Davon Norris is an assistant professor of Organizational Studies and a 2022 LSA Collegiate Fellow in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. His research focuses on how market and organizational tools for understanding what is valuable, worthwhile, or good, are often implicated in perpetuating racial inequality. As an educator, Norris believes that conversations in academia should be intimately connected to developing new political and social realities.
“I think there is a way that we can incorporate a vision for our students to see themselves as political actors and agentic in bringing about change,” says Norris. By focusing on questions about valuation, Norris’s interdisciplinary and cross-institutional research attempts to understand what that change might need to look like to ameliorate racial inequality and nurture genuine economic justice in the United States.
LSA: Could you describe the work you do and what you are most passionate about?
Davon Norris: I really care about the ways that inequality is animated by calculative devices, things like scores or ratings. The classic example here is credit scores. I’m also interested in the ways that inequality moves through financial channels. In grappling with questions around those interests, I try to imagine alternatives and envision a future that addresses the problems I study. When I began my career, I was really thinking about how scores or ratings were created and incorporated biases, which is work that I’ve done with credit and city governments. But now I’m finding myself interested in a much broader set of questions about debt, value, and inequality that expands my prior focus, increasingly moving toward connecting dynamics of individuals and households with the functioning of city governments. Ultimately, I have an orientation where I like things to be placed. Thinking about dynamics as happening in places like cities gives my work a bit more human context, which I think is vital since national or federal level conversations can get a bit removed from people on the ground.
LSA: What led to your field of research? Was there a moment when you knew you had found your academic path?
DN: I did my undergraduate degree in accounting, got all the certifications, and became a licensed public accountant in the state of Illinois. I then went to work for a financial firm in Chicago. At this firm, my role was to determine how much companies or their various assets were worth. Although I loved doing that kind of work, I came to realize how pernicious a lot of it could be. I wanted to get out of finance in part because of that, but I also wanted to study it. While working, questions arose, and I felt that I could speak to them. My accounting program at Ohio State had more of a research focus than simply how to do accounting for a corporation. I got a taste for academic research in that program, and I thought maybe a research orientation could be the answer. Then it became a matter of identifying a discipline that resonated with how I was understanding the world. So, after thinking about all those things, it became quite easy to take my finance questions into sociology.
LSA: Do you have advice for others who are interested in researching inequality?
DN: First, as a sociologist, I think there are all manner of things that one can study, where inequality is often at the forefront, but I think it’s important for folks to just go with their gut on what they are studying and why. I come across many students that are trying to capture lightning in a bottle, thinking that something popular or really big right now, something that people really care about, is what they should try and study. While I think that certainly can be true, I also think it’s important for folks to go with the intuition they have about what they want to study. The second thing I would say is, as academics and researchers, we should not shy away from developing alternatives. I study inequality, racial inequality, and exclusion because I find those questions challenging but also because they bother me. I would love to help contribute to a step in the direction where there are less of those things. If you are active and engaged in conversations, not only academic but political conversations around your field, it will both open doors and make the work more exciting.
LSA: What courses are you excited about teaching? What do you hope students take away from their learning experience?
DN: Last semester I taught a class called “Credit Debt and the Financing of American Inequality,” which students seemed to enjoy, and I look forward to teaching again in the future. And then there is a class I am currently teaching called “Race and Organizations.” It’s a class that is all about understanding what racism is and how it manifests internally within organizations. The course further investigates how organizations, whether they be firms, governments, or nonprofits, can actually follow their mission in ways that are identifiably unequal. We try to understand the mechanisms underlying that, and I hope that students can deploy the tools they learn in the classroom in their careers after graduation.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Davon Norris is an assistant professor of organizational studies and a 2022 Collegiate Fellow. This story is part of a series highlighting the research of LSA Collegiate Fellows, a program of the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) at the University of Michigan. The LSA Collegiate Fellows is one of the most innovative programs in higher education, recruiting and retaining faculty who are experts in their fields and have demonstrated commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion through their scholarship, teaching, and/or engagement.