NSSR Students Win Competitive 2020-2021 Research Grants

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.

NSSR Welcomes Lillian Polanco-Roman to Psychology Department

The new assistant professor brings expertise on mental health disparities in at-risk populations

Lillian Polanco-Roman joins the Psychology department faculty at The New School for Social Research (NSSR) in Fall 2020 as an Assistant Professor of Psychology. With a background as a clinical psychologist, Polanco-Roman studies how cultural experiences can impact psychopathology, especially in racial minorities and immigrant youth populations. Specifically, her research tackles demographic disparities in suicidal ideation and behaviors in youth. 

Research Matters sat down (digitally) with Polanco-Roman to discuss her research, what drew her to the work, and what she’s looking forward to doing at NSSR.

Elevating ‘Social Research’

“I’m interested in the ‘social research’ part of The New School,” Polanco-Roman says. “Part of its mission includes looking at social justice, social and environmental factors, and how that might impact development. These ideas play a huge role in my research. This focus is something that really aligns with me, with research, with my passion.”

Polanco-Roman studies the ‘casualties of racism’ and how racial and ethnic discrimination influences suicidal thoughts and behaviors in minority emerging adults. Culturally related experiences are rarely analyzed in risk assessment for suicide, and she hopes to better understand and highlight the relationships between ethnic identity and depressive symptoms. 

Her path to an academic career grew out of her roots right here in New York City. A first-generation college student born and raised in Brooklyn, Polanco-Roman received a BS in Psychology from Fordham University, an MA in Psychology from Hunter College — where she also taught the subject — and her PhD from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Columbia University in the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and has counseled in a clinical setting.

Her upbringing played a strong role in shaping her scholarly interests. “Studying and working here made a lot of sense given the population I’m interested in working with, which is ethnic minority youth and immigrant youth,” she says. “They are well represented in New York City and it’s what drew me to this work. I want to give back to my community.”

During her time at CUNY, Polanco-Roman pieced together her own program of study, first finding faculty studying suicide risk in adolescence. She then connected with a professor who specialized in the impact of racial discrimination on psychopathology. “Working with both of them, I was able to create essentially a tailored programmed where I was looking at cultural experiences of suicide risk and youth by combining these two.” 

While forging her own specialized path of study, Polanco-Roman began to translate her research into real-life suicide prevention and minority youth support. While working in the Counseling Services Center at John Jay College, she co-facilitated a group for college students with chronic depression and suicidal ideation that focused on healthy coping strategies. As a training therapist at City College, she also conducted long-term individual psychotherapy in English and Spanish for children and adults at a community-based mental health clinic.

Polanco-Roman is a member of the Youth Suicide Research Consortium, an interdisciplinary network of researchers that aims to improve research on youth suicidal behavior, suicide prevention, and treatment, and to increase research on suicide among underrepresented populations of youth. Her work — which has been published in Journal of Youth and Adolescence; Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy; Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, and other leading psychology journals — has helped illuminate the need for psychologists to account for experiences of ethnic discrimination as a potential source of psychological distress in diagnosing and treating suicidal behavior. 

Looking Ahead to Fall 2020

Finding and creating community within larger urban settings is a key part of Polanco-Roman’s life, and it’s also what’s attracted her to The New School and NSSR. City campuses are like a  “microcosm of the larger New York City,” she says. “It’s kind of like this dual identity component. I like the small feel within this larger environment. I find it to be more intimate and there’s a lot more learning that can go on there, and stronger connections that can be made.”

These connections can be critical for graduate students. As Polanco-Roman explains, the city setting provides ample opportunities for Psychology MA and PhD students to develop their concentrations. “Whatever one can imagine that they want to study or learn or train in, they can find it here.”

Polanco-Roman looks forward to building on her research with these resources, and collaborating with other NSSR faculty. 

She finds herself drawn to the work of Wendy D’Andrea, Associate Professor of Psychology, who runs the Trauma and Affective Psychophysiology Lab. “I’m interested in learning more about the relationship between how traumatic experiences, particularly early childhood experiences, might impact risk for suicide later into adolescence, maybe even young adulthood,” Polanco-Roman says. 

Curious about the potential interplay of traumatic experiences, attachment theory, and risk for suicide, Polanco-Roman is also drawn to the work of Howard Steele and Miriam Steele, both Professors of Psychology and co-directors of the Center for Attachment Research

Polanco-Roman is scheduled to teach courses like Research Methods in the fall, which provides hands-on experience in designing, running, and reporting psychology experiments.

Although academia at large has and continues to make major adjustments to learning due to COVID-19, Polanco-Roman is ready to adapt and be flexible in her first semester at NSSR, using the global pandemic affecting cities and communities as a teaching moment.

“Regardless of using distance learning or being in the classroom, I’m excited to start and I’m excited to work with my new NSSR family, faculty, and students, and make new connections,” she says.

Making a Magazine in a Pandemic

A Back Matter staff member shares the process of creating the publication (partly) remotely

After being admitted to the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism (CPCJ) Master’s program at The New School for Social Research in Spring 2019, I was invited to the launch party for a student-created magazine called Back Matter. 

With an open bar at Von in NoHo to commemorate the end of their semester, Back Matter editors gave toasts to months of production and passed out copies. Nervously mingling with my soon-to-be professors and peers, I flipped through the pages of the magazine, enamored.

Producing Back Matter has become a rite of passage for CPCJ students. The magazine typically covers the publishing industry at large, and students in the relevant course direct their issue’s theme and aesthetic, filling roles across editorial, design, web development, social media and marketing, publishing and business. 

Formally known as the Multimedia Publishing Lab, the class was designed by CPCJ co-founder Rachel Rosenfelt, former publisher at The New Republic and founding editor of The New Inquiry, as a kind of capstone project, an opportunity for students from across The New School to apply their skill sets and interests to the full process of creating a magazine. 

Now, the class is co-taught by Jon Baskin and Jesse Seegers. Baskin, who handles the editorial mentoring, is the CPCJ Associate Director and a founding editor of The Point, a thrice-yearly magazine of philosophical essays and criticism. Seegers — who has worked architecture, design, writing, editing, publishing, and research — serves as the design beacon and teaches core classes in CPCJ and at Parsons School of Design.

After that night, I committed to the CPCJ program. I was drawn to how it merged design and writing practices. Now, I am finishing up my second semester and pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate minor in Design Studies. At the beginning of Spring 2020, I enrolled in Multimedia Publishing Lab with the intention of stepping outside of my editorial comfort zone and getting more portfolio experience with print design.

“This goes to the heart of what CPCJ was designed to achieve,” Baskin said. “I think the founders, Jim Miller and Rosenfelt, saw from the beginning that too much of professional publishing is bifurcated into different departments that barely communicate with one another. One of the goals of the program, embodied most successfully in this class, is to help graduate students who can work across those divides.”

We began the semester applying for and receiving our positions, noted in the masthead above. 

The editorial team picked out submissions, working with Baskin to guide student writers through the editing process. Second-year CPCJ students Taia Handlin, Editor-in-Chief, and Shulokhana Khan, Managing Editor, spearheaded this effort.

Meanwhile, the design team began to envision how the magazine would look and feel like. Creative Director Annika Lammers, a Parsons Master’s student, managed the overall visual concept, applying her spatial design skills to construct the physical publication. As Art Director, I spent hours with her pouring through other magazines and taking trips to Printed Matter, an artbook distributor in Chelsea, for inspiration. With the help of Seegers, we made mockups, printed them, printed them again, and then printed them yet again. We had big ideas of unique binding techniques, using the school’s risograph printer, experimenting with paper weights and textures. We worked with the editorial team to blend the thematic contents with visual expression. We created a graphic treatment to begin laying out the print product. 

The publisher began seeking printing quotes, and the digital team drew up plans for a website and social media marketing. We set editorial calendars, print dates, and budgets, and we started planning our own launch party. 

Then the world changed.

AAnnika Lammers and Alexa Mauzy-Lewis working on Back Matter in the before-times | Photo by Hector Gutierrez, Back Matter Marketing and Communications Director
Jon Baskin on a class trip to Printed Matter in the before-times| Photo by Annika Lammers, Back Matter Creative Director
Back Matter staff meeting in the before-times | Photo by Hector Gutierrez

“We began this second edition of Back Matter in January. Then, none of us was imagining our current reality, structured by daily video chats and people actually debating if silk scarves are better or worse than bandanas in stopping a pandemic,” wrote Handlin in her Letter from the Editor.  “We just wanted to make a sassy magazine that pokes holes in the immense, white, privileged landscape of publishing.”

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to trudge on virtually. We launched the new issue on the magazine’s website and began to roll out the articles and illustrations we had crafted.

It wasn’t easy. “We have had to relearn ways of communicating, sharing information, and effectively coming together to cohesively formulate the vision and content of the publication,” says Lammers. “We are now sharing different time zones from Australia, to Korea, to the U.S.”

“I cannot help but think that the initial design decisions made at the very start of the publication are reflective of our current surrounding environment,” Lammers says. “Back Matter’s hand-drawn illustrations, risograph-printed pages and sewn-bound finish strips back the complexities and reveals insight into the way we had to critically adapt and think about the publication.”

The Back Matter team is continuing to build out the website, publishing new pieces weekly. Cailin Potami wrote a piece on underrepresentation in publishing. Jessie Mohkami explored the gender gap in book club culture. Adji Ngathe Kebe explained how comp titles paved the way for the racist bestselling disaster American Dirt

Soon, we’ll share a special section that responds to the landscape of media in a crisis. We are working to finish our final print design, with hopes of printing it in the fall, if those who are not graduating will be able to return to campus by then.

Screenshot of the print title for a piece by CPCJ student Fareeha Shah.
Full article available online.
Screenshot of the first-page layout for a piece by CPCJ student Cailin Potami.
Full article available online.

The ending of this semester is bittersweet. Instead of celebrating our work together at a bar in the city, we are sitting alone in our respective homes at our computers. Through blood, sweat, and InDesign tears, we will have the final design for a print magazine, but its future, like many things, is TBD. Still, we were able to provide a digital home to the works of some incredible New School writers and illustrators — graduate work and research that was produced in the face of global chaos.

Publishing, at large, has been forced to adapt. This issue of Back Matter will always be a relic of this time.

Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is the Art Director of Back Matter magazine and a Master’s student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism Program. Cover art is by Hector Gutierrez. 

Student Fellows Innovate at NSSR Centers and Institutes

How student research is informing new modes of interdisciplinary social thought

The New School was founded in 1919 as a place where scholars could advance progressive social thought and provide the public with accessible and relevant education. The school’s early thinkers came together across disciplines to explore major social issues of the day: migration and mobility, democracy and fascism, capitalism and socialism.

A century later, The New School for Social Research continues that important work through myriad classes, publications, public programs — and especially through interdisciplinary centers and institutes. In these special spaces, faculty and students meet across departments and divisions to research many of the same major social issues. Centers and institutes help fuel policy debates, promote public discussion, and welcome visiting scholars into the New School community.

Many of NSSR’s centers and institutes have robust student fellowship programs that provide Master’s and PhD students with financial support and mentorship as they conduct major research projects. Research Matters spoke to current fellows at three centers, looking at student work across issues of economic empowerment, migration, and ethnographic design

GIDEST: The Intersection of Social Theory, Art, and Design

Photo credit: GIDEST fellow Otto von Busch

The Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography & Social Thought (GIDEST) is The New School’s home for transdisciplinary ethnographic research at the intersection of social theory, art, and design. Funded by a grant from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, GIDEST “draws on The New School’s tradition of politically-engaged, historically-grounded, and theoretically-innovative social research” and connects scholars across the university, especially in their bi-weekly seminar series on art and theory.

Hugh Raffles, Founding Director of GIDEST, is a Professor of Anthropology whose work is a sustained ethnographic inquiry into relations between humans, animals, and things. As a GIDEST Senior Fellow himself, he has been completing The Book of Unconformities  (Penguin Random House, August 2020), in which he uses anthropology, history, and geology to explore the stories of stones.

“The work of the student fellows is central to the institute,” Raffles says. “They bring their own expertise and interests into the group, and help create a supportive and dynamic environment in which we can all develop our ideas. As GIDEST fellows, they gain structure and the experience of participating as peers in high-level conversations with accomplished scholars and practitioners,” and receive mentoring on their research projects.

The current cohort of GIDEST fellows include faculty and students working in Politics, Psychology, Photography, Media Studies, Historical Studies, and Sociology. Amanda Arena-Miller is a PhD candidate in Psychology and GIDEST fellow whose work explores the relationship between dance and interoceptive awareness — a person’s ability to sense internal bodily states. 

Amanda Arena-Miller, Psychology PhD candidate

“My dissertation is a collaboration between the NSSR Psychology department and the Dance Department at Eugene Lang College,” Arena-Miller says. “It was a brainchild of my advisor Miriam Steele (Professor of Psychology) and Professor Neil Greenberg, who is a choreographer at Lang. They were both interested in how dance might impact your awareness of your internal signals and how that relates to the psychology of body representation. I had been working on body image research and experience as a dancer, so I took over that research.”

Arena-Miller has been coordinating this study for over four years, and it has since branched off into additional research on how art practice can impact body awareness. At GIDEST, she is compiling quantitative data on biofeedback and self-reporting; holding interviews; and conducting qualitative research on dance, using grounded theory and ethnographic work to explore interoception. 

Although their respective work can appear largely unique — past topics have included ethnographic studies of cellphone designs in China, the research of multiple spatial “under-commons” of Black and Brown community resistance in Mississippi, and the role of television in the resurgence of the historical avant-garde in the late 1960s — GIDEST fellows are able to support and elevate each other’s research with a sense of community.

“We are all interested in how knowledge is created and perpetuated within discourses and academia,” Arena-Miller shares. “Largely speaking, we’re all interested in the production and also having a critical eye on knowledge.” And in addition to the welcome financial support, “we have a space where we present our work and give each other feedback. It’s really enriching.”

SCEPA: Connecting Policy to Economics

Photo credit: Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis

The Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) works within NSSR’s economics department as a research center focusing on policies that raise living standards and foster economic security. Collaborating with economists, SCEPA provides research analysis and policy recommendations in the areas of climate change, public finance, and retirement.

Teresa Ghilarducci, Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis, directs SCEPA and helps guide the work of its student fellows. “Educating tomorrow’s economic leaders is fundamental to SCEPA’s mission,” Ghilarducci says. “Our team of fellows and research associates learn how to use their academic and economic skills to impact policies that can better people’s lives. In turn, SCEPA benefits from the diversity of experiences, academic and professional, that our fellows bring to the team’s daily work.” 

A noted expert and media authority on retirement policy, Ghilarducci has launched SCEPA’s Retirement Equity Lab, which is dedicated primarily to conducting research on the U.S. retirement system and vulnerable older workers. ReLab engages with both the media and policymakers to share their data and seek major structural reform. 

Owen Davis, a former financial reporter, and a first-year Economics PhD student, works as a research assistant at SCEPA’s ReLab. His work helps to illuminate vulnerabilities that have fueled the growing retirement crisis and led millions of American workers to downward mobility in retirement

“We use government and survey data sets to explore how retirement policies and labor market trends affect older workers’ retirement prospects,” Davis explains. “For example, last semester I used a nationally representative data set to show that the financial fragility of older workers has been rising since the 1990s, and remains elevated since the Great Recession. In short, the typical older worker has more debt relative to their assets than they did before the last recession.”

Owen Davis, Economics PhD student

Student fellows contribute their own interests and areas of expertise to  SCEPA’s work and also gain hands-on experience in the economics field.

“In many instances, we end up working with our former students as professionals, such as former SCEPA research assistants Kate Bahn, who is now Director of Labor Market Policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and Kyle Moore, senior policy analyst with the U.S. Joint Economic Committee,” Ghilarducci says. 

The center’s work is often shaped by movements and financial trends in real time. 

“Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, we have devoted virtually all our attention to predicting how the crisis will affect older workers and determining what policies would be most important to ensuring income and retirement security, as well as basic safety, for older Americans,” Davis says. “We’re hard at work seeing how all of these phenomena will play out for the current crop of retirees and near-retirees. Hopefully we can get our message out to policymakers.” 

Zolberg Institute: A New Understanding of Human Movement 

Zolberg Institute fellows in Amman, Jordan, summer 2018

The Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility examines human movement in the age of globalization. Building on The New School’s tradition of migration studies, the institute combines art, activism, and research to create a forum on issues of human movement. 

Catherine McGahan is the Associate Director at the Zolberg Institute and previously worked for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “The Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility is the first institute to focus specifically on mobility,” McGahan says. “We pull in different disciplines to create programming that is accessible to the general public, outside of academia. We are working on research, we are working on policy, we are working on academia, we are creating a more robust view of migration and mobility, not just for New York City or the country, but also for the world.” 

The Zolberg Institute is also supporting the next generation of migration scholars and immigration advocates. Graduate student fellows come from a diverse range of scholarly backgrounds; NSSR students from Anthropology, Politics, Sociology, Liberal Studies, and Psychology collaborate with students from other programs at The New School, including International Affairs, Public and Urban Policy, and Transdisciplinary Design. They work on a host of projects, including writing content for the Mobilities Seminar series at Public Seminar, NSSR’s publishing initiative, working in specialized faculty research clusters, and producing the Zolberg Institute’s immigration policy podcast, Tempest Tossed.

Special Zolberg-IRC fellowships allow students to work directly on global issues, piloting interventions and policy recommendations that then get rolled out to a global community at large. 

Mat Cusick is an MA candidate in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program and a current Zolberg fellow. Cusik is an editor at Public Seminar and works on Tempest Tossed.

“I would say that the Zolberg Institute is where I feel the greatest sense of community in the entire university,” Cusick says. “All of my colleagues share a commitment to issues that matter to me, and we have the opportunity to work together on these issues in various practical ways — writing and editing articles, researching and planning the podcast episodes, hearing and discussing scholarly work in progress, and attending and supporting public events.”

With their robust public events calendar currently on pause, Zolberg has gone digital, launching an online series of discussions with scholars and activists on migration-related issues and COVID-19.

 Mat Cusick, Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student

The upcoming season of Tempest Tossed, produced by the student fellows, is a deep-dive on the Trump administration’s immigration tactics, their impact, and their potential lasting legacy.

I have responsibility for researching and editing the script for an episode on the Trump administration’s ‘virtual wall’ — another way of describing the systematic dismantling of the asylum system,” Cusick shares. “The fellowship has provided me with my first opportunity to be involved directly in a podcast, at all levels of production, from proposing subjects, speakers, and titles, to recording interviews and editing scripts, to strategizing about marketing and promotion.”

As an editor at Public Seminar, Cusick has written his own pieces on migration as well as commissioned and edited the work of major scholars in the field for the Mobilities Seminar, on topics such as asylum policy, offshore detention of refugees, climate change, forced migration, and sanctuary movements.

“Zolberg fellows are engaged in a wide range of important and exciting work around what I consider to be one of the most fundamental political issues of our time, transcending borders,” Cusick says.

Terry Williams: The Cosmopolitan Life of an Urban Ethnographer

“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 Woogie 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

Williams with his latest project: shoe construction

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.