Dissertation Research: Moral Economies in Dairy Production.

Project: Research project

Project Details



Phillip McMichael

Kathleen Sexsmith

Cornell University

This dissertation examines the moral basis of the labor process and workplace relationships between undocumented immigrants and farmers on New York dairies, in the context of industrial growth and consolidation. Although sociological theories of development expect labor relationships in industrial agriculture to be governed by functional and impersonal norms, employment commitments on dairy farms are often based on notions of justice and affective ties. This dissertation research hypothesizes that farmers are compelled to meet workers' ideals of fairness regarding the treatment of labor, including protection from immigration enforcement and support in meeting basic needs, due to these immigrants' skilled job performance and the risk of their labor flight. It further hypothesizes that farmers' compliance with these moral economies paradoxically contributes to the modernization of the dairy industry. The study contributes to understanding industrialization processes in agrarian societies, migrant networks, and agricultural labor under globalization, by seeking answers to the following questions: (1) How does undocumented status combine with the structure of production to shape: a) the material and social experience of dairy labor, and b) the formation of migrant networks? (2) What ideals of fairness do farm owners and workers draw upon to legitimate the division of labor on dairy farms? (3) How, and with what impact on farms, do migrant workers resist when their expectations of fairness are not met? The researchers will complete comparative, ethnographic research in two New York dairying counties with differing experiences of agro-industrial growth and immigration enforcement activity. It analyzes the social fabric of dairy farm life through semi-structured interviews, time use surveys, archival analysis, and participant observation with farm and community members.


Broader Impacts

Findings could potentially inform immigration policies and agricultural extension programs that aim to improve the employment conditions of migrant workers and the viability of dairy farms. Results will be presented to the Cornell Cooperative Extension offices. The research design includes English classes for immigrant workers, helping them to integrate in the community. It also benefits the teaching and learning of two undergraduate students, who will be employed as research assistants. The theoretical positioning of the project at the nexus of development sociology and migration studies will contribute to interdisciplinary collaboration.

Effective start/end date1/1/148/31/16


  • National Science Foundation: $10,419.00


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