Kenneth H. Kolb

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Assistant Professor

B.A. Sociology: Bates College, Lewiston, ME

M.A. Sociology: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Ph.D. Sociology: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Soc 101 - Introduction to Sociology

Soc 243 - Race and Ethnicity in the US

Soc 261 - Self and Society

Soc 301 - Sociological Theory

Soc 470 - Emotions and Society (seminar)

Soc 470 - Masculinities (seminar)

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In my research, I seek to understand how people manage their emotions and identity in the midst of difficult work—and analyze the broader consequences of their decisions (for themselves and others).

My current project is an investigation of domestic violence and sexual assault agency staff. I trained and volunteered for three months, and then spent over 250 hours, and conducted 14 interviews, with the agency’s advocates and counselors.

I used an inductive, grounded theory approach, eventually narrowing my focus to three main questions. One, how do staff cope with the fact that their clients, no matter what services they offer them, will likely suffer again? Two, how do staff react when they have difficulty sympathizing with the same people they have chosen to help? Three, why might staff be drawn to legal remedies to domestic violence and sexual assault (pressing charges, filing for restraining orders) despite the negative consequences that can arise from this approach?

In a paper appearing in the journal, Symbolic Interaction, I investigate how staff, knowing that their advice and counsel could mean the difference between life and death, crafted strategies to manage this pressure. With few resources, staff found ways to re-interpret their clients’ suffering as beyond their responsibility. In the case of the advocates, they used the idea of “empowerment” to mitigate their sadness, frustration, and guilt when they were unable to keep their clients safe. Although much research has weighed the effectiveness of “empowering” victims, compared to other approaches, little work has been done on how this method affects staff. In most cases, staff’s emotion management processes worked, even when their clients experienced extreme suffering (including murder). Yet, if staff believed their clients were incapable of being “empowered” (i.e., unable to help themselves or exercise their own agency), this approach was less effective. In those cases, staff believed they had to step in and “rescue” their clients. This intervention, however, came with a price: staff were more likely to see themselves as responsible for how their clients’ cases turned out.

In a paper appearing in the journal, Qualitative Sociology, I show how staff dealt with “difficult” clients. Previous research has shown how few victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are “ideal.” For example, sometimes victims lie and seek revenge in response to their experiences of abuse. By analyzing how staff dealt with “difficult” clients, I contribute to sociological work on emotions by uncovering the ways staff, as their patience wore thin, were able to “generate” sympathy within themselves by reminding one another of their clients’ painful biographies. In addition, I show how staff were able to withhold sympathy for clients in some cases and still see themselves as caring and compassionate people: fearing that their expressions of sympathy were serving to encourage or enable “difficult” behavior. In so doing, I contribute to theoretical understandings of how people manage their emotions to accomplish specific identities (i.e., how people work to “feel” as they believe a particular type of person should be feeling in a given situation).

In a paper appearing in the journal, Violence Against Women, I show how staff interpreted and acted upon two competing means of helping their clients: engaging emotional care work or offering criminal justice remedies. Although staff were aware of the risks surrounding legal options (i.e., pressing charges and filing restraining orders), this type of work offered them attractive status awards. In contrast, the private and stigmatized work inside the agency had less social currency with outsiders. By comparing the competing work strategies, one coded masculine (criminal justice work) and the other feminine (emotional care work), my study explains why female service providers in poorly paid jobs without professional credentials may be drawn to helping their clients in some ways and not others (in spite of the possible consequences for their clients). Given recent debates regarding the effectiveness of criminal justice solutions in regards to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, my work offers a new perspective on this social problem: that of the service provider who must gauge which solutions are appropriate and when.

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