Immigrants are moving into U.S. suburbs at the same time that suburban areas are suffering from growing poverty, an aging infrastructure, and increasing anti-immigrant sentiment. Some scholars argue that immigrant entrepreneurs hold the key to reversing suburban decline. Immigrant entrepreneurs are often part of ethnic economies—such as those in a Chinatown or a Little Italy—and many scholars presume that successful ethnic economies derive from co-ethnic consumer demand and low-wage labor found in tightly-bound urban ethnic neighborhoods. How are ethnic economies managing to form in suburban areas, many of which are more spread out and ethnically heterogeneous than urban ethnic neighborhoods? What effect are ethnic economies having on suburban areas, and what effect are suburban areas having on ethnic economies? Drawing on techniques from population research, spatial statistics, and data science, my dissertation answers these questions by demonstrating that suburban ethnic economy workers are struggling to recreate the successes they found in urban ethnic neighborhoods due to various challenges unique to suburban areas.
Using nationwide U.S. Census microdata across two decades, I first show that, in many cases, suburban ethnic economy workers earn lower incomes than their counterparts in urban ethnic economies. This is because of lower demand for ethnic economies in the suburbs. I then use U.S. Census microdata from before and after the Great Recession to show that unemployment rates grew most quickly in suburban areas characterized by the niching of ethnic minorities into low-wage industries. The geographic isolation of many suburban ethnic economy workers from co-ethnic social capital renders them particularly vulnerable to economic downturns. Finally, using data on tens of thousands of ethnic restaurants taken from a prominent restaurant review website, I assess the effect of ethnic retail chains on suburban ethnic economy growth. Ethnic retail chains are growing fast and have come to nearly monopolize high-income suburban areas, leaving independently run, immigrant-owned ethnic restaurants at a disadvantage.
My research contributes to two debates in the sociology of immigration, urban sociology, economic sociology, and organizational sociology. First, my research shows how immigrant incorporation in U.S. suburbs is increasingly mirroring that in U.S. cities. In the past, immigrants in suburban areas held clearer advantages over those in urban areas. Second, my work challenges the assumption of cohesiveness among ethnic business groups by highlighting the rise of an organizational form that can co-opt ethnicity for economically rational ends: the ethnic retail chain.
PUBLICATIONS (*=peer-reviewed article)
*Somashekhar, Mahesh. Forthcoming. “A Theoretical and Empirical Foundation for the Study of Non-Urban Ethnic Economies in the U.S.” Michigan Sociological Review.
*Yeung, King-To and Mahesh Somashekhar. Forthcoming. “Sense Experience and Institutional Control: The Case of Old Penitentiaries.” Theory, Culture, and Society.
*Somashekhar, Mahesh. 2014. “Diversity through Homophily? The Paradox of How Increasing Similarities between Recruiters and Recruits Can Make an Organization More Diverse.” McGill Sociological Review 4:1-18.
Boris, Elizabeth T., Loren Renz, Mark A. Hager, Rachel Elias, and Mahesh Somashekhar. 2008. What Drives Foundation Expenses and Compensation? Washington D.C.: Urban Institute.
MANUSCRIPTS UNDER REVIEW
Somashekhar, Mahesh. “Has the Suburbanization of Ethnic Economies Created New Opportunities for Income Attainment?” Revise and Resubmit, International Migration Review.
Somashekhar, Mahesh. “Helping Out Wherever They Can: Ethnic Economies, Economic Downturns, and the American Suburbs.” Under Review.
2012-2014 Princeton University Dissertation Completion Fellowship
2007-2012 Princeton University Department of Sociology Graduate Fellowship
2005 Columbia University Senior Marshal
2010 Preceptor to Professor Michael Gordin (Princeton), ENG/HIST/SOC 277: Technology and Society
2009 Preceptor to Professor King-To Yeung (Princeton), SOC 300: Claims and Evidence in Sociology
2008 Preceptor to Professor Matthew Salganik (Princeton), SOC 323: Social Networks
2003-2004 Teaching Assistant (Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth), Introduction to Mathematical Logic