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.

Changing the Economics Conversation

Economist Kate Bahn on the evolving world of feminist economics, labor organizing, and the new narratives of policy change

Income inequality in the United States has been rapidly growing over the past 30 years. So, too, are conversations about inequality, and how the disparities caused by race and gender discrimination exacerbate those gaps. 

Kate Bahn (PhD Economics 2015) is helping shape those conversations, with the bigger goal of changing what we think about when we think about the economy. 

“High-quality, cutting-edge academic research is really important to moving the policy narrative,” Bahn says. “There’s a big demand for narrative change work right now. We see a lot of people talking about big structural economic policy change in a way that it hasn’t been talked about before.”

Bahn is the Director of Labor Market Policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, an institution that aims to build strong bridges between academics and policymakers “to ensure that research on equitable growth and inequality is relevant, accessible, and informative to the policymaking process,” especially on issues around labor standards, gender inequality, taxation to business competition, wages, and innovation.

Translating complex concepts for a variety of audiences is a valuable tool for effecting policy and inspiring both real understanding of and sustainable change around economics. Bahn does this important work behind the scenes and publicly, publishing articles on key topics in economics in academic journals, Equitable Growth’s website, and major popular publications such as The Guardian, The Nation, and Salon

The Monopsony Framework

Bahn focuses on inequality across gender, race, and ethnicity in the labor market, care work, and monopsony, a condition in which one buyer has substantial control over the market for a particular good or service offered by many sellers. She can easily trace her current interests to her past work for labor unions and topics she studied at The New School for Social Research.

“I first got introduced to the concept of monopsony in my first labor economics class at the graduate level taught by Teresa Ghilarducci [Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis and head of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis]. She had us read the book Monopsony in Motion by Alan Manning,” Bahn remembers. “It just struck me as an intuitive way to ground our understanding of the labor market in a framework that can accommodate for power.” She went on to write her dissertation on monopsony, using it as a lens to compare labor and feminist economics, and continues to develop thinking on the topic today; this past October, she explained monopsony while testifying at a U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee hearing.

Guided by NSSR Dean and Professor of Economics Will Milberg, Bahn also completed an independent study surveying NSSR’s feminist economics literature and took one of her qualifying exams in feminist economics. She cites Dean Milberg’s support of her intellectual pursuits as crucial to her academic and professional development.

After receiving her doctorate, Bahn worked as an economist at the Center for American Progress, where she looked at how gender can inform what is valued in the economy, and the possibilities of creatively recognizing the value of gender in occupations or women workers. Since joining Equitable Growth in 2018, Bahn has shifted away from specific policy proposals and toward more narrative and explanatory work.

NSSR Alumni Collaboration

Equitable Growth also offers her the chance to work with one of the most influential voices on economic policy in the United States today: fellow NSSR alum Heather Boushey (PhD Economics 1998), who co-founded Equitable Growth in 2013 and serves as President and CEO.

“We have a similar perspective in our educational background,” Bahn says of Boushey and of NSSR, well-known for its heterodox economics department. “We understand each other. We can speak the same language. When we have conversations at work about narrative change and consensus building, we ask questions like, ‘How do you change the economics profession in order to change economic policy?’ We both fly into talking about philosophy of science or political economy or recognizing that there are multiple schools of thought in economics.” Bahn and Boushey recently co-authored the article “Women’s Work-Life Economics” for LERA Perspectives on Work, a magazine published by the Labor and Employment Relations Association.

Heather Boushey returned to NSSR in 2016 to deliver her talk,
“The Political Economy of Time and Work-Life Conflict”

Who Gets to Be an Economist?

Bahn also challenges traditional ideas surrounding economics and gender in another narrative space: on Twitter, as @LipstickEcon. “I do think the question of what it’s like to be a woman in economics in this moment is important, but it’s a little bit complicated,” she says. In addition to the harassment that women in economics face, gender and concepts of gender influence what is considered good economics research and who is largely considered to be worthwhile subjects. 

“I’m a particularly feminine-presenting woman in economics, I don’t fit the typical mold of an economist. I still demand to be taken seriously,” she says. “The work I do [as Executive Vice President and Secretary of] the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) — which is also very related to the broad range of schools of thought I was exposed to in economics at The New School — is about realizing that there is more than one way to do economics, and that there are some ingrained biases in what I would call mainstream economics towards a particular viewpoint.” 

Tackling major structural change within the economy and within the economics field is tough work. But as Bahn understands it, these are the conversations that matter most — and are the ones most worth having. 

Photo: BriAnne Wills, Girls and Their Cats

Revival Magazine Examines the State of the Left

Revival on 15th Street, a cheap bar with a patio, became a regular spot for the NSSR community to meet for a post-class drink near campus. One particular group of graduate students routinely went to Revival together every Friday night. They would talk about The New School, the chaos of graduate life, and the intricacies of leftist ideologies and movements happening in, around, and far from the university. These discussions soon became the inspiration to start their own magazine.

“The idea to establish Revival Magazine originated from the realization that The New School, and in particular NSSR, lacks accessible and student-led spaces where we can exchange ideas and arguments that are not academic in nature,” says founding co-editor and Economics MA student Ruben Brockbreder. “We wanted to create Revival to document these conversations, which, while most passionately delivered in the dim light of the bar and animated by Friday night spirits, would often dissipate within daily routine and university madness.” 

“All That’s Left”

The first issue of Revival launched in May of 2019, entitled “All That’s Left.”  “The quite gloomy title for Issue I describes our attempt to collect or survey the condition of leftist movements and parties around the world,” Brockbreder says.

The issue featured three sections: commentaries on the state of the left in seven different countries; research briefs spotlighting the work of MA and PhD students in NSSR’s Three-Minute Thesis Challenge; and art and essays on themes of labor, alienation, and a sense of belonging in and near the left. Submissions came from across NSSR, representing how social science students are grappling with today’s most pressing issues.

Ye Liu, a Sociology PhD candidate, wrote a commentary on China:

Amy Osika, a Historical Studies MA student, explored the use of satire by the New Left and the U.S. counterculture for social and political critique in 1960s.

P.J. Gorre, Philosophy PhD candidate and Coordinator of Academic Affairs at NSSR, shared advice from his mother amid difficult times.

Kalpa Rajapaksha, an Economics PhD student, presented photographs from “beyond the horizons of capital in New York City.”

Making a Magazine

But as Brockbreder tells Research Matters, an idea is far from enough to make a magazine materialize from scratch. The original team of five editors found funding for Revival through NSSR’s MA Project Grant, which provides support for initiatives launched by MA students that focus on learning, research, and community-building. 

“From the very beginning, we all agreed that we wanted to produce a physical rather digital product that we could ‘hold in our hands and pass around’. From getting submissions for essays and artwork, to editing and finally printing and binding, everything in setting up Revival, in fact, has been refreshingly physical,” Brockbreder says. They printed and bound the magazine by hand at Parsons Making Center, with a digital copy created as an archive. 

Isobel Chiang, a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student and Revival’s art director, has worked as a publishing fellow with the New Republic and as an assistant at both the Parsons School of Design and at a New York City design firm. She points to the Parson’s Graphic Design Lab and its technician, Joe Hirsch, as major resources for producing the physical magazine. She included her notes on design and layout in the arts section of Revival:

“Our goal when typesetting and laying out Revival was not to make a magazine that succumbs to stale associations of leftism (the color red, images of people protesting, stars, etc.),” she writes. “Our goal, instead, was to somehow carry over the spirit of the left into a print product.” The magazine uses only three colors on uncoated paper.

Publication design is an essential part of the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism (CPCJ) curriculum. All CPCJ MA students take Design and the Future of Publishing, a hands-on studio course investigating typography, book and pamphlet design, digital printing, content on the web, and ideation. They also examine contemporary issues that cross design and publishing through readings and analysis of contemporary books, magazines, and periodicals across both printed and digital platforms. Every spring, Parsons School of Design undergraduates join CPCJ students in multidisciplinary teams that work to create conceptual publishing projects — a truly New School-only experience.

Looking Left of The New School

Buoyed by student response and a second MA Project Grant, Revival’s editors are working on its second issue, “For our second issue, we now want to shift the focus from the global to the local to focus on the movements and debates organized by New School students and workers,” Brockbreder says. 

Submissions for the second issue should touch broadly on the relationship between leftist ideas and ‘liberal institutions,’ such as The New School, timely in the year of its centennial. Some topics suggested in the call for submissions include how the New School’s health insurance policy is affecting students, the meaning and symbolism of sanctuary schools, and labor organizing on campus and at other academic institutions. 

As the first issue told us, “We want to continue thinking beyond academia; coming from within but looking beyond. This is an attempt at reviving that tradition.”


If you would like to write for Revival, please email revivalmag@newschool.edu with a brief pitch of your idea; the essay does not have to be written at this point in time. If you have a complete essay, please submit that as an attachment with a brief summary of the essay in the body of your email. The submission deadline is December 15, 2019.

McKenzie Wark on Capital, Capitalism, and Expanding Our Language

Our data is everywhere. From Facebook likes to online personality quizzes, our internet clicks leave an ongoing record of our personalities, our preferences, and our habits.

This information is the new currency of the 21st century. Our very sociability has been commodified, and those who own and control our data form a new ruling class, argues McKenzie Wark, Professor of Culture and Media, in her latest book, Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse? “If the information is not being sold to you, then it is you who are being sold,” she says.

A follow-up to A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard University Press, 2004), Capital Is Dead draws on Wark’s past work, the work of contemporary theorists, and the writing of the Situationists to explore the information age. Wark poses the questions: What if this era cannot be defined by capitalism anymore — and what if it’s something worse? Research Matters sat down with Wark to discuss her latest book and the process behind developing her new theory. 

Wark’s main argument is this: The new ruling class uses our information against us to deter labor and social movements, thereby changing the way we must look at traditional leftist ideas around capital. 

The book opens with a quote from writer Kathy Acker, a friend and collaborator of Wark’s and the focus of both a class she teaches and an upcoming NSSR seminar she’ll lead: “Post-capitalists’ general strategy right now is to render language (all that which signifies) abstract therefore easily manipulable.” With capitalism is no longer an efficient descriptor for today’s chain of production, Wark explains that failure to innovate new language may be a major part of the problem. “It struck me that a phrase like neoliberal capitalism is just incredibly bad poetry,” she says. “You just shove a modifier on something that you then don’t think about the thing you’re modifying, the modifier has a modifier. That’s not a thought to me.” Additionally, a new form of class relation has arisen in response to this data commodification, one that cannot be contained by terms such as “capitalist” and “worker.”

Creating a New Vocabulary

Instead, Capital is Dead provides a new descriptive language to better navigate this flow and ownership of information and properly analyze a new world of data. Wark gives us the terms “vectoralist class,” those who own not only the flow of information, but the “legal and technical protocols for making otherwise abundant information scarce,” as well as “hacker class,” the vast majority who are producing new information. She urges us to see “a common class interest in all kinds of information making, whether in the sciences, technology, media, culture, or art. What we all have in common is producing new information but not owning the means to realize its value. ” While not exactly the same as labor, Wark notes from Marx’s writings that “there are always many subordinate classes….modes of production are multiple and overlapping.” As expected in a book about capital, discussions of class, production, commodities, and struggle wind their way through the text, but with considerations and redefinitions for how those forms are changing or are no longer applicable.

Wark also addresses science and the challenges of the current Anthropocene era, weaving through theorists from Joseph Neeham to Jean-Paul Sartre to make connections between natural and social history, and how the hacker class might look to the former for new models of organization.

Building on her wealth of celebrated prior research, articles for the intellectual commons Public Seminar, and other published writings, Wark says this latest thought experiment is ”summing up or maybe concluding things that I have been working on for a long time.” She also shares that writing practice was a major part of her research process to produce this thought experiment. 

“I’m a writer,” she says “Media studies is my discipline, but that was a bit accidental. So what I practice is writing and how we understand, in this case, Marx and the various people in the conceptual space of Marx as writers, and how did they invent or create new languages that cut across the assumptions of the times.”

Collaborating for Learning and for Survival

One of the more challenging parts in Wark’s theory is accepting how little is actually known about this new controlling vectoralist class. Rather than assuming they can be analyzed in the same way as capitalists, she makes the case for starting over with the critique strategies and looking for a way out.

Wark emphasizes that these questions raised in Capital is Dead can only be answered together, working across disciplines and fields. “Humanities and the social sciences really do need to think about what a collaborative production of knowledge looks like,” she says. “What are collaborative practices of knowledge that reach outside of disciplinary assumptions and cultural habits?”

These questions help guide the courses Wark creates and teaches at NSSR and at Eugene Lang College. Drawing largely on the work of other writers and theorists, she aims to share with her students knowledge and work practices that enable them to survive in this political economy,  “It’s about living,” she says of both studying and surviving in the current political economy of knowledge.

During the 2019-2020 year, Wark is teaching courses at NSSR and at The New School’s Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts in which she does just that, with a particular focus on trans issues. In “Trans Theory as Gender Theory”, a Spring 2020 course in NSSR’s Department of Liberal Studies, Wark and her students will work together on constructing alternate pathways into the research on gender and sexuality. Much like in Capital Is Dead, Wark also hopes the class will develop new concepts for trans literature, art, and media that don’t fit neatly into existing theoretical categories.

Pushing those boundaries is essential to Wark’s work, but she’s not always met with positive response. The introduction to Capital is Dead offers a range of reactions from scholars and activists to her work ⁠— as well as Wark’s dry, hilarious responses. “They’re a lot of Marxists who think like cops and that’s just boring,” Wark laughs.

Living After Capitalism

So if this isn’t capitalism and we’re still not quite sure of what it is, is there a way out of it? Wark is wary of treading into false hope for the future. In A Hacker Manifesto, Wark saw a path to reclaim the commodification of information — a battle she now deems as lost. 

“A moment of defeat is useful to acknowledge and retreat and try to secure any basis at all of non-commodified social life,” she says. “There is a very narrow possibility of surviving this century.” Wark is critical of false optimism that accompanies some “allegedly leftist theory.” To her, an accurate assessment of the social and political climate is critical for any shred of hope in radically changing it. “It’s all a bit bleak,” she says. 

However, as Wark writes, “This was in the end a defeated movement, but that is no reason to pretend that it didn’t exist. Rather, there’s work to be done to narrate and analyze the struggles of that time and those that continue as relatively novel expressions of what kinds of worlds are possible in and against the forces of production of these times.”

Psychology Flexes on the Dance Floor

Last fall, Ragnhild (Ragz) Bruland received $10,000 at the AC3 Festival and Conference for Flex, a youth dance mentorship program she co-founded five years ago. The award — a major nod of approval at one of the hip-hop community’s biggest events — has given a major boost to Ragz, a Cognitive, Social, and Developmental Psychology PhD student at The New School for Social Research, as well as to the Flex teachers and students she works with.

As the New School News wrote in 2018:

The FLEX program employs renowned dancers from the local community to work with students on choreographing dance routines; stimulating students’ creativity while also helping them to develop their self-esteem, cooperation, and communication. Currently there are two modules of the program, “FlexIN” which works with students on-site in secure detention centers, and “FlexOUT” which provides free workshops for students in community centers in New York City.

The teacher-student relationship is absolutely crucial to the program. “One of the aims of this program is to introduce these kids to a community of dance where they can learn and practice a constructive artistic outlet,” writes Ragz. “Mentorship, one of the key components in Flex, provides youth with a touchstone of safely to rely on — developmental research shows that having one or more caring adults in a young person’s life increases the likelihood that they will flourish, and become productive adults themselves.”

The Flex program isn’t just grounded in psychology research; it’s also contributing to the field. Ragz has worked closely with advisor Howard Steele, Professor of Psychology, to develop an experimental framework to evaluate the program.

“The overarching inquiry of this research is to discover if there are aspects of Flex that may make it more beneficial than traditional mentorship alone,” she writes. Three groups are part of Ragz’s research: those who participate in the full Flex dancing and mentorship program; those who only receive mentorship; and those who do not participate in the program. Everyone involved in the study completes short questionnaires designed to assess social emotional functioning as well as resilience. In addition, all participants as well as Flex teachers join in semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions. 

Research is ongoing, and involves several graduate students from NSSR as well as the Schools for Public Engagement. However, several Flex participants can already attest to how the program has changed lives. Sticks Harvey, a 29-year-old Flex teacher, got involved five years ago, right as Ragz was getting the program off the ground. “I liked Ragz’s vision and what she understood Flex to be,” he says. “This is an approach for youth to channel their anger and do something different. Instead of being violent, you could dance it off.” 

Credit: @Anwander

He signed up to demonstrate the dance at a youth detention center but stuck around to teach. A highlight for him was working with youth to put a program together for a family visitation day. “When they perform and got praise, that was new for them,” says Harvey. “Even if they say they’re not dancers, it gives them a chance to try. And there’s no pressure. Not everyone gets it right away.” 

He’s not the only one whose life has been changed. “Flex gave me a new path careerwise,” Harvey says. “My mind reshaped when I met these teens. I try to be a more positive leader for them.”

Marie Borden is a mostly self-taught dancer who began studying Flex about eight years ago and recently joined the Flex program as a teacher. “Flexing is a form of freedom, a form of creativity,” the 28-year-old says. Working with Ragz as well as with elementary and middle school-age youth, she has seen firsthand how dancing can help students express themselves and handle anger and pain. “They don’t know how to release their emotions, and I help them with that. When kids come to me with problems, I tell them, ‘Don’t think about what to do, just dance!’ And they feel a lot better.”

When Harvey and Borden talk about their experiences Flexing, they are careful to cite their many teachers and recognize their place in the growing Flex legacy. Now, they’ve become those teachers for another generation of youth. “What was passed down to me continues to be passed down,” says Harvey, commenting on both the dancing as well as the culture that surrounds it.

Flex is fundraising to expand the program and support the research project. Come see Flex teachers and students celebrate the program’s fifth anniversary with FLEX HYPE, performed live on Friday, September 27, 7 PM at The New School, and on Saturday, September 28, 7 PM at BRIC.