Invisibility: The Heart of (Social) Science, The Hiding Hand

Debates about invisibility appear in the social sciences, literature, physics, and popular culture. Whether referring to camouflage, magical rings in the possession of hobbits, Adam Smith’s invisible hand, subatomic particles, or the social invisibility of marginalized groups, questions about the unseen drive research.

The latest issue of Social Research, edited at The New School’s Center for Public Scholarship and published through a partnership with Johns Hopkins University Press, engages in a multi-disciplinary examination of what makes the concept of invisibility so enduringly compelling. To complement the issue, CPS hosted a two-day conference at The New School as part of the Nth Degree Series. The event invited issue contributors to join scholars, writers, and even an illusionist, to think together about invisibility.

On the conference’s opening night, Columbia University physicist Brian Greene and writer Marina Warner hosted a keynote conversation. Prior to their event, The New School’s Stephanie Leone had a chance to talk with Greene, who suggested that getting comfortable with the concept invisibility is essential for scientists. “Invisibility is in many ways at the heart of what science is about,” he said. “We try to look out into the world and illuminate the things that you can’t see with the naked eye.” Whether investigating the composition of matter or the forces that hold together the universe, science has the tricky task of staring at the invisible and trying to give an account for the unseen.

The issue of Social Research makes a compelling case that the invisible similarly lays at the heart of questions in the social sciences and humanities. It does so by showcasing richly diverse research and disciplinary perspectives on the invisible. In its opening essay, Arien Mack—the Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology at The New School for Social Research and editor of Social Research—introduces the concept of “perceptual invisibility,” which arises as an effect of cognitive processes. “Perceptual invisibility entails a failure to see what is before our open eyes,” Mack writes, “and is a partner to seeing what is not there or seeing more than is actually there to be seen.”

What is an Event?” A New Book from Sociologist Robin-Wagner Pacifici

“It’s unusual for sociologists to study events,” says Robin Wagner-Pacifici. When describing her new book What is an Event? (University of Chicago Press), she explains that historians more often think about the implications of eventful, momentous, idiosyncratic, one-off episodes that stand out in narratives about the past.

Events like 9/11, the Great Recession, or the Paris Commune of 1871—all of which Wagner-Pacifici examines in the book—don’t fit neatly into sociology’s attempts to articulate general laws about societies. Indeed, they may look like exceptions to these laws, and Wagner-Pacifici characterizes a resulting “skepticism about the ways in which events reflect something enduring about society.” From this disciplinary perspective, What is an Event? might read like a departure from typical sociological research.

It does not, however, mark a departure from Wagner-Pacifici’s distinctive scholarship and longtime curiosity about how events help shape our understanding of societies more broadly. The University in Exile Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research says that she has always studied events, drawing from multiple disciplines in the process, precisely to discern what they might illuminate about social relations.

Wagner-Pacifici describes a growing realization about the usefulness of events during the process of writing her dissertation on the kidnapping and assassination of former Prime Minister of Italy Aldo Moro, subsequently published by the University of Chicago Press as The Moro Morality Play: Terrorism as Social Drama. She says, “It struck me that I could usefully try to apply frameworks from other disciplines and other societies to contemporary events in large-scale modern societies.” In other words, a systematic study of the concept of events—the forms they take, why they feel exceptional, how they evolve, and how they weave themselves into ordinary life—can play a significant role in shaping how we think about the social world.

Anwar Shaikh publishes an important economic analysis of modern capitalism

Whether for academic work or a personal pursuit, those who are interested in capitalism may want to add a new book to the shelf: Capitalism: Competition, Conflict and Crisis by Anwar Shaikh, Professor of Economics at The New School for Social Research.

Earlier this semester, NSSR and the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) held a book launch to celebrate Oxford University Press’s publication of Shaikh’s magnum opus. Speaking to a crowd, Shaikh thanked everyone who inspired him and helped him successfully complete the project.

“In teaching, we try to influence others and, of course, we ourselves are influenced by our teachers,” Shaikh said.

Shaikh started the book 25 years ago, and “as my ideas evolved, I realized I wanted to talk not about what Ricardo had said, and Smith had said, and Marx had said.” For Shaikh, the questions that he wanted to answer had become about capitalism itself, and “not the genealogy of the ideas.” Shaikh became more interested in the actual patterns of capitalism over time, and decided to abandon the manuscript he had been working on for ten years to begin anew.

Shaikh shared that “competition and conflict are intrinsic features of capitalist societies, inequality is persistent, and booms and busts are recurrent patterns throughout capitalist history. And when we talk about the state, we see that the state intervenes to modify these patterns, but it does not abolish them.” Shaikh explained that the book diverges both from orthodox economics and the dominant elements of heterodox economics, because “there is no reference… to any idealized framework as a foundation, rooted in perfect firms, perfect individuals, perfect knowledge, perfectly selfish behavior, rational expectations, and optimal outcomes.”

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NSSR psychologists publish in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science

Two different studies from Department of Psychology at The New School for Social Research (NSSR) were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) earlier this year. The first, by post-doctoral fellow and Eugene Lang College alumnus Steven Frenda, illustrates the impact of sleep deprivation in interrogations of suspects. The second, by associate professor Jeremy Ginges, and post-doctoral fellow Hammad Sheikh, examines the connection between religious belief and intergroup relations.

Sleep Deprivation and False Confessions

Frenda is the lead author of Sleep deprivation and false confessions (PNAS, 2016), which finds that sleep-deprived people are far more likely to sign false confessions than those who are rested. Past research has already pointed to sleep deprivation interfering with people’s ability to think clearly, plan actions, and anticipate risk. With this in mind, Frenda believes that “innocent suspects, in particular, really need these skills and abilities intact in order to navigate a stressful interrogation in a way that protects their interests.” This study, according to Frenda, now gives direct evidence to demonstrate the role that sleep deprivation plays in the outcome of intense interrogation.

As the lead investigator, Frenda adapted a procedure that other researchers have used to study false confessions in a laboratory setting: observing participants’ completion of a series of computer tasks. In this case, participants were warned that pressing the Escape key on the keyboard would result in data loss. The following day, researchers asked the participants to sign statements falsely accusing them of having pressed the Escape key. After the first request, 18% of the rested participants and 50% of the sleep deprived participants agreed to sign the statement. After both requests, 39% of the rested participants and 68% of the sleep-deprived participants had signed.

Two short measures included in the study significantly predicted the likelihood of signing the statement: one was a simple self-report measure of sleepiness, and the other was a measure of impulsive decision-making. Frenda says that one implication of this finding is that in real-life scenarios, it may be possible to identify people who are especially vulnerable to the effects of sleep deprivation.

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Anthropology Publications: 2015

Faculty in the Department of Anthropology shared thoughts about their recent work.

Nicolas Langlitz

Nicolas Langlitz, Associate Professor of Anthropology, recently published the article “On a not so chance encounter of neurophilosophy and science studies in a sleep laboratory” (History of the Human Sciences, 2015) and “Vatted Dreams: neurophilosophy and the politics of phenomenal internalism” (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 2015).

Langlitz shared thoughts about this recent work:

“While anthropologists have long been interested in cultural otherness, we often seem to feel closer to an Amerindian shaman than to the reductionist philosopher down the corridor. This led me to take an ethnographic interest in neurophilosophers and to explore the common ground between anthropologists of science and empirically oriented philosophers of mind who have both been  frequenting brain research facilities since the 1970s without ever talking to each other.”

Other publications include Neuropsychedelia (University of California Press, 2012), and Die Zeit der Psychoanalyse (Suhrkamp, 2005).

Choose a publication below to learn more.

Bio | Langlitz received doctoral degrees both in medical anthropology (Berkeley) and history of medicine (Berlin). He is an anthropologist and historian of science studying epistemic cultures of mind and life sciences, especially neuroscience, psychopharmacology, and primatology. He was trained as a physician before conducting ethnographic fieldwork in two neuropsychopharmacology laboratories in Switzerland and California on the revival of psychedelic research since the 1990s.

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