Who Climbs the Academic Ladder?

NSSR PhD Economics students publish paper on career trajectories of Black and Hispanic economists and sociologists

Across disciplines, academia is reckoning with its own whiteness. In 2017, 76 percent of university faculty members in the United States were white. While racial diversity has increased over the past two decades, professors are still much more likely than their students to be white.

The path to tenure is riddled with obstacles. White men are the most likely to become full-time professors, and as a result are more likely to set the agenda and priorities for departments and academic institutions. They receive the highest salaries and positions of power, creating a cycle and social atmosphere that can be difficult to infiltrate.

In collaboration with the American Sociological Association (ASA), two Economics PhD candidates and one Economics PhD alum from The New School for Social Research (NSSR) co-authored three papers on the academic barriers that underrepresented minority (URM) PhD graduates and faculty members face. Published in the Review of Black Political Economy — the leading peer-reviewed journal for research on the economic status of African-Americans and the African diaspora throughout the world their main paper, “Who Climbs the Academic Ladder? Race and Gender Stratification in a World of Whiteness,” looks at the career trajectory of Black and Latino economists and sociologists. The other two publications explore the experiences of women of color in economics and sociology how “raced” organizations influence the tenure process for faculty members in sociology.

Economics PhD candidates Kyle K. Moore and Ismael Cid-Martinez (left to right in cover photo) worked alongside Jermaine Toney, Assistant Professor of Economics at Rutgers University and an NSSR Economics PhD 2017 alum, to co-author the papers with other scholars of economics and sociology; Roberta Spalter-Roth, PhD, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Social Science Research, and Amber Kalb, a PhD candidate in sociology at George Mason University spearheaded the work demonstrating how the social sciences exclude women of color from intellectual legitimacy. Other co-authors include Jean H. Shin, PhD, and Jason A. Smith, PhD, of the ASA.  The team presented their findings at the 2019 American Economic Association annual meetings and in 2018 as working papers.

Using a sample population of Black and Latino students in the U.S. who graduated from PhD programs between 1995 and 2006, they set out to uncover what percentage of these URM scholars in sociology or economics succeed in moving up the academic career ladder, identify the existing social structures that can prevent them from doing so, and lay out policy recommendations to remedy the lack of diversity.

Moore and Cid-Martinez spoke with Research Matters over Zoom to discuss the interdisciplinary nature of “Who Climbs the Academic Ladder” and what this work means for the future of economics, and academia at large.

Of Economists and Sociologists

Moore and Cid-Martinez are in the last year of their PhD programs, currently working on their dissertations, and both are former research assistants at NSSR’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis. Moore is also a Senior Policy Analyst with the Joint Economic Committee in the U.S. Congress, while Cid-Martinez is a consultant for UNICEF’s Data and Analytics Unit. They got involved in the project when ASA approached NSSR’s Department of Economics about comparing faculty diversity within economics and sociology.  

“There was a lot of energy behind wanting to compare the two disciplines, to see whether or not things were different for underrepresented minority scholars in economics versus sociology,” Moore says. “We were asking the same questions, looking at pipeline problems with diversifying both disciplines and asking which things matter in becoming a tenured professor.”

Cid-Martinez added, “Despite the fact that they are often treated as disparate fields, both sociology and economics share similar concerns with issues of inequality and inter-group disparities.”

“Our project invokes W.E.B. Du Bois, who is the shared heritage of economics and sociology, having completed coursework in economics and spearheaded sociological inquiries on stratification,” Toney says.

For “Who Climbs the Academic Ladder? Race and Gender Stratification in a World of Whiteness,” the researchers set out to measure stratification by the distribution of academic rank and examine differences based on discipline, institution type, race/ethnicity, gender, and publications in terms of academic career success. To understand the exclusivity of academia in economics and sociology, the researchers embarked on a labor-intensive, mixed-methodologies approach, reviewing the resumes and CVs of PhD cohorts in the two fields between 1995 and 2006. They reasoned that these graduates should have had enough time to have moved from tenure-track assistant professors to tenured associate professors within eight years, though not all did so, and some should have had time to become full professors within 14 years.

“One of the main contributions that we wanted to have with the paper is that we wanted it to be non-intrusive,” Moore says. “So we didn’t want to have to rely exclusively on survey data. We wanted to be able to identify folks and gather as much data in a secondary way as possible to build out the trajectory of their careers.”

This is where the interdisciplinary nature of the project became crucial. “That intensive sort of mixed methods research is not something economists typically do,” Moore says. “But our sociologist colleagues were more familiar with doing that type of work.”

Together, they discovered that the career paths of URM faculty can be limited due to a process that legitimates a non-Hispanic White male set of rules and practices, including value-neutrality — the idea that a researcher must be totally impartial — and objectivity.

One of the major frameworks for the study was the idea of social and human capital and its relationship to advancing an academic career path. There is, of course, the well-known aphorism in academia of “publish or perish” — meaning that how often and in which journals scholars publish work can be a critical metric in the tenure process. Their findings confirmed that publications are likely the most significant measure leading to promotion. But authoring and getting an article to publication goes much deeper. “Having a group of people to relate to and publish work with and co-author with, build relationships with, is key,” Moore says. 

As a discipline, sociology was founded upon the idea of social stratification, or classifying groups of people based on inequalities in power and resources. Applying this approach to economics illuminated how, traditionally, the discipline focuses on the individual rather than looking at larger social structures. The emphasized focus on publication status and other forms of human capital perpetuates a system of exclusivity. By bringing social theory into economics, the researchers were able to identify how critical inclusive social networks can be to progressing a career in academia.

“These disciplines don’t account for the fact that minority faculty do a lot of service work with respect to minority students, and that’s not often captured in determining who gets tenure, who doesn’t get tenure, whether or not those support networks exist in those fields,” Moore says. Participation in ‘raced’ organizations and activities was similarly devalued, and URM faculty who did not receive tenure likely dropped out of academia and found alternative employment. “I think that’s the case for the social sciences more broadly.  A lot of these insights from the paper are going to be able to apply more broadly.”

Looking Inward and Ahead at The New School

Broadening the scope of traditional economics and fostering interdisciplinary approaches is at the core of NSSR. “One of the advantages coming from the New School and our department is that we started with a very pluralistic, or heterodox, perspective in looking at economics” Cid-Martinez says. “So that in itself provided us with a different lens from which to view and treat these issues.”

 “The paper itself is a product of The New School,” Moore says. “More people should do more interdisciplinary work and The New School encourages that in its curriculum. I think it’s a very valuable thing to do just as a scholar.”

While the New School provided the perfect environment to build out this research, no institution is immune from reflecting on faculty diversity. “We make important recommendations in the paper,” Cid-Martinez says. “They have a lot to do with not just stopping at diversity hiring. That’s part of the solution, but it’s not enough. We share a responsibility to bring in underrepresented minorities to enrich diversity of representation, methods, and thought, but it is even more important to make sure that they have positive opportunities to climb the academic ladder, that they feel included in their universities and departments, and that they are part of the conversation about the direction in which these need to move. These recommendations are pretty universal; they apply to disciplines outside of the social sciences and even to the most progressive universities and departments in the country.”

These papers have gained widespread attention within the greater economics field. With the momentum of national discourse around internalized racism in hiring structures, Moore and Cid-Martinez are hoping to continue the work and move forward these conversations.

“What we studied were the things that allowed folks to gain access to tenure in the eight years after their initial cohort in our sample population,” Moore says. “But moving forward, there are new areas of social capital that are important that we haven’t considered. The main one that’s big on my mind right now is EconTwitter,” a community of economists active on the social media platform. “Twitter is a relatively new and important vehicle that is driving impact in the profession and academia more generally. I suspect that participation on that platform may be a valuable tool for URM scholars in leveling the playing field. A junior scholar can put their ideas out there and have them be digested in the same format and reach as an established academic.”

These new ways of putting out work and rising within disciplines could be extremely relevant to changing the structure of academia, and deciding who climbs the career ladder towards tenure.

Works Cited

Moore, K. K., Cid-Martinez, I., Toney, J., Smith, J. A., Kalb, A. C., Shin, J. H., & Spalter-Roth, R. M. (2018). Who Climbs the Academic Ladder? Race and Gender Stratification in a World of Whiteness. The Review of Black Political Economy, 45(3), 216–244. https://doi.org/10.1177/0034644618813667

Spalter-Roth, R., Shin, J. H., Smith, J. A., Kalb, A. C., Moore, K. K., Cid-Martinez, I., & Toney, J. (2019). “Raced” Organizations and the Academic Success of Underrepresented Minority Faculty Members in Sociology. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 5(2), 261–277. https://doi.org/10.1177/2332649218807951

 Spalter-Roth, R., & Kalb, A. C. (2019). Women of Color in Economics and Sociology: Poor Climate, Unequal Treatment, and Lack of Legitimacy. Institute for Women’s Policy Research.  https://iwpr.org/publications/race-ethnicity-economics-sociology-inequality/

 

COVID-19 and Eastern Europe

In Spring 2020, members of the Decolonizing Eastern European Studies (DEES) group produced a series of video essays critically examining how states and societies in Eastern Europe have responded to, and thought about, the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the disease it causes in humans, COVID-19. Each essay draws on long-term, direct engagement with people in the region and with scholarship written in the languages of the region.

The essays and accompanying videos were originally published on the DEES group page and have been reshared here with permission.

DEES on COVID-19: Introduction
Jessica Pisano, Associate Professor of Politics and DEES coordinator
Read her essay here


COVID-19 and Hungarian Democracy
Orsolya Lehotai, Politics PhD student
Read her essay here


Hitler and White Asparagus: The Pandemic in Romania
Elisabeta Pop, Politics PhD student
Read her essay here


Russian Governmentality and COVID-19
Dina Shvetsov, Politics PhD student
Read her paper here


Old Wine in New Bottles: Church and State in Georgia in COVID-19
Malkhaz Toria, Sociology MA student
Read his paper here


What’s Wrong with Ukraine’s Response to COVID-19
Masha Shynkarenko, Politics PhD candidate
Read her paper here


Voices from the Polish Borderland
Karolina Koziura, Sociology and Historical Studies PhD candidate
Read her paper here

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.

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.

Eiko Ikegami Researches Autistic Communities in the Virtual World

This piece originally appeared at The New School News and is reprinted here with permission.

In their study of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), researchers have devoted most of their attention to the diagnosis and treatment of children.

As a result, says Eiko Ikegami, Walter A. Eberstadt Professor and professor of sociology at The New School for Social Research, researchers know very little about the lives of adults with autism — and even less about the way they interact with one another.

Ikegami wanted to flip the script on ASD research and zero in on adults living with the condition. To that end, she went to a place that happens to be a decade-long focus of her ethnographic research: the online virtual world of Second Life. It’s there that adults on the autism spectrum gather to hang out — and be themselves.

As Ikegami discovered, Second Life is ideally suited to people with autism, as it allows users to come and go as they please — a means of avoiding the real-world threat of sensory overload, a common affliction for people with the disorder. Assuming the form of Kiremimi Tigerpaw, her Second Life avatar, Ikegami interacted with adult autistic people in virtual environments.

Of all the discoveries she made about these individuals, Ikegami was most intrigued by the “incredible richness of their mental life.”

“Although I entered with the expectation of studying people with a disorder, I acquired a heightened appreciation of the neurodiversity among human beings,” Ikegami says. “While people with autism have difficulty with some things that are easy for us neurotypicals, as they call us, they excel in other things to which we are insensitive.”

Ikegami has channeled her research and findings into her innovative new Japanese-language book, Hyper-World: Autistic Avatars in Virtual World (an expanded English version of the book is forthcoming). It is supplemented by a blog, published on her website, that details her interactions with autistic people on Second Life and in face-to-face meetings with them across the United States. Her trip was documented by NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting organization, for a two-part documentary, The World of Autistic Avatars.

During her two-week trip, Ikegami scheduled hours of face time with her autistic friends from Tennessee to Wyoming to California. But they had their most productive conversations on the Internet. As Ikegami notes, because of their “different mental functioning, many autistic people see, hear, touch, or smell the world in ways that differ from those of neurotypicals.” Most crucially, the majority of people on the autism spectrum are unusually sensitive to sensory information. Unlike the real world, Second Life allows its inhabitants to control sensory input and to freely express themselves through the creative use of avatars (furthermore, no one is required to read subtle “social cues”). If an autistic Second Life user becomes overwhelmed, he or she can simply turn off his or her computer.

“Being able to turn down the sound, prevent people coming up to me; not having the movement of air or smells, pollen, insect sounds, intensity of light; being able to be supported in a chair — not falling almost all the time and having to brace myself against objects or be horizontal — yet still being able to move in a space and explore is hugely beneficial,” one user told Ikegami. “This is coupled with the fact that I seem to communicate far more fluently via text than I can by speech.”

The rules of communication in the real world have been made to accommodate the preferences of neurotypical people, Ikegami explains. In virtual worlds, however, “there are technologically defined spaces that democratize the rules of communication and allow autistic and neurotypical people to socialize as equals,” she says.

Given the opportunity, autistic adults have a lot to say. During her trip, Ikegami met Malachi and his friend Jenny, who discussed their lives as members of both the LGBTQ and autistic communities in El Centro, California;  Cora of Little Rock, Arkansas, who shared her “activist outlook” on autism and her experiences of sensory and emotional “melt-down”; and Larre of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, who talked about his life as a musician and trance music DJ (in Second Life) and a merchandise clerk at a local supermarket (in real life). Each person conveyed his or her appreciation for the freedom of expression allowed in virtual worlds.

The experience of autistic individuals on Second Life resonated with Ikegami. Upon moving from Japan to the United States to study sociology at Harvard, her ability to speak or understand English was limited, leaving her with the feeling of being “a self-confined autistic child.”

“Many autistic children have in fact rich mental worlds, even when they cannot express themselves well; When I moved to the United States, I also had a lot to say, but I could not express myself effectively in a new environment,” she says.

Expressing herself not only meant learning a new language, but also breaking with cognitive assumptions rooted in “the culturally defined ways of feeling, sensing, and viewing” with which she grew up.

“It was quite a frustrating experience,” she adds, “but it was curiously enriching.”

She felt a similar sense of exhilaration conducting ethnographic research with autistic people. Just as immersing herself in a new culture led her to “break the boundaries of my cognitive framework,” so too did “interacting with neurologically different people.”

Ikegami hopes that through her research, others will come to the same realization — and, in turn, “come to a new level of reflection regarding the depths of our cognitive experience, and appreciating diversity in human intelligences.”

“Knowing oneself is a counsel of various philosophies and religions around the world,” she says. “Paradoxically, however, we often come to know ourselves better only when we interact with and try to know ‘others’; we are able to touch the unseen parts of ourselves only when others hold up a mirror to us.”