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Robert Baldwin interviews Professor Van Tran, who teaches sociology at Columbia University

An Interview with Professor Van Tran

by Robert Baldwin

Van C. Tran is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. His research focuses on the incorporation of post-1965 immigrants and their children as well as its implications for the future of ethnic and racial inequality in the U.S. His other interests include neighborhoods, urban inequality, and population health. His research has primarily focused on New York City and its immigrant population. His research has been funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the National Science Foundation. His work has also been recognized with awards from the American Sociological Association.

What is the role of sociology in addressing questions of policy and inequality? How does its approach different with respect to other disciplines, such as other approaches in the social sciences?

The study of inequality is fundamentally an interdisciplinary endeavor. Every discipline within the social sciences has something unique to contribute, including economics, political science, sociology, history, and anthropology. Sociology is different because it approaches questions of inequality with a range of data and perspectives that, I argue, are most inclusive. For example, economics would approach the issue using only quantitative data whereas history would only approach it using qualitative information. Sociology draws on all these perspectives to make sense of the issue. In addition, sociology has a long-stand interest in understanding social difference, as a whole, so social inequality is just one of many concepts of difference that we study. In that sense, we are more intellectually eclectic in our approach. As for addressing policy, we certainly hope that our research will shape public discussion and policy debates, although the link between research and policy is often an indirect one.

Much of your research uses quantitative and statistical methods. How reliable are these in social contexts, where the data sets and issues explored are complicated and intertwined? Are there certain topics in which you take a more qualitative approach?

Whenever we use any data source, we have to be aware of its limitations. For example, one drawback of survey data is the response rate. Although, ideally, you want to capture the entire population, many people will refuse to talk with you, mostly because of time constraints or privacy issues, so missing data has been and continues to be a major issue in quantitative work. Even though we have developed sophisticated techniques, including multiple imputation, which is the most advanced technique often used in political science, we still have to be aware of the limitations. On a larger note, every data source and statistical technique has its own limitations and advantages, so we just have to be aware of and explicit about how these strengths and weaknesses shape our results and interpretations of the social world.

Another example is census data, which provides a comprehensive count on every single person in the United States. Although there is some overcount and undercount of some sub-populations, it captures the overall population trend. One major topic is how ethnic and racial groups identify on the census. How likely are you to say you are “Irish” or “Mexican”? And under which social contexts will you identify as “Italian” or just “white”? This has implications not just for how we count people, but also for policy such as redistricting. One final thing I will add – the type of data we use should be driven by the theoretical question we are trying to address. Let’s say we are interested in the experience of Columbia undergraduates at the College and their experience with advising. I could do a few different things. I could send a survey to all of you asking about your experience via email. I could also sit down with a select group of you, assuming I selected you based on variation on race, class, and gender, to get a sense of your experience with advising at Columbia. Finally, I could choose to move into your residence hall, live with you, and observe you on a day-to-day basis to determine where you go for advising, how do you get advising, and that would give me another window into your advising experience. This example shows three complementary ways in which you can understand advising at Columbia College. They provide different types of data, but one approach is no more or less important than the other.

Can you tell us more about your recent research interests?

As a sociologist, I study three topics. One is immigration, the other is neighborhoods, and the third is population health. I will say a word about each of the three. My major research focuses on immigrants and their children born in the United States, which we refer to as the “second generation,” how they have been integrated into American society and what their integration into American society will tell us about the future of ethnic and racial inequality in the United States. In the 1960s, for example, inequality focused on black and white, because that was where the effect on education, health, and well-being was largest. But going forward, it is clear that the color of inequality would become multi-ethnic and multi-racial. How we integrate immigrants will have consequences on the future of American society.

A lot of my work also focuses on New York City, because New York is the quintessential immigrant city, both historically and also currently. 100 years ago, between 1890 and 1920, some 1.5 million immigrants came to New York, mostly from Europe, from 2 major groups: Eastern European Jews and Southern Italians. They were transforming New York from the Lower East Side to East and Central Harlem, where the upwardly-mobile Jews and Italians moved into. Harlem didn’t used to be a black area, but used to be a middle class area. Since 1965, we have had a tremendous influx of new immigration into the city, but the flow is now mostly from Asia, Latin America, and the West Indies, groups that are mostly non-white in the way we often count people by race. One key question is how will their incorporation re-shape our own identity as Americans? Now, I will speak about two other topics. One is neighborhood segregation and integration. As a consequence of immigration, New York City has become much more diverse. How does immigration reshape cities and communities across the country? How do multiethnic communities look like? How do people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, and what does that tell us about American neighborhoods? The third area of my research looks at racial disparities in health outcomes. One of my projects explores the availability of healthcare resources in different communities in the city, drawing on both public and private sources. The basic idea is to map out the availability of resources onto racial and ethnic divides and to see the overall structure of the healthcare system in New York City. The second piece of that project is to link the disparities in healthcare resources and access to ethnoracial disparities in health outcomes.

What are some of the most interesting findings from your recent research?

There are lots of facts and factoids from my research and the broader literature. First, on immigration – only three percent of the world population engages in the act of migration. Most people do not move. The poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich do not engage in migration. Migration is a highly selective phenomenon, and therefore, the selectivity of migration often translates into the drive and determination to succeed and to work hard when immigrants arrive. This selectivity has everything to do with the current debate on The Triple Package, the book by two Yale law professors, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, on the cultural traits that lead to the success of certain groups and the lack of success among other groups. They argue that a sense of superiority, a sense of inferiority, and the ability to delay gratification are the three crucial traits that lead to a group’s success. But, what the book misses is the tremendous selectivity of immigration. Of all the groups that are selected, 7 out of 8 came to the U.S. with a lot of education, human capital, and financial resources, which allow them basically to achieve, in one generation, the level of success and mobility that we observe.

The only exception is the Chinese and this is the second factoid I want to tell you about. The Chinese are a fascinating community; they are the largest Asian group and second-largest immigrant group in New York City, and we only have to go as far as Chinatown or Flushing to see the clear concentration of Chinese-Americans in New York City. One of the interesting findings is that Chinese immigrants who come to the United States tend to have a bimodal distribution of human capital. Some came with high levels of education (those are the ones with PhDs) and some came with no education at all (those are the garment workers and restaurant workers). And yet, in one generation, their children have achieved a lot of mobility. 73.8% of them graduated from college according to the most recent study of the immigrant second generation in New York. The majority of them graduated from highly selective colleges, like Barnard and Columbia. So the question is why? On the one hand, the highly educated parents producing highly educated offspring is an easy question.

But how do we explain the second group – those who came from very modest backgrounds with children who achieved a high level of mobility? This gets to the core of the issue and argument in The Triple Package. One other example with the Chinese is that they are concentrated in highly-selective high schools like Stuyvesant High, Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx Science. Why? Because within the Chinese community, the fact that ethnic institutions provide knowledge and information otherwise available to only middle-class parents made it possible for working-class Chinese parents to provide children with the same type of information in terms of how to get into selective high schools, SAT prep courses, and applying to college. Why does it matter? It matters because the Chinese ethnic media in particular facilitates the flow of information that allows children of the working-class members of the community to be equipped with the cultural capital to achieve the same level of educational mobility and success.

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