Andrew Schrank is the first to admit he is a product of his environment. Schrank, a sociologist who studies the social underpinnings of economic behavior, with much of that work focused on the garment industry, remembers the rusted-out mill buildings that dotted the landscape of his upstate New York birthplace, remnants of the once-thriving manufacturing belt there. Several members of his family, Jewish immigrants who settled in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, got their starts in the city’s garment industry, including Schrank’s Aunt Billie, with whom he was particularly close.
“She’s one of the reasons why I became interested in this,” Schrank said.
His father was a director of occupational safety and health, in charge of the inspectors who oversaw working conditions in New York.
Schrank also credits his upbringing for encouraging his interest in Latin America, where much of his research is based.
“You come of age in this generation where as a child Vietnam was on the news every night and your parents are talking about it,” he said, “and you get to college and everyone is talking about what is happening in Central America and whether it would become another Vietnam. I found myself wanting to learn more about it — and the obvious place to learn more about it was in graduate school.”
Which is exactly where Schrank headed, to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to study sociology in the hope that he would better be able to understand the revolutions that were taking place throughout the region at the time.
In studying Latin American society, Schrank came to believe that the root causes of the uprisings in the region were underdevelopment and poverty.
“I became interested in the question of why, hundreds of years after colonization, these countries were still as poor as they were,” Schrank said.
So Schrank headed down to Latin America, eager to answer that question with a particular focus on the impact foreign investors, especially those from the United States were having on the local economy. Soon, spurred by his own family connection to the subject, Schrank focused on the garment industry as an area of interest.
“What I became most interested in was the relationship between the foreign companies, like Levi’s or Nike, and the local manufacturers who often worked as subcontractors for them. I tried to understand the relationships between the local firms and the foreign investors and the prospects that their collaboration could create decent jobs for the local population and not just profits that would be shipped back to New York.”
What he found, which became the impetus for his dissertation and postdoctoral work, was that, under some circumstances, the most trusted local collaborators could parlay these relationships, and the profits they produced, into better development opportunities for their communities as a whole. Schrank spent the first decade of his academic career trying to understand these relationships and how they worked.
More recently, Schrank has used that early research as a jumping-off point for a focus on labor standards. When presenting his research on the Latin American garment industry, Schrank would often get questions about factory working conditions and employee abuse. At the urging of a colleague, Schrank set out to answer those questions.
Expecting to find widespread violations throughout the region, he instead discovered that several Latin American countries had reformed their labor laws in response to pressure from the Clinton administration, which emphasized a loss of trade preferences for countries that violate labor standards. From a human rights perspective, that was a welcome step forward, but many economists warn that such improvements will also increase operating expenses and eventually force companies to close up shop and seek labor in other parts of the world.
That prediction is the inspiration for Schrank’s next project.
“I’m looking at how you reconcile the enforcement of these international labor standards with an industrial policy that will allow you to stay competitive in an international labor market,” Schrank said. “It turns out that it’s very complicated but not impossible.”
Schrank began this most recent work while on the faculty at the University of New Mexico, but it’s through this project that he became connected to Brown long before his arrival this fall as professor of sociology and international studies.
One of Schrank’s interlocutors on the project is Richard Locke, director of the Watson Institute, whose work also focuses on the garment industry and labor standards. Schrank and Locke are working with the Department of Labor’s international division on ways to use their research so that standards can be improved without driving away jobs.
Schrank, who will teach both an undergraduate sociology course on comparative development and a research methods course for graduate students during his first year at Brown, will have a faculty appointment in the Watson Institute in addition to his position in the Department of Sociology. He said that the well-known strengths of both groups were what drew him across the country to Providence. “Between the great tradition of sociology and the work going on at the Watson Institute, I think Brown boasts some of the most exciting initiatives going on in the U.S.-based social sciences today.”