NSSR Welcomes Lillian Polanco-Roman to Psychology Department

The new assistant professor brings expertise on mental health disparities in at-risk populations

Lillian Polanco-Roman joins the Psychology department faculty at The New School for Social Research (NSSR) in Fall 2020 as an Assistant Professor of Psychology. With a background as a clinical psychologist, Polanco-Roman studies how cultural experiences can impact psychopathology, especially in racial minorities and immigrant youth populations. Specifically, her research tackles demographic disparities in suicidal ideation and behaviors in youth. 

Research Matters sat down (digitally) with Polanco-Roman to discuss her research, what drew her to the work, and what she’s looking forward to doing at NSSR.

Elevating ‘Social Research’

“I’m interested in the ‘social research’ part of The New School,” Polanco-Roman says. “Part of its mission includes looking at social justice, social and environmental factors, and how that might impact development. These ideas play a huge role in my research. This focus is something that really aligns with me, with research, with my passion.”

Polanco-Roman studies the ‘casualties of racism’ and how racial and ethnic discrimination influences suicidal thoughts and behaviors in minority emerging adults. Culturally related experiences are rarely analyzed in risk assessment for suicide, and she hopes to better understand and highlight the relationships between ethnic identity and depressive symptoms. 

Her path to an academic career grew out of her roots right here in New York City. A first-generation college student born and raised in Brooklyn, Polanco-Roman received a BS in Psychology from Fordham University, an MA in Psychology from Hunter College — where she also taught the subject — and her PhD from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Columbia University in the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and has counseled in a clinical setting.

Her upbringing played a strong role in shaping her scholarly interests. “Studying and working here made a lot of sense given the population I’m interested in working with, which is ethnic minority youth and immigrant youth,” she says. “They are well represented in New York City and it’s what drew me to this work. I want to give back to my community.”

During her time at CUNY, Polanco-Roman pieced together her own program of study, first finding faculty studying suicide risk in adolescence. She then connected with a professor who specialized in the impact of racial discrimination on psychopathology. “Working with both of them, I was able to create essentially a tailored programmed where I was looking at cultural experiences of suicide risk and youth by combining these two.” 

While forging her own specialized path of study, Polanco-Roman began to translate her research into real-life suicide prevention and minority youth support. While working in the Counseling Services Center at John Jay College, she co-facilitated a group for college students with chronic depression and suicidal ideation that focused on healthy coping strategies. As a training therapist at City College, she also conducted long-term individual psychotherapy in English and Spanish for children and adults at a community-based mental health clinic.

Polanco-Roman is a member of the Youth Suicide Research Consortium, an interdisciplinary network of researchers that aims to improve research on youth suicidal behavior, suicide prevention, and treatment, and to increase research on suicide among underrepresented populations of youth. Her work — which has been published in Journal of Youth and Adolescence; Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy; Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, and other leading psychology journals — has helped illuminate the need for psychologists to account for experiences of ethnic discrimination as a potential source of psychological distress in diagnosing and treating suicidal behavior. 

Looking Ahead to Fall 2020

Finding and creating community within larger urban settings is a key part of Polanco-Roman’s life, and it’s also what’s attracted her to The New School and NSSR. City campuses are like a  “microcosm of the larger New York City,” she says. “It’s kind of like this dual identity component. I like the small feel within this larger environment. I find it to be more intimate and there’s a lot more learning that can go on there, and stronger connections that can be made.”

These connections can be critical for graduate students. As Polanco-Roman explains, the city setting provides ample opportunities for Psychology MA and PhD students to develop their concentrations. “Whatever one can imagine that they want to study or learn or train in, they can find it here.”

Polanco-Roman looks forward to building on her research with these resources, and collaborating with other NSSR faculty. 

She finds herself drawn to the work of Wendy D’Andrea, Associate Professor of Psychology, who runs the Trauma and Affective Psychophysiology Lab. “I’m interested in learning more about the relationship between how traumatic experiences, particularly early childhood experiences, might impact risk for suicide later into adolescence, maybe even young adulthood,” Polanco-Roman says. 

Curious about the potential interplay of traumatic experiences, attachment theory, and risk for suicide, Polanco-Roman is also drawn to the work of Howard Steele and Miriam Steele, both Professors of Psychology and co-directors of the Center for Attachment Research

Polanco-Roman is scheduled to teach courses like Research Methods in the fall, which provides hands-on experience in designing, running, and reporting psychology experiments.

Although academia at large has and continues to make major adjustments to learning due to COVID-19, Polanco-Roman is ready to adapt and be flexible in her first semester at NSSR, using the global pandemic affecting cities and communities as a teaching moment.

“Regardless of using distance learning or being in the classroom, I’m excited to start and I’m excited to work with my new NSSR family, faculty, and students, and make new connections,” she says.

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.

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.”

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.

Hubertus Buchstein on the Heuss Professorship and Otto Kirchheimer

Connections between The New School for Social Research and Germany are both long-standing and numerous, ranging from the University in Exile in the 1930s to the Technical University of Dresden exchange program today,

A transformative moment in this transatlantic relationship happened in 1965, when New School President John Everett worked with the Volkswagen Foundation to create the Theodor Heuss Chair of the Social Sciences. Named for the first president of West Germany, this was the first professorship in the United States supported by a German foundation; Volkswagen endowed the chair for five years, after which the German federal government assumed responsibility. According to the most recent history of The New School for Social Research by Judith Friedlander, the chair “evolved out of earlier exchanges of mutual recognition and appreciation” between Heuss and New School leadership; like many University in Exile faculty members, Heuss himself had been dismissed from an academic position by the Nazis in the 1930s.

Early Heuss Professors included sociologists and philosophers who had studied critical theory in postwar Frankfurt School with the original founders of the Institute for Social Research, among them Jürgen Habermas. Today, the Heuss Professorship rotates between NSSR departments.

In 2018-2019, the Politics Department welcomed Hubertus Buchstein, a Full Professor in Political Theory and History of Political Ideas at the University of Greifswald. In addition to teaching a spring seminar on Habermas and the current work of Critical Theorists in Germany, he also completed extensive archival research on political theorist and University in Exile professor Otto Kirchheimer. Read on for more about his year here.

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RESEARCH MATTERS: So I hear you’ve been to The New School a few times before! Can you tell us about your own academic history and what brought you here?

HUBERTUS BUCHSTEIN: When I was working on my PhD thesis at the Free University of Berlin in the late 1980s, the topic involved some emigrants I knew were at The New School. So when for the first time in my life I came to America in 1990, I went to The New School. I wanted to see the building where Hannah Arendt had been — I simply wanted to be at the building!

I also got in contact with Andrew Arato and his wife Jean Cohen. He was the only one in the huge Frankfurt School camp who wrote critically about Eastern Europe. When I came back as a Humboldt Research Fellow in 1994, I taught a class with Andrew on the political sociology of the Frankfurt School. I came for the next seven years, every year for two months in February and March, and taught a class twice a week.

Since then I’m still in close contact with The New School and I come every year to New York. It was very easy to make friends here, to get to know people. It’s very international and this was totally different than what I knew.

RM: It was that different than Berlin?

HB: Berlin is Germany’s biggest city. But in comparison to New York it was a sleeping city. And in those days my Political Science department in Berlin didn’t have so many international students, in particular from Eastern Europe and from Latin America.

Teaching was also quite different. Here it’s more lecture-style seminars. In Germany we start in our theory classes with a discussion of the text. We have assigned sometimes 20, 30 pages only for class and the students have to read them three times so it’s like 80 pages. Here you assign a book but you can’t always do such a close reading. I really had to adjust to this style of teaching.