Student Scholar Studies ‘American Idol’

Sociology Undergrad Investigates Modern Myth of Individualism

Sociology Prof. Mignon Duffy, left, and Analissa Iversen, a senior majoring in sociology, are analyzing the biographical narratives of winners on the popular television show ‘American Idol.’

Sociology Prof. Mignon Duffy, left, and Analissa Iversen, a senior majoring in sociology, are analyzing the biographical narratives of winners on the popular television show ‘American Idol.’

12/05/2011
By Sandra Seitz

Analissa Iversen hasn’t been a huge fan of “American Idol,” although it ranks as the most watched television show in the country.

But she’s spending a lot of time with it now.

Iversen, a senior sociology major, is working with Sociology Prof. Mignon Duffy to research modern narratives of American individualism, using the personal stories told by winners on the program. 

“My primary area of research is care work, the labor of caring for others,” says Duffy. “I often hear that our society’s our lack of policy supports, such as paid parental leave, can be attributed to ‘American individualism,’ So we’re investigating the narratives of success on American Idol to see how they represent the American Dream.” 

Duffy appreciates working with a student: “Collaborating with Ana, talking over the research, is both inspiring and energizing,” she says.

“I like that the research I’m doing is making a contribution to society and may have an impact on policy,” Iversen says. “It also develops my own sociological imagination — like a nursing student does with clinicals — and the challenge keeps me engaged.”

Together, student and professor share impressions of their study subjects, Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina, the top two finishers on American Idol last season. Iversen is reading interview transcripts from the show and from media interviews. From these, a coding system will be developed to characterize their narratives in terms of individualistic and communal values. Also, this will help tease out differences in the ways the two performers were portrayed.

Iversen meets with Duffy weekly to review the project and plan the work. Together, they went through training on the NVivo software for qualitative research, used by many UMass Lowell social scientists. They laugh at how they both got very excited over what it could do.

“It’s so cool,” says Iversen; “Geeky sociologists having fun,” adds Duffy.

For advanced undergraduate students, doing research “pushes students to the highest plane of learning, where they apply and integrate theory and practice,” says Duffy.

“The mentoring aspect is huge,” says Iversen. “I was uncertain about applying to grad school, but with Mignon’s support and resources, I’m ready. I feel very, very lucky to be in the Sociology Department at UMass Lowell, where I know the professors, and they reach out to me.”

The Emerging Scholars Program

Advanced undergraduate students in the humanities and social sciences have a unique opportunity to engage in a year-long research project with a professor. Supported by the Dean of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and the Vice Provost for Research, the Emerging Scholars Program is administered by the Center for Women and Work.

Students apply in the spring semester for the following year. Partnership contracts lay out the scope and expectations. Students receive stipends for their work, meet weekly with partnering professors and monthly — as a group — with a program coordinator. The program includes workshops on research topics, such as literature reviews and specialized software tools.