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.

Global Honors for NSSR Faculty

As world-renowned scholars in their fields, several New School for Social Research faculty members recently received major honors from universities in Europe and South America. 

Richard J. Bernstein, Vera List Professor of Philosophy, teaches a class at The New School for Social Research

Richard Bernstein, Vera List Professor of Philosophy, received an honorary doctorate from the University of Buenos Aires in September 2019. 

As part of several days of celebration, Bernstein gave a keynote lecture on his philosophical journey; participated in a roundtable discussion entitled “Philosophy as Conversation: 40 Years of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by Richard Rorty”; and presented the 2019 Spanish translation of his 1983 classic, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Practice.

Bernstein is a celebrated scholar of American pragmatism, and is teaching a class on the topic at NSSR this spring. He writes and teaches across fields including social and political philosophy, critical theory, and Anglo-American philosophy. He has taught at NSSR since 1989, and has had an integral role in shaping the school as both NSSR dean and chair of the Department of Philosophy.


Headshot of Alice Crary, University Distinguished Professor

Alice Crary, University Distinguished Professor, has been named Visiting Fellow at Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford. This continuing position supports Crary’s ongoing relationships with faculty and students at Regent’s, where in 2018-2019 she was Fellow in Philosophy and Christian Ethics, as well as with the greater Oxford community. Crary was the first Regent’s Fellow to be awarded a personal chair at Oxford from the start of their appointment.

A moral and social philosopher, Crary has written widely on issues in metaethics, moral psychology and normative ethics, philosophy and literature, philosophy and feminism, critical animal studies, critical disability studies, and Critical Theory as well as on figures such as Austin, Cavell, Diamond, Foot, Murdoch and Wittgenstein. Her most recent book is Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought (Harvard University Press, 2016), a monograph on the representation of animals and humans in ethical discourse. Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy described the book as “a sweeping challenge to several widely shared orthodoxies in metaphysics and moral philosophy.” 

In Spring 2020, Crary is co-teaching a graduate seminar on Animal Ethics with Dale Jamieson, Professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy at New York University.


Willi Semmler, Arnhold Professor of International Cooperation and Development, sits in his office

Willi Semmler, Arnhold Professor of International Cooperation and Development, received an honorary doctorate from FON University in North Macedonia in late January 2020. Following the ceremony, he took part in a summit entitled The Role of Education for Global Peace and Sustainable Development. 

Ambassador Prof. Dr. Karim Errouaki, President Emeritus of FON University, called Semmler “one of the most far-seeing political economists of our time,” adding, “For nearly 40 years, you have been a generative thinker, one whose theories have transformed the core of teaching in the field of Dynamic Modeling, Empirical Macroeconomics, and Finance and more recently you have pioneered and shaped the new field of Macroeconomics of Climate Change.”

A research associate and director of the Economics of Climate Change project at NSSR’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, Semmler is indeed on the forefront of new efforts to try to make measurable the economic impacts of climate catastrophe. His latest research focuses on financing low-carbon transitions through green bonds and carbon pricing, and he wrote a report on the topic for the World Bank with several NSSR Economics alumni and current students. 

Learn more about Semmler and his research in this Research Matters profile.

A New Experimental Opera Combines Music, Philosophy, and Performance

This article originally appeared in the New School NewsTo learn more about the work of Chiara Bottici, Associate Professor of Philosophy, visit her faculty biography. Performances of The Art of Change featured guest appearances by NSSR Philosophy faculty members Simon Critchley, Cinzia Arruzza, Dmitri Nikulin, and Jamieson Webster.

Opera has been around for more than 400 years and has consistently stayed true to its origins. Through the years, musicians have composed works that use opera as a starting point but fold in different genres and styles to create artistic pieces that advance the form and excite audiences.

The Art of Change launched in 2016, when Jean-Baptiste Barrière began a residency at Mannes School of Music. The piece, which premiered at The New School on January 16, 2020, is an interactive, participative, generative visual and musical installation about what needs to be changed in the world. Featuring the work of students and faculty from throughout The New School, the experimental opera fuses live performance and philosophy into a new kind of work that is equal parts opera, performance art, and salonlike gathering of socially conscious artists and thinkers. 

“I imagined to develop The Art of Change as a new, original stage form, a sort of contemporary opera, including intellectuals delivering live statements about ‘what needs to be changed,’ as well as singers and instrumentalists sight-reading musical scores generated from the speeches and performing it live,” says Barrière. “The idea is to extract the speech melody and rhythm and transform them through compositional rules: Speech not only becomes music, but can be developed and proliferate into a pure musical form.”

Improvisation, collective authoring, and spontaneity take center stage in the innovative piece, which uses software designed by Barrière to capture the melodic and rhythmic pattern of speech. The dialogue is recorded, processed, and turned into a spontaneously generated score that is interpreted and performed on the fly. Onstage with student singers, instrumentalists, and actors from the College of Performing Arts will be celebrated performers and thinkers like Joan La Barbara and Simon Critchley.

The trailer for The Art of Change, featuring fellow NSSR faculty Hugh Raffles (Anthropology), Robin Wagner-Pacifici (Sociology), and Janet Roitman (Anthropology)

In true New School fashion, The Art of Change is a highly collaborative effort, featuring the work of Chiara Bottici, an associate professor of philosophy at The New School for Social Research, who wrote the libretto, and Timo Rissanen, an associate professor of fashion design and sustainability at Parsons School of Design, who designed the costumes.

“From long experience with collaboration, what I find most important is to meet all sorts of different personalities, with their own experiences and talents, who shake your habits and possibly too automatic ways of thinking,” says Barrière. “Students are always ‘shaking the tree,’ making you question your habits, certitudes, and automatisms and reconsider all the time why you think and/or do things the way you do. They certainly learn from the experience, but we learn at least as much as they do!”

Bottici, who trained as an opera singer before turning to philosophy and writing, created the libretto after the initial text was developed through an open-source process that unfolded on Public Seminar — an online journal of ideas, politics, and culture. The libretto begins with a synopsis that places the audience and performers within a city that has decided to radically re-organize itself “by adopting the principle of accelerated change and apply[ing] it to all and every aspect of social life. The result is a utopian (or dystopian) world that may (or may not) turn out to be ours.”

“What I did to find the beginning of the story was taking the idea of change and pushing it to the complete extreme, so that it would reveal its inherent metaphysical structure,” says Bottici. “So I started to work with that idea, inhabit that space. What the opera does is bring out possible contours. We published the first version of the libretto; we did the prelude; we asked people to intervene and suggest. And in this process, what became clear was that, well, maybe that world is not a distant utopian or dystopian world; maybe it’s actually the world we are living in.”

The opera showcases a utopia that can serve as a magnifying glass for audiences, helping them understand their own situations while they enjoy the made-up world on stage. Bottici hopes that people leave the opera with questions about the imagined world they just saw onstage, and the one they currently live in. 

“I hope that they discover all sorts of new ideas which make them think about what needs to be changed in our world,” says Barrière. “Moreover, I hope it convinces them that it is time to move forward and actually change this world, because it needs it!”

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.

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.