“By listening as someone puts their story into language, you foster a space where recreating and transforming a narrative becomes possible,” Melany Rivera Maldonado, NSSR’s new Assistant Professor of Psychology and director of the Safran Center for Psychological Services, tells me. Before she was a therapist and a professor, Rivera Maldonado was a journalist, and the transformative power of stories and of narrative space has never been lost on her.
A Procession from Journalism to Psychology
Writing has been a large part of Rivera Maldonado’s life. It first came in the form of poetry, under the mentorship of Puerto Rican writers Mayra Santos Febres, Mairym Cruz Bernal, and Mayda Colón. Later, as a communication student, she researched social issues in journalism. That work taught her how to interview people — what to ask, and how to approach certain subjects.
After creating profiles for community and non-profit stakeholders for Puerto Rico Solidario, a section of El Nuevo Dia newspaper, Rivera Maldonado got more involved in psychological work and decided to pursue her PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Puerto Rico. There, as a first-generation doctoral student, she learned how to ask questions from multiple angles to access pieces of life that people may not know are affecting them. In the therapy room, her background in writing helps her find metaphors, create connections, and foster opportunities for those who often feel unheard to find their voice.
After, Rivera Maldonado moved to New Jersey to complete her internship year at the YCS Institute for Infant and Preschool Mental Health, then worked as an Assistant Professor at Felician University teaching both counseling and ethics courses. Since then, she has been involved in direct services, leadership, and advocacy efforts related to immigrant children and youth. As part of her program development experience, she created a program for Latin American immigrant youth to process the transition, stressors, and mourning experiences that come with their journey to the U.S. Another program under her leadership for children of immigrants and their parents fostered a space for connection and understanding between and within the families. Rivera Maldonado’s focus on migrant communities allows her to provide them a space to find their voices as they navigate a convoluted immigration process and heal at personal and communal levels. Rivera Maldonado calls this focusing on developing participatory interventions that come from the community and go to the community.
Rivera Maldonado also tries to bring the particularly Latin American psychology of liberation to her work. “Psychology as a practice, inside and outside the therapy room, is political,” she tells me, and requires looking at the interconnection of both social and individual factors. She described how the pandemic has brought to the surface inequalities already present — medical health services are usually harder to access overall for communities of color and disadvantaged communities, and therapy continues to be unaffordable for many, especially with high out-of-network prices.
Teaching with an Integrated View of Psychology
Now, Rivera Maldonado’s work has brought her to NSSR, where she tells me that her social justice-oriented sensibilities fit in seamlessly with the school’s ethos. She and her Psychology faculty colleagues study and teach their students how to transfer their academic knowledge to their one-on-one work with patients. “You have to understand the sociopolitical and historical climate that surrounds the communities we work with” to establish a critical lens for understanding patients, she emphasizes. At the same time, each doctoral student in their first year engages in a clinical experience, for which Rivera Maldonado shared that it’s important to “be able to also support students on the front line and promote their personal development.”
In tandem with her teaching, Rivera Maldonado is the Director of the Safran Center for Psychological Services, which provides tailored foundational training in psychotherapy and psychodiagnostic assessment to NSSR Clinical Psychology PhD students through close supervision of practical application of learned skills. It also offers low-fee psychological services to New School students and the surrounding community, and collaborates with The New School’s Counseling Center to provide psychological assessments for New School students. With their sliding scale rates, the Center serves people who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily be able to access therapeutic services. The Center is a training clinic born out of past New School professor Jeremy Safran’s and other faculty members’ interest in pursuing their research while fostering student’s development as psychologists. It’s also a place where questions about the purpose of therapy, and whether it’s meeting its goals, can be addressed in real-time — a place where the therapeutic process can be monitored through a process of research, reflection, and program evaluation.
As part of her work leading the Center and admitting patients, Rivera Maldonado makes considerations about which communities are underserved, following principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Due to the increased need for services in the area, the Center is currently at capacity. Rivera Maldonado says she is looking forward to “the possibility of generating projects and identifying funding opportunities that will strengthen the Center’s infrastructure to continue to expand our services.”
If you or somebody you know would like to inquire about accessing services, you can contact the Safran Center by emailing email@example.com or calling 212.229.570. The clinic is accepting patients for the spring 2022 semester.
Bessie Jane Rubinstein is a writer and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Brooklyn, are rotating between 3+ books, and are always taking recommendations for more.
The New School for Social Research is excited to welcome Nicola Marcucci as the Fall 2021 visiting Hans Speier Professor in the Sociology department.
Marcucci is a sociologist working in critical theory, intellectual history, the philosophy of social sciences, modern social and political thinking. He is member of the Laboratoire interdisciplinaire d’études sur les réflexivités – Fonds Yan Thomas at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris, member of the board of the Teoria Critica della Società seminar at the University Milano-Bicocca in Italy, and associated with the Bauman Institute at the University of Leeds. As part of an ongoing project investigating the sociological redefinition of critical faculties—reason, will, and judgment, Marcucci is finalizing a first volume on Spinozism, Neo-Kantianism and the birth of classical sociological theory in France and Germany.
Named for Hans Speier, a German sociologist and one of 10 founding members of the University in Exile, the Speier Professorship is a distinguished visiting professorship that brings scholars to the NSSR Sociology department to conduct research and teach, continuing The New School’s tradition of welcoming academics from Europe. Speier’s wife lost her job as a doctor due to being Jewish, and the family found refuge at The New School in 1933, where Speier became a professor of sociology until 1942, returning in 1974 as a professor emeritus.Learn more about Speier here.
Prof. Marcucci talked with Research Matters about what he’s looking forward to this year, what needs to be interrogated about the status of critique between sociology and modern philosophy, the importance of intellectual history to reconstruct the relation between the two, the legacy of the French school of sociology, the NSSR archives and the role of French refugees.
RM: What was your path to becoming a Hans Speier Professor?
NM: Having spent some years as a visiting researcher at NSSR in the past, some colleagues knew my work in both the departments of Philosophy and Sociology. I received an offer to teach from the Sociology Department two years ago; I accepted with a lot of enthusiasm, but I had to refuse at the very last minute because I didn’t receive my visa in time. Since then, I’ve been in touch with the department of Sociology (to which I would like to express my gratitude) — and last year, this opportunity popped up. Long story short, it is very exciting to be here, because of what The New School represents, because I appreciate very much the possibility of teaching here, and because I got the opportunity of making up for the first, lost opportunity I got.
RM: As a visiting research fellow here in 2014-2016, what did NSSR offer to your scholarship? Who did you work with, and what did you develop here?
I was a Marie Sklodowska-Curie European fellow for three years at EHESS Paris, and during these years I was sponsored by this fellowship to spend two years at The New School. My research concerned Spinozism, Neo-Kantianism and their influence in French and German debates on sociological theory from the 70’s of the 19th century to the end of the First World War. Chiara Bottici [Associate Professor of Philosophy] invited me to NSSR (2014-2016), because of our common interests in Spinoza and critical theory. During my stay I also collaborated with Omri Boehm [Associate Professor of Philosophy], organizing an international conference titled: “Spinoza and Kant: Metaphysics, Ethics, and Politics.” Meanwhile I continued developing the sociological side of my research and I organized an international conference titled: “Durkheim & Critique”. The contributions of this conference have been recently published in an edited volume.
RM: What made you want to return to teach further at NSSR? How does NSSR fit your ethos as an academic?
NM: I’ve been working as a researcher for many years. After obtaining my doctoral degree in history and sociology of modernity in Pisa, I taught and I researched in Berlin (Centre Marc Bloch and Humbodlt University) Paris (Sciences Po and EHESS) and Milan (Milano-Bicocca), and finally I arrived in New York. This, I think, says something about me and about why The New School is a desirable place for what I do; the international background of my research, and the interdisciplinary nature of it, are both reasons why I feel welcomed here. Moreover, I understand my work as a researcher as a way to critically engage with moral and political issues of the world I belong to, and The New School has supported intellectuals’ public engagement since its very origin.
During my stay as Hans Speier Professor, I’m working towards the publication of a “Durkheim Companion” that will be out next year, and I intend to finalize the research that I began in 2014 in the Philosophy department. As mentioned, this work consists of a reconstruction of the French and German classical sociological theory in the light of the fact that, since the late 18th century, an alternative emerged that opposed Spinozan to Kantian philosophies. This alternative, since the last decades of the 19th century, influenced the sociological debate and Durkheim’s search for an autonomous understanding of human reason, in part recovering the legacy of modern philosophy and in part breaking with it. My reconstruction ends with the way Durkheim and its school understood the sociological break with modern philosophy, offering an explanation of how it intended to overcome both Spinoza’s immanent rationalism and Kant’s transcendental idealism. This relation of continuity and rupture — the relation of philosophy and sociology — which my book intends to reconstruct, is something that can be fully granted only if we accept to move within an interdisciplinary dimension guaranteed and supported by intellectual history. Hopefully this research will be finalized by the end of the spring when I’m planning to present its results in Argentina, France, and Italy.
RM: In your writing, you flesh out the more nuanced political and methodological work of Émile Durkheim, regarded as the founder of sociology. What, broadly, do you think is misunderstood about Durkheim’s contributions to the discipline?
Durkheim intended to emancipate sociology from the legacy of philosophical Enlightenment (in the form that this took in Spinoza’s immanent rationalism and Kant’s transcendental idealism) by offering a sociological theory of the social constitution of the categories of the understanding. I think only another author had a similar ambition in the history of modern social theory: G. W. F. Hegel. To put it straightforwardly, I think that the contribution of Durkheim and its school — starting from completely different epistemological presuppositions and obtaining completely different results, but sharing a similar ambition to the one of Hegel’s social theory — should be taken seriously and considered as a different and somehow alternative paradigm in order to figure out what social critique is and could represent. In this last regard, I think the volume that I recently edited, Durkheim & Critique, contains a chorus of different voices intervening in this regard and the beginning of an answer to your question.
The relevance of Durkheim in regard to social critique is broad and requires some clarification though beyond the few things that I just said. What has been misunderstood, silenced or undeveloped in the past is the fact that there is something in Durkheim’s project that could be easily understood in the light of critical theory and not only for the reasons that I mentioned before. Since its beginning, critical theory concerned the attempt to think about the relation between philosophy and sociology, understanding their cooperation as a form of engagement which allowed theory to actively and reflexively participate in the quest for social justice immanent to modern societies. For this reason, a main polemical target of critical theory has been represented by positivism, a conception of social science shaped on the model of natural sciences, reclaiming an understanding of objectivity based on the frontal opposition of science and reality.
In my view, Durkheim has been misleadingly associated with this kind of positivism. Instead, we should focus on why he understood the rise of sociology as being historically and politically determined by the fact that philosophical critique appeared to run empty when confronted with the systemic injustice of modern societies. Sociology appeared to him as a viable solution to make sense of the same quest for social justice, immanent to modern societies, that years after, critical theory intended to follow, in the tradition of Hegel and Marx. The reasons that made Durkheim invisible in this respect have to do, I think, with the influence that Max Weber had in the project of critical theory and with the fact that his neo-Kantian epistemology consented to maintain a Marxian conception of history while the revolutionary expectations of the working class were declining. While Durkheim has been brought back by Jurgen Habermas, this, in part, happened in the light of a reception of his thought that reduced the critical and political ethos of the French sociologist’s theory by inserting it in a normative theory of justice that, de facto, was opposed to the main assumptions of his intellectual scholarship.
In the last decades though, a new reception of Durkheim has been developing, showing that, far from being the kind of conservative and positivist thinker that many had considered him to be, his epistemological project consisted in attempting to show how sociology represented a way to liberate social critique from the false alternative of liberalism and nationalism, resituating it in the field of democratic socialism. Many friends and colleagues in the LIER (my group of research at the EHESS) such as Bruno Karsenti, Cyril Lemieux and Francesco Callegaro, have made significant steps in this direction long before me. Durkheim’s epistemological project seems unintelligible without situating its critical ethos within those socialist ideals to which it intended to contribute by offering them a new form of reflexivity. Durkheim’s main ambition had consisted in enabling new possibilities for social and political action without pretending to define the political agenda of socialism. This relation of sociological critique and democratic socialism appears compelling to me today, because we live in an era characterized by public debates alternatively presenting liberalism and nationalism as inescapable ideological presuppositions, standing in the background and most often blocking our attempts to promote social change.
To escape this dramatic impasse of social critique, philosophy has lately appeared to be more and more seduced by the temptation of fully abdicating from its relation to social sciences in name of some radical social ontology that obliterates all the empirical and historical observations provided by sociology without which, in my view, no viable understanding of human institutions can be achieved. Today, to bring politics back — the message that an entire generation from Hannah Arendt to Claude Lefort defended — entails bringing back social sciences in the project of a critical theory of society It looks like the Durkheimian sociological school could help us in this regard.
RM: One of your projects here will be to do archival work around sociologist and jurist Georges Gurvitch. Why are you planning on returning to his work? How does Gurvitch stand out amongst the scholars of the University in Exile at The New School? How did the climate of The New School influence Gurvitch and his sociological work?
If, for the reasons that I briefly sketched out, the Durkheimian school has to be associated with the realm of democratic socialism and, I would like to add, with a reflection on the epistemic consequences of the “discovery” of social rights, this intent went in part lost in the generation following the first World War. (However, it survived in some fundamental but isolated intellectual trajectories such as the one of Marcel Mauss.) Georges Gurvitch participated in a second period bringing new energies and ideas in the debate. When he arrived in France in the late ‘20s he had already participated, before leaving his country, in the germinal experience of the Soviets during the Russian Revolution, and he became a specialist in German phenomenology. Once in Paris he found, in the Durkheimian tradition, an intellectual framework to think through the relation between social rights and legal pluralism. This legacy shaped his vision and represents the background of some of its most important works written in the ’30s. When Gurvitch arrived in New York and participated in establishing the Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes [a “university-in-exile” for French academics located at NSSR], this was his intellectual horizon.
Meanwhile in the ‘30s, a younger intellectual seemed confronted as well with the task of renewing the legacy of Durkheimism. His name was Claude Levi-Strauss. Around the beginning of the ‘40s, escaping Vichy France, both intellectuals came to NSSR. One of the things I’m doing in my actual research is trying to find some elements in the archives of The New School (I would like to thank Jenny Swadosh for her precious and generous help) and other archives (Yale and Rockefeller Foundation) concerning both Gurvitch and Levi-Strauss during their New York years, from ’40 to ‘45.
When Gurvitch arrived at NSSR, his work appears in full continuity with the political, critical, and socialist legacy of the Durkheimian school after the First World War. He originally elaborated this legacy and presented it to the American public, offering his defense of social rights and legal pluralism in different articles published in major journals. In the same years, Levi-Strauss was notably becoming familiar with the theories of Roman Jakobson, and his contribution to the debate on the French Sociological School seems to be already characterized by elements that, after the war, gave the tone to the structuralist turn in sociology and anthropology. In the same years, during his stay at NSSR, Gurvitch composed a sort of political manifesto, The Declaration of Social Right, hoping it would have contributed to the process of constitution-making of the French Fourth Republic.
Once back in France after the war, Gurvitch becomes professor of sociology at La Sorbonne, and Lévi-Strauss becomes the Lévi-Strauss we know: The Elementary Structures of Kinship is firstly published in 1949. Starting from the ‘50s, their intellectual collaboration ends and their relation is characterized by a growing disappointment and mutual criticism. Gurvitch did not succeed in renewing the Durkheim legacy in the way he probably had wished and the political expectations that nourished his ‘manifesto’ were not satisfied. His later works appear less interesting, mostly attempting to create an ambitious but very formal synthesis between his sociology and the Marxian tradition. There are no reasons to interrogate the success of Levi-Strauss’ intellectual project on the other hand, but the consequence of the transition to structuralism—as it already appears very clearly in Levi-Strauss’ introduction to Marcel Mauss, published in 1950 and prefaced by Georges Gurvitch himself—excluded some of the main political aspects that instead we have seen characterizing the intellectual and critical ethos of the Durkheimian school. The New School years of Gurvitch and Levi-Strauss represented the last appearance of the critical and political ethos of the French sociological school. NSSR represented the place where a reflection on the political legacy of the French Sociological School appeared before being interrupted and whose critical ambition appears today worth it to be re-explored.
RM: I have one more question I want to ask about teaching! It’s been about a month — how is your graduate Classical Sociology class going? How are you finding the students and discussions?
I’m having a great experience! It’s a great feeling to be physically back as a group of people sharing the same physical space, showing our faces — part of them at least — and discussing together after the full regime of isolation we have been exposed to for one year and a half. Secondly, I’m impressed by the attention and curiosity of many of my students. These two things are often separated. In some cases, students can be attentive but the respect for the authority of the teacher can somehow diminish their capability to perform and autonomously appropriate what is transmitted. In other cases, students’ eagerness to make sense, to intervene and to appropriate what they are learning can prevent them to fully acknowledge the autonomy of a text, its meaning and/or how to make sense of the intention of an author. Many of my students have shown both qualities at once, and for this reason they have taught me a lot.
Bessie Jane Rubinstein is a writer and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Brooklyn, are rotating between 3+ books, and are always taking recommendations for more.
For the 2021-2022 academic year, The New School for Social Research is excited to welcome Till van Treeck as the Distinguished Heuss Professor in the Economics department.
Professor of Socioeconomics and head of the Institute for Socioeconomics at the University of Duisberg-Essen in Germany, Till van Treeck is a macroeconomist/political economist with an interdisciplinary orientation. His current research agenda is focused on the macroeconomic implications of income distribution, including the fields of sectoral imbalances (private households, corporate sector, government sector), external imbalances (export-led versus debt-led growth), personal saving and labor supply decisions (Veblen effects, Relative Income Hypothesis), and ecological issues. He also seeks to bring together macroeconomic and comparative political economy approaches to growth models.
The Heuss Professorship is a distinguished visiting professorship that brings a prominent German academic to NSSR each year to conduct research and teach, maintaining a decades-long bond between The New School and the German academic world. Learn more about the history of the Heuss Professorship in this Research Matters profile of Hubertus Buchstein, 2018-2019 Heuss Professor.
Prof. van Treeck responded to a Research Matters Q&A on what he’s looking forward to this year, and what social scientists need to know about income inequality, economics education, differences between the U.S. and Germany, and more.
RM: How did you learn about the Heuss Professorship opportunity? What interested you in it?
TVT: In the summer of 2019, I received a letter from Harald Hagemann, the chairman of the Heuss selection committee, asking whether I would be interested to be the next Heuss Professor. I was rather surprised, because I had never applied…But I was also immediately interested when I received that letter because I always regarded The New School as a unique academic institution whose tradition I admire and which was, in fact, an important source of inspiration for the establishment of my own, much younger professional home: the Institute for Socio-Economics (IFSO) at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, where I have served as a founding managing director since 2017 until the summer of 2021.
RM: What previous contact or relationship had you had with The New School or New School faculty members?
TVT: In a way, I feel that I know The New School quite well because many of its previous or current faculty members are important figures in the academic “bubble” that I am also a part of. I remember that, as a graduate student, there were two books by New School faculty members that made a huge impression on me: Reconstructing Macroeconomics by Lance Taylor [Professor Emeritus] and The Economics of Demand-Led Growth by Mark Setterfield [Professor and Chair of Economics]. At that time, I also read several inspiring articles by Anwar Shaikh [University in Exile Professor of Economics].
In recent years, Mark Setterfield’s research interests have been very close to my own, including economic inequality and varieties of capitalism, or the link between inequality and financial instability. We have discussed these issues at various conferences, including at the annual conference of the Forum for Macroeconomics and Macroeconomic Policies (FMM) in Berlin which I co-organized a few times and where Mark has been a frequent contributor. I have also had fruitful exchanges with Willi Semmler [Arnhold Professor of International Cooperation and Development], who recently gave a talk at our IFSO research seminar in Duisburg. I also know quite a number of younger colleagues from German-speaking countries who did their PhD at the New School. They always report enthusiastically about this experience!
RM: What are you looking forward to in your time at NSSR as our 2021-2022 Heuss Professor?
TVT: Generally speaking, I look forward to learning more about NSSR in terms of both research and teaching activities. There are several New School faculty members whose works I have long found interesting and inspiring, but whom I have never met in person. So I am looking forward to getting to know them over the next year. And I am looking forward to engaging with NSSR students. At my home university, we recently created a new Master’s program in Socio-Economics as well as a PhD program on the Political Economy of Inequality, and I am sure that we can learn a lot from the established programs here at NSSR.
On a personal level, the Heuss Professorship opportunity comes very timely for me. In the past few years, I had many administrative duties surrounding the foundation of the IFSO. This, and entertaining and homeschooling three small children during the pandemic together with my wife, ate into both my research time and my leisure time. The perspective of spending an entire year in the unique intellectual environment which is The New School is something I really look forward to. And, of course, I do hope, not least for my family who is with me in New York City, that the pandemic will be gotten and remain under control throughout the next year and beyond.
RM: One of your research interests is income inequality, and in a recent paper, you write that inequality in Germany has been on the rise since the year 2000. How would you compare that to the levels of inequality seen in the U.S.?
TVT: Inequality has increased in Germany especially during the 2000s. But it is interesting to observe, and to try to explain why, different countries have experienced rather different patterns of income distribution (despite superficially similar trends in simple summary indicators such as the Gini coefficient* of household market income, which increased to a similar extent in Germany and the U.S. over the past decades). Interestingly, the share of household income going to households at the very top (top household income shares) has not increased nearly as much in Germany as it has in the U.S over the past decades. By contrast, the share of corporate income in the aggregate national income has increased, and the share of aggregate household income decreased, more strongly in Germany.
*The Gini coefficient is a measure of the distribution of income across a population often used as a gauge of income inequality.
RM: Another research interest is economics education. What is your general assessment of economics education — in Germany, in the U.S., globally — especially when it comes to heterodox perspectives? What work have you done in this area?
TVT: Among the guiding principles of citizenship education that any public school teacher has to abide by are the notions of prohibition of indoctrination and the imperative of controversial debate. It would go completely against the professional ethics of a social sciences teacher to tell their students that there is just one valid theory, or paradigm in the social sciences.
When I was a student, the teaching of economics, especially at the university level was clearly in crisis: most influential economics textbooks told students that there were certain key concepts and policy conclusions, based on Neoclassical economics, that essentially every economist agrees with. For example, more equality leads to less efficiency, or government debt in excess of x per cent of gross domestic products can only be bad for the economy. On top of that, Germany stands out as a country in which the economics discourse, including economics education, traditionally has been shaped by the so-called ordoliberal tradition which highlights the importance of (easy-to-teach and easy-to-learn) rules for economic policy making and which downplays, for example, Keynesian insights in the domains of fiscal or distribution policies. For a long time, even mainstream New Keynesian thinking, represented in the U.S. by such economists as Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz, was being marginalized in economics education in Germany in the same way as heterodox economics was marginalized in the U.S.
Today, it is my impression that controversial debate is gradually returning to lecture halls and class rooms both in Germany, the U.S., and globally. I find this highly encouraging and gratifying as I have tried to contribute to the opening up of economics education. For instance, during my time as managing director of a government-sponsored think tank in Germany, we were able to support the pluralism in economics student movement in Germany (one especially successful result is the Exploring Economics website, which we co-funded). I also co-authored a German-language online textbook on macroeconomic and economic policy issues designed for the high school level.
TVT: In my current research, I look at the institutional factors that may explain why the German corporate sector has tended to retain a large fraction of their strongly rising profits, thereby restraining both aggregate household income (retained profits are not part of household income) and measured income inequality (retained profits accrue to mostly well-off owners of corporate wealth and if they were distributed to these individuals rather than retained by corporations, measured income inequality would be higher). I am also interested in the deeper societal and macroeconomic implications of the “German growth model,” especially in comparison with the “U.S. growth model”.
Put bluntly, the German corporate elite (unlike U.S. superstar managers, or the U.S. top income households more generally) so far have renounced ostentatious individual lifestyles but accumulated financial wealth for their (often family-owned) businesses. But the accumulation of corporate wealth within family firms is a driving force behind the very high wealth inequality in Germany as well as an important factor behind the structural weakness of domestic demand in Germany. This has resulted in an excessive dependence of the German economy on exports for the generation of aggregate demand and employment.
In the U.S., by contrast, a much larger chunk of the national income goes to top-income households. Combine this with the fact that such important positional, or status, goods as housing, education, health care etc. are allocated to a much larger extent via private markets in the U.S. compared to Germany and other “coordinated market economies.” You end up with a “growth model” which depends on (status-oriented and often credit-financed) private consumption as the main demand driver, and which produces persistent external deficits and financial instability. Not least, inequality and positional consumption can be an important obstacle to ecological sustainability to the extent that they hinder the transition to a low growth economy with shorter working hours.
The National Science Foundation recently awarded Jeremy Ginges, Associate Professor of Psychology, a major grant to support a multiyear research project entitled “Religion and Human Conflict.”
The award, totaling $646,716, will support Ginges and the members of his Social and Political Psychology Lab — including New School for Social Research Psychology graduate students Anne Lehner and Starlett Hartley, and postdoctoral fellow Mikey Pasek — as they develop, according to their abstract, a “theoretical framework that will allow us to understand, predict and model how religious belief influences intergroup relations, sometimes encouraging cooperation and tolerance, and at other times promoting conflict.” A supplemental award of $47,700 will allow Ginges to involve six undergraduate students from underrepresented groups from Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts in the research project as well.
Throughout his career, Ginges has focused his research on two main questions: How do humans decide whether to cooperate across cultural boundaries, and why do people sacrifice everything (their own lives, the lives of loved ones) for an abstract cause like a nation or a god? He and his lab members have investigated these questions in places around the world that oscillate between “extreme conflict and surprising cooperation,” such as Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Fiji, and Indonesia.
“The mainstream view was that beliefs in moralizing gods [gods that police behavior], and different divergent beliefs in gods….spread because they help groups become tightly knit cooperative entities that could outcompete other groups. It’s another way of saying they cause intergroup conflict,” explains Ginges. “We’ve been doing research showing that that’s actually not the case.”
In a recent article led by Julia Smith, an NSSR graduate and current doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, Ginges and his co-investigators show that, contrary to those mainstream views, belief in moralizing gods actually discourages dehumanization of other ethnoreligious groups. His lab is currently preparing a paper on an experiment in which participants were given a set amount of money and encouraged to share it with strangers. Participants initially gave more money to members of their religious group, but when prompted to think about their god, they ended up giving more money overall, regardless of who they were interacting with.
The NSF grant will help Ginges and his lab members better understand exactly when and how belief in moralizing gods makes intergroup relationships better, and when and why it sometimes makes them worse. In the case of the money-giving experiment, if a norm is to share money, thinking about god will enhance that generosity. However, if a norm is to fight a different ethnoreligious group, then thinking about god might instead increase that aggression.
In addition to better understanding how religious beliefs may have shaped, and continue to shape, cooperation between people living in diverse, complex societies, Ginges hopes that his research may inform public policy on a range of issues.
“There are implications for this research in how we understand issues around multiculturalism, particularly religious diversity and immigration,” he explains. “And also, understanding more deeply when religious belief can be used, or is used, to promote prosociality can help organizations aimed at encouraging cooperation.”
Given improving pandemic conditions, Ginges is hopeful that he and his lab members can begin running filed experiments in this multiyear project in Fall 2021. Research and fieldwork will take place with participants in the U.S. as well as Israel-Palestine and Fiji.
Research Matters talked with Woodly over Zoom to discuss the Initiative’s purpose, its theoretical foundations, and the role of organizing in our communities and universities. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.
Organizing and Political Power
Research Matters: Congratulations on launching the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the U.S.! Can you talk a little bit about what the inspiration for that was, and what the vision for it is?
Deva Woodly: The reason for the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics and Organizing in the U.S. is that The New School actually has relatively little in terms of research on American politics, and American politics is one of my specialties. I wanted to bring something to us that would be interdisciplinary in nature, and yet focus on the U.S. as a case.
I also wanted to highlight the intersection between power, politics and what I think is a lesser-studied, and yet very politically important phenomenon, which is political organizing… In political science, we often talk about mobilization. In sociology, they talk about activism in social movements. But mobilization and activism are both distinct from organizing.
Mobilization is when you assemble people who already have the requisite knowledge and skill to do a thing—you get people who are already registered to turn up to vote, for example—and you remind them to get out and do what they know how to do.
Activism is when people turn up outside the regular institutionalized boundaries of the state to make their voices heard. This is the thing that we normally associate with protest and direct action …But activism doesn’t necessarily involve sustained social analysis or the idea that you’re trying to achieve particular goals, or that you’re necessarily working with other people over time.
Organizing, on the other hand, is the long-term process of relationship-building and the changes in our subjectivity that make us understand that we are agents who can act to make change, and that we are, furthermore, agents-in-context, agents in a collectivity—that it is the power of the people acting together, over time that makes change. Organizing teaches us not only that we can act in a particular instance, but that we’re the kind of person who can act to make political change. So, it creates a fund of knowledge and a disposition toward civic action that’s good for the long-term….Organizing changes who we think we are in the polity. It creates us as an active citizenry.
There’s a ton of organizing that takes place all over the United States, and indeed it’s accelerated in this moment, but we as scholars know very little about it, and the fact is that organizers very rarely write down what they know, so we have very limited texts to teach us about organizing …I think it’s a fertile ground for scholarship to explore the nature, impacts, and efficacies of organizing.
RM: I think the word “organizing” and “get organized” are things we see and hear a lot right now, and it’s possible to feel a sense of embarrassment at not knowing what that means. You can have a toe in it without knowing what it means.
DW: Yeah, but the nice thing about organizing — both the thing that makes it so powerful but also the thing that has caused people to overlook it — is that it’s an extremely long-term process. It’s something that takes place over years. So, what political campaigns have typically done and called “organizing” is not organizing; it’s mobilizing.
But we see now that particularly Black women, Black feminists, are revolutionizing organizing in political campaigns, and we see the results of that led out by folks in Georgia, like Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown, and Nse Ufot. We see that happening in other communities, as well, particularly among indigenous folks in Arizona and New Mexico. These are long projects, they’re about engaging with people about the political problems that they identify for themselves in their communities, and trying to work with people and enable them to fight for themselves—resource them and give them the type of knowledge that they need to make changes locally. And as people get a taste of making changes locally, their political imaginations begin to expand and their political efficacy begins to increase.
RM: I love to hear you bring up Arizona—that’s where I moved from before coming to The New School, and that’s where I learned about organizing. The different groups that are at work in Arizona are doing such good work. I’ve loved to hear them get a small portion of the recognition they deserve in the last week [following the 2020 election].
DW: Oh, absolutely. I so agree. So, another goal for this initiative is to have a space to bring together political practitioners and scholars where they can inform each other and think through the common problems and contours of this political time; a place to jointly imagine the political possibilities for the 21st century.
The way that I do work is inductive. That means that the way that I work is kind of opposite the Western tradition, which is deductive. If you take a deductive approach you start with a big concept and then you go down to the particular, or try to fit instances of the particular under the big concepts. I work from an inductive approach. I start with the particular, people’s lived experiences, and try to relate those to overarching concepts that we have or create new ones. Whatever I do, I always start with people, and one of the things that has led me to understand is that we, as scholars, need to be always in contact with practitioners in the world. We have a lot of knowledge to offer each other!
I also think that universities need to have institutional pathways that allow them to have regular contact with people doing political work on the ground, particularly with organizers. So what I always try to do in any kind of educational initiative. Whether it’s creating a class I’ve taught called “Becoming a Generation Citizen,” which put [Lang] students in high school classrooms so they were interacting the world. Or with bringing in an Activist-in-Residence, which brought someone doing the work of political change to our community and providing them a space in the university to think, reflect, write, and teach which they usually don’t have time to do. And it also to informs the academic community about how our theories actually play out in the world and the questions that people who are actually doing the work would love to have answers to. This is the way to create an ongoing and fruitful interchange between theory and practice. My opinion is that the only way to achieve praxis is to actually have scholars and political practitioners in contact and helping each other think through the problems that we are witnessing and experiencing in common.
RM: I’m also curious about where “the politics of care” come into this. What makes that a research interest for you, and what made you decide to make it the organizing principle of the Initiative?
DW: Well, the politics of care is something that I became interested in as I was working on my forthcoming book, Reckoning: Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements (Oxford University Press, 2021). As I was researching that book, doing interviews with people in the Movement for Black Lives, there was a series of principles and values that people kept espousing. I ended up codifying those ideas under the term “Radical Black Feminist Pragmatism.”
One of the key aspects of Radical Black Feminist Pragmatism is the politics of care…[which] says that we need to think about politics in a completely different way. The primary subject of politics is not “rights,” the subject of politics is not “institutions,” but is instead the fact that people matter and deserve care. So, if that is the basis of our political thought, if that is the way that we think about how to design systems and to collect and aggregate resources, then it changes the whole way that we talk and think about what is necessary for the governance of the world that we share.
Organizing and Activism on Campus
RM: What do you see as the role of campus organizing and activism, something we’ve had a lot of at The New School over the last few years?
DW: Campus organizing is critical. It’s part of political organizing writ large. A campus is a community. A campus is a locality. People who are members of that community, who are members at the campus as a polity, should absolutely be in connection with each other and organizing. They should be creating relationships of political friendship and reciprocity and it is an aspect of organizing in the polity.
RM: I think one of the challenges of campus organizing could be that, as you mentioned before, the thing about organizing is that it takes a long time.
DW: Right, and the university is full of a transient population: students. That is the nature of organizing at the university, but that’s also why students have to build institutions that can handle succession…Because of the nature of the population, the wins that you have are less likely to be driven only or solely by students. They often have to be in collaboration with people who have long-term stake at the university, like unionized staff and faculty. That’s also a lesson to learn, in terms of organizing: it’s coalitions that have the biggest bang, because everybody is structurally positioned in a different way…That’s why it’s not just organizing; it’s also power and politics. You have to understand power in the place that you’re trying to make change, and that’s really where the full expression and magnitude of influence will be realized.
Journalism and Democracy
RM: I have personal stake in this question, because I’m in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program—what do you see as the role of media and journalism in the way the average person understands their political environment and role?
DW: I think that media, in terms of political journalism, needs to focus a lot more than they often do on accuracy over trying to be unbiased. The “both sides” norm is actually really detrimental to the rendering of reality, so I think that the idea of objectivity insofar as it means “both sides” needs to be put to bed. Instead, we should be interested in facts, authenticity, accuracy, and nuance. These are things that are much more descriptive of reality than objectivity, which is a thing that just doesn’t exist.
I think that media, particularly journalism and political journalism, helps us when it gives us context, and hurts us when it deprives us of contexts and reproduces stereotypical narratives that are easy to digest but don’t expand our understanding.
In the actually existing world, there’s more than two sides to almost every story, and the power that those sides wield is very rarely balanced. Their intentions, their imaginations, and their impact will not necessarily be equal, so we shouldn’t pretend that that’s the case. We have to accurately render the world as it is, or journalism ceases to be useful and that’s bad for journalism and bad for democracy.
Movements, Crises, and the Political Future
RM: How do you see the pandemic impacting political participation moving forward?
DW: The pandemic, combined with the movements and the contentious cycle that we’ve been in, the #MeToo movement, the Movement for Black Lives, the Sunrise Movement, the March for Our Lives—this is just in the US, not to mention global movements—I honestly think that this confluence of circumstances has re-politicized public life in a really beneficial way.
Not that it’s smooth; it’s not all a happy story. Like, right now we’re in a moment in which autocracy is a real possibility, in which the current administration is trying to overturn the results of an election in which more than 150 million people voted. It’s a time of danger, but also one of opportunity. Democracy is always dangerous…You’re leaving everything up to people, and people can disappoint you and make catastrophic choices. However, people can also impress you and make revelatory choices. It’s a moment in which the contingency of everything is clear to us but it’s also a moment filled with possibility.
Organizations and practices among people are huge: the way that people have remembered that they can take to the streets to make demands; the way that people have started to actually educate themselves about civics, about the way that the American government works. This past week [of the election] was insanely stressful, but do you know how many Americans learned geography? Do you know how many Americans learned what the Electoral College is, and how many electors each state has, and what kinds of officials are in charge of making what kinds of decisions? All of that is amazing and really good for democracy, to have a politically educated and engaged populace that is capable of acting on its own, capable not only of pressuring the state, but also acting autonomously. This is one of the reasons the rapid increase in the scope and coordination of mutual aid that has happened since the pandemic began is so interesting. These are the kinds of things that democracy needs.
What I’m saying to you now is basically the legacy of American pragmatism — this is straight John Dewey — which is to say that democracy requires democratic citizens, and for a long time, we haven’t had a democratic citizenry; we’ve had consumers. I think that, if we survive this time as a democracy, if the democracy stays intact, we will be really strong going forward and have the possibility to make really good changes in the future, just because so many more people will understand what can be done. So many people will have had their subjectivity reformed, having been organized in this moment. So many more people will understand that they are capable of being authors of the world that they want.
RM: That’s incredibly encouraging to hear.
DW: Well, we have to survive it. I don’t make any guarantees on that score!
The first event from the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the United States is a panel on The Politics of Care on Friday, November 13, at 4PM ET. You can register here.