching is not a process that is ever complete or perfect. I learn from my students, colleagues, and mentors constantly, and in doing so I continuously revise, modify, and elaborate upon my teaching style and practices.