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Alumni Profile: Matthew Desmond

Kaine Korzekwa
May 02, 2016
Photo of Matthew Desmond

Photo by Michael Kienitz

One of Matthew Desmond’s projects that started during his Ph.D. in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Department of Sociology culminated in his recent New York Times bestselling book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City”. A faculty member at Harvard University since 2012, Desmond continues his research on poverty and teaches classes on poverty and inequality in America.

While at UW studying in the Institute for Research on Poverty, Desmond cultivated an interest in and passion for alleviating American poverty and inequality. His recent work and this book are to highlight issues that have always troubled him.

“America is unmatched by any rich democracy for the depth and extend of its poverty,” he explains. “That’s always confused me and left me troubled. And when I started this project I wanted to look at it from the ground level to understand the role that housing plays in deepening poverty in the United States.”

“I can’t say enough about the Department of Sociology at UW. I felt the department was really challenging but collegial at the same time. I felt pushed and formed by my many friends and incredible mentors, all taking the Wisconsin Idea very seriously.”

— Matthew Desmond

The book required countless hours of writing, ethnography, and statistical models to describe ideas such as the larger image of poverty in America and the specific picture of how someone’s dwelling looks as he or she is getting evicted. Desmond wanted to bring readers as close as he could to “the living experience of poverty.”

This isn’t the first book Desmond has written. His advisor Mustafa Emirbayer pushed him to also publish his master’s thesis. Desmond’s advice for students wanting to pursue the same path of research and popular writing is rather simple: put in the work.

“You simply put in the work, when you don’t want to work, when you’ve got a headache, when you’re tired. I also think that when I started out I was wrestling with how you do really good social science in ways that matter to audiences beyond just folks in the Academy. I just want to affirm that question because there is a massive amount of suffering in this world and we need to care about that first and use the tools in our training to address that.”

Editor’s note: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is the 2016-17 Go Big Read book.

This is story is republished from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Graduate School. Given its campus-wide responsibility for graduate education and its connection to the research mission through the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education, the Graduate School is in a unique position to set university-wide standards and policies, serve a special advocacy and communication role, promote diversity initiatives, and otherwise augment the margin of excellence.

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