Late 2019 Publications from NSSR Faculty

Faculty across all departments at The New School for Social Research published exciting new research this year. Their work takes many forms, most often articles in popular and peer-reviewed journals as well as books. Below, Research Matters highlights three books by NSSR professors published in late 2019. Be sure to check out a full list of books from the past decade on our Social Research Bookshelf!


MARK W. FRAZIER
The Power of Place: Contentious Politics in Twentieth-Century Shanghai and Bombay

While many scholars of China treat it as sui generis, Mark W. Frazier, Professor of Politics, does not. He is among a small but expanding group of China scholars who are study China by way of comparison with other countries. In The Power of Place: Contentious Politics in Twentieth-Century Shanghai and Bombay (Cambridge), Frazier does this through a paired comparison of the politics, history, and urban planning of two cities in China and India with the deepest engagements with global capitalism.

In bringing together the three fields, Frazier attempts to answer a bigger question: How do changes in the urban political geographies of cities over the long term influence conceptions of rights to the city and patterns of popular protest? 

“I’ve always been interested in the ways in which we understand the historical context of politics, and I’ve always done work in cities,” says Frazier. “This is my first work in which I really turned to urban studies and doing work on cities as opposed to in cities.” In researching the book, he immersed himself in the foundational literature of urban studies and planning, and drew on a variety of sources: primary sources related to popular protests, archive materials from municipal agencies, and observations of neighborhood activities with NGOs. He also drew upon numerous contacts from conferences and talks hosted by the India China Institute, where he is now Co-Director and Starr Foundation Professor.

Why Shanghai and Mumbai? The two port cities “were basically shaped by British colonial capitalism as it existed in the nineteenth century,” he says. They share other characteristics as well: both evolved as cities with globally prominent textile industries, and were “at the forefront of revolutionary movements that sought to replace colonial governance and capitalism with a vision of socialist modernity in which urban inequities would be a thing of the past.”

In The Power of Place, Frazier focuses on urban politics and protests that rocked Shanghai and Mumbai over the 20th century. He notes a number of convergences in popular movements over time: anti-imperialist, nationalist sentiment in 1919; dissatisfaction with broken promises of socialist modernization in 1966; and resistance to development by housing dispossession and deindustrialization in the late 1990s. Throughout the book’s seven chapters, he explains these parallels by looking at larger transnational currents and changes in each city’s political economy over those periods.

Today, residents of both cities continue to raise questions surrounding citizenship and urban governance despite their differences in democratic and authoritarian political institutions. Fortunately, The Power of Place can help readers better understand the roots of these current debates.


MARK SETTERFIELD
Heterodox Macroeconomics: Models of Demand, Distribution and Growth

More than a decade has passed since the 2008 Financial Crisis and the start of the Great Recession. As academics, journalists, and other thinkers continue to dissect what went wrong, many heterodox economists believe they may have an idea or two about it, and what others may have missed.

In their new book, Heterodox Macroeconomics: Models of Demand, Distribution, and Growth (Elgar), Mark Setterfield, Professor of Economics, and co-author Robert A. Blecker write:

“…Mainstream macroeconomics lacks (and continues to display little interest in developing) a theory of capitalism as a stratified and contested terrain that is vulnerable to periodic crises.”

Heterodox Macroeconomics doesn’t propose to change mainstream economics, but rather to offer a comprehensive look at heterodox growth theories, especially ones in the classical-Marxian and post-Keynesian traditions. Its three sections detail growth and distribution models, models of distributional conflict and cyclical dynamics, and Kaldorian approaches to export-led growth and the balance-of-payments constraint.

Economists from all schools of thought will find this foundational heterodox text useful, especially the many mainstream economists and policymakers who, Setterfield notes, are finally beginning to pay attention to long-held heterodox ideas. Graduate students and advanced undergraduate students, and the faculty who teach them, will find the text particularly helpful.

“I actually don’t like to teach from textbooks, but here I am producing a textbook!” says Setterfield. “In many ways, this is a compendium of everything [Blecker and I] have been teaching for years. We do try to go over all of the ideas from a first principles position, not assuming a lot of familiarity with concepts.”  

In fact, in the book’s introduction, Setterfield and Blecker specifically thank the thousands of students they’ve taught over the past several decades, including NSSR alumni Daniele Tavani and Ramaa Vasudevan, both now faculty at Colorado State University, as well as the many other colleagues who’ve helped them refine their ideas. “The good and the bad thing about heterodox economics is that the community is relatively small. So, the bad thing is there aren’t many of you and there aren’t many resources to do a lot of work. The good thing is you get to know each other pretty quickly!” says Setterfield. 

Going back to the basics has been a new sort of collaborative writing process for the co-authors. “This was just one gigantic process of taking something for granted, getting into writing it down, and thinking, ‘Hm, really? I hadn’t thought about it!’” remembers Setterfield. The process mirrors what he often tells New School students when they remark that they’ve read a text before: “Oh, I’ve been reading this for 25 years and I’m still seeing things!’” Heterodox Macroeconomics will hopefully help readers at all levels have similar aha moments.


ALEX ALEINIKOFF
The Arc of Protection: Reforming the International Refugee Regime

Writing a book can be a messy process. In 2018, Alex Aleinikoff, University Professor and head of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, decided to make part of that process public. 

He and co-author Leah Zamore published an early draft of their new book, The Arc of Protection: Reforming the International Refugee Regime, on Public Seminar, a digital intellectual commons supported by The New School. With an introduction both their work and the current state of refugee affairs, they shared each chapter and invited feedback from readers on their work.

A lot changed between that draft and the book itself, published in 2019. Aleinikoff and Zamore realized their ideal audience included policymakers and refugee advocates as well as academics, so they worked with Stanford Briefs, an imprint of Stanford University Press, to make the text more concise and accessible. They also sharpened their arguments with feedback from Public Seminar readers.

Aleinikoff and Zamore’s arguments remained the same, however: The international refugee regime — the titular arc of protection, designed in the wake of World War II — is fundamentally broken. More than 70 million people are currently displaced by conflict and violence. Routinely denied rights guaranteed to them by international law, they have few prospects for rebuilding their lives, contributing to host communities, or returning to their former homes. 

A former dean at Georgetown University Law Center, Aleinikoff shifted to full-time policymaking in 2010 as the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He held that position for five years, during which time he worked with Zamore, then a Yale Law School student. That academic and professional experience helped inform their perspective and recommendations in The Arc of Protection. “As a legal academic, I previously focused much more on asylum proceedings in the U.S. I ran an asylum clinic, wrote a few journal articles that raised issues useful for adjudicators in the U.S.,” he says. “[At UNHCR], I became much more focused on where the real problems of the refugee system is, which is not movement of asylum seekers to developed states. It’s rather the fact that the vast majority of refugees are unable to move from the initial country they fled to. They’re not able to go home, they’re not able to resettle, and they’re not fully integrated into the communities in those hosting states. It’s that stuckness — what we call the second exile — that’s the essential problem.”

Refugee rights and refugee agency can help change the current situation, and Aleinikoff and Zamore offer strategies for change at the level of structures and institutions. They argue for the creation of a new structure that would incorporate all global actors, from states to the World Bank, that would be able to make decisions and act in ways that the UNHCR can’t. They also advocate for a move away from formal resettlement programs and toward refugees’ right of mobility on the regional level. Ordinary people can get involved as well, helping to elevate refugee voices, especially in amplifying the messages of refugee-led advocacy groups. 

Those looking to learn more about U.S. refugee and asylum policy can listen to Aleinikoff’s Tempest Tossed podcast, which recently featured David Miliband, President of the International Rescue Committee, and which will cover Trump’s immigration policies in the lead-up to the 2020 election.


NSSR Students Mark 100 Years of Radical Education

Photo credit: New School Archives

“The New School opened with ‘eclat’ on February 10, 1919, bursting onto Manhattan’s cultural scene with an exciting program of Preliminary Lectures delivered by leading social scientists of the day.”
—Judith Friedlander, A Light in Dark Times: The New School for Social Research and Its University in Exile (Columbia University Press, 2019)

Those first lectures at The New School, then known as The New School of Social Research were the first act of a new academic institution born in protest. The New School’s founders included James McKeen Cattell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, pacifist professors fired from Columbia University during World War I for refusing to sign an oath of loyalty to the United States. Other Columbia faculty soon resigned in solidarity, and together with other progressive intellectuals, they planned and opened a new school to “meet the needs of intelligent men and women interested in the grave social, political, economic, and educational problems of the day.”

The New School marked the centennial of this revolutionary act with the Festival of New, a weeklong festival in October of innovative performances, talks, workshops, screenings, exhibitions, and more open to all. 

The New School for Social Research began the Spring 2019 semester with a Centennial lecture series that tackled the themes of migration and mobility, democracy and populism, and economic inequality and the future of capitalism.

NSSR students took that line of critical reflection even further in Fall 2019. With funding from the NSSR Dean’s Office and from The New School, they produced conferences and events that explored NSSR’s history and examined the changing definition of what it means to be “new.”

THE NEW SCHOOL, THEN AND NOW

Photo credit: Joel de Lara

The institution envisioned in The New School’s 1919 Preliminary Lectures pamphlet is quite different than the university today. That distance between radical ideal and lived reality catalyzed Philosophy PhD student James Trybendis and candidates Teresa Casas Hernandez and Veronica Padilla to organize a conference around pedagogy, and how those 1919 ideals could be rearticulated today in the classroom experience. 

“It can’t just be the content [of classes] that’s radical,” says Casas Hernandez. “The form can be a bit stiff. We ask, ‘how can you use other disciplines and methods?’” 

The symposium brought together graduate students and faculty from NSSR and Parsons School of Design as well as Pratt Institute. With opening panelists Dr. Robert Kirkbride, P.J. Gorre, and Tara Mastrelli, the symposium began with a discussion of the history, founding philosophies, and possible future of The New School. Attendees then participated in collaborative workshops on belonging, posthuman life, and meaning facilitated by Scherezade Garcia-Vazquez, Eva Perez de Vega, Michele Gorman, and Dora Suarez that aimed at exploring innovative approaches to rethink pedagogy.

 “Philosophy happens in dialogue and in community,” Casas Hernandez says. “You need a community to think.”

Later, over ice cream, attendees discussed the ideas from the opening panel and the workshops and how they could apply what they learned in their own practices and classrooms. While it might be impossible to return to 1919, or to founding ideals that, in reality were never executed as written, the symposium was a chance to imagine what could be in the next 100 years. What’s important, says Casas Hernandez, is “having this space for discussion.”

AESTHETICS, POLITICS, AND THE CREATION OF THE NEW

Photo: Adrian Totten

Aryana Ghazi Hessami, a PhD student in Anthropology, and Adrian Totten, a PhD student in Politics, met in a Modernist Aesthetics class taught by Jay Bernstein, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy. 

It follows, then, that Symposium on Aesthetics, Politics, and the Creation of the New, the Centennial conference they created, was inherently interdisciplinary, a chance for participants from many backgrounds to examine, interrogate, and critique the aesthetic nature of politics and reflect on the foundation of The New School.

Hessami and Totten also had a perfect keynote speaker in mind: Hessami’s MA thesis advisor and NSSR Sociology alumnus Martin Plot, now Research Professor of Political Theory at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council and the Institute of Advanced Social Studies in Argentina.

In his 2014 book The Aesthetico-Political: The Question of Democracy in Merleau-Ponty, Arendt, and Rancière, Plot sought to overcome the binary between normative or analytic approaches to theories of democracy on one side, and Schmittian theories of sovereign decision on the other,  by turning toward the phenomenological tradition, which he argues “could give birth to a conception that fundamentally opposes the theological-political view from the position of an aesthetic–in the original sense of ‘aisthesis’–primacy of the plurality of perceptions and appearances in the understanding of the political.” Plot calls this new conception the aesthetico-political, and he expanded on that research and more in his Symposium keynote address, “Becoming Beginners: The Body of Necessity and the Body of Freedom in Arendt and Butler.” 

Before his address, the Symposium welcomed graduate students from NSSR, Princeton University, CUNY Graduate Center, the University of Chicago, the University of Costa Rica, and Goethe University, Frankfurt for two panels. The first, ‘The Birth of the New’ addressed philosophical and theoretical considerations of the question of the new in politics; Philosophy PhD candidate Veronica Padilla was the discussant. The second, ‘Aesthetics, Action, Politics,’ discussed empirical case studies  on the role of art and aesthetics in politics; Sociology PhD student Zoe Carey was the discussant. Panels were interspersed with mini ‘installations’ featuring presentations of works of art that touched on the Symposium’s theme of the relationship between art and politics.

SOUNDS FROM THE PAST

Covers from recent GFPJ issues

Since 1972, the student-run Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal (GFPJ) has published essays and translations from some of the day’s leading philosophers and thinkers, including Axel Honneth, Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Trân Duc Thao, and Wolfram Hogrebe.

Their archives run deep, and editorial board members and Philosophy PhD students Krishna Boddapati, Cayla Clinkenbeard, and Ceciel Meiborg discovered some audio treasures: recordings of lectures and conference presentations from major philosophers. While many of those transcripts had been published in the GFPJ and other outlets, some hadn’t ever been published, and few had heard the talks themselves after the fact.

“Last year we applied for the Centennial fund because we found these boxes of reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes, mostly recordings from the 70s and 80s, and it was a mix of lectures, conference presentations, seminars,” says Meiborg. Funding from The New School for ‘Philosophy Recorded: Celebrating 100 Years of Radical Thought at The New School’ helped the GFPJ begin to digitize the recordings, necessary to both preserve the recordings themselves and to allow GFPJ to hear them, since there was no reel-to-reel equipment at the university.

At the Night of Philosophy, a dusk-till-dawn celebration of learning held during the Festival of New, the GFPJ editorial board worked with Zed Adams, Associate Professor of Philosophy to hold a special listening session. A mix of 40 New School students and community members attended in the hopes of hearing snippets of lectures directly from Jacques Derrida, Hans Jonas, Paul Ricoeur, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Charles Taylor. The in-room audio systems didn’t quite work, remembers Meiborg, and the group improvised by playing the recordings on a smartphone held up a microphone. 

The GFPJ is continuing to digitize recordings and assess ownership rights for publishing audio files; Meiborg says there’s nothing like hearing the recordings themselves, parsing through the cadences of speech and thick accents. Plans are in the works to publish what they can in written form; a transcript of the Jonas lecture on the responsibility of philosophers and artists, and three lectures by past NSSR professor Aron Gurwitsch on philosophy of mathematics, will appear in the forthcoming Fall 2019 (40:2) Centennial issue.

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.”

Integrative PhD Fellowship Unites Design and the Humanistic Social Sciences

On a Tuesday afternoon class in April, Sociology PhD student Zoe Carey (above, right) was recounting a recent conference she had attended — standard talk for graduate students. But Carey hadn’t been at a sociology summit; rather, she had traveled to a gathering of the International Association for Chiefs of Police, where she listened to high-level law enforcement leaders discuss their strategies for combating crime, and tech developers present the newest data-focused software, such as Palantir, that helps predict future crime patterns.

That software is what most interests Carey and her classmates in “Thinking Through Interfaces,” an interdisciplinary seminar that examines what interfaces — the points where systems or subjects meet and interact — are, how they work, and how they shape our lives, as well as the pressing social and political issues surrounding them. 

“Usually only designers think about interfaces,” says Associate Professor of Philosophy Zed Adams, who co-created and co-taught the class with Professor of Anthropology Shannon Mattern. Both professors approach the visual from different perspectives; while Mattern explores urban intelligences and maps, Adams focuses on architectural history and the built environment. In developing a syllabus aimed at helping social science students build interdisciplinary muscle, they incorporated texts from disability studies to media studies, and applied scholarship from human-computer interaction to information studies.

This seminar is part of the Integrative PhD Program, made possible by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The program supports NSSR doctoral students looking to combine their humanistic social science backgrounds with training in concepts and methodological approaches to data visualization, graphic design, coding, and digital media

Integrative PhD students are required to take a small collaborative seminar, like Thinking Through Interfaces, that is co-taught by one professor from NSSR’s social sciences departments and another from design or digital media, generally from The New School’s Parsons School of Design and the Schools of Public Engagement. They’re also required to take a course completely outside of NSSR; most choose to study data visualization or cartography.

Learning from professors with complementary skills means Integrative PhD students can become fluent in the full range of qualitative and quantitative methods as well as design thinking, and can better analyze the digital dimensions of political and social movements, media, culture, identity, and other topics critical to the humanistic social sciences.

“I think that for younger people, our graduate students, that combination of skills is within their reach,” says University in Exile Professor of Sociology Robin Wagner-Pacifici (above left), co-director and co-founder of the Integrative PhD. “They don’t see that they have to decide, ‘I’m in one camp or another’, which was more or less the case when I was coming up as a young scholar.” In other words, it’s less “Are you qualitative or quantitative?” and more “In what ways are you combining methodologies?”

Birth of an Idea

Wagner-Pacifici became interested in interdisciplinary study about 13 years ago, as she worked with two fellow sociologists to examine President George W. Bush’s National Security Strategy Report. The relationship was complementary; Wagner-Pacifici had strong close reading skills while her collaborators were experts in network analysis and formal modeling. “At that time, it was just the beginning of doing computational analyses of texts,” she says. One could put certain passages into a computer “and out came elements…or patterns that, in theory, an individual reader could not have seen.” This kind of combination of quantitative and qualitative skills wasn’t common at the time. “For us, this collaboration was as much a part of the project as whatever we came up with.” 

In 2015, as The New School was looking for ways to better integrate its strong programs in design, social research, and media studies, NSSR Dean Will Milberg decided to approach the Mellon Foundation about a new program. This Integrative PhD initiative would equip graduate students with skills like “computational text analysis, data visualization, cartography and other kinds of mappings so that they could enhance their dissertation projects and ask certain questions that their traditional methodologies did not allow them to ask, and make themselves more marketable,” remembers Wagner-Pacifici.

Milberg also brought Daniel Sauter, Associate Professor of Data Visualization at Parsons, into the discussion. It was a bold act of academic matchmaking — one that Wagner-Pacific views as a success. “We have different ways of asking questions and answering them, and different approaches to data, and that’s been at the heart of the Integrative PhD.”

“We often hear from applicants and fellows that this program is doing exactly what they thought The New School was about in regards to cross-disciplinary learning,” says Sauter. “In that sense, we are happy to implement a core mission of the university, continuously translating methods and pedagogy across schools, and contributing to a learning experience that we believe better prepares fellows for their academic and professional careers.” 

Bringing It All Together

Carey is certainly asking different and more focused questions than she had imagined. When she arrived at NSSR as an MA student, she planned to study Roma human rights in Europe. As her focus shifted to predictive policing — in which law enforcement officials use data analysis software to identify what kinds of criminal activity might happen in the future, as well as where and when it might occur —  she knew she needed to develop new analytical skills. 

“I wasn’t familiar with the theories, or how to go about studying that sort of topic as a qualitative social science researcher,” she says, noting bigger conversations in the field around how to study proprietary systems, whose internal workings are not public, and machine learning algorithms, which continually rewrite themselves. So she applied to the Integrative PhD program and was accepted in the 2017-2019 Fellows cohort.

“The best thing I’ve gotten out of the Integrative PhD was clarifying my methods, and what I hope will be innovations in how social scientists can study data systems,” Carey reflects. “In interdisciplinary work, you have to pull from all these different areas and sometimes your conversations get stuck on concepts or theories instead of the nitty-gritty of combining the methods from these different areas.”

Working with other Fellows has helped Carey answer a variety of research-related questions, from how to manage notes to how to collect and store data. “[More advanced Fellows] had resources to share with me, and now I’m doing the same with the Fellows behind me,” she says.

Another “Thinking Through Interfaces” classmate, Clinical Psychology PhD candidate Emily Breitkopf, is using the class to develop a visual component to her dissertation.

“My larger body of research is about media and technologies of gendering, and my dissertation looks at fetal gendering and sexing practices during pregnancy in the U.S.,” Breitkopf, a 2018-2020 Fellow explains. In particular, she examines how one specific class of technological interfaces — those that help us look inside a pregnant person, such as ultrasound — transform a fetus into an expected boy or girl through the language of gender.

Why do people care so much about fetal gender? “In order to relate to others, even imagined ones, many of us are compelled to wrangle them into binary gendered language because it helps alleviate the anxiety of not feeling stably-gendered ourselves,” Breitkopf says. “So when we have technologies like genetic testing or the ultrasound that offer this ‘promise’ of binary gendered language even during pregnancy, it stands to reason people would want it.”

The interactive visual component of her dissertation is “meant to convey the ways these cultural myths of gender stabilization play out visually, emotionally, through words, sound, and desire,” 

“I’ve always been interested in not only engaging the public at the level of language, but also at the level of feeling, to compel people to encounter the questions I’m asking  at a visceral level,” she says. “Producing a media-based interface has been both familiar and runs counter to the ways I’ve learned to be heard in academia.”

The Integrative PhD program is also helping more established scholars like Adams move their research forward, and in new directions. “This is really a chance to do philosophy in the present,” he says. “These are new devices that we’re surrounded by, but because they’re so new they haven’t yet been adequately theorized.” He’s now planning a conference around the topic, and is digging deeper into interests in architectural history and the built environment.

And emerging scholar Zeyno Ustun, a 2017-2019 Fellow, NSSR Sociology PhD graduate, and a postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Media at Risk at the University of Pennsylvania, has combined her ethnographic and data visualization skills to examine state surveillance and the social and political conditions that facilitated the 2013 Gezi Resistance in Turkey and other networked movements of the 21st century.

The future is collaborative — and with the Integrative PhD, the humanistic social sciences will continue to lead in the digital era.