The global pandemic has transformed the landscape of life as we once knew it. With its reverberating impact, COVID-19 has magnified various social issues and refined the critical lens through which we study them. In response, Sociology professor Dr. Ellen Whitehead has teamed up with two Ball State sociology students to examine crowdfunding campaigns related to the pandemic and explore how campaign creators articulate not only their monetary needs, but the worthiness of their causes.
Whitehead, a researcher and mentor in Ball State’s Teacher-Scholar program, focuses her research on “sociology of the family, racial and ethnic inequality, poverty.” For this project, she has been committed to mentoring her undergraduate research assistants, Hailee Campbell and Brianna Lopez, through the quantitative social science research process. As a team, they are working to “understand crowdfunding campaigns as a component of the ‘private safety net’ within the United States.” Recognizing that crowdfunding websites have recently become a prominent strategy for families to make ends meet and address emergency costs, they are zeroing in on the specific relationship between crowdfunding and COVID-19, and how this avenue has served families in funding medical costs after experiencing job and income loss.
“I see crowdfunding campaigns as such an interesting source of sociological data because individuals are stating, in their own words, what kinds of problems they are experiencing and how they think financial assistance can help,” said Whitehead. “In this way, these campaigns provide direct insight into the economic insecurity and hardships that many families have been facing during the pandemic.”
Additionally, the research team is taking a critical look at the factors campaign writers believe make a recipient “deserving” of other peoples’ donations, and how they can garner donor support. With the modern-day commonality of GoFundMe campaigns appearing on social media feeds, Whitehead believes that society at large has observed the emergence of crowdfunding as a significant part of our social safety net.
“I think studying these campaigns allows us to better understand some of the common hardships faced by American families, as well as some of the gaps that are not being met through more formalized or structural assistance programs,” said Whitehead. “In addition, I think many of us have had the experience of seeing a GoFundMe campaign that particularly pulls on our heartstrings. Our qualitative approach to studying these campaigns is allowing us to closely examine what kinds of narratives, appeals, and evidence that campaign writers provide with the goal of generating donations.”
For senior sociology major Brianna Lopez, this experience has been foundational to her dream of someday becoming a social psychology professor.
“One really important aspect of that job is conducting research,” said Lopez. “I am gaining a wide breadth of research knowledge that will be useful to me in the future.”
Aside from taking an “in-depth look at qualitative coding,” Lopez has especially valued the opportunity to work in this capacity with her research mentor, Dr. Whitehead.
“I enjoy having a mentor who is so easy to collaborate with,” said Lopez. “She is also great at bringing in other faculty members who have lots of expertise in other areas, so I learn even more.”
Through her engagement in this project, Lopez has not only become immersed in sociological research alongside a faculty expert, but been given the the freedom to expand her skills beyond the scope of the initial project goals. “We are beginning to develop a survey to test the results that we find,” said Lopez. “We want to examine what aspects of campaigns lead to the most success, so developing a survey for participants to take is the way that we envisioned doing that.”
“This survey also allows me to incorporate my own interests in psychology into a more sociological project; the interdisciplinary nature of my fellowship has been so cool,” added Lopez.
Sophomore Hailee Campbell has likewise treasured this introduction to the field she dreams of tapping into: sociological research.
As an undergraduate, Campbell has enjoyed exposure to research components and access to a faculty mentor, Dr. Whitehead, both of which are helping set the stage for her career goals. Throughout her time working on the project, she has relished the process of uncovering the answers to her own sociological questions.
As the project culminates, Dr. Whitehead aims to present the team’s findings at a sociology conference next year, and eventually, submit them to an academic journal. Alongside team member Lopez, she continues to develop an experimental approach to this topic.
Long term, Whitehead hopes her team’s findings will further unveil how crowdfunding serves as an instrumental method for families to meet their needs, specifically noting the “extent to which it may be a mechanism of inequality,” given the likelihood of certain campaigns receiving more support than others. The College of Sciences and Humanities is proud of the groundbreaking work done by Dr. Ellen Whitehead and her team, and honors the teacher-scholar mentorship that hallmarks the CSH student experience.
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