Aaron Jakes on Egypt, Capitalism, and the Development of Economism

Via his debut book, Jakes offers a new perspective on Egypt under British occupation — and on the United States today

A history book can reflect the peoples and worlds researched as much as of the world unfolding around its author. As Aaron Jakes, Assistant Professor of History at The New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College, wrote his first book, archival research brought him through worlds of bureaucrats, peasants, journalists, and spies, as financial crises, civil unrest, revolt, and populism electrified the world around him.

Research Matters sat down (virtually) with Jakes to discuss that book, Egypt’s Occupation: Colonial Economism and the Crises of Capitalism (Stanford University Press, 2020), and how looking at Egypt more than 100 years ago can help us understand not only modern Egypt but also political and economic thought today.

Jakes started working on the book in its first form — his doctoral thesis — in 2007. As he looked at ways that cotton farmers borrowed money in the early 20th century, he couldn’t help but notice parallels with the Great Recession of 2007-2009. In both periods, the growing influence of financial institutions — financialization —characterized political life. “In a moment in which everyone was thinking about finance, it became possible to start thinking about a contemporary moment in which we had parallel discourses of financial and ecological crisis that were treated as though these were completely separate phenomena,” Jakes says. “And so the first cut at the project in light of that present moment was to begin thinking about what it would mean to write an environmental history of a prior moment of financialization.”

Information Access and Control

Digging back more than a century meant Jakes spent years doing research in archives around the world, including Egypt’s National Archives, the United States Library of Congress, and financial archives across England. But gaining access to those materials wasn’t easy.

Egyptian intelligence agencies maintain strict surveillance over the country’s National Archives. Amid a time of water-related conflict with Egypt’s neighbors to the south, Jakes’ application was left in limbo for his use of the word “irrigation”. Jakes enlisted the support of his doctoral supervisor, who then enlisted Egyptian political novelist and journalist Gamal al-Ghitani to pressure the archive director, culminating in a “scathing” op-ed in Akhbar al-Adab, the Egyptian equivalent of the New York Review of Books. The strategy was effective, but Jakes still spent the following three years navigating bureaucratic and technological barriers to information.

“Computerized control actually makes it possible for [the intelligence agencies] to monitor and restrict who can see what, so the cataloging process itself made it possible to just cause huge swaths of documents to ‘disappear’,” Jakes explains. While he was ultimately able to access the resources he needed, he laments that his Egyptian colleagues, without the same degree of foreign institutional support, don’t have the same access — another lasting effect of colonialism.

As his research progressed, a narrative emerged that contradicted the widely-accepted understanding of the British occupation of Egypt, which is rooted in the notion that colonial rule simply consolidated an earlier set of economic arrangements and that ideas about economic life played no significant role in the major movements and struggles of that era. Through his detailed research in both government and banking archives, Jakes pieced together a far more dynamic story about Egypt’s role as a major investment frontier for global finance and about the multiple crises that this process of financialization induced. This new history of capitalism under British rule, in turn, shed new light on the commentaries that Egyptians at the time, from government officials in Cairo to poor peasants in the countryside, offered about the problems they faced. The pages of Egypt’s burgeoning Arabic press likewise became a site for rich and sustained debate about the consequences of the British occupation. And because colonial officials were so emphatic and consistent in their claims about how economic improvement would translate into political legitimacy, developing a rigorous, alternative account of the relationship between economics and politics soon became central concern of Egypt’s growing nationalist movement.

Economism and Trump

Jakes earned his PhD in 2015 and joined The New School’s Historical Studies department shortly after. As he worked on turning his dissertation into his first book, a new event influenced his writing: the election of Donald Trump.

“It was striking that explanations both for the [Bernie] Sanders phenomenon and for Trump’s election often entailed some suggestion that there was a kind of base motive of economic grievance that really explained what was going on,” Jakes says. This is called economism, the attribution of political effects to underlying economic causes.

To this day, economism is often treated as a unique and even defining problem of the left, which, Jakes argues, obscures other important forms. Whereas various thinkers on the left have seen ideas about economic determination as the grounds for a universalist politics, Jakes shows that such claims can just as easily assume a particularistic and exclusionary character. Often entailed in this latter variant of economism is an implicit, racialized judgment about the “kinds of people” who can’t engage in sophisticated politics beyond “base economic motives” — precisely the same rhetoric the British employed to justify their continued occupation of Egypt.

While Egypt’s Occupation never explicitly makes this connection, the parallels are there. Chapter two, for example, highlights the way the British used economism to justify abolishing the system of local elections that Egyptians had long practiced on a village level by arguing that they were not qualified to participate in even the most local politics because of a supposed inability to overcome their economic self-interest.

“If there’s one thing that I really want people to understand,” says Jakes, “it’s that making claims about a kind of strong underlying economic motivation in politics is…often a way of making claims about political disqualification, and actually means that in this country, as in Egypt a hundred years ago, when people are talking about the economy, they often are really talking about race.”

Bringing Research Questions into the Classroom

The day after NSSR spoke with Jakes, he taught a chapter of Egypt’s Occupation in his Lang survey course on Middle Eastern history, marking the first time he’s brought his work directly into the classroom. But teaching has long given him new ways to think about the problems at the center of his research.

“There are moments in which I have actually taught about a topic that I am sort of starting to get my head around,” Jakes said. He often designs courses not necessarily around the research he’s done, but rather based on problems that appear in his work, such as “A World of Disasters: Famine, Plague, and Crisis in Global History,” which he calls “an attempt to…chart a history of concepts and ideas about disasters and the way that meaning had attached to them in different social settings.”

Jakes credits students — especially his NSSR research assistants — as well as faculty across The New School in helping this first book project come to fruition. The university has, he says ”a really special kind of ecology to make serious critical research both possible and fun.” Grants from NSSR, Lang, and NSSR’s Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies helped him complete this work.

It’s fitting, then, that the November 9 launch event for Egypt’s Occupation is a full NSSR affair, with faculty members from Historical Studies as well as Anthropology, Politics, and Sociology joining Jakes to discuss the book as well as the fallout from colonialism and financial occupation. Register for the book launch here.

Photo credit: Nina Subin


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.

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.


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.

Subject Areas Offer Focused Paths within Disciplines

Graduate school is a specialized environment where students can immerse themselves in a discipline. In Fall 2019, New School for Social Research Anthropology and Psychology students gained a new way to explore specialized areas of study within their chosen fields: subject areas. By pursuing course credits within these informal paths, students can deepen their research, develop closer relationships with faculty, connect with potential job and internship opportunities, and more.

Research Matters spoke to students in the Anthropology and Design, Global Mental Health, and Science and Society subject areas about their experiences. Read on to learn more!

Note that a new subject area is debuting in Fall 2020: Applied Psychology, which helps prepare Psychology MA students to be part of the growing field of user experience researchers

Anthropology and Design

Why do things look the way they do? In the Anthropology and Design subject area, Anthropology MA students have the opportunity to apply ethnographic research and conceptual frameworks in their field to how the world and its structures are designed. With access to the classes and resources of The New School’s Parsons School of Design and the Schools of Public Engagement, as well as NSSR’s Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism programs, Anthropology students can develop design practice and apply those skills to their research.

Erin Simmons, an MA student in the Anthropology and Design subject area, examines the evolving field of data representation. 

Erin Simmons, Anthropology MA student, and Shannon Mattern, Professor of Anthropology

I am looking at the way that data visualization is being used within the international development sector,” Simmons says. “I work with things like complex poverty indicators, the human development index to look at how people’s perceptions of what poverty is and how it’s defined can be altered by the visualizations that are being used to represent it.”

Simmons was drawn to the subject area after working with economic texts and data collection. Shannon Mattern, Professor of Anthropology and head of the Anthropology and Design subject area, encouraged Simmons to think deeper on how design tactics influence the way data is perceived. 

“Anthropology offers critical concepts and methods that are extremely valuable for the politically- and ethically-informed practice and analysis of design,” says Mattern. “Design, likewise, empowers anthropologists to think more expansively about the subjects, methods, and modes of their practice.” At The New School, continues Mattern, anthropology and design are “both honored as creative and intellectual practices that have much to learn from each other.”

By taking classes in data visualization and design, Simmons is elevating her work on poverty, and trying to present it in a way that is more accessible and effective. She hopes to collaborate further with designers and create new forms of data representation.

Global Mental Health

Mental health disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide. Yet gaps in culturally relevant studies and resources persist globally and hinder the advancement of solutions to this problem. 

Psychology MA students can pursue the Global Mental Health subject area to understand how treatment and prevention can be better implemented on an international scale.

Adam Brown, Associate Professor of Psychology and an expert in global mental health, says the subject area exposes students to how “mental health researchers are reimagining the ways we can design and deliver mental healthcare, reduce stigma, and partner with communities to empower and support one another.”

Although the material draws largely from psychology, Global Mental Health courses are very interdisciplinary, drawing on anthropology, public health, and design. This experiential coursework, combined with internship placements, prepares students to work for international agencies, government, and non-profits engaged in community-based mental health work. 

Evan Neuwirth, Psychology MA student, and Adam Brown, Associate Professor of Psychology

This year, Evan Neuwirth decided to dive into Global Mental Health. In addition to finishing his MA in Psychology and starting his PhD, Neuwirth is an Executive Function Coach runs a small tutoring business that specializes in executive function remediation. A student fellow at NSSR’s Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, he also works with the International Rescue Committee program and directed a documentary film that chronicled the lives of the Liberian national amputee soccer team.

From these diverse experiences, Neuwirth found a common thread: that the mental health of people affected by crisis is poorly understood. Turning to psychology, he realized part of the problem was in the lack of diverse and relevant research; many mental health studies are done in a Western context and without quality socio-economic considerations, which mean they are inadequate for addressing global disparities in mental health support.

After taking classes with Brown, Neuwirth was able to connect his own research ambitions to other work at The New School. Joining in Brown’s Trauma and Global Mental Health Lab, Neuwirth is working with other students to investigate and reduce barriers to mental health care in low-resourced contexts. Current lab research includes refugee mental health and psychosocial support, hospital-based mental health detection and prevention, and human rights and global mental health.

“Global mental health is still an emerging field,” Neuwrith said. “It is exciting to be involved now and to see the systematic and global impact this research could have.”

At the IRC, Neuwirth works on their newly implemented Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Framework, helping to foster programming to achieve mental health and psychosocial wellbeing outcomes for their populations. 

“The New School is one of the few places offering these kinds of global mental health studies now,” Neuwrith said. “This work is going to be the future of how we understand mental health.”

Science and Society

Writing a thesis is a solitary, often lonely process. For Anthropology MA student Sonia Zhang, her thesis is a deep dive into loneliness itself.

“I’m interested in how different understandings and experiences of loneliness come together in contemporary life, and one of the fields I identified is social robotics in Japan,” Zhang says. “By looking at how people in the field reconcile ideas of loneliness both in their professional life and through the products — in this case, robots —  they design, I am trying to understand what loneliness does in the contemporary, technology-infused landscape.”

Zhang’s research has always been interdisciplinary, drawing from literature in anthropology, public health, medicine, and engineering. In Fall 2019, she took Science and Society, a class taught by Nicolas Langlitz, Associate Professor of Anthropology, and began to study canonical readings and current debates in Science and Technology Studies (STS).

Sonia Zhang, Anthropology MA student, and Nicolas Langlitz, Associate Professor of Anthropology

“Without some training in [STS], I wouldn’t have the confidence to pursue a project about scientific knowledge and technological institutions at all,” Zhang says. The breadth of material in the Science and Society course also helped her move forward toward this goal. “The course’s emphasis on morality made me consider some angles of the loneliness debate that I have neglected before,” she adds, connecting questions of moral behavior and classification to current pressing political and social problems.

The course is foundational to the Science and Society subject area, which aims to help Anthropology MA students ethnographically and historically investigate how scientific research is informed by and informs social processes. Langlitz, who turned to Anthropology after completing training as a physician, focuses his research on behavioral sciences and larger philosophical questions. 

“The sciences construct the societies we live in and our societies construct the scientific knowledge that informs some of the most consequential political decisions we take,” says Langlitz. “This complicated relationship raises long-standing philosophical questions. But recent attempts on both the left and the right to democratize and politicize scientific expertise are making this relationship one of the most pressing issues of our day.” The Science and Society subject area helps “provide students with the conceptual and methodological toolkit they need to understand the knowledge societies we live in.”

Outside of class, he helped Zhang by recommending independent STS readings and convening Anthropology student meetings and workshops on collaborative research in science-related topics.

Although Zhang didn’t initially set out to pursue a science-related topic, she’s now deeply engrossed in the area. “I would recommend this subject area to anyone who has some curiosity in how science works in general, as a form of knowledge, truth, institution, power.”


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.

Student Fellows Innovate at NSSR Centers and Institutes

How student research is informing new modes of interdisciplinary social thought

The New School was founded in 1919 as a place where scholars could advance progressive social thought and provide the public with accessible and relevant education. The school’s early thinkers came together across disciplines to explore major social issues of the day: migration and mobility, democracy and fascism, capitalism and socialism.

A century later, The New School for Social Research continues that important work through myriad classes, publications, public programs — and especially through interdisciplinary centers and institutes. In these special spaces, faculty and students meet across departments and divisions to research many of the same major social issues. Centers and institutes help fuel policy debates, promote public discussion, and welcome visiting scholars into the New School community.

Many of NSSR’s centers and institutes have robust student fellowship programs that provide Master’s and PhD students with financial support and mentorship as they conduct major research projects. Research Matters spoke to current fellows at three centers, looking at student work across issues of economic empowerment, migration, and ethnographic design

GIDEST: The Intersection of Social Theory, Art, and Design

Photo credit: GIDEST fellow Otto von Busch

The Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography & Social Thought (GIDEST) is The New School’s home for transdisciplinary ethnographic research at the intersection of social theory, art, and design. Funded by a grant from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, GIDEST “draws on The New School’s tradition of politically-engaged, historically-grounded, and theoretically-innovative social research” and connects scholars across the university, especially in their bi-weekly seminar series on art and theory.

Hugh Raffles, Founding Director of GIDEST, is a Professor of Anthropology whose work is a sustained ethnographic inquiry into relations between humans, animals, and things. As a GIDEST Senior Fellow himself, he has been completing The Book of Unconformities  (Penguin Random House, August 2020), in which he uses anthropology, history, and geology to explore the stories of stones.

“The work of the student fellows is central to the institute,” Raffles says. “They bring their own expertise and interests into the group, and help create a supportive and dynamic environment in which we can all develop our ideas. As GIDEST fellows, they gain structure and the experience of participating as peers in high-level conversations with accomplished scholars and practitioners,” and receive mentoring on their research projects.

The current cohort of GIDEST fellows include faculty and students working in Politics, Psychology, Photography, Media Studies, Historical Studies, and Sociology. Amanda Arena-Miller is a PhD candidate in Psychology and GIDEST fellow whose work explores the relationship between dance and interoceptive awareness — a person’s ability to sense internal bodily states. 

Amanda Arena-Miller, Psychology PhD candidate

“My dissertation is a collaboration between the NSSR Psychology department and the Dance Department at Eugene Lang College,” Arena-Miller says. “It was a brainchild of my advisor Miriam Steele (Professor of Psychology) and Professor Neil Greenberg, who is a choreographer at Lang. They were both interested in how dance might impact your awareness of your internal signals and how that relates to the psychology of body representation. I had been working on body image research and experience as a dancer, so I took over that research.”

Arena-Miller has been coordinating this study for over four years, and it has since branched off into additional research on how art practice can impact body awareness. At GIDEST, she is compiling quantitative data on biofeedback and self-reporting; holding interviews; and conducting qualitative research on dance, using grounded theory and ethnographic work to explore interoception. 

Although their respective work can appear largely unique — past topics have included ethnographic studies of cellphone designs in China, the research of multiple spatial “under-commons” of Black and Brown community resistance in Mississippi, and the role of television in the resurgence of the historical avant-garde in the late 1960s — GIDEST fellows are able to support and elevate each other’s research with a sense of community.

“We are all interested in how knowledge is created and perpetuated within discourses and academia,” Arena-Miller shares. “Largely speaking, we’re all interested in the production and also having a critical eye on knowledge.” And in addition to the welcome financial support, “we have a space where we present our work and give each other feedback. It’s really enriching.”

SCEPA: Connecting Policy to Economics

Photo credit: Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis

The Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) works within NSSR’s economics department as a research center focusing on policies that raise living standards and foster economic security. Collaborating with economists, SCEPA provides research analysis and policy recommendations in the areas of climate change, public finance, and retirement.

Teresa Ghilarducci, Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis, directs SCEPA and helps guide the work of its student fellows. “Educating tomorrow’s economic leaders is fundamental to SCEPA’s mission,” Ghilarducci says. “Our team of fellows and research associates learn how to use their academic and economic skills to impact policies that can better people’s lives. In turn, SCEPA benefits from the diversity of experiences, academic and professional, that our fellows bring to the team’s daily work.” 

A noted expert and media authority on retirement policy, Ghilarducci has launched SCEPA’s Retirement Equity Lab, which is dedicated primarily to conducting research on the U.S. retirement system and vulnerable older workers. ReLab engages with both the media and policymakers to share their data and seek major structural reform. 

Owen Davis, a former financial reporter, and a first-year Economics PhD student, works as a research assistant at SCEPA’s ReLab. His work helps to illuminate vulnerabilities that have fueled the growing retirement crisis and led millions of American workers to downward mobility in retirement

“We use government and survey data sets to explore how retirement policies and labor market trends affect older workers’ retirement prospects,” Davis explains. “For example, last semester I used a nationally representative data set to show that the financial fragility of older workers has been rising since the 1990s, and remains elevated since the Great Recession. In short, the typical older worker has more debt relative to their assets than they did before the last recession.”

Owen Davis, Economics PhD student

Student fellows contribute their own interests and areas of expertise to  SCEPA’s work and also gain hands-on experience in the economics field.

“In many instances, we end up working with our former students as professionals, such as former SCEPA research assistants Kate Bahn, who is now Director of Labor Market Policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and Kyle Moore, senior policy analyst with the U.S. Joint Economic Committee,” Ghilarducci says. 

The center’s work is often shaped by movements and financial trends in real time. 

“Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, we have devoted virtually all our attention to predicting how the crisis will affect older workers and determining what policies would be most important to ensuring income and retirement security, as well as basic safety, for older Americans,” Davis says. “We’re hard at work seeing how all of these phenomena will play out for the current crop of retirees and near-retirees. Hopefully we can get our message out to policymakers.” 

Zolberg Institute: A New Understanding of Human Movement 

Zolberg Institute fellows in Amman, Jordan, summer 2018

The Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility examines human movement in the age of globalization. Building on The New School’s tradition of migration studies, the institute combines art, activism, and research to create a forum on issues of human movement. 

Catherine McGahan is the Associate Director at the Zolberg Institute and previously worked for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “The Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility is the first institute to focus specifically on mobility,” McGahan says. “We pull in different disciplines to create programming that is accessible to the general public, outside of academia. We are working on research, we are working on policy, we are working on academia, we are creating a more robust view of migration and mobility, not just for New York City or the country, but also for the world.” 

The Zolberg Institute is also supporting the next generation of migration scholars and immigration advocates. Graduate student fellows come from a diverse range of scholarly backgrounds; NSSR students from Anthropology, Politics, Sociology, Liberal Studies, and Psychology collaborate with students from other programs at The New School, including International Affairs, Public and Urban Policy, and Transdisciplinary Design. They work on a host of projects, including writing content for the Mobilities Seminar series at Public Seminar, NSSR’s publishing initiative, working in specialized faculty research clusters, and producing the Zolberg Institute’s immigration policy podcast, Tempest Tossed.

Special Zolberg-IRC fellowships allow students to work directly on global issues, piloting interventions and policy recommendations that then get rolled out to a global community at large. 

Mat Cusick is an MA candidate in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program and a current Zolberg fellow. Cusik is an editor at Public Seminar and works on Tempest Tossed.

“I would say that the Zolberg Institute is where I feel the greatest sense of community in the entire university,” Cusick says. “All of my colleagues share a commitment to issues that matter to me, and we have the opportunity to work together on these issues in various practical ways — writing and editing articles, researching and planning the podcast episodes, hearing and discussing scholarly work in progress, and attending and supporting public events.”

With their robust public events calendar currently on pause, Zolberg has gone digital, launching an online series of discussions with scholars and activists on migration-related issues and COVID-19.

 Mat Cusick, Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student

The upcoming season of Tempest Tossed, produced by the student fellows, is a deep-dive on the Trump administration’s immigration tactics, their impact, and their potential lasting legacy.

I have responsibility for researching and editing the script for an episode on the Trump administration’s ‘virtual wall’ — another way of describing the systematic dismantling of the asylum system,” Cusick shares. “The fellowship has provided me with my first opportunity to be involved directly in a podcast, at all levels of production, from proposing subjects, speakers, and titles, to recording interviews and editing scripts, to strategizing about marketing and promotion.”

As an editor at Public Seminar, Cusick has written his own pieces on migration as well as commissioned and edited the work of major scholars in the field for the Mobilities Seminar, on topics such as asylum policy, offshore detention of refugees, climate change, forced migration, and sanctuary movements.

“Zolberg fellows are engaged in a wide range of important and exciting work around what I consider to be one of the most fundamental political issues of our time, transcending borders,” Cusick says.


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.

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.