Markella Rutherford

Associate Professor of Sociology

Cultural sociology with research interests in childhood, family, & social inequality.
My current research focuses on parenting in a neoliberal context, investigating ways that privatization and responsibilization shape how parents interpret choices they make about what is best for their children. In these research projects, I seek to unravel the ways that neoliberal privatization contributes to the reproduction of social inequalities. In one project, I investigate ways that parents encounter conflicts with the state around parenting decisions. What happens when parents and the state use different risk assessments? How do ideas about “helicopter” or “free range” parenting find their way into state policy-making? Another project, with Smitha Radhakrishnan, examines parents’ hopes and anxieties for their children’s educational attainment and future career opportunities. These anxieties sometimes contribute to the “new white flight” from high-performing school districts in communities that have seen a substantial influx of professional-class immigrant families. Charting how race, immigration, and class anxieties collide within today’s professional class can help us understand the current contours of social class reproduction.
Another research stream, with Peggy Levitt, seeks to understand how pedagogical canons become more globally inclusive. In an institution such as Wellesley, where we advertise a world-class, global education, how do we reshape our curriculum beyond works by Western thinkers and creators? What are the drivers of inclusion and barriers to change?
Much of my past research has been animated by questions about how the meaning of individual autonomy is articulated in contemporary American culture. I have been particularly fascinated by the balance of emotional vs. civic understandings of individual autonomy. My dissertation focused on the articulation of ideals of autonomy in ceremonial speeches--especially commencement addresses. Another project investigated the ways that maternity care providers understand the balance between their professional expertise and women's autonomy in the birthing process. My book, Adult Supervision Required, examines the contradictory ways that American culture has envisioned individual autonomy for parents and children. For American children, growing freedoms at home and over the private realm of emotional expression have been balanced by new anxieties that have severely limited the experience of autonomy in public spaces. For parents, a greater diversity of parenting styles and personal choices has been balanced against the growing power of state agencies to police the family.
I teach courses on sociological theory, social inequality, childhood, and popular culture. In my courses I encourage students to become active and collaborative learners, think analytically about the intersections of biography and history, and connect theory to empirical inquiry.
My favorite way to spend free time is to relax on Cape Cod with my family, where we like to play board games, garden, go for walks, ride bicycles, throw the Frisbee, cook over campfires, and nap in the hammock.


  • B.A., Mississippi College
  • M.A., University of Memphis
  • Ph.D., University of Virginia

Current and upcoming courses

  • What is sociological theory and what work does theory do in sociology? What makes a theory useful? Which theories shape research agendas and why? The modern discipline of sociology primarily traces its origins to the 19th and early 20th centuries, when social scientists were grappling with the social upheavals of colonialism, industrial capitalism, urbanization, changing forms of governance, and the scientization of society. Placing key authors from this era in their historical context, this course takes a critical perspective to examine the origins of some of the foundational concepts that have shaped the history of sociology as a discipline: solidarity, authority, domination, class, nationalism, exploitation, justice, revolution, and more. As we work to understand the ideas of early sociologists, we will consider how their institutional locations shaped their understandings of the role of sociology as a theoretical and/or applied science, with special attention given to the roles race and gender have played in shaping the history of sociological theory. This will lead us to engage in critical examination of later processes of canonization that designated some works as “classics” and shaped our definitions of sociology and sociological theory.