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Sara McClelland

Tracing Inequality
A Conversation with Sara McClelland

Diversity Committee (DC): Can you tell me about you and about the work that you do?

Sara McClelland: Well, I identify and think of myself as a feminist psychologist, and that means that … I am attentive to thinking about issues of inequality, the role of institutional power, the role of power in interpersonal relationships and issues of politics.

DC: Do you think about these issues in relation to people of any particular age group or social identity?

Sara McClelland: I'm a little unusual in terms of psychology in that I think about different groups. So, my research is less located in particular groups, but more in thinking about the role of public policies and laws and how they imprint or impress on a variety of populations. I often think about the relationship between law and groups, or law and persons, and how policies themselves create stereotypes and stigmas, and how then that becomes harder and harder to see as it moves ... The research I'm doing now is thinking about abortion and abortion laws. I'm particularly thinking about how that affects women of color. [In other research] I'm thinking about young people and adolescents and, especially on people who are in or not in sex ed classrooms.

DC: What other kinds of work have you done?

Sara McClelland: I've thought about women who've been diagnosed with breast cancer. In other research I've thought the kinds of high schools students are in, and about the kinds of education laws and policies that shape the kinds of schooling that, especially adolescents across a range of identities experience. In other research I've thought about young women who identify as gay and bisexual and lesbian…[and] the kinds of stigma that they face from families. … So, a whole range of groups, but often really thinking about that kind of top down movement of discrimination.

DC: Is there a particular piece of work that you've just published that encapsulates what you're working on?

Sara McClelland: Right now, a lot of my work is thinking about how psychologists do research and some of the things that are in the fabric of our research— that are woven in historically through how psychology has developed and the biases that have remained, but we've become less and less able to see. For example, the survey items that we ask about abortion attitudes. So, one of the major things I'm thinking about now is … polling questions, like when you see on CNN a recent national poll shows Americans think ‘X.’ Those questions often are developed by psychologists and they then move to these very big national stages and help policy makers guide policy development. … So I'm really thinking about this traveling [of polling questions] as the potential to have dispersion of bias in a way that we are inattentive to, or too little aware of. And I'm interested in looking historically at the items or the survey questions that have become old standards in measuring what Americans think about abortion. And, I’m using historical analysis, meaning that I'm kind of rolling the tape back to look at some of the narratives that were laid in an early mid 20th century, especially around women of color and how those are showing up in the survey items in subtle ways...

DC: How are you doing that work?

Sara McClelland: So, what I developed was an item bank, which is all the items that we've asked in the last 10 years…across different disciplines, across different contexts. When a researcher has asked someone about their abortion, their attitudes towards abortion, I collected all those items. So, that's 456 items used in the last 10 years. And, [in this] item bank we can look for patterns, and what are the kinds of images, what are the kinds of metaphors that are used, what are the kinds of ideas that are relied on? … In a recent publication I do an analysis of these items with both a colleague at Indiana University and a graduate student here in the Personality and Social Context Area. And, we thread together all of these different pieces, historical perspectives, empirical evidence and survey questions, and then thematic analysis, looking for what kinds of themes show up.

DC: Is there a particular theme that sort of comes to mind as like one of the central themes that reflects some of these kinds of biases?

Sara McClelland: Yes. One of the central themes that I think is most interesting is the theme of … irresponsibility with money or fiscal irresponsibility… [that theme] co-occurs often with sexual irresponsibility. And so, what we can see, even just at the face of that, is that women are being held responsible for making bad decisions and then needing abortions, right? So, what that does is limit what we see to just this woman, without history, without time, without structures around her. But, items consistently pair a woman with fiscal and sexual irresponsibility and we could think ‘what stereotypes is that drawing on?’ And, so I then tie that to the mid-20th century public policies that set some of those things in place…, especially in Black women's sexuality as consistently described as irresponsible and fiscally irresponsible. So, we can see over the past 70 years that those themes show up. But the important thing is that we don't see these as stereotypes. They have become science and they seem objective.

DC: What are the implications of these findings?

Sara McClelland: … What is useful to see is that with an empirical base like this item bank, we can see the items that consistently are doing this kind of pairing. Now, Black women are not mentioned specifically, but that's where a use of theory and a use of analysis allows us to see where these patterns have other kinds of associations. … My argument is that often the repetition of these things is an important thing to be paying attention to, even if it seems like it's neutral or in the service of science. … I'm collaborating with people at Indiana University to think about how to better measure some of these things… To disentangle rather than conflate attitudes about race and money and sex with abortion, because otherwise those things are both mismeasured, but also highly repeated in national polls, thereby creating a national consciousness as if these things are always associated, which is actually factually incorrect.

DC: How do you ideally want to see your work used?

Sara McClelland: At the most basic level, I want psychologists to pay more attention to the tools that they use in their research. Be that survey items, be that the kinds of paradigms they use in experiments be that the interview questions or the interview context that they bring their research. And I want researchers to think, ‘are there stories that have shaped these things that I'm turning a blind eye to or turning my gaze away from?’ And that maybe I should think about what being recreated here that I can be attentive to. …

DC: So, abortion certainly doesn't only affect women, but how would you ideally want or imagine women taking your work up?

Sara McClelland: I think that there's an important argument which has been part of abortion rights advocacy that it has often been White women assumed to be the most affected, which is empirically true. … But, there's a way in which advocacy on the behalf of those that are marginalized often does not recognize well enough that it's repeating stereotypes in advocacy work. … Abortion work especially is attentive to issues, especially of poverty. And it needs to be. Those are definitely the women that are most affected by the rolling back of rights and especially the public support of healthcare. But, advocacy work slips into stereotypes and relies on them in the same way that repeats it. So, this dispersion of bias grows because of the mere repetition of things …. It becomes a shortcut or there's way that people rely on an idea that's become conflated between groups or abortion and race, or abortion and poverty, without actually thinking through whether there's a better, clearer way of helping people understand things that don't rely on conflated ideas. … I think we're measuring racism and abortion simultaneously. I think it's important to understand not only how those two things are co-occurring, but to understand them as different attitudes that may be informing each other. …