The Enigma of Diversity & Rights on Trial

Ellen Berrey

Associate Professor Sociology
Office Location:
3359 Mississauga Road
Mississauga , Ontario
L5L 1C6

Dr. Ellen Berrey’s research engages multiple sociological subfields, particularly law, inequality, race and diversity, culture, and organizations, with an emerging interest in environmental sociology. Her work is centrally focused on the politics and paradoxes of solving social problems. She asks: how do organizations interpret and implement policies aimed at addressing social problems, such as racial discrimination and environmental devastation? How do they navigate legal constraints and political opposition? She has a particular interest in how cultural ideals—such as diversity, fairness, and sustainability—get mobilized, institutionalized, and contested by decision-makers, organizational actors, and activists. Her projects to date have examined diversity discourse, affirmative action politics, inequality in higher education, employment discrimination law, corporate social responsibility, and sustainability politics. In addition to her appointment at University of Toronto, she is an affiliated scholar of the American Bar Foundation.

Dr. Berrey’s first book, The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice (University of Chicago Press 2015) is a multi-case ethnographic and historical analysis. In it, she argues that the popular public commitment to “diversity” in the U.S. represents the taming of radical demands for racial justice. The book has been awarded the 2016 Herbert Jacob Book Prize of the Law & Society Association, the 2016 Distinguished Book Award of the Sociology of Law section of the American Sociological Association, and the 2016 Mary Douglas Book Prize Honorable Mention of the Sociology of Culture section of the American Sociological Association. It was profiled in the New Yorker, as well.

Her second book, with Robert Nelson and Laura Beth Nielsen, Rights on Trial: How Employment Discrimination Law Perpetuates Inequality (University of Chicago Press 2017) documents the dynamics of employment discrimination legal cases in the U.S. and various parties’ experiences of litigation. Based on a novel mixed methods design, this book reveals the mechanisms by which law reinscribes social hierarchies of race, gender, (dis)ability, and age. It has been awarded the 2018 Distinguished Book Award Honorable Mention of the Sociology of Law section of the American Sociological Association. Dr. Berrey’s new projects explore affirmative action in U.S. college admissions, social entrepreneurship, and the right-wing populist movement against sustainability planning.

Click to view Prof. Berrey's Doing Public Sociology in the Classroom website.


Berrey, Ellen, Robert L. Nelson, and Laura Beth Nielsen. 2017. Rights on Trial: How Employment Discrimination Law Perpetuates Inequality. University of Chicago Press.

Hirschman, Daniel and Ellen Berrey. 2017. "The Partial Deinstitutionalization of Affirmative Action in U.S. Higher Education, 1988 to 2014.” Sociological Science 4: 449-468.

Hirschman, Dan, Ellen Berrey and Fiona Rose Greenland. 2016. “Dequantifying Diversity: Affirmative Action and Admissions at the University of Michigan.” Theory & Society. 45(3): 265-301.

Berrey, Ellen. 2015. The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial JusticeUniversity of Chicago Press. 

Berrey, Ellen. 2015. “Making a Civil Rights Claim for Affirmative Action: BAMN’s Legal Mobilization and the Legacy of Race-Conscious Policies.” Du Bois Review 12(2): 375-405.

Berrey, Ellen. 2014. “Breaking Glass Ceilings, Ignoring Dirty Floors: The Culture and Class Bias of Corporate Diversity Management.” American Behavioral Scientist 59(2): 347-70.

Berrey, Ellen, Steve G. Hoffman, and Laura Beth Nielsen. 2012. “Situated Justice: A Contextual Analysis of Fairness and Inequality in Employment Discrimination Litigation.” Law & Society Review 46(1): 1-36.


Socio-legal Studies, Race and Racism, Cultural Sociology, Organizations
Current Courses: 
SOC216H5, SOC323H5, SOC475H5
Ph.D. (Northwestern University)