On a Tuesday afternoon class in April, Sociology PhD student Zoe Carey (above, right) was recounting a recent conference she had attended — standard talk for graduate students. But Carey hadn’t been at a sociology summit; rather, she had traveled to a gathering of the International Association for Chiefs of Police, where she listened to high-level law enforcement leaders discuss their strategies for combating crime, and tech developers present the newest data-focused software, such as Palantir, that helps predict future crime patterns.
That software is what
most interests Carey and her classmates in “Thinking Through Interfaces,” an
interdisciplinary seminar that examines what interfaces — the points
where systems or subjects meet and interact — are, how they work,
and how they shape our lives, as well as the pressing social and political
issues surrounding them.
“Usually only designers think about interfaces,” says Associate Professor of Philosophy Zed Adams, who co-created and co-taught the class with Professor of Anthropology Shannon Mattern. Both professors approach the visual from different perspectives; while Mattern explores urban intelligences and maps, Adams focuses on architectural history and the built environment. In developing a syllabus aimed at helping social science students build interdisciplinary muscle, they incorporated texts from disability studies to media studies, and applied scholarship from human-computer interaction to information studies.
This seminar is part of the Integrative PhD Program, made possible by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The program supports NSSR doctoral students looking to combine their humanistic social science backgrounds with training in concepts and methodological approaches to data visualization, graphic design, coding, and digital media
Integrative PhD students are required to take a small collaborative seminar, like Thinking Through Interfaces, that is co-taught by one professor from NSSR’s social sciences departments and another from design or digital media, generally from The New School’s Parsons School of Design and the Schools of Public Engagement. They’re also required to take a course completely outside of NSSR; most choose to study data visualization or cartography.
Learning from professors
with complementary skills means Integrative PhD students can become fluent in
the full range of qualitative and quantitative methods as well as design
thinking, and can better analyze the digital dimensions of political and social
movements, media, culture, identity, and other topics critical to the
humanistic social sciences.
“I think that for younger people, our graduate students, that combination of skills is within their reach,” says University in Exile Professor of Sociology Robin Wagner-Pacifici (above left), co-director and co-founder of the Integrative PhD. “They don’t see that they have to decide, ‘I’m in one camp or another’, which was more or less the case when I was coming up as a young scholar.” In other words, it’s less “Are you qualitative or quantitative?” and more “In what ways are you combining methodologies?”
Birth of an Idea
interested in interdisciplinary study about 13 years ago, as she worked with
two fellow sociologists to examine President George W. Bush’s National Security
Strategy Report. The relationship was complementary; Wagner-Pacifici had strong
close reading skills while her collaborators were experts in network analysis
and formal modeling. “At that time, it was just the beginning of doing
computational analyses of texts,” she says. One could put certain passages into
a computer “and out came elements…or patterns that, in theory, an individual
reader could not have seen.” This kind of combination of quantitative and
qualitative skills wasn’t common at the time. “For us, this collaboration was
as much a part of the project as whatever we came up with.”
In 2015, as The New
School was looking for ways to better integrate its strong programs in design,
social research, and media studies, NSSR Dean Will Milberg decided to approach
the Mellon Foundation about a new program. This Integrative PhD initiative
would equip graduate students with skills like “computational text analysis,
data visualization, cartography and other kinds of mappings so that they could
enhance their dissertation projects and ask certain questions that their
traditional methodologies did not allow them to ask, and make themselves more
marketable,” remembers Wagner-Pacifici.
Milberg also brought Daniel Sauter, Associate Professor of Data Visualization at Parsons, into the discussion. It was a bold act of academic matchmaking — one that Wagner-Pacific views as a success. “We have different ways of asking questions and answering them, and different approaches to data, and that’s been at the heart of the Integrative PhD.”
“We often hear from applicants and
fellows that this program is doing exactly what they thought The New School was
about in regards to cross-disciplinary learning,” says Sauter. “In that sense,
we are happy to implement a core mission of the university, continuously
translating methods and pedagogy across schools, and contributing to a learning
experience that we believe better prepares fellows for their academic and
Bringing It All Together
Carey is certainly
asking different and more focused questions than she had imagined. When she
arrived at NSSR as an MA student, she planned to study Roma human rights in
Europe. As her focus shifted to predictive policing — in which law enforcement
officials use data analysis software to identify what kinds of criminal
activity might happen in the future, as well as where and when it might occur
— she knew she needed to develop new analytical skills.
“I wasn’t familiar with
the theories, or how to go about studying that sort of topic as a qualitative
social science researcher,” she says, noting bigger conversations in the field
around how to study proprietary systems, whose internal workings are not
public, and machine learning algorithms, which continually rewrite themselves.
So she applied to the Integrative PhD program and was accepted in the 2017-2019
“The best thing I’ve
gotten out of the Integrative PhD was clarifying my methods, and what I hope
will be innovations in how social scientists can study data systems,” Carey
reflects. “In interdisciplinary work, you have to pull from all these different
areas and sometimes your conversations get stuck on concepts or theories
instead of the nitty-gritty of combining the methods from these different
Working with other
Fellows has helped Carey answer a variety of research-related questions, from
how to manage notes to how to collect and store data. “[More advanced Fellows]
had resources to share with me, and now I’m doing the same with the Fellows
behind me,” she says.
“Thinking Through Interfaces” classmate, Clinical Psychology PhD candidate
Emily Breitkopf, is using the class to develop a visual component to her
larger body of research is about media and technologies of gendering, and my
dissertation looks at fetal gendering and sexing practices during pregnancy in
the U.S.,” Breitkopf, a 2018-2020 Fellow explains. In particular, she examines
how one specific class of technological interfaces — those that help us look
inside a pregnant person, such as ultrasound — transform a fetus into an
expected boy or girl through the language of gender.
do people care so much about fetal gender? “In order to relate to others, even
imagined ones, many of us are compelled to wrangle them into binary gendered
language because it helps alleviate the anxiety of not feeling stably-gendered
ourselves,” Breitkopf says. “So when we have technologies like genetic testing
or the ultrasound that offer this ‘promise’ of binary gendered language even
during pregnancy, it stands to reason people would want it.”
The interactive visual component of her dissertation is
“meant to convey the ways these cultural myths of gender stabilization play out
visually, emotionally, through words, sound, and desire,”
always been interested in not only engaging the public at the level of
language, but also at the level of feeling, to compel people to encounter the
questions I’m asking at a visceral level,”
she says. “Producing a media-based interface has been both familiar and runs
counter to the ways I’ve learned to be heard in academia.”
The Integrative PhD
program is also helping more established scholars like Adams move their
research forward, and in new directions. “This is really a chance to do
philosophy in the present,” he says. “These are new devices that we’re
surrounded by, but because they’re so new they haven’t yet been adequately
theorized.” He’s now planning a conference around the topic, and is digging
deeper into interests in architectural history and the built environment.
And emerging scholar Zeyno Ustun, a 2017-2019 Fellow, NSSR Sociology PhD graduate, and a postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Media at Risk at the University of Pennsylvania, has combined her ethnographic and data visualization skills to examine state surveillance and the social and political conditions that facilitated the 2013 Gezi Resistance in Turkey and other networked movements of the 21st century.
The future is
collaborative — and with the Integrative PhD, the humanistic social sciences
will continue to lead in the digital era.