Camila Gripp (Politics PhD 2019) has received the 2020 Best Dissertation Award from the Urban and Local Politics Section of the American Political Science Association (APSA), the leading professional organization for the study of politics.
In her dissertation, entitled “New Dogs, Old Tricks: The Inner Workings of an Attempt at Police Reform in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,” Gripp explores the failed implementation of a comprehensive public security initiative that sought to impose a new kind of community policing in Brazil’s second largest city, and to reclaim territory from criminal organizations through military force. The APSA committee called her research “an incredibly important case about a significant question, with policy implications for police reform, both in Latin America and the Global South, and beyond.” Gripp also received NSSR’s Hannah Arendt Award in Politics for her dissertation.
“I was not expecting it at all!” says Gripp about the APSA honor. But David Plotke, Professor of Politics and one of her NSSR advisors was not surprised. “It’s great that Camila Gripp’s excellent dissertation has been recognized in this way,” Plotke says. “Her work makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of how to reform and regulate policing, and her insights travel across contexts and countries.”
Bringing Qualitative Research to Politics
After finishing her PhD and delivering a heartfelt address as Student Speaker at NSSR’s 2019 Recognition Ceremony, Gripp dove directly into a new job as Senior Research Associate at the Justice Collaboratory of the Yale Law School. There, she is involved in several research projects on criminal justice, including a study to improving communications and trust-building interactions between corrections staff and incarcerated persons in Connecticut, and an interview-based project on how frontline workers of six key institutions in New York City’s criminal justice system — prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, corrections officers, probation officers and Criminal Justice Agency interviewers — perceive the legitimacy of their roles and the institutions in which they work. She’s also helping increase the role of everyday people in decisions around policing and justice via community based participatory action research.
Qualitative research is key to Gripp’s work. She spent one year doing ethnographic fieldwork for her dissertation, including 800 hours of observation while embedded with Rio police officers, as well as 80 interviews with officers and 30 interviews with civilians. The APSA committee was impressed with “the in-depth nature of her ethnographic field work, which involved considerable risk,” stating that Gripp “provided a model discussion of how she conducted ethnographic research, including ethical tensions that can arise, the challenges of gaining sufficient access and trust to study policing, and a thoughtful consideration of her positionality.”
Gripp credits the interdisciplinary nature of her NSSR education with helping her develop this particular skill set. “I’m originally an economist who became a political scientist, and now I work at a law school. This is not a regular trajectory!” she laughs. “This is only possible because I wasn’t constrained by the frames of a certain discipline. I really had an opportunity to study with different scholars, take different classes, and have conversations at other departments.”
Two NSSR faculty members in particular — Plotke and Jim Miller, Professor of Liberal Studies and Politics — mentored Gripp as a student, and she continues to turn to them for guidance today. “I often contact them to talk about career perspectives, publications and next steps,” she says. Plotke also officially submitted her dissertation for the APSA award consideration.
The Future of Policing
Gripp’s work on policing is gaining more attention as movements to defund and abolish the police gain traction across the United States. While she is supportive of discussions on these topics, she is also cautious around demands for immediate change. “I think we don’t necessarily know yet how much communities that need police rely on the police, and what replacing the police with different services would look like,” she says. “The retreat of the role of police needs to come with a reframing of what it means to be a police officer.”
Gripp warns about expanding the social services functions of police officers without proper funding and support, citing her dissertation research. “By having police officers [in Rio] performing functions not generally associated with police, they thought they could bring the police closer to the poor communities and instill empathy in police officers,” she says. Ultimately, the opposite happened; police officers were not given appropriate support to take on their new role, their organizational structure did not support internal procedural justice, and officers progressively shortchanged the innovative model. U.S. cities must think carefully about the role we want police officers to have in communities, Gripp says. We may not want them to take on roles that can be performed by other agencies, but we also do not want them to see themselves as only armed, almost militaristic, enforcement officers who do not need to address other community problems.
In Spring 2020, members of the Decolonizing Eastern European Studies (DEES) group produced a series of video essays critically examining how states and societies in Eastern Europe have responded to, and thought about, the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the disease it causes in humans, COVID-19. Each essay draws on long-term, direct engagement with people in the region and with scholarship written in the languages of the region.
The essays and accompanying videos were originally published on the DEES group pageand have been reshared here with permission.
DEES on COVID-19: Introduction Jessica Pisano, Associate Professor of Politics and DEES coordinator Read her essay here
COVID-19 and Hungarian Democracy Orsolya Lehotai, Politics PhD student Read her essay here
Hitler and White Asparagus: The Pandemic in Romania Elisabeta Pop, Politics PhD student Read her essay here
Russian Governmentality and COVID-19 Dina Shvetsov, Politics PhD student Read her paper here
Old Wine in New Bottles: Church and State in Georgia in COVID-19 Malkhaz Toria, Sociology MA student Read his paper here
What’s Wrong with Ukraine’s Response to COVID-19 Masha Shynkarenko, Politics PhD candidate Read her paper here
Voices from the Polish Borderland Karolina Koziura, Sociology and Historical Studies PhD candidate Read her paper here
The landscape for academic grants, fellowships, and scholarships — especially for those involving travel and fieldwork — has been dramatically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, several NSSR students have won competitive grants for the 2020-2021 academic year to support their dissertations and other research projects
Sara Hassani received a 2020 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship, one of just 65 doctoral students in the U.S. to receive the award this year.
In her dissertation, entitled “Cloistered Infernos: The Politics of Self-Immolation in the Persian Belt,” Hassani investigates the steep and gendered rates of self-immolation plaguing the domestic sphere in the Persian belt countries of Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and mounts a conceptual challenge to common distinctions between self-destructive acts of resistance and suicide in the study of politics. Her research draws on fieldwork, interviews with survivors of self-immolation, nurses, burn surgeons, and civil society actors, as well as 200 qualitative surveys from across the region. Hassani’s work challenges the pathologizing rationalizations characteristic of epidemiological accounts of self-burning and theorizes this lethal and affective form of agency and protest through the lens of marginalized actors who exist within the cultural, political, and socioeconomic realities of apartheid. Her research has been published in the International Feminist Journal of Politics.
A Politics PhD candidate advised by former NSSR professor Banu Bargu, Hassani cites the department’s Theory Collective as critical to her work. “There’s no better place in the world to study political theory and I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to learn and grow as part of this community,” she says.
In addition to the Mellon/ACLS fellowship, Hassani has also received the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellowship (2017-2019), and an NSSR Prize Fellowship (2014-2017). She was also a 2015 fellows at NSSR’s Institute for Critical Social Inquiry,
Tatiana Llaguno Nieves received a research grant from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). She will use the award to study for one year at Humboldt University of Berlin, where she will work with Rahel Jaeggi, Professor for Practical Philosophy.
A Politics PhD candidate, Llaguno Nieves is advised by Nancy Fraser, Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics. In her dissertation, entitled “Paradoxes of Dependence,” Llaguno Nieves provides a counter-narrative to the dominant language of independence that permeates political theory, defending the philosophical and political value in taking dependence as a starting point and as a general life condition. She looks to Hegel, Marx, feminist theory, and environmental critique to develop an understanding of dependence that is not necessarily opposed to freedom, and argues that it is rather the logic of domination, expropriation and exploitation that pervades our current organization of dependence that must be questioned.
Llaguno Nieves originally came to NSSR — a place she describes as “a true intellectual home, always stimulating and transforming, as well as the perfect place to work at the intersection of politics and philosophy” — from Spain as a Fulbright Fellow. In addition to the DAAD award, she has also received an NSSR Dissertation Fellowship and a 2019 Outstanding Graduate Student Teaching Award.
Karolina Koziura won a 2020 American Slavic, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies Association Dissertation Research Grant. Her project, “The Making of Holodomor in State Archives: Narratives of Famine and their Afterlives in Contemporary Ukraine,” seeks to understand the Great Ukrainian Famine as a global event shaped by Cold War-era politics of knowledge production. Koziura plans to use the grant to fund additional archival research in Ukraine.
A PhD candidate in Sociology and Historical Studies, Koziura explores problems of nationalism, spatial transformations, and memory politics in Central and Eastern Europe. Her adviser is Virag Molnar, Associate Professor of Sociology, and her work has appeared in East European Politics and Societies, Culture, and Ukraina Moderna, among others. She is a member of the Decolonizing Eastern European Studies group at NSSR
Koziura has received an NSSR Prize Fellowship (2014-2017) and the Integrative PhD Fellowship (2018-2020). Her research has also been supported by the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium.
Masha Shynkarenko has received the Helen Darcovych Memorial Doctoral Fellowship at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta for her work on nonviolent resistance and community identity formation among Crimean Tatars across the USSR, Ukraine, and Russia.
A Politics PhD candidate, Shynkarenko explores nonviolent resistance, democratic practices, and memory politics in the post-Soviet context. Her advisors are Jessica Pisano, Associate Professor of Politics, and Jim Miller, Professor of Politics and Liberal Studies. Her dissertation focuses on the nonviolent movement for self-determination of Crimean Tatar indigenous people across USSR, Ukraine, and Russia.
Shynkarenko is a Research Fellow at the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, doing ethnographic and archival research in Ukraine, and has published essays on Ukrainian politics and the dream politics of Burning Man in Public Seminar. She is a member of the Decolonizing Eastern European Studies group at NSSR and has also received an NSSR doctoral fellowship.
Dina Shvetsov received the American Slavic, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies Association Understanding Modern Russia Grant for her project, “Property Relations in The Condition of Legal Pluralism in Chechnya: Preliminary Research.”
A Politics PhD student working with Jessica Pisano, Associate Professor of Politics, Shvetsov has written on political risk in Central Asia, constitutionalism in Israel, and privatization in Muslim regions of Russia. She is a member of the Decolonizing Eastern European Studies group at NSSR, and her current research focuses on alternative frameworks for analysis of social change in the transition from historical socialism to capitalism.
Shvetsov was a contributing writer and moderator for a project bridging critical social theory and artistic practice at the Vera List Center of Art and Politics, “Dialogues on a Future Communication. (Part 2. Resilience)” by Berlin-based artist Jenny Brockman, and currently teaches sociology and social theory at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University. She is also an NSSR Prize Fellow.
As the spread of COVID-19 affects every part of life across the world, The New School for Social Research community is putting knowledge into action. Faculty, students, and alumni are sharing their expertise on how the pandemic is affecting immigration, protests, economic policy, workers’ rights, and emotional well-being.
Read on for more from our anthropologists, economists, political scientists, psychologists, historians, and more.
Last updated: 5/26/20
Illustration credit: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS
In contrast to the buffoonery masquerading as leadership in the White House at a moment that necessitates the full mobilization of the government, Cuomo’s slideshows project a reassuring image of managerial order—one that has arguably distracted from his missteps, such as the delay in implementing social distancing measures and closing non-essential businesses. Still, the motley aesthetic of Cuomo’s briefings mirrors our own confusion and disorientation…
In other words, the post-Covid future can’t be appreciated using pre-Covid models and modes of valuation. It will be shaped by long-term obligations instead of high-risk/high-reward strategies or stopgap measures that merely shift risk and debt between balance sheets.
When you depict people as dangerous contaminants, you make dehumanization and elimination more likely. This is the precarious situation we find ourselves in today with the coronavirus spreading in a time of deep polarization, xenophobia and ‘othering’ in many parts of the world, including the United States.
The COVID-19 Policy Forum from the Schwartz Center for Economics Policy Analysis convenes Economics faculty and students to share their ideas on progressive policies and considerations in response to the economic impacts of the coronavirus. Read updates from Professors Mark Setterfield, Paulo dos Santos, and Willi Semmler, PhD and MA students, and more.
Willi Semmler, Arnhold Professor of International Cooperation and Development:
They should have built up some buffers against such sudden shocks and risk.
To enable millions of people to focus on the areas of work needed to fight this pandemic, society needs to recognise the valuable public goods that care labour creates, and to reward those performing other essential tasks in line with the social contribution their work makes.
Models are needed for sensible decision-making, but so is sound judgment. For it to be applied, it is essential to recognize that models can be constructed in different ways, reflecting a range of plausible premises.
Barron’s: The Danger of Overreliance on Epidemiological Models (4/29/2020)
Is the coronavirus lockdown justified? One school of thought holds that any societal cost is worth paying to save a life. This seems sensible at first, but we do not honor this dictum in normal times, either in India or globally. We tolerate people dying for lack of resources, often on a mass scale, in developing countries.
The economics discipline has provided the most influential framework for thinking about public policies, but it has proved inadequate, both in preparing for the current emergency and for dealing with it. The pandemic underlines the necessity for a rethinking of our received ideas about economics and points in some directions that this rethinking should take.
Teresa Ghilarducci, Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis, has been been a major voice in advocating for workers’ rights, against budget cuts, and for more compassionate retirement policies:
In stark contrast to the effective leadership shown by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and Singapore’s autocratic technocracy, the world’s far-right nationalists have met the COVID-19 crisis with something not seen in decades: the fascist politics of disease. And no one typifies this brand of politics better than Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro.
We are recognizing that we need a more important role for the State, one that gives answers to society. This means that in a context of so much emergency, the market is not everything. The market clearly can not resolve everything.
“Emergencies teach us something about what citizens want and need, and they teach us how to safeguard our economic system from grifters and market dynamics. The Great Depression, and then World War II, pushed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom to recognize social needs and respond to them. What progressives refer to approvingly as the welfare state, and conservatives as “creeping socialism” are the same ratchet effect regarded from two different political perspectives.”
When the coronavirus presented them with a choice between letting people die and closing down ‘the economy’, there was no question which the masters would choose. A herd that had already had its most contentious and inquisitive members culled, and that had been rendered submissive, would easily become accustomed to the slaughter of two thousand or so per day.
Netflix is one of the most popular strategies we have against smashing our bug-like faces against the onrushing windscreen of personalized finitude. And as such, it embodies a new kind of digital cogito: “I watch, therefore I am (not).” Indeed, I am beginning to suspect that Netflix itself has become sentient, and is trying to communicate with us, and perhaps even warn us against further dangers to come.
Philosophers have had a long, tortured love affair with social distancing, beginning with Socrates confined to his cell; René Descartes withdrawn from the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War (in which he was a participant) into a room with an oven in the Netherlands to ponder the nature of certainty; others like Boethius, Thomas More and Antonio Gramsci, all part of this long tradition of isolation and thought.
He also talks with The Slowdown podcast about how COVID-19 may be rewiring our very being, the need to better understand our anxiety, and how the pandemic is revealing how much we don’t know. Listen to the audio recording here (4/6/2020)
Prof. Critchley discusses mortality, hypochondria, anxiety, and pandemic on The Stone, the philosophy forum at the New York Times that he moderates. Listen to the audio recording here (3/30/2020)
The only way to resolve this contradiction within our current situation is for governments to mercilessly take measures that threaten the private property of capitalists and the “free market.” The more they take control of the private property of necessary industries through nationalization, provide public services and cash payments, and displace market relations by social planning, the more likely it is that we will be able to mitigate the effects of the pandemic while still allowing people to meet their survival needs. In the absence of such changes, human values are powerless against economic value.
This is a strange story to tell: it is about shifting ideals, how time unfolds for an individual, and the will to act or speak at the limit of life. Also, the care one must take when speaking of the dying or the dead.
“Hong Kong has a long tradition of making fools of forecasters (that goes back to the 1840s), and I’m continually struck as well by how often social movements take unexpected turns in all parts of the world. That said, while I hesitate to make firm predictions on this topic, I see good reason to expect a significant resurgence of protests. There have been some even as fear of infection has led to a drop in all kinds of crowd activities.”
It will be extremely tempting for the CCP and the Hong Kong government to use the threat of coronavirus contagion to deny protest permits, and to use aggressive coercive techniques to prevent any “unlawful assemblies.” But the protesters have the support of an exceptionally large number of Hong Kong citizens.
“This is the alarming thing about the transmission of fear. It infects people’s feelings and actions, causing them to behave in ways that often run against their own interests, not to mention their larger obligations to public health and social life.”
Alex Aleinikoff, University Professor and head of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility:
With the ability to move about freely sharply curtailed in nearly every country in the world, immigration scholars will need to think hard about a fundamental assumption of the field: that we are living in an “age of mobility.
For the first time in their lives, many Americans are now walking in the shoes of others. Or, rather, not walking. We are confronting government actions, policies, and admonitions that seek to dramatically limit how and when we move.
From these experiences, can we learn empathy for those around the globe for whom mobility is routinely and severely restricted: Syrians refugees trapped in camps on Lesvos, and Rohingya refugees languishing in Bangladesh; Palestinians confined to Gaza, and controlled by separation walls on the West Bank; Central Americans pushed out of the United States to wait in border towns in Mexico; Uighurs confined in “re-education” camps in Xinjiang; African migrants stopped in boats on the Mediterranean Sea and returned to Libya; victims of mass incarceration in the United States; poor people everywhere who lack the resources to begin journeys to improve their lives.
Theo Vasconcelos de Almeida, a Politics PhD student:
In short, I am suggesting a generalization of the #CancelRent demand to cover people employed in all non-essential sectors who cannot continue to work from home. However, there is an obvious problem: the interconnection between these two sectors. Even with canceled rent, many who work in the non-essential sector will not be able to pay for their food and common utilities without working.
We know that securely attached adults and securely attached children are not immune to stress. The challenge is to feel able to acknowledge the stress and share one’s unsettling feelings with family members and close friends
…we need calm discussions of our fears. These conversations ought to emanate from high political offices and resonate from personal discussions with family, friends and co-workers. This will naturally lead to sympathetic and supportive behavior that may be seen as heroic problem-solving strategies. These strategies take the form of everyday actions (like washing one’s hands for 20 seconds and restricting self-touch of one’s face), as well as large-scale coordinated scientific efforts at developing treatments (ramping up the production and delivery of life-saving ventilators and protective gear for front-line health care workers) and, longer term, vaccine developments — all this can do much to attenuate the fears currently (and reasonably) felt on a universal scale.
Influencers, bound by contracts and carefully crafted images, simply can’t be that free. The best they can do, Brown says, is “tap into needed resources like safety, community, a sense of trust.” He believes that with Covid-19 sticking around for an indefinite amount of time, the field will grow narrower, as more people will start “congregating” around a smaller group of influencers who can meet their needs.
…we suggest that COVID-19 requires us to prioritize and mobilize as a research and clinical community around several key areas: (a) diagnostics, (b) prevention, (c) public outreach and communication, (d) working with medical staff and mainstreaming into nonmental health services, and (e) COVID-19-specific trauma research.
While mental health services have shown to be inaccessible to many in the United States, research indicates that African Americans encounter added challenges that prevent them from getting the care they need. Among those challenges, according to Thomas Vance…are increased stigma associated with mental health concerns and lack of available culturally competent care
I had already experienced the drama of forced displacement when in 1993 my family had to leave our home in the Abkhazia region of Georgia at the end of the armed Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. But strangely, this time, I was going simultaneously through mixed feelings of joy and distress. I was not being forced to abandon my home, but was rushing back to reunite with my family – my wife and two kids — in Georgia.
It’s almost like, since so many of my normal habits, my regular ways of distracting myself from what my heart is saying, have been swept away by the silence of the quarantine, that God’s desire for my attention to go outwards is coming through even stronger.
It is as if Milan, under quarantine, has asked me to renounce the particular version of our American response to fear that I have made my own: the unceasing effort to control, to master, to define and thereby dictate what is really real and truly true. And thereby be secure.
The Pandemic Discourses blog aims to foster an interdisciplinary and global dialogue on the historical, social, and political dimensions of the pandemic. It provides perspectives from different corners of the world, and especially the global South, bringing to the forefront variable and contested understandings of disease, expertise, and society. It includes noted authors from South Africa, China, Brazil, and more.
PanDemos 2020 is the latest initiative from Letters from the Field, a column devoted to news and commentary from TCDS friends and colleagues around the world. PanDemos 2020 focuses on the relationship between democracy and COVID-19, and includes letters from Poland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and more.
Saladdin Ahmed, Visiting Assistant Professor at Union College:
COVID-19 is the kind of event that has momentarily confused various ruling groups. Clearly, there is a confusion about how much and what kind of information the public should be allowed to access. The confusion is mainly caused by a significant degree of conflict between the priority of the stock market and the possible political consequences of a pandemic. The virus does not have an ideology, but the outbreak will certainly have ideological consequences. It is now time for creativity. It is time to simultaneously reinvent methods of resistance against all viruses and all fascists.
“To see the real city you must descend deep into the shadows, go into the bowels of the city and be guided through history, remembrance and the sensorium, capturing a mosaic of people and places; the adventure will take you underground, in sex venues, crackhouses, teenage hangouts, toxico-maniac dens, as these physical spaces juxtapose the romantic reality of a multi-ethnic metropolis.”
Terry Williams, introducing his Cosmopolitan Life Series
On a chilly Sunday afternoon in a February, a crowd gathered at the home-hosted Harlem Arts Salon to hear about the latest book from Terry Williams, Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research. As filmmakers, musicians, artists, poets, sociologists, and current and former graduate students entered the inviting apartment, Williams warmly greeted them by name, creating a sense of community and connection rare at academic book talks.
But this wasn’t a ‘regular’ book talk. For one, host and Harlem Arts Salon founder Margaret Porter has known Williams for decades. Both grew up in Mississippi, found their way to New York City, and moved to Harlem in 1979. Guest moderator Hakim Hasan, a poet and former Director of Public Programs at the Museum of the City of New York, also cited a deeply personal relationship with Williams, whom he called “gracious, soulful, and dedicated.”
And Le Boogie Woogie: Inside an After-Hours Club(Columbia University Press, 2020) isn’t a ‘regular’ academic book, with obscure jargon and heavy prose. In it, Williams deftly weaves together ethnography, sociological sources, and storytelling to create a fascinating and accessible account of the cocaine culture at a Harlem club in the 1980s and 1990s — a book for, in his words, the “cosmopolitan nonspecialist.”
A Multiethnic Panorama
“I am insatiably curious about
the life of other people,” says Williams. “Some would say I’m nosy.”
A keenly observant scholar,
Williams has turned being “nosy” into a decades-long career studying urban life
and policy. His preferred methodology is ethnography, embedding himself in
different situations to observe how people interact with each other and their
surroundings. “I try to see the world as other people see it,” he explains.
When Williams was a doctoral student at CUNY in the early 1970s, ethnography was not a part of a sociologist’s toolkit. Focusing on non-quantitative social science made him an outlier in his department, and he instead found mentors at the University of Chicago, well-known for its pioneering work in urban sociology and advocacy for ethnography as critical to sociological research. Ethnography has become such a staple of his work that he even co-wrote the book on it; On Ethnography (Wiley, 2018), with colleague Sarah Daynes, shares lessons learned from decades of research in the field.
Williams publishes prolifically, and Le Boogie Woogie is the latest book in what he terms his Cosmopolitan Life Series; previous subjects include con men, Harlem building superintendents, crackhouse residents, and teenagers who self-harm. The series is a multivolume ethnography of place and behavior, and while the topics are diverse, none are forced; all evolved organically from Williams’ established relationships and interests.
Inside the Club
That’s especially true in the case of Le Boogie Woogie. While Williams’ father had run a small after-hours club in Mississippi, Williams was never allowed to get too close to it — a fact that only attracted him more. Once in New York City, he became connected with Le Boogie Woogie and other clubs like it via former students he taught at Rikers Island correctional facility and later befriended. He became curious about the club’s patrons who shared a lifestyle based around the enjoyment of cocaine and, with a professor’s encouragement, he began to work out a plan for research.
“No study had been done on cocaine users in their natural setting or to describe users as they lived,” he writes in the book’s introduction. Others told him it wasn’t a good idea, “…but my job as a researcher is to see if I can gain the trust and acceptance of people other than my kinfolk.” He pressed forward.
Granted access to the club by way of his connections, Williams began to attend regularly. When talking with patrons and workers, he listened closely, keeping mental notes so he could later reconstruct dialogue. “Only on a few occasions did I use a tape recorder or openly take notes. I relied on memory for the most part, even though I was concerned that reconstructing conversations was problematic and porous and would affect my narrative,” Williams writes. He later opened up to some patrons about his research, and they began to share their extended stories with him.
The result is a vivid narrative that brings the setting, the scene, and the many characters who populate Le Boogie Woogie to life — so much so that the reader begins to feel like a nightly regular. “What he unveils,” says a recent Kirkus review, “is a subculture with its own codes and language, with moral values at odds with society at large, where drug use isn’t a sickness, addiction, or character defect but rather an ‘example of present-day resistance to conservative values and the desire of human beings to seek pleasurable ways of being regardless of risk.’”
Not only did Williams have to reconstruct dialogue after the fact; he had to reconstruct the entire scene years later. By the time Le Boogie Woogie was published in 2020, the club had been closed for decades. At his publisher’s encouragement, Williams broadened his research to the current day by studying Murphy’s Club, an after-hours club on the Lower East Side frequently mainly by wealthy, white millennials. In doing so, Williams is able to draw important connections and contrasts over time around drug usage, buying, and consumption; nightlife; sex work; race; class; gentrification; the War on Drugs; and the transformation of New York City itself.
“From a methodological
perspective, most urban ethnographers do not imagine themselves to be historians
in the classical sense of the word,” writes Williams. “Yet there is an inherent
and unavoidable historical framework to all ethnographic work.” Le Boogie
is a journey through time, through space, through states of consciousness, and
through discreet worlds, each with their own cultural practices and lexicons.
The Sole of the Matter
While Williams continues to prepare new books for his Cosmopolitan Life Series, he’s sharing his research skills and gift for storytelling with NSSR students in his classes on ‘Ethnographic Field Methods’ and ‘The Living Book: From Research to Manuscript.’
He’s also collaborating with Catherine Murphy, Senior Research Associate at Parsons School of Design, on ‘The Social Life of Stuff,’ a course that examines the social world of objects, products, and people. Their guiding questions: “What discoveries do we make when we trace the life of the objects that surround us? How do we understand craft? What does the spirit of capital mean in present-day life and the act of making and re-making? What responsibility do we have in addressing the impact products have on the worlds we live in? As we think about examining unusual materials and items of the sacred what remains sacred today? Where does the moral compass stand as it connects to the Internet and places like Silicon Valley?”
That insatiable curiosity that’s
led Williams across New York City and around the world of stuff has also led
him to a new field: shoe construction. In between teaching and writing, he’s
been studying the ins and outs of creating shoes, and currently has prototypes
of five different models made from mink, pony, leather and raffia. Several are
named after his books or his ethnographic subjects and evoke something about
the topics in their design and construction. He
hopes to begin selling his shoes in 2021, with profits going to support the
Harlem Arts Salon’s Gloster
Arts Project and Parsons School of Design students. For Williams, it
always comes back to creativity, connections, and communities.