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.”

Researching Subcultures, Inc.

Gregory Snyder is a PhD alumnus of the Department of Sociology and received his MA in Liberal Studies at The New School for Social Research. He is currently a Professor at Baruch College, where he dedicates his research to the scholarly study of subcultures. His book Skateboarding LA: Inside Professional Street Skateboarding will be published this December by New York University Press.

And he was also a clue on Jeopardy!

Snyder was born on a U.S. military base in Germany and grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Drawn by the interdisciplinary nature of NSSR’s Liberal Studies program, as well as the chance to live in New York City, Snyder enrolled at the New School for Social Research in 1992. Following the completion of his MA thesis, he was accepted to the PhD Program in Sociology at the NSSR.

Snyder remembers with fondness the New York City of the 90’s, a time when graffiti art was at its apogee and the Wu Tang Clan was ascendant. Despite having conducted research in the sociology of religion, Snyder had a “conversion” moment that altered his scholarly trajectory. While riding his bicycle across the Williamsburg Bridge to meet his dissertation advisor, Snyder was struck by a beautiful bit of graffiti. Dwelling on the art and reflecting on the dearth of scholarly engagement with graffiti, Snyder made a decision.

“By the time I arrived at the meeting,” he said, “I told my advisor: I’ve got to write about graffiti.”

Snyder had little idea of how to go about formally studying graffiti culture. “I started researching graffiti before I knew about subculture theory,” he said. He immersed himself in a growing milieu by interviewing artists, winning access to the painting process, and eventually producing some of his own work. Combining an amateur’s fascination with scholarly ethnographic practice, Snyder began to hang out regularly with some of the most prominent graffiti artists in the city. Given the importance of passion and motivation to his dissertation, Snyder’s advisor lent his support to the project of developing a sophisticated scholarly understanding of what was—in the mind of many—a crude form of vandalism.

At the time he was first studying it, graffiti had a reputation as more of an urban nuisance than a valuable object of study. “Combating simple binaries is really important,” Snyder suggested. For him, scholarship attains its value precisely acts that complicate—thereby weakening—binary ways of thinking, while at the same time exposing nuance and compelling gray areas. “When things are contradictory, there tends to be beauty involved,” he said. Such was the case with the underground culture of graffiti artists. “To me,” he continued, “graffiti was high art vandalism […] I liked my art vandalistic and my vandalism artistic.”

But what counts as a subculture, and how do sociologists and other social scientists go about studying them? Snyder explained that, in the more than twenty years since he first began studying graffiti, a new subfield has emerged to address precisely these issues, while codifying methods for researching and understanding subcultures. He said that subcultural groups, “are sophisticated enough to self-identify.” So despite the scholarly debate about what really counts as a subculture, he relies on self-identification. When a group describes itself as a subculture, Snyder suggests that we should take them at their word.

The subfield of subculture studies was originally developed at the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England. More informally known as “the Birmingham School,” the Center pioneered cultural studies methodologies for understanding subcultures. The young scholars that made up the Birmingham school argued that working class subcultures, like Mods and Punks, were evidence of symbolic resistance to the mainstream consumption imperative of capitalism. They argued however that this resistance was fleeting, it was merely symbolic and did not alter the lives of working class kids, because there were in fact no subculture careers. It is on this final point that Snyder takes issue, and having spent years studying subcultures that have become self-sustaining, he argued that graffiti writers and skateboarders do indeed create subculture careers. While this brings up issues of co-optation, he shows that despite this economic incentive, skaters, writers and a host of other subcultures, profit from their activity while still self-identifying as members of a subcultures.

Snyder’s claim is precisely that, pressing back against this thought, subcultures can take on lives of their own that replicate the mainstream, and can even become a part of it while retaining their distinctive “subcultural” quality. Graffiti and skateboarding thus become ways of showing that subcultures can indeed become careers; indeed, they are industries, and nonetheless retain their subcultural status. In this way, Snyder seeks to contest some of the most influential theoretical approaches to understanding subcultures. In order to understand why the Birmingham framework may have missed the mark, Snyder argues that it is necessary to go to the subcultures themselves, and spend time with the people who participate and make them grow.

Reflecting on the theory and practice of studying subcultures, Snyder said: “When I committed to ethnography, I committed to graffiti.” However, graffiti was not his endpoint. Following his initial research on graffiti, which resulted in the book Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York’s Urban Underground, Snyder set his eyes on another emergent subculture: skateboarding.

He was inadvertently immersed in the skateboarding crowd through his brother, professional skateboarder Aaron Snyder. Relating skateboarding to his previous studies in graffiti, Snyder said, “Both practices are misunderstood, and conventional wisdom is that they’re dumb or deviant, which makes them sociologically interesting.” Snyder has long been interested in the way that graffiti artists and skateboarders professionalized and monetized their alleged deviance (skateboarding was, for a time, illegal in many places in the United States) in order to form legitimate industries and find ways to make a living.

“Skateboarders are very deft at recording and distributing their work along industry lines,” he explained. He added that, just like the graffiti artists of the previous generation, skateboarders demonstrate a great amount of “creativity, athleticism, and competition” among themselves. The work of both subcultures is marked by “artistry and dexterity” that has challenged the negative associations and characterizations of their early days. This has allowed them to scale, and, in a way, gain acceptance within the mainstream, even while retaining their spirit of rebellion and irreverence.

In this sense, Snyder tells me, “subcultures produce their own contexts.” More importantly, Snyder argues that the maturation graffiti artists and skateboarders, as well as their ability to promote their work commercially, “indicates a blind spot in how people have thought about subcultures.” We continue to miss the value of subcultures as they emerge, and are belated to accepting the value that they create. This is as true today, despite the increase in books and articles on the subject, as it was when Snyder first had his epiphany about graffiti on the Williamsburg Bridge.

In his research, Snyder develops the theoretical and ethnographic tools to help guard against a tendency to miss the full breadth of creativity, know-how, and gradual development of a variety of subcultures. Armed with his insights, we are better equipped to appreciate the richness of these tendencies, which stand apart from our culture, but which can also teach us so much about it.

Uneasy Street: Sociology Professor Rachel Sherman’s New Book Tackles the “Anxieties of Affluence”

Sociologist Rachel Sherman quickly observed a common trait among the wealthy and affluent subjects of her latest book, Uneasy Street: the Anxieties of Affluence.

They hated getting specific about money. It is, in the words of one interviewee, “more private than sex.”

In part, Sherman—Associate Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research—attributes this reluctance to her subjects’ often-ambivalent relationship to wealth. The 50 New York parents she interviewed over the course of this multi-year study all belong to the top five percent of earners, meaning that they bring in more than $250,000 per year, and the majority are in the top one or two percent. Some benefited from substantial inheritances, which in several cases in excess of $10 million. Sherman chose to focus on people in their 40’s and 50’s who were embarking upon home renovation projects, given that such undertakings provide occasions for intentioned thinking about consumption and lifestyle choices.

The project has roots in Sherman’s longtime interest in structures of inequality in the United States and in the evolution of her thinking over the course of two previous ethnographic projects.

It was during her dissertation research on luxury hotels that Sherman identified a similar ambivalence about wealth among hotel guests, who were adamant that it was important to treat workers well. “I wouldn’t have talked about it this way then,” she said of the hotel guests she interviewed, “but I think they wanted to be morally worthy of their privilege.” That study—which Sherman developed into her 2007 book Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels—focused primarily on hotel workers rather than guests. Yet, Sherman recalls, “Even then, the larger question of what it means to have money in a socially acceptable way was interesting to me.”

“There Was No Berlin Wall, and It Never Fell”

Media sociologist Julia Sonnevend begins her first book, Stories Without Borders (Oxford), with a provocative opening salvo.

“There was no Berlin Wall,” she writes, “and it never fell.”

Sonnevend, who joins the Department of Sociology at The New School for Social Research this summer, spends the remainder of the book elaborating on the significance of this assertion. In the process, Stories Without Borders contributes to our understanding of how the meaning of events evolves alongside their symbolic representation. Using the fall of the Berlin Wall as a case study, Sonnevend proposes aspects of what she calls “global iconic events.” From there, she analyzes the factors—many of them related to media reportage and representation—that contribute to the transformation of certain events into enduring and compelling stories.

“If you want an event to be remembered over time,” she explained, “you have to turn it into a simple, condensed, universalized myth.”

In the case of the Berlin Wall, mythology elides the complex bureaucratic processes, political maneuvering, tense meetings, and delicate deal-making involved in negotiating the opening of the East German border. As Sonnevend put it, we instead tell each other “a mythical story about the Wall: that it just magically came down. We remember a quick, split-second event, when ordinary people had the power and determination to overcome a seeming permanent division.”

This willingness to neglect the facts of an event’s complicated history in favor of an enchanting (though less accurate) story represents a non-rational element of human behavior that ties together multiple strands in Sonnevend’s research. “I’m interested in the idea that we might be far less rational—far less fact-oriented—than we might imagine ourselves to be,” she said.

Her latest work deals with the concept of charm, which she says has long proven an elusive topic despite its pervasiveness in social life, and which can produce similarly non-rational social responses. “We all know charming people,” she said, “It’s a quality that’s very important in everyday interactions. But it’s very hard to measure, and very hard to describe.”

According to Sonnevend, scholars in fields like international relations have previously asked what it means to have a charming leader, and have long used—alongside journalists—phrases like “charm offensive” to describe diplomatic interactions. Sonnevend explained that she is interested in examining media representations of charm in international relations contexts, but she also wants to understand charm’s everyday social manifestations. At the heart of her current work lie questions about how charm influences individuals, how it differs from charisma, and how it can convince individuals to act in non-rational ways.

Sonnevend arrives at The New School for Social Research from the University of Michigan. She received her doctorate in Communications from Columbia University and previously completed a Master of Laws (L.L.M.) degree at Yale Law School, as well as a J.D. and M.A. in German Studies and Aesthetics at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. Originally from Hungary, Sonnevend brings to the Sociology Department a breadth of research interests in the sociology of media, and a passion for working across disciplinary lines and in different genres of scholarly production. She has already contributed a piece on contemporary borders to Public Seminar.

“Contemporary academia is often very siloed in terms of departments and disciplines,” Sonnevend said, adding that the particular interdisciplinary quality of scholarship at The New School for Social Research was part of what attracted her. Similarly important was NSSR’s progressive history and its openness to active faculty participation in public debate. “I see myself as a combination of an academic and a public intellectual or essayist,” Sonnevend said, “And it seems to me that one can play those roles here at The New School. I am also very much looking forward to contributing to the Journalism & Design program at Eugene Lang College.”

In the 2017-18 academic year, Sonnevend will co-teach a graduate course on media and micropolitics with Jeffrey Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology. She will also offer an undergraduate course on “visual media and society.” She says that she is excited to teach students interested in media and communication across The New School’s divisions.

Photograph cred. István Huszti (Index)

 

What is an Event?” A New Book from Sociologist Robin-Wagner Pacifici

“It’s unusual for sociologists to study events,” says Robin Wagner-Pacifici. When describing her new book What is an Event? (University of Chicago Press), she explains that historians more often think about the implications of eventful, momentous, idiosyncratic, one-off episodes that stand out in narratives about the past.

Events like 9/11, the Great Recession, or the Paris Commune of 1871—all of which Wagner-Pacifici examines in the book—don’t fit neatly into sociology’s attempts to articulate general laws about societies. Indeed, they may look like exceptions to these laws, and Wagner-Pacifici characterizes a resulting “skepticism about the ways in which events reflect something enduring about society.” From this disciplinary perspective, What is an Event? might read like a departure from typical sociological research.

It does not, however, mark a departure from Wagner-Pacifici’s distinctive scholarship and longtime curiosity about how events help shape our understanding of societies more broadly. The University in Exile Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research says that she has always studied events, drawing from multiple disciplines in the process, precisely to discern what they might illuminate about social relations.

Wagner-Pacifici describes a growing realization about the usefulness of events during the process of writing her dissertation on the kidnapping and assassination of former Prime Minister of Italy Aldo Moro, subsequently published by the University of Chicago Press as The Moro Morality Play: Terrorism as Social Drama. She says, “It struck me that I could usefully try to apply frameworks from other disciplines and other societies to contemporary events in large-scale modern societies.” In other words, a systematic study of the concept of events—the forms they take, why they feel exceptional, how they evolve, and how they weave themselves into ordinary life—can play a significant role in shaping how we think about the social world.