Goldman’s Long-Standing Research Interests Gain New Relevance in Light of COVID-19 Sociology professor Alyssa Goldman's studies of social ties, social inequality, and incarceration offer insight into the pandemic.

If you look at Alyssa Goldman’s areas of expertise, you might think she predicted the most hot button events of 2020. The new sociology professor at Boston College has long researched social interactions and racial justice within the United States—but over the last year, her research has gained a new relevance.

The Boston native studied psychology and government as an undergraduate student at Cornell University, and then graduated from the University of Chicago in 2008 with a master’s degree in social sciences. During her studies at both schools, Goldman took great interest in what would eventually become her focus as she pursued her Ph.D.—social networks and the health effects of incarceration and contact with the criminal justice system.

“I was always very interested in the social sciences and actually started taking some courses on prisons while I was an undergrad, and then was always interested in social interactions and everyday social contexts,” Goldman said. “I was always interested in the idea of social interactions, and I liked that social network analysis made it something that could be more systematically studied.”

After graduating with her master’s degree, Goldman worked as a client services consultant for Concept Systems, Inc., where she worked on projects related to social science and public health. Eventually, though, she decided that working as a consultant where research topics were chosen for her was unfulfilling, and that she wanted to formulate and delve into her own.

“I came to a point where I wanted to be asking a lot of the questions, as opposed to working on projects where other people were driving the research questions,” Goldman said.  

Driven by the desire to pursue her own interests, Goldman returned to Cornell and earned a Ph.D. in sociology in 2020. As a Ph.D. student, she researched the topics that piqued her interest as an undergraduate. Goldman’s dissertation centered around the social networks of older adults and the ways inequality can shape these networks. Alongside other researchers at Cornell, she also studied the important ways that criminal justice and incarceration impact the health of both the incarcerated and their families.  

“I was lucky at Cornell to find people who were looking at the criminal justice system in terms of its effects on health and families,” Goldman said.

According to University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Youngmin Yi, a friend of Goldman’s and former fellow Ph.D. student at Cornell, Goldman excelled as a scholar because of her meticulous nature.

“She is extremely rigorous, detail-oriented, and very careful about how she uses quantitative data or numerical information,” Yi said. “She doesn’t leave a single part of her analysis to chance.” 

Goldman’s research sheds new light on two major social issues of the last year. 

Her work investigates how social ties, relationships, and networks impact physical health, specifically in regards to the elderly. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, many elderly people have been cut off from social interactions while distancing themselves from relatives.  

“Social networks are especially important to maintaining the health of older adults, so those who are disabled or otherwise functionally or cognitively impaired are going to rely on their close social ties to help them with routine things like grocery store visits and medical visits,” Goldman said. “It becomes especially challenging for older adults to get these resources that they need.” 

In addition to the challenge older adults face in getting their practical needs met, Goldman expects that this demographic will suffer mental health problems as a result of social isolation. She is currently working with a research group to investigate the extent to which older adults are using technologies like Zoom to maintain social connections.  

“Older adults are increasingly using the internet and technology, but it’s certainly not as widespread as in young adults, and so the interesting question is whether older adults have adopted these technologies more during the pandemic,” Goldman said.  

Working alongside a former colleague from Cornell, Goldman took her research on social interactions one step further, looking into how interactions change based on race and  socioeconomic status.

“We’re looking at racial and socioeconomic differences in patterns of daily contact among older adults prior to the pandemic,” Goldman said. “[We’re asking,] ‘Who is most socially at risk as a result of the pandemic?’”

Her research also delves into the implications of incarceration and contact with the criminal justice system on health.

“There’s tremendous research showing that incarceration is not only damaging to an individual’s health after experiencing incarceration, but also [to] the health of family members, the health of community members,” Goldman said.

In the past, Goldman has studied the specific health effects of incarceration on adult and child relatives of incarcerated individuals. She has also studied the conditions of confinement in American prisons and jails as well as racial gaps in criminal convictions related to drug crimes. In a study published in 2018, Goldman found that Black men are disproportionately more likely to be at risk of experiencing a drug-related conviction. Goldman also looked into the impacts of reducing drug-related convictions on this disparity in the study. 

In light of COVID-19, Goldman has taken interest in the efforts many prisons have undertaken to mitigate the spread of the virus, including by de-densifying or moving more inmates to solitary confinement, and the implications these changes will have.

In keeping with the topics she is passionate about, Goldman taught a course titled Crime and Punishment during her first semester as a professor at BC this past fall. The course covered theories of criminology and explored the policies that have driven an expansion in incarceration in the United States. 

Tracking multiple, evolving research projects at once might seem overwhelming, but not for Goldman, according to Yi. 

“She’s extremely productive,” Yi said. “She can have multiple projects going on at the same time and manage to nudge them forward at the same time in a way that makes it look easy.”  

Outside of her many responsibilities as a professor and a researcher, Goldman also balances her role as the mother of two children and as an avid runner, who has completed the Chicago and the Philadelphia marathons. Her ability to juggle multifaceted research projects and personal commitments while remaining enthusiastic about them all is evident to all of those who know her, Yi said.

“She’s such a dedicated, good researcher, and she’s so excited about teaching and talks about it all the time. She’s a great friend, and she’s also such a dedicated family member.” Yi said. “She’s just genuinely committed and enthusiastic about all of the different things that she’s doing.”  

Photo Courtesy of Alyssa Goldman

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