I use a combination of qualitative methods, traditional quantitative methods, and computational text analysis techniques to study culture, institutions, social movements, and gender. Here are a few of my ongoing projects:

Feminist Fields

Most people know that the phrases “consciousness-raising” and “the personal is political” were coined by 1960s radical feminists. Most people don't know that 60 years prior to this movement a group of feminists in New York City participated in consciousness-raising sessions, believing that changing consciousness was a necessary part of any social change and believing the personal was political. Active in the 1910s, these women acted on their political beliefs by living in open relationships, having open sex with men who were not their husbands, and refusing to play the role of housewife and mother.

One thousand miles away, feminists in Chicago in the 1910s believed just as strongly for women's rights but they acted on these beliefs in much different ways. They believed that the fight for gender equality had to be intimately tied to the fight for class equality, otherwise gender equality would leave the majority of women behind.

In the 1960s, as women in New York City were organizing consciousness-raising groups, women in Chicago were again merging gender analysis and class analysis. 

My research uses the theoretical framework of social fields and institutions, and combines network analysis, automated text analysis, and qualitative analysis, to explain the curious continuities of this geographical distinction in the way women approached feminism. I trace direct connections and continuities between the first wave “woman suffrage” movement and the second wave “women's liberation” movement, describing how and why particular political models are institutionalized and how and why these models stubbornly persist over time.

Publications from this research:

  • "Political Logics as Cultural Memory: Regional Differences and Between-Wave Continuities within the Women's Movement in Chicago and New York City." Under Review. 
    • Richard A. Peterson Prize for Best Student Paper, Sociology of Culture Section Graduate Student Paper Award, American Sociological Association, 2014 
    • Leo Lowenthall Memorial Prize, University of California, Berkeley, 2014
  • "'Feminism Means More Than a Changed World...It Means the Creation of a New Consciousness in Women': Feminism, Consciousness-Raising, and Continuity Between the Waves." Book chapter forthcoming in 100 Years of the Nineteenth Amendment: An Appraisal of Women's Political Activism, edited by Holly J. McCammon and Lee Ann Banasak. 
  • I am currently in talks with a major university press to publish the full manuscript.


  • "Bohemia, Feminism, Socialism, and Class: The Geographical and Historical Determinants of Second-Wave Feminist Politics." Session on History and Social Movements. American Sociological Association Annual Meeting, 22-25 August 2015, Chicago
  • "Enduring Feminist Fields: The Persistence of Structure and Culture in New York City and Chicago." 
    • Brown Bag Seminar Series, School of Information Studies, Syracuse University, September 30, 2015 
    • Northwestern Department of Sociology Weekly Colloquia, October 22, 2015
    • The Culture Workshop at the University of Notre Dame, November 6, 2015

The Changing U.S. Environmental Movement (with Brayden King)

Some claim that the U.S. environmental movement is shifting away from a strategy focusing on state regulations and policy changes and shifting toward a strategy focusing on individual change and, in particular, partnerships with businesses. We aim to test whether this is happening, and if it is, we will address the implications of this shift. Using a series of automated text analysis techniques we extracted all of the topics addressed by the environmental movement, and the tactics used, from national and local newspaper data between 1990 and 2014. We are analyzing how attention to different topics has changed over time, what tactics make the news more often and how this is changing over time, and we are testing the correlation between topics and tactics.


  • "On Tactics and Targets: The Transformation of the U.S. Environmental Movement Between 1998 and 2014." Computational Social Science Summit, 15-17 May 2015, Northwestern University

Gender and the Language of Crowdfunding (with Andreea Gorbatai)

In this study, we set out to examine the role of language in the success of online fundraising. In particular, we evaluate the influence of linguistic content on fundraising outcomes, above and beyond type of product or service offered. Online fundraising settings pose an interesting empirical puzzle: women are systematically more successful than men, an outcome contrary to offline gender inequality. We propose that this outcome is partially explained by linguistic differences between men and women in terms of language they use, and we test this mechanism using data from the online crowdfunding platform Indiegogo. The results support our theory, suggesting that the institution of crowdfunding may reduce gender inequalities in the fundraising arena by benefiting the communication style of women.


Developing Automated Text Analysis Methods for Sociology (single author and with Leslie McCall, Derek Burk, and Marcel Knudsen)

Computational linguistics and computer scientists are hard at work developing tools and techniques to automate text analysis. Content analysis has always been a major tool for sociologists, and these techniques have the potential to put sociology on the edge of a major upheaval in the way we do content analysis. Translating the complex algorithms used by computer scientists, and the statistical assumptions about language behind these algorithms, for use in sociology, however, requires careful methodological thought. I am working on a few projects to help sociologists apply automated text analysis techniques to sociological analysis in a methodologically rigorous fashion.

Papers Under Review:

Nelson, Laura. "Computational Grounded Theory: A Methodological Framework." Currently under review.

Nelson, Laura, Derek Burk, Marcel Knudson, and Leslie McCall. "The Future of Coding: A Comprehensive Comparison of Hand-Coding and Computer-Assisted Text Analysis Methods." Currently under review.

  •  Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management,7-11 August 2015, Vancouver.  Content Analysis PDW, August 7, 8AM - 12:30PM.