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Sociology major develops survey about the impact of photos on perception

By Hayden Doyle ’21

University of Dayton junior Katie Gross was struck by an experience she had at an exhibit that featured stories from Dayton community members, along with their portraits. Influenced by not only their words, but also their images, she wondered if science could prove the impact of photographs on human perception. Working with a faculty mentor, she developed a study to determine whether including a photo with a narrative influences the way people see another person and process their story.

The experiment was given to students in social science interdisciplinary courses during the fall 2019 semester. The study forms her capstone project — an undertaking typically completed by a senior.

Gross, a sociology major from Chicago, began the project during summer 2019 as part of the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Summer Fellowship program, which gives undergraduate students the opportunity to conduct summer research under the guidance of a faculty mentor. Anya Galli Robertson, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, served as her mentor.

“I remember going to Dr. Galli Robertson and saying I wanted to do something about how people relate to pictures of other people,” Gross said. “The University’s ‘Facing Dayton’ project a couple of years ago featured pictures of people from Dayton neighborhoods and their stories. I thought it was interesting how including the pictures made me think differently about the people in Dayton in general. I wanted to see if there was a way I could test how University of Dayton students related to other people, and also bring in that visual aspect.”

Gross included photos of people from different backgrounds with the surveys, along with a narrative about each person. She will examine how each student perceived these individuals after the data is collected during the spring 2020 semester.

She also aims to study one of the University’s main goals for its students.

“I’m trying to see if students who are involved in experiential learning or community engagement are a little bit more open and accepting of people who are different from them,” Gross said.

To conduct her research, Gross is using Qualtrics, a web-based survey tool that allows her to organize and randomize her questions appropriately.

She also submitted her project to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) to confirm it was ethically sound. Galli Robertson said undergraduate students don’t often develop IRB-approved projects, but it is a beneficial experience for those who do.

“It requires us to think very systematically about all of the ethical aspects of our studies,” Galli Robertson said. “It’s also good for students to learn the best practices for getting through a complex bureaucracy.”

One of the benefits of the Dean’s Summer Fellowship program is the ability to work one-on-one with a mentor. Gross said she owes much of the project to her mentor.

“I came in with a bunch of ideas, but didn’t have a concrete direction to take it in,” Gross said. “So, with that, she really helped me. I think she’s a great mentor. She’s able to make things concrete, but she’s also available any time I need help. She led me through the whole IRB process and the literature-review process this year; how to create the survey and the best way to distribute it. If I didn’t have her helping me, it wouldn’t be as polished as it is today.”

Gross started college as a sports management major but found herself wanting to explore something different. She took a sociology principles course with Galli Robertson and then met with other sociology professors, sparking her interest in the field.

After she presents her findings at the Brother Joseph W. Stander Symposium on April 22 — the final step of her capstone — Gross will still have her senior year ahead of her.

“She’s basically ahead of the game right now,” Galli Robertson said. “Other students are still designing their projects, and Katie is starting data collection. This gives her the opportunity to spend more time during her senior year doing things beyond just individual classes: grad school applications, internships, jobs and that kind of stuff.”

Gross’s project will provide her with a beneficial writing sample for her graduate school applications. After completing her post-graduate degree, she plans to pursue a career in market research.

For Galli Robertson, the survey project proves the value of the sociology department.

“I think it elevates the standing of our program as a research hub on campus,” she said. “Often, when people think about places where undergraduate students could do research, they think immediately of a psychology lab or the natural sciences; but all of our students in the sociology major do their own independent research projects and I think that in and of itself makes us stand out.”

For more information, visit the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work website.

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