Integrative PhD Fellowship Unites Design and the Humanistic Social Sciences

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

Wagner-Pacifici became 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 professional careers.” 

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 Fellows cohort.

“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 areas.”

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.

Another “Thinking Through Interfaces” classmate, Clinical Psychology PhD candidate Emily Breitkopf, is using the class to develop a visual component to her dissertation.

“My 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.

Why 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,” 

“I’ve 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.

Imagined Futures: NSSR Welcomes Jens Beckert, Economic Sociologist and 2019-2020 Heuss Professor

If the human experience tends toward chaos, then many economists consider it their job to take that chaos and lay bare the rationality underlying it. Especially during the last 70 years, economists have increasingly focused on assumptions that individuals behave rationally by making all kinds of economic calculi; similarly, at the social level, both firms and states operate according to implicit rational principles to minimize loss and maximize gain.

But there are many who challenge that orthodoxy, thinkers who ask: Is this really the case? Among them are many scholars at The New School for Social Research (NSSR), well-known for its focus on heterodox economics.

In the 2019-2020 academic year, NSSR will welcome one of those challengers, Jens Beckert, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Köln, Germany, to the Department of Sociology. He’ll be here as the Heuss Professor, a distinguished visiting professorship that brings a prominent German academic to NSSR each year to conduct research and teach, maintaining the longstanding bond between The New School and the German academic world. Learn more in this RM profile of Hubertus Buchstein, 2018-2019 Heuss Professor.

Relating Economics to Social Structures

Beckert specializes in economic sociology, a subdiscipline that explores the correlation between economic processes and the social and cultural structures in which economic action is embedded. His work focuses on the subtle non-economic and non-rational foundations of economic theory and practice, with a particular interest in markets as the most important mechanisms for the allocation of goods in capitalist economies. 

“The economic description of markets would be that these are all hyper-rational actors that have no moral boundaries and just pursue their interests,” he says. “But it is my conviction that actually an economy only based on this would collapse. It needs, in a way, a social addition on which it rests at the same time. If you have only rational actors, no institution could work.”

Beckert was a graduate student at NSSR in the early 1990s, when economic sociology began to emerge as a field. His dissertation considered the way in which classical sociological authors, from Parsons to Giddens, had theorized the economy. For his habilitation at Free University of Berlin, a German qualifying benchmark for university-level teaching, Beckert focused on social inequality and the long-term transmission of wealth. Diving into two centuries of inheritance law history in France, Germany and the U.S., he ambitiously explored how inheritance law had shifted through periods of industrialization, reforms or revolutions, including the emergence of social democracy and the labor movement.

Now, several decades later, Beckert is taking on an even bigger topic: how capitalism shapes our experience of time.

Imagining the Future

In his latest work, Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics, Beckert develops an analysis of capitalism focused on a novel way of thinking about time. “With capitalism, there is a change in the temporal orientation of societies. Societies don’t pursue the future anymore as a repetition of the past, like what you had in agricultural societies. But they see the future as an open field in which they find opportunities but also risks, of course,” he explains. This cultural and psychological shift is supported by specific institutions and practices, from generalized competition to the proliferation of debt and credit, that change our relationship to time in a way that further enables the development of capitalist production.

Beckert argues that this is a crucial and understudied dimension of capitalist development, for which he has offered the notion of “imagined futures,” or “fictional expectations.” “To explain the dynamics of capitalism, we need to put this future orientation of actors front and center,” he says. While capitalism has a foundation in rational calculation, it also encourages daydreaming and speculation as responses to  a kind of uncertainty that is not treatable within the standard economic frameworks.

Imagined futures are the outcome of endless modeling and speculation, which also makes use of calculative devices and creates the expectations that generate economic activity despite the incalculability of future outcomes.

Beckert has found that his book has been surprisingly popular also in the business world.  “Companies are interested in this. When I give talks there, people know immediately what I’m talking about…They have to make all kinds of plans and projections, often on more or less arbitrary assumptions.”

It’s not just firms that make assumptions; academic economists make them, too. “I’m interested in the function of economic theories for the practices in the economy,” Beckert said. Economic theories have a performative effect: They guide agent behavior and thus may end up having the effect they describe by sheer force of influence. “I don’t want to say that reality becomes like economic theory. But something happens in reality as an effect of the theory, and that is the point,” Beckert clarifies.

For his pioneering work, Beckert was recently awarded the Leibniz Prize, considered the highest scientific research prize in Germany. He hopes to use the 2.5 million Euro award to advance the cause of economic sociology by funding researchers to further develop these ideas.

Thinking ahead at his year at NSSR, Beckert is looking forward to moving from a smaller institute to a bigger university and engaging with colleagues across New York-area university. He’s also “excited about the students and about the teaching part of learning from the students.” In Fall 2019, he will teach Economy and Society, an introduction to the major theories, approaches, and topics in economic sociology. And students in his Spring 2020 class on Imaginaries, Narratives, and Calculation in the Economy, will get a in-depth look at the topics from his latest book, including how actors deal with uncertainty of the future and how calculative instruments and imaginaries are used to shape economic futures.

Lucas Perelló, Politics PhD Candidate, Wins Fulbright to Honduras

Free elections contested by parties are central to our conventional notions of democracy. But on what basis does a voter relate to their party: ideology, favors, personal interests, something else? And once party systems are established, how do they evolve? For New School for Social Research Politics PhD candidate Lucas Perelló, these questions provide the framework for his dissertation. And starting in September, he’ll be investigating them as a Fulbright Scholar in a country going through a nearly unprecedented political shift: Honduras.

Born in the U.S. and raised in Chile, Perelló studied politics broadly before focusing on comparative politics, especially in Latin America. After completing an MA in Chile, Perelló completed an MA in Applied Quantitative Research at New York University. But as he approached a career as a political scientist, he felt something was lacking. Looking to expand his conceptual formation, Perelló moved a few blocks north to NSSR.

“The New School overlapped with one of my other interests, which was to expand my methodological knowledge qualitatively. I was drawn to the emphasis given to aspects of development to solve conceptualizing things differently, giving you a different theoretical lenses to study particular political phenomenon.”

Political Party Shift

Immersing himself in empirical case studies and theory, Perelló began to formulate a research plan that married these elements tightly while renewing his passion for comparative approaches. “I study how political parties, and how is it and why is it that party systems change…and how it is that political parties engage with voters,” Perelló says. In this case, ‘political party systems’ refers to how elections are set up, whether voters choose between two parties or multiple parties. The question of party linkages looks at how parties get votes.

“This is a continuous debate within political science and comparative politics, but originally people thought political parties would appeal to voters on either on a programmatic basis, or a clientelist basis, or a charismatic one.” In other words, people vote for a party based on either an ideological agreement, a quid-pro-quo arrangement whereby a vote can be redeemed for favors, or force or personal magnetism of a candidate alone.

Of course, one party can have multiple sorts of such ‘linkages’ with voters, varying according to target demographic, general level of development, or ideology, and changing over time. With this interest party linkages and their evolution, Perelló was drawn to a comparatively understudied region, Central America, specifically Honduras. “Honduras actually presents very interesting insights into the entire discussion of party system change, and the types of party linkages that exist within society,” Perelló says.

Case Study: Honduras

Like many Latin American countries, Honduras transitioned from military dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s. For several decades after — even through a coup in 2009 — the country featured a two-party system that operated on a decisively clientelist model. But in the 2013 elections, a fundamental shift occurred: the two-party system gave way to a multi-party one, including an upstart Anti-Corruption Party led by a popular sportscaster.

“What is interesting about this change is that not only did the party system change quite abruptly, but the types of linkages that the political parties are adopting also shifted suddenly,” Perelló explains. Whereas clientelism and corruption were once the norm, programmatic appeals on the basis of ideology are gaining ground, especially among wealthier constituencies.  

There are several reasons that clientelism can lose its power. Appeals based on loyalty-for-favors become weaker as countries become wealthier. Additionally, clientelism can disenfranchise large parts of a population. “There’s many levels associated with this, but at least in the Honduran context these are very exclusive networks,” says Perelló. “For example, you can have a low-income household that is very dependent on some specific policies. The benefits that you might receive from these policies that are actually aimed at reducing poverty are contingent upon who you vote for. And [the government can] keep the electorate poor because they’re dependent on them if they want to stay in power. It’s been so entrenched that the way that it also molds how individual voters, how citizens actually see democracy.”

Because this shift from clientelism to programmatic appeals in developing countries is so unusual, Honduras is a fascinating case study against which to test existing theories of party systems and linkages. Perelló has visited Honduras several times, but found that pervasive clientelism made it nearly impossible to access the people and spaces relevant to his research. It also made for an interesting situation of mistaken identity. Once, while dressed up for a visit to the National Congress, dozens of older women surrounded him. “They approached me with receipts, with CDs, pictures of their kids, asking me if I could get their sons or their daughters who just graduated a job, if I could help them pay for receipt of electricity,” he says. Only when he opened his mouth to speak — in Chilean Spanish — did the crowd realize he was not a government official and could not help them. Local politicians were similarly reluctant to let Perelló in, stonewalling him or only disclosing details of the opposition’s approach.

Opening New Doors

Returning for 10 months with the prestigious Fulbright scholarship and an office and teaching position at Central American Technological University (UNITEC), Perelló is hopeful that more doors will open to him, especially among the political elite. “I really need to spend more time there — more time to conduct interviews, more archival research,” he says. He applied to several different grants and credits his Fulbright success to the wisdom and guidance of David Plotke, Professor of Politics and his dissertation advisor, as well as Tsuya Yee, Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs. But he’s cautious: “A Fulbright can work in favor or against you in the sense that, perhaps you’re seen as a representative of the U.S. government who’s meddling around internal politics of a country that has been historically intervened by the U.S. But at least to get my foot in the academic world, Fulbright has so far worked in my favor!”

Despite his focus on Honduras, Perelló believes his project can help scholars and the public understand how political systems can move away from clientelism, and how two-party systems can become more open and contested. “My overall objective in understanding these changes is to understand how can you strengthen democracy in countries that have such a strong authoritarian past.”

Economics PhD Student Kyle Moore Talks Policy and Capitol Hill

This story originally appeared on the Insights blog from the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at The New School for Social Research

Kyle Moore starts a new job on Capitol Hill next week. He’ll be joining the Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) as a Senior Policy Analyst.

Our first order of business is to offer Kyle a hearty congratulations on his success! Kyle is a long-time member of the SCEPA and New School community, and we wish him well as he goes forward in his economics career.

Kyle earned his MA in Economics from the New School for Social Research, served as a SCEPA fellow within the Retirement Equity Lab (ReLab), and went on to pursue his PhD in the department, which he is currently writing. Some of Kyle’s ReLab work can be found here and here. The Review of Black Political Economy also recently published his research done with ReLab.

As Kyle begins his journey to impact policy within the hallowed halls of our government, he shares a little of his experience below. His story reflects the same desire to confront some of today’s biggest challenges that attracted many of us to the New School. He talks about how he got to where he is today and gives some advice to those who will follow him.

  1. What will you do in this job?

    My role will be to write reports and issue briefs on the economic policy issues that matter to Democratic Members of Congress, to prepare briefings for and help contact experts to participate in Congressional hearings on those topics, and to help write the JEC response to the annual Economic Report of the President.

  2. Can you describe your research work and focus?

    As a researcher, I’m mainly interested in understanding the causes and consequences of identity group-based social and economic disparities. I want to provide explanations (and hopefully policy solutions for) persistent gaps in health, wealth, income, and employment across race and gender. To do this, I work within the traditions of stratification economics, institutional economics, and the political economy of health. My dissertation work is centered on the health consequences of racial disparities in access to economic resources and exposure to potentially stressful events. I also have a deep interest in the philosophy of social science and in economics’ role in academia and policy circles as a social science

  3. What interested you in working on Capitol Hill?

    My interest in working with the JEC, and with economic policy more broadly, stems from my view that social scientists have a responsibility to put their knowledge and their work into practice. Because the subject matter of the social sciences (particularly economics) is human well-being, those who have the time and resources to study the social sciences are called to two purposes: to make others aware of the causes and extent of social and economic problems, and to do what’s possible to alleviate those problems. Inequality, poverty, and racial disparities in mortality and morbidity are too important to be treated as only academic concerns; they have real consequences for people’s lives. Working with the JEC gives me the opportunity to get research directly into the hands of members of Congress — research that could make a real impact on people’s life chances.

  4. What are your hopes as you go forward in this new position and in your career?

    I’m looking forward to learning a lot about how economic policy is shaped while working with the JEC. My hope is that I’ll be able to direct people towards better understandings of the causes and consequences of economic inequality. I’d especially like to bring the expertise I’ve built studying persistent racial economic disparities to the staff, in hopes that progress can be made towards reducing those disparities. I also hope that the position will give me a more well-rounded understanding of economics and economic policy, beyond my current areas of expertise, that will be valuable for the students I plan to teach once I make my way back into academia.

  5. How did your time at SCEPA and in the NSSR Econ Department influence your decision to work in policy?

    Taking courses within the Economics department at NSSR and working at SCEPA and the Retirement Equity Lab set me up to take on this role in policy. Both sets of experiences were essential in shaping my understanding of the relationship between academic research and economic policy.
  6. NSSR’s Economics department is steeped in a tradition of political economy that’s constantly asking of its students “What is the end (purpose) of economic study?” Without that framing, it’s possible to treat economic study as just a set of interesting data puzzles. The critical perspective that’s baked into the coursework at NSSR steers students towards discussions of social and economic inequality, and what we can do about that inequality. Working at SCEPA and ReLab allowed me to put that critical frame developed through courses in the Econ department to practice, translating academic research into policy briefs and white papers using accessible (non-academic) language. I was able to produce a body of work on the intersection between race, aging, and retirement policy while there, developing some expertise on those subjects. I also gained valuable technical skills working with statistical software, government databases, and longitudinal surveys that I’ve used for my own research and will continue to use in my work with the JEC.

  7. As a role model for other NS Economics students, what advice would you give a current NS Econ student if they wanted to follow in your footsteps?

    It’s important to seek out opportunities to produce work with your name on it that will be publicly distributed. Whether it’s a blog post, an op-ed, a chapter review, a policy brief, or an academic research paper. Your body of work is something that accumulates over time, follows you throughout your career, and will often open a lot of doors for you. Any time is a good time to start writing.

    Start going to seminars, academic conferences, and events. Ask questions there, meet people, talk about your research, and if you don’t have a clearly defined topic, talk about what you’re interested in. The key is to make connections with people; the more people that know who you are and what you’re interested in, the more of a chance there is that when they hear about an opportunity that might be good for you, they send it your way. Doing good work is a necessary but insufficient condition for getting to a position where that work can make a difference.

    Put together a group of colleagues and mentors you can rely on to speak openly with about work, research, and the troubles that come along with academic life. It’s not easy for anyone, and no one gets through coursework or research entirely on their own. Research and scholarship are both social processes, so it makes sense that the best research and scholarship is done in groups. Most importantly though, having people to talk to and confide in is essential for maintaining mental health throughout grad school.

  8. Given the polarization of politics today, what role do you think current New School Economics student can play in creating real and positive change?

    NSSR Economics students are perhaps uniquely positioned among the universe of Econ students in that they aren’t discouraged from taking Economics’ role as a social science with real social and political implications seriously. NSSR Econ has a “vision” that is, at its core, unabashedly progressive. That vision is something that economics as an academic discipline desperately needs, but it’s equally needed at think tanks and in the places where economic policy is shaped.  

Benjamin Van Buren on Perception, Illusion, and Returning to New York

In 1976, NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter, which was circling around Mars, delivered one of the most striking and close-up images of this distant place that had ever been seen by earthlings. The photograph featured what looked like a human face sculpted into the surface of the planet. While many realized that the face was simply a coincidental pattern of light and shadow caught at just the right time, some took this “face on Mars” as evidence of abandoned alien civilizations and government cover-ups. 

Picture and close-up of the “face on Mars” taken by the Viking 1 orbiter

Visual perception has a difficult job. Starting from highly limited sensory input (flat, low-resolution images), it fills in gaps, adding information that was never there to begin with. Such extrapolations can provide an accurate sense of the world, or they can lead us astray. The wonders and folly of perception motivated Benjamin Van Buren, the new Assistant Professor of Psychology at The New School for Social Research (NSSR), to develop a research program concerning the precise mechanics of attention, perceptual inference, and illusion.

But how exactly does one study perception? One approach, which Van Buren favors, is psychophysics, a branch of psychology that deals with the relationships between physical stimuli and mental phenomena. Van Buren’s work maps visual inputs onto visual experiences, an approach favored by Gestalt psychologists, who discovered, for example, that how you see something moving depends dramatically on the context in which you view it.

Which dot is circling the other?

Van Buren gives the above example: Which dot is circling the other? We perceive the relationship between the two dots (i.e. which is stationary, and which as ‘orbiting’) by referring their motion to an external reference frame — either the screen or the moving background texture. The influence of background motion on the appearance of the dots strongly supports the Gestalt view of perception — that wholes take precedence over parts, and the appearance of parts depends on the wholes they are seen to comprise.

Gestalt Psychology has a long history at The New School; the first University in Exile faculty included Max Wertheimer, considered the father of Gestalt psychology, and Rudolph Arnheim. More recently, working outside the Gestalt tradition, Arien Mack, Alfred J. and Monette C Marrow Professor of Psychology, has advanced the study of perception with her research on inattentional blindness.

Van Buren’s path to NSSR began with an interest in visual aesthetic experiences. “In high school, I was always doing art-related stuff; making animations, wood carvings, and kinetic sculptures after Jean Tinguely. Then I got to college and the whole universe opened up before me,” he recalls. At the University of Pennsylvania, he followed a program in cognitive science and started working with Anjan Chatterjee on projects in neuroscience and aesthetics. “I wanted to see if it was possible to use a relatively ‘hard’ scientific approach to better understand things that seem more ineffable, like art experiences,” he says. This led him to a string of projects exploring the cognitive demands of viewing photographs of beautiful and ugly landscapes, how attention is deployed to attractive faces, and how artists’ painting styles change as a result of Alzheimer’s disease.

Most recently, Van Buren has also been probing the perception of intentions. Strictly speaking, when we see somebody reach out to hold our hand, or run to catch a train, the sensory data contain nothing more than physical states and changes. But in both of these cases, we experience the action in more than merely physical terms — we see it as performed by an agent with a mind, who has beliefs and goals. As a case study, his research has focused on another strong and storied illusion, in which we reflexively see simple geometric shapes (which we know to be inanimate) as alive and goal-directed when they move in particular ways.

In the same way that we can’t help but experience other visual illusions, we can’t help but see the shapes in the above Heider and Simmel film as animate, and telling some kind of story

Van Buren explains that seeing the world in this rich way is adaptive, driven by evolutionary pressures and the demands of development. Successful interaction with the world requires seeing it in all sorts of ways that go beyond the input data. “You can conceive of perception as solving a number of different problems. And we need not always think of perception as one process; it can be understood a variety or processes that are tacked together as solutions to problems that are posed by the environment,” Van Buren says.

For the past several years, Van Buren has been investigating perception’s curious “solutions” at Yale University, where he earned his doctorate, and at KU Leuven in Belgium, where he conducted postdoctoral research. His projects have explored everything from the perception of food’s caloric content to visitors’ aesthetic experiences in art galleries. Most recently, he has been interested in the question of how and when a still photo — which, strictly speaking, corresponds to a single moment of time — is seen to represent a longer stretch of time (from a few seconds to hours).

A New York native, Van Buren is looking forward to joining the New School and leading his own laboratory, the NSSR Perception Lab. He envisions the lab as “a space where people feel encouraged to break new intellectual and methodological ground, and where they learn from one another by sharing and debating ideas.” He is also excited about potential interdisciplinary collaborations with Parsons faculty and students. “Designers spend much of their time thinking about how we see the world in order to improve our experience of our surroundings. A lot of this knowledge would be interesting to vision scientists, but communication between these fields has been fairly rare. Fortunately, The New School is known for collaborations across disciplinary boundaries and for a widespread willingness to explore new avenues of research,” he says, citing the example of Professor of Psychology Michael Schober, who conducts research on jazz musicians as they improvise. “This work moves beyond all the existing paradigms in psychology in order to answer profound questions about how people read each other’s signals and create together.”

In Fall 2019, Van Buren will be teaching two classes. In “Visual Perception and Cognition,” NSSR graduate students will survey the latest vision science, including research on the perception of color, motion, shape, material, and depth. “I want to focus on big themes, and I plan to incorporate a lot of demonstrations.” he says. In “The Psychology of Aesthetics and Design,” undergraduates will study existing literature on empirical aesthetics, design a research question, and test their hypotheses through rigorous experimentation. He hopes these projects will reflect students’ own design practices and concerns, and that through them they will also discover new ways in which empirical methods can be used to enhance creative work.