NSSR Welcomes Lillian Polanco-Roman to Psychology Department

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

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

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

Elevating ‘Social Research’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead to Fall 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terry Williams: The Cosmopolitan Life of an Urban Ethnographer

“To see the real city you must descend deep into the shadows, go into the bowels of the city and be guided through history, remembrance and the sensorium, capturing a mosaic of people and places; the adventure will take you underground, in sex venues, crackhouses, teenage hangouts, toxico-maniac dens, as these physical spaces juxtapose the romantic reality of a multi-ethnic metropolis.”

Terry Williams, introducing his Cosmopolitan Life Series

On a chilly Sunday afternoon in a February, a crowd gathered at the home-hosted Harlem Arts Salon to hear about the latest book from Terry Williams, Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research. As filmmakers, musicians, artists, poets, sociologists, and current and former graduate students entered the inviting apartment, Williams warmly greeted them by name, creating a sense of community and connection rare at academic book talks.

But this wasn’t a ‘regular’ book talk. For one, host and Harlem Arts Salon founder Margaret Porter has known Williams for decades. Both grew up in Mississippi, found their way to New York City, and moved to Harlem in 1979. Guest moderator Hakim Hasan, a poet and former Director of Public Programs at the Museum of the City of New York, also cited a deeply personal relationship with Williams, whom he called “gracious, soulful, and dedicated.” 

And Le Boogie Woogie: Inside an After-Hours Club (Columbia University Press, 2020) isn’t a ‘regular’ academic book, with obscure jargon and heavy prose. In it, Williams deftly weaves together ethnography, sociological sources, and storytelling to create a fascinating and accessible account of the cocaine culture at a Harlem club in the 1980s and 1990s — a book for, in his words, the “cosmopolitan nonspecialist.”

A Multiethnic Panorama

“I am insatiably curious about the life of other people,” says Williams. “Some would say I’m nosy.”

A keenly observant scholar, Williams has turned being “nosy” into a decades-long career studying urban life and policy. His preferred methodology is ethnography, embedding himself in different situations to observe how people interact with each other and their surroundings. “I try to see the world as other people see it,” he explains.

When Williams was a doctoral student at CUNY in the early 1970s, ethnography was not a part of a sociologist’s toolkit. Focusing on non-quantitative social science made him an outlier in his department, and he instead found mentors at the University of Chicago, well-known for its pioneering work in urban sociology and advocacy for ethnography as critical to sociological research. Ethnography has become such a staple of his work that he even co-wrote the book on it; On Ethnography (Wiley, 2018), with colleague Sarah Daynes, shares lessons learned from decades of research in the field.

Williams publishes prolifically, and Le Boogie Woogie is the latest book in what he terms his Cosmopolitan Life Series; previous subjects include con men, Harlem building superintendents, crackhouse residents, and teenagers who self-harm. The series is a multivolume ethnography of place and behavior, and while the topics are diverse, none are forced; all evolved organically from Williams’ established relationships and interests.

Inside the Club

That’s especially true in the case of Le Boogie Woogie. While Williams’ father had run a small after-hours club in Mississippi, Williams was never allowed to get too close to it — a fact that only attracted him more. Once in New York City, he became connected with Le Boogie Woogie and other clubs like it via former students he taught at Rikers Island correctional facility and later befriended. He became curious about the club’s patrons who shared a lifestyle based around the enjoyment of cocaine and, with a professor’s encouragement, he began to work out a plan for research.

“No study had been done on cocaine users in their natural setting or to describe users as they lived,” he writes in the book’s introduction. Others told him it wasn’t a good idea, “…but my job as a researcher is to see if I can gain the trust and acceptance of people other than my kinfolk.” He pressed forward. 

Granted access to the club by way of his connections, Williams began to attend regularly. When talking with patrons and workers, he listened closely, keeping mental notes so he could later reconstruct dialogue. “Only on a few occasions did I use a tape recorder or openly take notes. I relied on memory for the most part, even though I was concerned that reconstructing conversations was problematic and porous and would affect my narrative,” Williams writes. He later opened up to some patrons about his research, and they began to share their extended stories with him.

The result is a vivid narrative that brings the setting, the scene, and the many characters who populate Le Boogie Woogie to life — so much so that the reader begins to feel like a nightly regular. “What he unveils,” says a recent Kirkus review, “is a subculture with its own codes and language, with moral values at odds with society at large, where drug use isn’t a sickness, addiction, or character defect but rather an ‘example of present-day resistance to conservative values and the desire of human beings to seek pleasurable ways of being regardless of risk.’”

Not only did Williams have to reconstruct dialogue after the fact; he had to reconstruct the entire scene years later. By the time Le Boogie Woogie was published in 2020, the club had been closed for decades. At his publisher’s encouragement, Williams broadened his research to the current day by studying Murphy’s Club, an after-hours club on the Lower East Side frequently mainly by wealthy, white millennials. In doing so, Williams is able to draw important connections and contrasts over time around drug usage, buying, and consumption; nightlife; sex work; race; class; gentrification; the War on Drugs; and the transformation of New York City itself.

“From a methodological perspective, most urban ethnographers do not imagine themselves to be historians in the classical sense of the word,” writes Williams. “Yet there is an inherent and unavoidable historical framework to all ethnographic work.” Le Boogie Woogie is a journey through time, through space, through states of consciousness, and through discreet worlds, each with their own cultural practices and lexicons.

The Sole of the Matter

Williams with his latest project: shoe construction

While Williams continues to prepare new books for his Cosmopolitan Life Series, he’s sharing his research skills and gift for storytelling with NSSR students in his classes on ‘Ethnographic Field Methods’ and ‘The Living Book: From Research to Manuscript.’ 

He’s also collaborating with Catherine Murphy, Senior Research Associate at Parsons School of Design, on ‘The Social Life of Stuff,’ a course that examines the social world of objects, products, and people. Their guiding questions: “What discoveries do we make when we trace the life of the objects that surround us? How do we understand craft? What does the spirit of capital mean in present-day life and the act of making and re-making? What responsibility do we have in addressing the impact products have on the worlds we live in? As we think about examining unusual materials and items of the sacred what remains sacred today? Where does the moral compass stand as it connects to the Internet and places like Silicon Valley?”

That insatiable curiosity that’s led Williams across New York City and around the world of stuff has also led him to a new field: shoe construction. In between teaching and writing, he’s been studying the ins and outs of creating shoes, and currently has prototypes of five different models made from mink, pony, leather and raffia. Several are named after his books or his ethnographic subjects and evoke something about the topics in their design and construction. He hopes to begin selling his shoes in 2021, with profits going to support the Harlem Arts Salon’s Gloster Arts Project and Parsons School of Design students. For Williams, it always comes back to creativity, connections, and communities.

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.


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.