Human Sciences After the Human

The world in which we live today has little to do with the world in which most of the academic disciplines that comprise the human sciences were founded. What does it mean to study “the human” in our times, and what are the limitations of this practice?

These questions are the very center of the work of Tobias Rees, 2018-2019 Reid Hoffman Professor for the Humanities at The New School, and affiliated faculty in The New School for Social Research’s Department of Anthropology. Rees draws on various sources of knowledge, and his fields of study range from brain science to artificial intelligence (AI), and from microbiome research to global health.

Weaving a rich and multidisciplinary tapestry — he holds degrees in philosophy, art history, and anthropology — Rees argues that “the world has outgrown our concepts” — that many of our most taken-for-granted concepts are inventions of the modern era that are no longer fit descriptors. He invites us to consider how this sort of intellectual shift might be due to the inadequacies of these concepts themselves, and that a transformation of the human sciences is perhaps not something to be fought against but rather considered and, in some ways, welcomed.

Take, for example, society. Meant to distinguish ‘the human’ from ‘mere’ animals, ‘society’ has also been synonymous with ‘race’ or ‘people’ or ‘nation’. “The idea that humans ‘re social beings, that what defines them in their essence is that they always –– everywhere and every time –– live and have lived in a society, this is an idea that first emerges in the late 18th century, in the context of the French Revolution,” Rees said.

Since our notion of society, and of what kinds of beings we are, has changed very little over time, the term carries significant conceptual baggage and presents a problem for contemporary scholars. “There are many aspects of the present that we cannot subsume under the heading of the social as it was conceived of in the early 19th century,” Rees explains. “They range in style and might not add up. We can begin with the observation that ‘the social’ is usually tied to ‘a society,’ and that arguably not all people who live on a national territory are members of national society. Or we can be more provocative and point out that the assumption that what sets humans apart from animals is their sociality is somewhat untenable: If our neurotransmitters are made of bacteria living in our gut, then where does the human end and its microbiome begin? Are microbes part of society? Or, different example, the learning and thinking machines that artificial intelligence (AI) engineers are building?”

A radical rethinking of society may have profound consequences to our political lives. A question that preoccupies Rees is this: “How can a reformulation of our notion of the social –– maybe even a replacement of that term, given its strong anthropocentrism –– give rise to a new concept of the political, of political theory, of justice?” In other words, how can we understand ourselves and critique our conditions without ideas that rely on outdated assumptions about ourselves?

At present, Rees is exploring how fields like AI, microbiome research, and neuroscience challenge and change our concept of the human. “Your microbiome contributes more gene function to your organism than your own genome,” he says in a recent film. “It’s as if the ‘human’ is such that the thing that human sciences study doesn’t exist.” Similarly, his book Plastic Reason: An Anthropology of Brain Science in Embryogenetic Terms (2016) explores the scientific discovery that new cellular tissue emerges in mature brains, proving that the brain is plastic rather than fixed and immutable, and raising new possibilities about what is human.

At the Los Angeles-based Berggruen Institute, he leads the Transformations of the Human project, which places philosophers and artists in key research sites to foster dialogue with technologists, aiming to “render AI and Biotech visible as unusually potent experimental sites for reformulating our vocabulary for thinking about ourselves.”

Rees is attracted to heterodox institutions like the Berggruen Institute and, currently, The New School for Social Research. He believes they hold promise for a new kind of human science research that does not rely on unquestioned concepts and thereby foreclose the emergence of new models. In fact, he names The New School for Social Research “as one place I can actually imagine genuinely new kinds of experiments that could reinvent the human sciences.”

“Every science or discipline assumes that there is a reality sui generis that requires that science in order to comprehend it,” he states. These theoretical assumptions can wear old with age, but more importantly, they restrict our ability to understand the world by defining it in advance. “The cultural anthropologist will always find culture. The sociologist always finds society. Whatever knowledge is produced is either determined or conditioned by the assumptions you start with. It’s always more of the same.”

Social science, insofar as it presumes to understand what a society or the human can be, forecloses genuine discovery of challenging, novel, facts that run counter to our current notions of what humanity is.

Rees’ antidote is what he terms ‘exposure’ or ‘field sciences.’ An ethnographer approaches his subject with conceptual humility, not assuming that any of her concepts will be the same to those used by a different culture. In this humility and openness to understand without reducing the new information to predetermined frameworks, the field ethnographer makes space for genuine discovery.

“Imagine doing fieldwork in order to find out if there are things that escape the concepts of the human implicit in the analytical tool kit the human sciences have been contingent on. Imagine fieldwork as a kind of exposure of miniature concepts of the human, and the job of the researcher were to detect mutations of these miniature humans. Imagine, furthermore, that this would be an ongoing, never-ending project,” Rees explains.

His latest book, After Ethnos (2018), aims at de-anthropologizing anthropology –– and to provide a rough, tentative sketch of what he refers to as philosophically and poetically-inclined field science. “I’m trying to build research projects that make these new emerging fields visible as experimental laboratories for a ceaseless reconfiguration of the human, as fields that open up new epistemic spaces that allow one to explore possibilities for being human after ‘the human.’”

Global Mental Health: Adam Brown on Psychology That Crosses Borders

Emergency room doctors at the University Hospital of Bern were stumped.

Lately, more patients were reporting headaches, stomach and back pain that, despite extensive testing, did not show any clear physical root. That this uptick occurred mostly among one patient population — recent refugees from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea — made them wonder if stress and other similar factors might be at play. So they invited Associate Professor of Psychology Adam Brown to help them dig a little deeper.

As a Fulbright Specialist, Brown collaborated with the Bern doctors, the Swiss Department of Health, NGOs, and refugee communities over two summers to research the situation, identify gaps in mental health care, and plan and launch a new intervention. Now, refugees awaiting treatment at University Hospital emergency room complete a brief, carefully-worded, and culturally-sensitive mental health assessment via iPad.

It’s an important first step. Brown has since returned to help the program scale and expand to Zurich, Basel, Geneva, and other Swiss cities. New funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation means he’ll be returning for four more summers.

Investigating and developing treatments for populations routinely exposed to and impacted by stress and trauma has become the focus of Brown’s work as a clinical psychologist. He’s traveled across the globe to work refugees and migrants, human rights advocates, emergency workers, combat veterans, and more; before heading back to Bern this year, he wrapped up a large-scale mental health survey of 17,000 United Nations staff members. His findings have informed the organization’s ambitious new Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being Strategy.

From Local to Global

Surprisingly, Brown’s path to a career in global mental health started on a much smaller scale. Graduating college with a degree in environmental studies and political science, he worked for a Bay Area nonprofit, interviewing neighborhood residents to find out how their environmental concerns and access to green space affected their wellbeing.

“It was through those interviews that I became really interested in the psychology of how they were dealing with stress, of how they were coping with day-to-day experiences,” he says. “And that just opened up a set of curiosities and interests in the mind.”

That realization led Brown from California to New York in 2002 — specifically to the Psychology MA program at The New School for Social Research (NSSR), where he fit in well with the many other students pursuing psychology as a second field or career.

Just one year after 9/11, New York City was still finding a new sense of normal. Brown remembers that time as an emotional turning point for both psychologists and patients in the city. “[After the attacks] there was a more careful and systematic approach to measure and study how people were coping with stress and trauma on a fairly large scale. And there was this whole tough masculine culture that, prior to that, might have placed barriers [for men] to talking about mental health issues. Suddenly, they were considering reaching out and connecting with a therapist.”

Brown teamed up with a New School alumna at Cornell Medical School to study utility workers who had cleaned up debris at Ground Zero. At NSSR, he co-founded and wrote for the New School Psychology Bulletin. As his interests in memory and trauma grew, he planned conferences together with with sociologists and anthropologists in the interdisciplinary Memory Studies Network. And in a cognitive psychology class with Malcolm B. Smith Professor of Psychology William Hirst, he formally began to study Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

New Research at The New School

In the early 2000s, most PTSD researchers believed that traumatic memories would resurface and cause new waves of stress and impairment in the present. Brown has taken those understandings one step further. “As more research came out suggesting that our ability to imagine the future depends so much on our ability to remember the past, I began to wonder if we would see similar alterations and maladaptive processes in how people with PTSD imagine the future. And that is what we’re finding…. We also believe this is partially what makes it hard to recover from those sorts of events.”

But memories aren’t always accurate and memory itself isn’t fixed; in fact, it’s quite malleable, much like the brain itself. That quality drives Brown to ask bigger questions about PTSD treatment as well as prevention. “We’ve found that if we have people recall memories in which they were able to overcome or successfully manage a stressful event, it seems to actually increase people’s sense of self-efficacy. And then when we give them tests they’re much more effective at problem solving, emotional regulation, they view the future more optimistically…. As we begin to better characterize risk factors, we might be able to do things prior to exposure to events that might help to mitigate the negative impacts of stress.”

That could mean moving more post-crisis treatment plans from the hands of psychologists to the people themselves. “We’re thinking about psychological first aid,” Brown plans. “What are some of the things we might want to put in place to help reduce stress or to identify things that might require urgent care? We need to think about how we can train community leaders and other people to be the drivers of mental health care in those communities.” Such program promise to be more efficient, more cost-effective, and more personal, all helping reduce barriers to mental health care.

Brown is looking forward to bringing students from NSSR and across The New School into his work. “Most science happens in teams. The ability to work across disciplines for me is really so important,” he says. In his new Global Mental Health Lab, he’s working closely with Psychology master’s and doctoral students as well as Eugene Lang undergraduates and Parsons graduate students — some of whom will join him in Switzerland this summer. A Global Mental Health minor, currently in development, aims to help more New School students engage in the topic and apply their social science skills in fieldwork with local and international NGOs, in collaboration with the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility.

Teaching at his alma mater is a fitting homecoming for a world traveler, and Brown sees his research as fitting squarely with The New School’s progressive history and mission. “Within science in general there was a feeling that if you brought politics into your work, you couldn’t do good research. We’re finally at a point now where that is being challenged and dismantled.”

Research at the Border: Politics PhD Alumna Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera

To celebrate her recently-published book, Los Zetas, Inc.: Criminal Corporations, Energy, And Civil War in Mexico, Research Matters sat down with Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a recent doctoral alumna of the New School for Social Research Department of Politics, and current Associate Professor at the Shar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Born and raised in Mexico, Correa-Cabrera focuses on issues of border security, human trafficking and smuggling along the US-Mexico border. Straddling the line between political science and international security studies, her work probes the economic dimensions of organized crime in a transnational context, and other forms of unrest along the border.

Correa-Cabrera trained as an economist in Mexico. Interested in furthering her education, she chose to pursue a master’s degree in Politics at The New School for Social Research. After completing the program, she choose to stay at The New School to pursue a PhD under the supervision of Professor of Politics David Plotke and her dissertation concerned the relationship between politics and violence.

Having extended her stay in the US to complete her doctorate, Correa-Cabrera planned to return to Mexico upon graduation in 2010. As she put it, she wanted continue her research into “the institutional factors leading to violence and instability in my homeland,” which she had begun to explore more directly in her dissertation. These insights were later developed into Correa-Cabrera’s first book, Democracy in “Two Mexicos”: Political Institutions in Oaxaca and Nuevo León (Palgrave). Moreover, she felt a certain pull to continue teaching and writing in her native Spanish. Taking these factors together, a return to Mexico seemed like the most attractive option.

Before she could return, however, Professor Plotke suggested that Correa-Cabrera apply to a position at the University of Texas Brownsville (now The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley). Located adjacent to the border itself, and serving a community of American and Mexican students, this post offered her a unique opportunity to expand upon her research while reconnecting with her Mexican roots.

“You could cross the street and you could see the bridge to Mexico,” Correa-Cabrera said. After securing and accepting the position, she moved from New York to the small Texan town.

Correa-Cabrera explained that she “had been studying the northern part of Mexico, particularly the border states, especially Nuevo Leon.” But she added that the border is, “a very tough place.” Around the time of her arrival, Mexican border states were going through a particularly difficult period, with high rates of violence concentrated in the very states Correa-Cabrera had been researching. “Border violence was a big deal exactly when I arrived,” she said, “A very violent war between two organized crime groups started just on the other side of the border.” It was precisely this climate, which had previously shaped her teaching and gave concreteness to her doctoral research, that would define her unfolding research program.

As it turns out, Matamoros—Brownsville’s twin city across the border—is home to one of the most prominent violent drug organizations in the region. Popularly known as the “Gulf Cartel,” the organization is known not just for its violence, but for how its ‘business innovations’ have transformed the way criminal enterprises operate in Mexico and throughout the western hemisphere. Correa-Cabrera found herself as a political scientist precisely at the right place and time to delve into how these organizations operated.

As a result, she said, “It was inevitable” that her research focus would grow to encompass the issues of crime and violence in this region. She recalled that many of her students lived across the border in Mexico, and would often cite criminal violence as their reason for being absent from class. “They came to me and told me that their parents were very frightened,” Cabrera-Correa said, “A couple of them had had their parents kidnapped.” Undeterred, she explained that she and her students, “continued to work, often while listening to the gunfire coming across from the other side of the border.”

Applying her social research skills to what was occurring around her, Correa-Cabrera obtained a fellowship from the Social Science Research Council. The grant allowed her to conduct interviews on both sides of the border, and to review the way people discussed violence on social media. “At the time,” she added, “I didn’t have the consciousness of what was really happening, and it really shocked me […] it changed my life basically, and it gave some meaning to what I wanted to do. It gave me a project to pursue that was at the same time important, meaningful, relevant.”

Correa-Cabrera’s new book, Los Zetas, Inc., is the result of the research she conducted since that time. She explained: “It’s the product of personal experience in my own family, and other students who were suffering the same thing.” Despite the difficulties inherent in teaching and conducting research in such a precarious environment, she said, “It was the perfect laboratory for me.” Through this combination of research and life experience, Correa-Cabrera became an expert in border security, border relations, and organized crime, elaborating on the connections between a range of organized illicit activities. These extend not just to the transport of illegal drugs and weapons, but also to human smuggling and trafficking. Unlike smuggling, which consists of an agreement between two parties, in human trafficking one party is forced to work and is exploited, and the other party gains from that exploitation.

In other words, through the influence of the Gulf Cartel and others, Correa-Carbrera said, “drug trafficking organizations have consolidated and diversified to the point that they now involve all these illegal activities that were, at some point, controlled by different groups.”

Correa-Cabrera’s work was received positively, and she began to receive support from institutions like the Free University in Berlin, and UNAM in Mexico City. She also won a grant from the US State Department to study the connection between human smuggling, organized crime, and the trafficking of persons along migration routes. It was here that Correa-Cabrera pivoted, focusing on what she calls “the connection between the human elements and the criminal elements” associated with these international crime organizations. This connection led her beyond Mexico, to other countries in Central America’s “Northern Triangle”—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador— where these networks extended their reach.

This project reveals a new dimension to Correa-Cabrera’s research: her on-the-ground empirical work, in which she accompanies migrants on the long journey from Central America to the United States border. “It made a lot of sense for me to go to the countries of the Northern Triangle and to take the journey with the migrants from there,” she said. To Correa-Cabrera, this was the only way to see how these people were affected by international criminal groups, and how, in the end, smuggling could lead to human trafficking.

“Today because of immigration policies of the United States, it can be much more complicated for migrants to enter the United States so they [often] pay a fee to a smuggler,” Correa-Carbrera said, “And these smugglers are connected to the criminal organizations.” She explained that trafficking can involve many forms of forced labor: from sex work to coerced domestic labor, agricultural work, or forced participation in the criminal activities themselves. She emphasized that this project was about, “how these are connected and the vulnerability of the migrants […] The project was about doing the journey and interviewing individuals in the migrant shelters and in the trucks.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, according to Correa-Cabrera, this was an exceedingly complex process that entailed over 400 interviews. After its conclusion, she was awarded a Residential Fellowship at The Wilson Center, a non-partisan policy forum in Washington, DC. There, she is turning her research into articles, which in turn will inform concrete public policy proposals. This marks a new chapter in her work as a publicly-engaged scholar.

“I’m contributing to the design of public policy by presenting the results of my research,” she said, “It’s an amazing opportunity.”

Fieldwork photos credited to Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera.

PhD Alumnus David Bond on the History of “The Environment” as a Political Category

In a matter of decades, political and scientific debates concerning the environment have generally moved from the margins to the center of public life. But our collective understanding of what constitutes “the environment” has changed significantly during that same period.

The notion of “the environment” has a specific and, in many ways, surprising history—despite the fact that it is a fairly recent conceptual invention. Bennington College Professor and New School for Social Research anthropology PhD alumnus David Bond studies this history of our present. Straddling the lines between anthropology, climate science, and critical theory, Bond’s work helps unpack not only what we know about the environment, but also how we came to know the environment. In this context, he pays particular attention to the role that environmental disasters bring the environment to the center of public debate.

Troubled by the injustice and racism he saw in the world, and moved by the desire to do something about it, Bond initially went to college to study sociology. He thought that sociology would be the best lens through which to grapple with the issues that motivated him. Bond was still on that path when he arrived at the New School for Social Research as a master’s student in sociology. Surprisingly, it was a course taught by Willy Brandt Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Ann Stoler that most marked his experience.

“Whatever she was doing,” he said, “I wanted to be a part of it.” Bond explained: “Ann was grappling with things in a way I’d never seen before, pulling out the tensions that animate our present with an incisive critical focus and clear political implication. That’s what I wanted to be a part of.”

Attracted by the foment of new work unfolding in the Anthropology Department, Bond decided to pursue his Ph.D. there. For Bond, anthropology at The New School is not so much “a venerable discipline, as much as a really useful set of tools to examine the present and to write urgent histories of our present, in all that that implies and commits one to.” He added that he also appreciated the department’s insistence that students “take seriously the critical and creative capacities with which people lead their lives.”

Bond has just published a paper in the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History concerning how the US empire of oil offshored crucial hydrocarbon infrastructure to the Caribbean to avoid rising labor and environmental concerns, and the unexpected role those leaky refineries had in bringing new attention to the ecology of mangroves. . In January, Bond also organized and edited an online forum at Cultural Anthropology, providing a space for anthropologists to respond to the rise of Trumpism “as a political present” in the United States and its implications for critical theory. He is expanding his introduction to the forum into a full-length essay while finishing a book manuscript based on his New School dissertation, which tracked the emergence of the category of “the environment” during the BP spill of 2010.

When it comes to the current state of the discipline of anthropology, and how his work contributes to it, Bond emphasized the importance of ethnography. “It’s a truism that ethnographic insights are lacking in our public discourse,” he said. For Bond, insights recovered from this kind of research represent insights into the most looming and complicated problems facing our world today. He added: “We really have to reorient and recommit ourselves to thinking about those problems with people. Ethnography promises a different kind of insight.” Bond’s focus on ethnography truly comes through in the work on the BP oil spill, during which he followed government officials to several town halls with local residents in the direct aftermath of the spill. Repeatedly, Bond witnessed residents raise concerns about their health, only to have these concerns waved away by the officials, who preferred to focus on damage to property and to wildlife. “The environment was defined, in the aftermath of the disaster, in a way that excluded public health concerns,” Bond explained. “It excluded a lot of voices that otherwise had very legitimate complaints that were very easily connected to the spilled oil.”

Continue reading “PhD Alumnus David Bond on the History of “The Environment” as a Political Category”

Defining Integrative Climate Change Research

This profile of The Integrative PhD Fellowship program and the work of Politics PhD candidate Katinka Wijsman originally appeared at newschool.edu. It is reproduced here as part of the Research Matters climate change series.

True to its commitment to innovative interdisciplinary scholarship, The New School for Social Research recently launched the Integrative PhD Fellowship, a program that crosses boundaries between disciplines and trains students to incorporate new analytic and expository techniques, like data visualization and graphic design, into their work.

Supported by a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and led by University in Exile Professor of Sociology Robin Wagner-Pacifici and associate professor of art, media, and technology Daniel Sauter, the program teaches doctoral students to use emerging qualitative and quantitative methods in their analysis of some of the most pressing questions of our time. The program also invites faculty across the university to identify existing courses offered at The New School that can help PhD students develop new fields of integrative research and supports the creation of classes that are co-taught by faculty from across the university’s colleges.

Katinka Wijsman, a Politics doctoral candidate working on environmental issues, is one of the first four Integrative PhD fellows, having joined the program in part to learn more about visualizing landscape histories. Wijsman’s research, which she conducts in New York City’s Jamaica Bay, Suriname’s Weg naar Zee district, and the Netherlands’ Kijkduin, focuses on how coastal communities use nature-based or green infrastructure as means to adapt to climate change. In Wijsman’s words, such nature-based approaches “conceive of ‘nature’ as a climate change ally “rather than as “something in need of domination.”

Wijsman considers communities in a broad sense, thinking of them as not only human phenomena, but rather as entities that include other species and involve complex biophysical processes. Her participant observation in coastal communities entails what she calls “multispecies ethnographic encounters,”which she combines with document analysis and interviews to convey the politics of the changing landscape. In the Integrative PhD Fellowship program, she has acquired visual communication methods with which she makes her research accessible to new audiences.

In keeping with the intent of the program, Wijsman brings together analytic frameworks and methods from multiple disciplines into her work. She aims to understand better the effects of combining nature-based responses to climate change with traditional approaches. In her words, she investigates “the design, implementation, and evaluation of these nature-based solutions for climate change adaptation, and the politics of responsibility they emerge from and give rise to.”

Wijsman also works with a National Science Foundation–funded research network called Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network (URExSRN). At UREx SRN, university and government researchers and practitioners focus on climate change in ten cities in the United States and Latin America. Wijsman and her colleagues work on the ground, exploring natural environments, building new data resources, and presenting this information to the public and to government officials.

For Wijsman, the Integrative PhD Fellowship program is an ideal opportunity to discover new ways to conduct research and exchange ideas with academics and policymakers across fields. “I am excited about the intellectual mission and plan of action of the Integrative PhD,”she says. “This sort of exchange could be transformative to one’s own thinking and push intellectual creativity.”