Rob Mowry




Cultural Sociology, Political Sociology, Social Movements, Theory


I am currently a Ph.D. candidate in sociology with research and teaching interests in the sociology of disaster and risk, historical sociology, cultural sociology, theory, and politics and movements. In particular, I examine social action in the context of high-stakes political arenas.

My dissertation, which I will defend in December 2020, investigates the causes and consequences of urban catastrophe through analysis of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake in Northern California and the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake in Japan. I focus on deadly viaduct collapses that occurred in both disasters, finding remarkable similarity in the causes of these collapses. However, I find that the dynamics of post-disaster political contention differed in both contexts, and were conditioned by pre-existing institutional, geographical, and material configurations. Through these case studies—based on review of several thousand government, news, and scientific reports in Japanese and English—I explain how two affluent yet markedly different societies have attempted to manage deadly geological and technical hazards, and how disaster specialists, policymakers, and grassroots organizations have historically responded to extreme events.

This work contributes to sociological theory in a number of areas. Theorists to date have focused on how agentic social actors orchestrate and react to extreme events, and craft, interpret, and contest their meanings, but have yet adequately to consider how material forces and geophysical hazards impact these events. Accordingly, my research theorizes how geophysical hazards interact with institutional context in shaping the political significance of events, specifying the cultural processes through which material forces shape event outcomes. Also, my research examines the root causes of technical disaster, with a focus on how political economy and elites’ decisions regarding resource allocation constrain safety measures implemented on the organizational level. By extension, the concept of the “political accident” I developed can be applied to understand the causes of disasters more broadly, including the recent pandemic (whose political antecedents closely mirror those of earthquake-triggered viaduct collapses).

In a second project, I contribute to the social movement outcomes literature with a study of the effects of activism participation on individual political empowerment and engagement. Specifically, I use European Social Survey data to examine the gendered effects of protest participation on self-reported political efficacy. I find that women activists report lower political efficacy compared to men and to women who do not protest. I plan to extend this research by conducting a longitudinal survey that will track individual perceptions of political empowerment before, during, and after protest involvement.

In addition to my sole-authored research projects, I have collaborated on research with faculty and graduate student colleagues. One article in Sociological Theory, co-written with Omar Lizardo, advocates for the application of cognitive dual process models of analysis across a broad range of cultural processes involving learning, memory, thinking, and acting. An additional collaboration with David Gibson applies this thinking to show how spontaneous audience laughter during Supreme Court Oral Arguments is an outcome of tension between simultaneously held, but incongruous, realistic and mythical cognitive schemas of the court held by the public.

As for teaching experience, I was instructor of record for Introduction to Social Problems in Spring 2018 and teaching assistant for Introduction to American Studies in Fall 2019. (The latter involved responsibility for facilitating and grading two discussion sections, and working collaboratively with the head instructor and other T.A.s to craft exam content and assignment guidelines.) In all my instruction, I employ a “guided ownership” framework to foster students’ self-motivated and critical engagement with course content. I provide opportunities for ownership of the educational experience at every turn, and additionally give students sufficient guidance through providing accountability and amble feedback.


Title: "Jolted: The Political Causes and Consequences of Earthquake-Triggered Infrastructure Collapse"
Committee: Lyn Spillman (chair), Terry McDonnell, Omar Lizardo, Samuel Valenzuela, Kiyoteru Tsutsui