“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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
This fall, The New School for Social Research welcomes Sam Winer as a new Associate Professor of Psychology. A clinical psychologist, Winer uses novel methods and theory to attempt to better understand, identify, and treat individuals experiencing anhedonia, depression, and anxiety.
Winer is a self-admitted “longtime admirer of The New School” and its historical and current emphasis on social justice, which is also a focus in his own research, teaching, and service to his discipline. In the NSSR Psychology department in particular, Winer admires the emphasis on “depth hypotheses — what are some of the motivating factors for why people behave as they do, what are some of the repetitive dynamics that can motivate people to act in certain ways. That’s where a lot of my work, which examines the interface of cognitive and motivational explanations of depression, fits in.” He also appreciates the department’s “strong background in empirical research” and “open and inclusive consideration of a wide variety of philosophical ideas.”
Winer’s recent publications similarly display a range of approaches to the study and treatment of depression and anxiety. He became interested in these conditions as a graduate student at the University of Illinois, Chicago and continued that research as an assistant then associate professor at Mississippi State University (MSU). There, he and the students in his Emotional Processes and Experimental Psychopathology Lab focused on finding cognitive and affective predictors of distress and dysfunction. As Principal Investigator, he has received more than $1 million in grants for this research from the National Institute for Mental Health to investigate Reward Devaluation Theory — research that led the Association for Psychological Science to name him a 2018 APS Rising Star.
Understanding Reward Devaluation Theory
Reward Devaluation Theory (RDT) explores why and how some depressed individuals come to avoid potentially hopeful and positive information. Research into depression has “focused primarily on negative things that you might be threatened by or have difficulty disengaging from,” says Winer. “There’s been less of an emphasis on how positive information is processed. It’s been known that depressed individuals may not have the same normative bias toward positive information” or rewards as people who are not depressed.
What RDT and Winer’s reanalyses of data show is that “it’s not just a lack of ‘normal’ value or valuation of positivity, however. [Some depressed people] seem to avoid potential positivity. Think of it like The Shawshank Redemption — it’s not that I’ve given up on hope; hope is a dangerous thing,” explains Winer. Many societal factors could feed these biases toward positivity, and Winer says that almost infinite considerations of culture and context can inform why persons come to develop these biases.
At NSSR, Winer is launching a lab with NSSR graduate students as well as New School undergraduates to continue to examine RDT and the cognitive and emotional mechanisms that can help explain how and why some individuals develop these types of biases toward positivity and hopefulness. He’s also looking into treatment choice — why individuals do or do not go into treatment for anxiety and depression — and a more general, endemic fear of positivity and hopefulness throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “People are trying to decide when to trust and hope again as we continue to resume normal life after the worst of the pandemic. I’m excited to see how understanding of reward devaluation will help inform how we all can fully let positivity back into our lives again.”
One of the methodological approaches Winer sees value in for RDT research is network analysis, which can help show how symptoms of psychopathology connect to one another. “It might be that people have an essence inside of them that is depression,” he explains. “But it might also be the case that the complex connectivity of symptoms over time forms a feedback loop that is the depression for that individual person.” Winer gives an example of a hypothetical person with depression who stops sleeping regularly due to a loss in that person’s life. That lack of sleep makes them not enjoy things anymore, which leads them to be sad, which perpetuates the lack of sleep. But even when the loss goes away, the feedback loop keeps functioning, and that person remains depressed. In particular, Winer will be using temporal network analysis — looking at how networks organize and change over time — to look at clinical and experimental datasets to see how they connect and “pulse.”
Outside of the lab, Winer is excited to step into teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. An award-winning professor several times over at MSU, Winer is teaching Systems of Psychotherapy, an undergraduate course at Eugene Lang College for Liberal Arts, in Fall 2021. In Spring 2022, he’ll be teaching a core Clinical Theory and Technique: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy course to graduate students at NSSR and Emotions to undergraduates at Lang.
“Teaching is, to a large extent, why I got into this business,” Winer closes. “I love being able to teach both at a school for social research and also in a liberal arts college, and to be able to engage with critical theory and critical considerations of psychology in a progressive atmosphere.”
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.
Romy Opperman began her postdoctoral fellowship with NSSR’s Philosophy department in Fall 2020. Opperman’s work focuses on issues of environmental justice through the lenses of Black feminist and decolonial philosophy.
As a student of continental philosophy, Opperman has always been interested in “questions of control and management of life.” Opperman began looking at the ways Africana philosophy engages with the continental tradition and, at times, repurposes it, posing questions about “humanism, its limits and its links to violence; animality and how it’s bound up in race; and hegemonic conceptions of nature,” and pointing to aspects that thinkers like Foucault had missed in his analysis of racism and biopower.
That interest took a new form when Opperman was in graduate school at Pennsylvania State University and considering her dissertation. “I was increasingly engaged in Africana philosophy and decolonial philosophy at the same time that a new public consciousness arose around environmental justice issues,” she explains. Opperman saw those philosophical questions come to life through mass political and social movements, from the organized opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through Standing Rock Reservation to increased public pressure to provide residents of Flint, Michigan with clean water. “I began thinking about what tools I found within continental philosophy and Africana philosophy for trying to understand these events in ways that I thought were useful and different from how one might typically approach them,” she says.
Opperman’s work challenges mainstream conceptions of racism and environmental issues as distinct, with only occasional overlap. “My use of the term racist environments aims to show how racism and the environment are in fact co-constitutive,” she explains. “This is different from the way that environmental racism is commonly understood, that is, where racism and the environment are only sometimes linked in exceptional circumstances.” She proposes a turn to radical Black ecology, which emphasizes the possibility and necessity of imagining a radically different way of being.
Through her dissertation, “Race, Ecology, Freedom: Climate Justice and Environmental Racism,” Opperman “brought to the fore issues of power, domination, and normativity” by turning her philosophical attention to something discourses in philosophy often overlook: the communities that have already felt the impact of climate change and developed expertise to survive.
“I argued that the radical critique of liberal humanism common to the work of Sylvia Wynter, Frantz Fanon, and Saidiya Hartman shows us why it is necessary to break with liberal frames of environmental injustice and offers grounds for an alternative approach to understand the nature of the harm of environmental racism, the stakes of struggles against it, and to imagine its redress, which I term ecological freedom,” Opperman recalls.
Connecting at NSSR
At NSSR, Opperman raises many of the same questions in “Black Feminist Thought: Labor, Genealogy, Memory” a graduate philosophy course she’s taught during the spring 2021 semester. While it’s not explicitly about climate change, the course includes readings from Christina Sharpe and Sylvia Wynter on Black feminist ecologies, and, as Opperman explained, race and the environment are inextricable. “It’s been really important and special for me to be able to go into my first job in a philosophy department and teach a graduate course on Black feminist thought,” Opperman says. “It’s a dream situation!”
As she continues working within NSSR’s Philosophy department, Opperman hopes to recruit more women to the graduate program and to expand its curriculum. “Putting feminist philosophy — particularly, but not only, Black and decolonial [feminist] philosophy — as part of our core agenda is really important to me,” she says.
Opperman’s presence has already had a major impact. “We are tremendously happy to have Romy joining the department. Her graduate seminar is making a crucial contribution to our curriculum, as is her writing seminar, which she developed to provide graduate students with much-needed feedback on writing with an eye towards publication,” Zed Adams, Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy says. “It is quickly becoming hard to remember what our department was like without her.”
At its heart, Opperman’s work is deeply interdisciplinary; it incorporates critical theory, film criticism, and gender and sexualities studies. In that spirit, she’s also involved with The New School’s cross-divisional Collaborative on Climate Futures, led by faculty from NSSR and Parsons. Opperman is excited to collaborate with academics from a wide range of backgrounds working on the same questions of race, environment, and power.
Opperman has also worked in collaboration with the Gender and Sexualities Studies Institute (GSSI). She organized and presented at the March 22 GSSI event “Finding Ceremony: Honoring Black Feminist Elders,” which focused on the legacy of Black feminists like Sylvia Wynter and Alexis Pauline Gumbs and former New School professor M. Jacqui Alexander, who Opperman describes as “an amazing queer trans-national Black feminist thinker and spiritual practitioner.”
For the GSSI blog, she wrote “Haunting and Hosting,” which analyses the films Ghost and Twilight City, as well as Alexander’s account of her experience at NSSR, through the lens of Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing. Opperman hopes to continue collaborating with the GSSI, and to uplift the status of Gender and Sexualities Studies within NSSR.
In addition to working on articles that ask how established topics within climate justice such as debt, intergenerational ethics, and migration are transformed when approached from Black and decolonial feminist grounds, Opperman is working to turn her dissertation into a book, tentatively titled Africana Ecopolitics: Radical Philosophies of Ecological Freedom. The book will incorporate the perspectives of a wider range of Africana thinkers, and further develop its explanation of “ecological freedom” in relation to decolonization and abolition. “It’s been a really exciting time in terms of a kind of explosion of interdisciplinary work around race and ecology… I think philosophy does have some important tools to offer and ways of thinking that could be a really useful part of that,” she says. “I’m figuring out the best ways [philosophy] can complement people doing all kinds of this work.”
Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguini and Tortellini.