Meet SESP's Newest Faculty Member: Sneha Kumar

Meet SESP's Newest Faculty Member: Sneha Kumar

Sneha KumarSneha Kumar: “One of my favorite aspects of research is making meaning out of data.” Sneha Kumar, a social demographer whose research explores health inequalities across the life course in some of the most populous countries in the world–including Indonesia, India, China, and Brazil– has joined Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy as an assistant professor of human development and social policy.   

Kumar earned her doctorate in development sociology (population and development) from Cornell University. She was most recently a postdoctoral fellow at the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Trained in a wide range of social science disciplines–including sociology, economics, economic history, and policy analysis–she studies why and how family structures and dynamics are changing, and what these changes mean for individual wellness as people age. 

“One of my favorite aspects of research is making meaning out of data,” she said. “I love thinking about how we can find patterns and themes in data and how we can combine different data sources to better understand our social worlds, all while being cognizant about what data can and can’t tell us.”  

Kumar was born in India and grew up in Kuwait. Her father, an accountant who worked in the oil and gas industry, at times worked in other countries and was separated from the family for long stretches.

“During graduate school, I found myself gravitating towards research on transnational family structures,” Kumar said.  “I suppose this was because it’s what I and so many of my friends lived.”

At 18, she moved to London to study economics. After getting her bachelor’s and master’s in economics and economic history from the London School of Economics, she relocated to India and began working for the Center for Microfinance and Yale Economic Growth Center.

She participated in data collection efforts in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, interviewing individuals across 10,000 households about their demographic, social, and economic status.

“It was one of the most transformative experiences I had and is really what first interested me in academia,” she said. “Being in the field and thinking beyond textbook theories of socioeconomic change helped me understand the importance of research that pays attention to contextual dynamics and nuance. This experience also made me realize why it was necessary to use an interdisciplinary perspective to understand social change and its implications for individuals’ wellbeing.”

Kumar’s research thus far has explored how labor migration shapes family life in a world where populations are aging and gender and family roles are shifting. What happens to a man’s health, for example, when his wife is the one who relocates for work? What happens to aging parents when their daughters migrate?

Kumar has also looked at how young adults’ family formation behavior evolves against the backdrop of macro-level shocks and prolonged periods of uncertainty. How, for example, do women’s fertility intentions and preferences change based on their exposure to Covid-19 cases at the municipality-level?  

At Northwestern, she will continue research in these areas, focusing on:

  • The inter-relationships between migration, aging, and health in the United States:. Kumar will study the health trajectory of elderly immigrants, delving into how immigrants’ experiences through the life-course influence their transition to old age. How, for instance, do foreign-born Asian Americans’ age of entry into the U.S. and duration of stay in the U.S. affect their health relative to U.S.-born Asian Americans?
  • The impact of public health shocks on women’s reproductive trajectories: Continuing her work from the University of Texas at Austin, Kumar will examine how a macro-shock like the Covid-19 pandemic can change women’s marriage and relationship transitions, their preferences about how many children they want to have and how they space out the pregnancies. Her future work will look at the impact of back-to-back shocks on women’s reproductive timelines. Focusing specifically on the Brazilian context, she aims to understand if/how young women’s experience with Zika in 2015-17 informed their reproductive responses to Covid-19, both in the short-term and the medium-term.

Kumar’s work has been published in Population and Development Review, Social Science & Medicine, Population Studies, Studies in Family Planning, Ageing & Society, and World Bank Research Observer.

She also has extensive teaching experience. At Cornell, she received the John S. Knight teaching excellence award and the Buttrick-Crippen Teaching Fellowship. As an assistant professor at Northwestern, she will teach core undergraduate and graduate courses, as well as courses in aging, adulthood and the life course, population dynamics, and research methods.

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 4/7/23