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.