On a sunny October afternoon in 2021, Washington Square Park was filled with just about everyone in New York City. Among them were around 25 New School students, their professor, and their guide.
Nearly 400 years ago, the area looked very different. Twenty-eight different farmsteads filled that land, all owned by Black individuals — New York City’s first Black neighborhood. Yet the park today bears no record of this history, nor that of the people who lived there.
That erasure, said Kamau Ware, is not accidental. Ware is an artist, historian, and founder of Black Gotham Experience, an organization dedicated to making “the impact of the African Diaspora missing from collective consciousness as well as the public square.” After a brief introduction, Ware handed each New School student a card bearing the name of a Black person, then asked them to focus on one name: Manuel Trumpeter, a Black farmstead owner. What are the kinds of things that might have been on Trumpeter’s mind? What might he have been feeling, frightened of, excited about as a semi-free Black man in 17th-century New York City?
This empathy-based exercise and subsequent in-depth historical tour of Washington Square Park are integral parts of students’ work in either the “Capitalism and the Settler Colonial Present in New York City” graduate course or “Blind Spots of New York City: Capitalism and Exclusion” undergraduate course, both taught by Benoit Challand, Associate Professor of Sociology.
“This is all very practice-oriented,” says Challand. “The goal is to bring students outside of the classroom and academic, book-centered learning experiences.” In addition to tours with Ware of the park and of the Financial District, students have toured Inwood Hill Park with the Lenape Center and discussed the colonial-era fur trade from the perspective of the Mohawk Nation with the North American Indigenous Center of New York for Culture, Equity, and Economic Justice — all spaces of different kinds of exploitation and erasure.
Developing a Civically Engaged Class
“How can you explain what is capitalism from a historical and sociological perspective?”
During Challand’s first year as a Sociology faculty member at The New School in 2015, he developed a Lang first-year seminar that explored this question via two major commodities, cotton and sugar. As he taught the class, he found that issues around settler colonialism — the replacement of an indigenous population with an invasive settler population — in the U.S.; extraction; land dispossession; and racialization of the other continued to crop up, especially in relation to New York City.
“The big discovery [for me] was to find out how the history of the city is connected to those two commodities all the way to recent times without acknowledging its link with slavery until the 1850s,” he says. This led him to dig deeper into the erasure of past slave rebellions in the city, as well as that of the city’s current large Native American population, and to develop the course in new directions to confront the absence of Black and indigenous people’s memory in New York City landscape, architecture and monuments.
After meeting Ware during a tour in 2017, Challand asked him to lead a tour on erasure of the city’s Black history for the Lang seminar. Following positive reviews, Challand brought Ware into the course as a partner via a Lang Civic Liberal Arts grant, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. They taught together in 2018 and 2020, and now again in 2021.
New this year is a version of the course at the graduate level at NSSR. While both courses explore the same content and read the same texts, Challand says that undergraduate students are “more creative in terms of how they express knowledge” while graduate students have a “deeper, more robust engagement with literature” in class discussion and in written assignments. The courses are now supported by a Mellon Periclean Faculty Leader grant, which has allowed Challand to bring in the additional indigenous community partners.
Assisting with the graduate course is Emmanuel Guerisoli, a Sociology PhD student who studies settler colonialism in the U.S. from a legal point of view. His Teaching Assistant position is funded by NSSR’s Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, which supports research on New York City and its transformation over the centuries by migration.
Bridging Sociology and History
At both levels, the courses draw deeply upon both history and sociology. At the graduate level, it is one of several Sociology courses that focus on the struggles of peripheral peoples in countries both of the global core and the periphery (read more about the Critical Perspectives in Democratic Anticolonialism project).
Says Challand, “Both disciplines concur on locating capitalism in Atlantic trade, which includes the slave trade. Mercantilism is replaced by capitalism, a new economic and ideological system rooted in exploitation and destruction of native populations….History means an understanding of historical episodes, a past-dependent development. The landscape of New York City is a byproduct of what colonial New York City was in the 17th and 18th centuries. There is continuity and rupture. And from the sociological perspective, capitalism rebundles social relations.”
Although course material temporally ends in the mid-1800s, course discussions address contemporary topics. “We try to look at the legacies, and how racial capitalism and its hierarchies have evolved and developed with time,” says Guerisoli. “In the final sections of the course, it was impossible to ignore what happened last year [uprisings following the murder of George Floyd by police] and Black Lives Matter, and the effect that it had. This is completely influenced by what happened in colonial times.” Discussion topics include the complicity of academia in erasure, pushback against monuments to colonial leaders, reparations, and the establishment of Juneteenth as a national holiday in the U.S.
“I’m very happy to see the students very engaged both academically, theoretically, but also politically,” says Guerisoli, who has been a TA for a previous Sociology class taught by Challand, “and that we’re able to discuss what are very much provocative topics that are not easy to engage with and don’t have any easy answers or simple answers.” He cites a recent debate around the discourse of nativism; that indigenous people might use nativism to counter settler colonial practices, but that white supremacists use the same discourse against migrants.
Melisa Rousseau is a Sociology MA student who registered for the course without much prior academic knowledge of the topics it addresses. But with race as a primary area of focus for her studies, the course seemed like a great fit. “I really didn’t even know about what settler colonialism was,” she says. “I signed up because I had taken Benoit’s class before, and he and Emma together are a really good team, so I knew it would be a good course.”
The course has not only offered her new perspectives on slavery and the genocide of Native Americans; it’s also reframed how she thinks about race, space, and place, and New York City itself.
“The course has significantly changed the way I see New York City,” she says. “I’m not just walking through Washington Square Park anymore, right? It’s got a different meaning now. The same with Wall Street or City Hall. I never realized that interred a block away from City Hall are up to 20,000 skeletons [of Black individuals]. Now when I walk in Lower Manhattan, it has a different meaning.”
And she appreciates the multifaceted aspects of the course. “We’re able to integrate what we’ve learned on the tour with what we’re also learning in the readings,” she says. And on top of that, we’re keeping journals [which integrate] what we’re reading and our experience on the tours.”
Ware’s October tour ends outside a building just east of Washington Square Park where, in 1911, nearly 150 Jewish and Italian immigrant garment workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. A small plaque on the building commemorates the tragedy, one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history and a major turning point in labor history and occupational safety. He notes the differences between the site and the nearby park in terms of public memory and erasure. But one parallel remains: the extra work those “othered” must do — ideally with a wide base of support but often alone — to fight for visible change in a society built on their erasure.
The New School for Social Research is excited to welcome Nicola Marcucci as the Fall 2021 visiting Hans Speier Professor in the Sociology department.
Marcucci is a sociologist working in critical theory, intellectual history, the philosophy of social sciences, modern social and political thinking. He is member of the Laboratoire interdisciplinaire d’études sur les réflexivités – Fonds Yan Thomas at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris, member of the board of the Teoria Critica della Società seminar at the University Milano-Bicocca in Italy, and associated with the Bauman Institute at the University of Leeds. As part of an ongoing project investigating the sociological redefinition of critical faculties—reason, will, and judgment, Marcucci is finalizing a first volume on Spinozism, Neo-Kantianism and the birth of classical sociological theory in France and Germany.
Named for Hans Speier, a German sociologist and one of 10 founding members of the University in Exile, the Speier Professorship is a distinguished visiting professorship that brings scholars to the NSSR Sociology department to conduct research and teach, continuing The New School’s tradition of welcoming academics from Europe. Speier’s wife lost her job as a doctor due to being Jewish, and the family found refuge at The New School in 1933, where Speier became a professor of sociology until 1942, returning in 1974 as a professor emeritus.Learn more about Speier here.
Prof. Marcucci talked with Research Matters about what he’s looking forward to this year, what needs to be interrogated about the status of critique between sociology and modern philosophy, the importance of intellectual history to reconstruct the relation between the two, the legacy of the French school of sociology, the NSSR archives and the role of French refugees.
RM: What was your path to becoming a Hans Speier Professor?
NM: Having spent some years as a visiting researcher at NSSR in the past, some colleagues knew my work in both the departments of Philosophy and Sociology. I received an offer to teach from the Sociology Department two years ago; I accepted with a lot of enthusiasm, but I had to refuse at the very last minute because I didn’t receive my visa in time. Since then, I’ve been in touch with the department of Sociology (to which I would like to express my gratitude) — and last year, this opportunity popped up. Long story short, it is very exciting to be here, because of what The New School represents, because I appreciate very much the possibility of teaching here, and because I got the opportunity of making up for the first, lost opportunity I got.
RM: As a visiting research fellow here in 2014-2016, what did NSSR offer to your scholarship? Who did you work with, and what did you develop here?
I was a Marie Sklodowska-Curie European fellow for three years at EHESS Paris, and during these years I was sponsored by this fellowship to spend two years at The New School. My research concerned Spinozism, Neo-Kantianism and their influence in French and German debates on sociological theory from the 70’s of the 19th century to the end of the First World War. Chiara Bottici [Associate Professor of Philosophy] invited me to NSSR (2014-2016), because of our common interests in Spinoza and critical theory. During my stay I also collaborated with Omri Boehm [Associate Professor of Philosophy], organizing an international conference titled: “Spinoza and Kant: Metaphysics, Ethics, and Politics.” Meanwhile I continued developing the sociological side of my research and I organized an international conference titled: “Durkheim & Critique”. The contributions of this conference have been recently published in an edited volume.
RM: What made you want to return to teach further at NSSR? How does NSSR fit your ethos as an academic?
NM: I’ve been working as a researcher for many years. After obtaining my doctoral degree in history and sociology of modernity in Pisa, I taught and I researched in Berlin (Centre Marc Bloch and Humbodlt University) Paris (Sciences Po and EHESS) and Milan (Milano-Bicocca), and finally I arrived in New York. This, I think, says something about me and about why The New School is a desirable place for what I do; the international background of my research, and the interdisciplinary nature of it, are both reasons why I feel welcomed here. Moreover, I understand my work as a researcher as a way to critically engage with moral and political issues of the world I belong to, and The New School has supported intellectuals’ public engagement since its very origin.
During my stay as Hans Speier Professor, I’m working towards the publication of a “Durkheim Companion” that will be out next year, and I intend to finalize the research that I began in 2014 in the Philosophy department. As mentioned, this work consists of a reconstruction of the French and German classical sociological theory in the light of the fact that, since the late 18th century, an alternative emerged that opposed Spinozan to Kantian philosophies. This alternative, since the last decades of the 19th century, influenced the sociological debate and Durkheim’s search for an autonomous understanding of human reason, in part recovering the legacy of modern philosophy and in part breaking with it. My reconstruction ends with the way Durkheim and its school understood the sociological break with modern philosophy, offering an explanation of how it intended to overcome both Spinoza’s immanent rationalism and Kant’s transcendental idealism. This relation of continuity and rupture — the relation of philosophy and sociology — which my book intends to reconstruct, is something that can be fully granted only if we accept to move within an interdisciplinary dimension guaranteed and supported by intellectual history. Hopefully this research will be finalized by the end of the spring when I’m planning to present its results in Argentina, France, and Italy.
RM: In your writing, you flesh out the more nuanced political and methodological work of Émile Durkheim, regarded as the founder of sociology. What, broadly, do you think is misunderstood about Durkheim’s contributions to the discipline?
Durkheim intended to emancipate sociology from the legacy of philosophical Enlightenment (in the form that this took in Spinoza’s immanent rationalism and Kant’s transcendental idealism) by offering a sociological theory of the social constitution of the categories of the understanding. I think only another author had a similar ambition in the history of modern social theory: G. W. F. Hegel. To put it straightforwardly, I think that the contribution of Durkheim and its school — starting from completely different epistemological presuppositions and obtaining completely different results, but sharing a similar ambition to the one of Hegel’s social theory — should be taken seriously and considered as a different and somehow alternative paradigm in order to figure out what social critique is and could represent. In this last regard, I think the volume that I recently edited, Durkheim & Critique, contains a chorus of different voices intervening in this regard and the beginning of an answer to your question.
The relevance of Durkheim in regard to social critique is broad and requires some clarification though beyond the few things that I just said. What has been misunderstood, silenced or undeveloped in the past is the fact that there is something in Durkheim’s project that could be easily understood in the light of critical theory and not only for the reasons that I mentioned before. Since its beginning, critical theory concerned the attempt to think about the relation between philosophy and sociology, understanding their cooperation as a form of engagement which allowed theory to actively and reflexively participate in the quest for social justice immanent to modern societies. For this reason, a main polemical target of critical theory has been represented by positivism, a conception of social science shaped on the model of natural sciences, reclaiming an understanding of objectivity based on the frontal opposition of science and reality.
In my view, Durkheim has been misleadingly associated with this kind of positivism. Instead, we should focus on why he understood the rise of sociology as being historically and politically determined by the fact that philosophical critique appeared to run empty when confronted with the systemic injustice of modern societies. Sociology appeared to him as a viable solution to make sense of the same quest for social justice, immanent to modern societies, that years after, critical theory intended to follow, in the tradition of Hegel and Marx. The reasons that made Durkheim invisible in this respect have to do, I think, with the influence that Max Weber had in the project of critical theory and with the fact that his neo-Kantian epistemology consented to maintain a Marxian conception of history while the revolutionary expectations of the working class were declining. While Durkheim has been brought back by Jurgen Habermas, this, in part, happened in the light of a reception of his thought that reduced the critical and political ethos of the French sociologist’s theory by inserting it in a normative theory of justice that, de facto, was opposed to the main assumptions of his intellectual scholarship.
In the last decades though, a new reception of Durkheim has been developing, showing that, far from being the kind of conservative and positivist thinker that many had considered him to be, his epistemological project consisted in attempting to show how sociology represented a way to liberate social critique from the false alternative of liberalism and nationalism, resituating it in the field of democratic socialism. Many friends and colleagues in the LIER (my group of research at the EHESS) such as Bruno Karsenti, Cyril Lemieux and Francesco Callegaro, have made significant steps in this direction long before me. Durkheim’s epistemological project seems unintelligible without situating its critical ethos within those socialist ideals to which it intended to contribute by offering them a new form of reflexivity. Durkheim’s main ambition had consisted in enabling new possibilities for social and political action without pretending to define the political agenda of socialism. This relation of sociological critique and democratic socialism appears compelling to me today, because we live in an era characterized by public debates alternatively presenting liberalism and nationalism as inescapable ideological presuppositions, standing in the background and most often blocking our attempts to promote social change.
To escape this dramatic impasse of social critique, philosophy has lately appeared to be more and more seduced by the temptation of fully abdicating from its relation to social sciences in name of some radical social ontology that obliterates all the empirical and historical observations provided by sociology without which, in my view, no viable understanding of human institutions can be achieved. Today, to bring politics back — the message that an entire generation from Hannah Arendt to Claude Lefort defended — entails bringing back social sciences in the project of a critical theory of society It looks like the Durkheimian sociological school could help us in this regard.
RM: One of your projects here will be to do archival work around sociologist and jurist Georges Gurvitch. Why are you planning on returning to his work? How does Gurvitch stand out amongst the scholars of the University in Exile at The New School? How did the climate of The New School influence Gurvitch and his sociological work?
If, for the reasons that I briefly sketched out, the Durkheimian school has to be associated with the realm of democratic socialism and, I would like to add, with a reflection on the epistemic consequences of the “discovery” of social rights, this intent went in part lost in the generation following the first World War. (However, it survived in some fundamental but isolated intellectual trajectories such as the one of Marcel Mauss.) Georges Gurvitch participated in a second period bringing new energies and ideas in the debate. When he arrived in France in the late ‘20s he had already participated, before leaving his country, in the germinal experience of the Soviets during the Russian Revolution, and he became a specialist in German phenomenology. Once in Paris he found, in the Durkheimian tradition, an intellectual framework to think through the relation between social rights and legal pluralism. This legacy shaped his vision and represents the background of some of its most important works written in the ’30s. When Gurvitch arrived in New York and participated in establishing the Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes [a “university-in-exile” for French academics located at NSSR], this was his intellectual horizon.
Meanwhile in the ‘30s, a younger intellectual seemed confronted as well with the task of renewing the legacy of Durkheimism. His name was Claude Levi-Strauss. Around the beginning of the ‘40s, escaping Vichy France, both intellectuals came to NSSR. One of the things I’m doing in my actual research is trying to find some elements in the archives of The New School (I would like to thank Jenny Swadosh for her precious and generous help) and other archives (Yale and Rockefeller Foundation) concerning both Gurvitch and Levi-Strauss during their New York years, from ’40 to ‘45.
When Gurvitch arrived at NSSR, his work appears in full continuity with the political, critical, and socialist legacy of the Durkheimian school after the First World War. He originally elaborated this legacy and presented it to the American public, offering his defense of social rights and legal pluralism in different articles published in major journals. In the same years, Levi-Strauss was notably becoming familiar with the theories of Roman Jakobson, and his contribution to the debate on the French Sociological School seems to be already characterized by elements that, after the war, gave the tone to the structuralist turn in sociology and anthropology. In the same years, during his stay at NSSR, Gurvitch composed a sort of political manifesto, The Declaration of Social Right, hoping it would have contributed to the process of constitution-making of the French Fourth Republic.
Once back in France after the war, Gurvitch becomes professor of sociology at La Sorbonne, and Lévi-Strauss becomes the Lévi-Strauss we know: The Elementary Structures of Kinship is firstly published in 1949. Starting from the ‘50s, their intellectual collaboration ends and their relation is characterized by a growing disappointment and mutual criticism. Gurvitch did not succeed in renewing the Durkheim legacy in the way he probably had wished and the political expectations that nourished his ‘manifesto’ were not satisfied. His later works appear less interesting, mostly attempting to create an ambitious but very formal synthesis between his sociology and the Marxian tradition. There are no reasons to interrogate the success of Levi-Strauss’ intellectual project on the other hand, but the consequence of the transition to structuralism—as it already appears very clearly in Levi-Strauss’ introduction to Marcel Mauss, published in 1950 and prefaced by Georges Gurvitch himself—excluded some of the main political aspects that instead we have seen characterizing the intellectual and critical ethos of the Durkheimian school. The New School years of Gurvitch and Levi-Strauss represented the last appearance of the critical and political ethos of the French sociological school. NSSR represented the place where a reflection on the political legacy of the French Sociological School appeared before being interrupted and whose critical ambition appears today worth it to be re-explored.
RM: I have one more question I want to ask about teaching! It’s been about a month — how is your graduate Classical Sociology class going? How are you finding the students and discussions?
I’m having a great experience! It’s a great feeling to be physically back as a group of people sharing the same physical space, showing our faces — part of them at least — and discussing together after the full regime of isolation we have been exposed to for one year and a half. Secondly, I’m impressed by the attention and curiosity of many of my students. These two things are often separated. In some cases, students can be attentive but the respect for the authority of the teacher can somehow diminish their capability to perform and autonomously appropriate what is transmitted. In other cases, students’ eagerness to make sense, to intervene and to appropriate what they are learning can prevent them to fully acknowledge the autonomy of a text, its meaning and/or how to make sense of the intention of an author. Many of my students have shown both qualities at once, and for this reason they have taught me a lot.
Bessie Jane Rubinstein is a writer and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Brooklyn, are rotating between 3+ books, and are always taking recommendations for more.
In 1988, Arien Mack had been editor of Social Research journal for almost 20 years when it occurred to her that organizing conferences would be one way to cultivate a wider audience, and a larger public voice, for the journal and The New School at large.
The topic of the first conference presented itself readily. Macksets the scene for me in a Zoom discussion: In 1988, thousands of people were dying from AIDS, the U.S. government was not acting, and there was much public hysteria stoked by misinformation and prejudice. A conference situating the epidemic in social history seemed like “a calmer and more effective response to the problem,” says Mack. So Social Research presented a conference and attendant journal issue called “In Time of Plague: The History and Social Consequences of Lethal Epidemic Disease.”
Mack describes the conference as “very successful,” and it inaugurated a deeply involved series of conferences that then coalesced into the Center for Public Scholarship (CPS). Mack, Professor Emerita of Psychology and Director of the New University in Exile Consortium says this move followed the spirit of Alvin Johnson, co-founder and first president of The New School, who launched Social Research to provide the university with a public voice. CPS raised the money for the conference series with a mix of “work and luck,” as Mack tells it, and covered “a huge range of wonderful, fascinating subjects,” in her words. CPS also became one of several interdisciplinary centers and institutes at The New School for Social Research.
Now, after more than three decades of successful conferences and public lectures and events, CPS is wrapping up its programming.
Reflecting on standout conferences, Mack cited 2007’s “Punishment: The U.S. Record,” which invited professors of law, religion, and penal and social theory, as well as gathered writings from incarcerated individuals, to speak about the devastation wrought by mass incarceration in America.
In 2012, Mack established a branch of CPS called Public Voices, which sought to bring in singular, leading voices to discuss and think through the most urgent problems of the present. Mack fondly remembers a Public Voices event, one that “really mattered,” called “The Pros and Cons of US Universities Operating Campuses and Centers in Authoritarian Countries,” which discussed the extent to which universities with campuses in authoritarian countries are aiding and abetting, or complicit with, the oppressive regime.
CPS’s conference series attracted artists and academics alike. Mack says that the view of the Center was “very much to the outside, facing the world, trying to address these subjects” in “non technical, non academic,” but intellectual, terms. Poet John Hollander spoke at multiple conferences, including “Home, A Place in the World” in 1990, which approached the making and meaning of home amidst housing and migration crises, and one of Mack’s personal favorites, “In the Company of Animals” in 1995, which discussed animal rights and protections, our connection to them, their role in literature and religion, and more. A CPS conference on the artist’s necessary freedom of expression attracted artists such as Paul Chan, Ricardo Dominguez, Ai Weiwei, Shirin Neshat, and Chaw Ei Thein, and critics such as Holland Cotter. The 2019 conference, “Loyalty and Betrayal” coincided with The New School’s centennial celebration and featured a keynote address from Andrew McCabe, former Deputy Director of the FBI.
In 2020, CPS reissued the “In Time of Plague,” newly edited with analysis from experts on a wide range of subjects including, but not limited to, parallels between COVID-19 and the AIDS epidemic. Read a past Research Matters story on the issue, and listen to Mack discuss the issue below.
The penultimate CPS event, a panel on the future of higher education that was part of the investiture of New School President Dwight A. McBride, took place on October 6, 2021. While Mack planned the final CPS conference and latest Social Research issue well before the pandemic, “it couldn’t have been more timely,” says Mack. The subject? Loneliness. Read more about the event and register here.
As CPS wraps up, Mack will have more time to focus on the New University in Exile Consortium, an initiative she launched in 2018 to shelter, connect, and support scholars whose political views threaten their livelihoods, or their lives. She put it bluntly: The choice to close CPS was difficult because her heart was in it, “but all things being equal and life getting shorter and shorter,” raising money for the Consortium — they’re currently trying to bring at-risk Afghan artists to The New School — is an urgent priority.
Bessie Jane Rubinstein is a writer and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Brooklyn, are rotating between 3+ books, and are always taking recommendations for more.
When Rebecca Bailin took her first ever sociology class as an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia, she thought “Oh my god, this is the language I speak. This is how my brain works.” Enamored with the field, she pursued graduate study at The New School for Social Research, earning an MA in Sociology in 2012.
Most recently, Bailin has been the Campaign Manager with Invest in Our New York, a statewide coalition of 170 groups working to pass legislature that would end tax breaks for the richest New Yorkers. In Spring 2021, she spoke with Research Matters about her journey from classrooms to campaigns.
Moving from Academia into Organizing
As an MA student, “I was very interested in discourse analysis and cultural sociology,” Bailin says. “I really gravitated at the time towards the ways in which the discourses of leftist social movements tended to be exploited for explicitly capitalistic or neoliberal interests, not only by companies but also by institutions like governments and universities.”
She credits Terry Williams, Professor of Sociology; Rachel Sherman, Professor of Sociology; Robin Wagner-Pacifici, University Professor; and Miriam Ticktin, Associate Professor of Anthropology, for creating a supportive and engaging educational environment. Bailin loved the “rigorous thinking” that was expected of her and the opportunity to grapple with complex ideas.
After graduating, Bailin did not want to embark upon an intensive academic career. Instead, she became an organizer for the Riders Alliance, where she campaigned for more equitable and affordable public transit in New York City. Bailin says while her MA didn’t necessarily directly translate to her career, her background in sociology deeply informs the way she approaches the work.
“I didn’t learn how to be an organizer at school; I learned how to think. I was allowed to explore my intellectual thoughts and think creatively,” she asserts.
A large portion of her strategic organizing work comes down to navigating different spaces—understanding how they operate and what to say to ensure the message is heard.
“I think what The New School and my education in sociology set me up to do is to say ‘well, what if we think about it like this?’ It’s just set me up with a little more critical thinking about structures, nuance, and discourse.” Principles of discourse analysis equip Bailin to rethink the language she and other organizers use, and consider the impact that language has on the outcomes of their work. “I really pay a lot of attention to how we as organizers, and I mean ‘organizers’ broadly, think about or talk about our work. How does our way of thinking limit us compared to other ways of thinking?”
However, to run successful campaigns, Bailin also had to know when to step back from structural thinking and focus instead on the interpersonal nuances that underlie people’s decision-making. Focusing on the balance between structural and relational analysis sets her apart as a strategist. “I really distinguish myself from a policy person. I’m not policy. I am campaigns and strategy…The desire to think so much about accuracy and nuance is sometimes antithetical to winning,” she says. “It’s weird to be fond of both arenas and figuring out how to meld the two.”
Bailin’s balanced approach paid off immensely at the Riders Alliance. Her organizing was instrumental in big victories such as congestion pricing, discounted transit cards and the “Fair Fares” program for low-income New Yorkers — wins that have had a major impact on the daily lives of almost all city residents.
“Since the beginning of my career, my job has been to translate complicated policy and make it accessible for everyday New Yorkers in a way that could motivate them and inspire them to act. The goal is both to build power and to change the dynamics of power,” Bailin says.
Investing in New York
After eight year at the Riders Alliance and eight months in the New York City Mayor’s Office, Bailin got an opportunity to work for a campaign focused on a more just tax policy in New York State. In 2020, 170 organizations saw an opportunity to form a coalition and push for the change they need — six bills that will raise $50 billion in revenue — and “Invest in Our New York” was born. In order to win, the coalition needed a great strategist; that’s where Bailin came in.
“My job was difficult,” Bailin says. “It was both to guide the campaign strategically to help move it along, and to build consensus among our steering committee members to build a campaign.”
According to Bailin, it’s much easier to organize around specific “issues” like housing or healthcare than around a broader goal like tax redistribution. So Invest in Our New York had a hard decision to make. “Do we fight for the money to go to a specific thing or things, or do we say ‘no, we all need a bigger slice of the pie’ because all our issues are interconnected?” They chose the latter so that legislators would have a harder time breaking up the coalition by funding some issues at the expense of others.
As campaign manager, Bailin worked within the steering committee of 10 organizations as a facilitator and consensus builder. She also worked on campaign messaging, where her background in sociology proved crucial. “A lot of sociology is written in jargon. I love jargon, but you need to translate it, to talk about it in different ways to different audiences. And that’s at the core of organizing — being able to adjust to different audiences,” she says. “You have to find ways to talk about things that make them easy to understand and attractive enough to fight for.”
Understanding the right approach for every group of people ultimately comes down to strategic instinct. “I think a lot of that instinct and knowledge is informed by qualitative studies and qualitative work and discourse analysis — that’s really valuable in this work. It comes down to the ability to get a sense of what will motivate people, which I think I developed at The New School,” she says.
Building a winning strategy sometimes means navigating difficult disagreements over strategy. “When you’re identifying what is strategic, sometimes you’re engaging in and repeating discourses that are harmful,” Bailin says. During the campaign, this tension rose around the use of the term “fair” — some organizers asserted that they should avoid the word, because real “fairness” won’t rise out of legislative decisions. But the public understands what “fair” means. The “unfairness” of tax breaks for the rich and for investors, and not for the working or middle class, resonates.
“Saul Alinksy says that you need to organize the worlds that exist for the worlds you want, and that’s my approach. You need to figure out where to start so you can bring people along,” Bailin says.
After just three months of public campaigning, Invest In Our New York won $4 billion in this year’s budget — New York state’s biggest win for progressive taxation in the last decade. This spring, Bailin and Invest in Our New York planned for the next budget cycle with a focus on raising money for higher education, homelessness, overdose prevention, climate issues, and more. “What we were able to build in such a short time–it’s incredible. It’s historic,” she says.
After such a successful turn at Invest in Our New York, Bailin has her eyes set on a new opportunity. Soon, she’ll be leveraging her deep knowledge of New York State politics as Senior Advisor to New York State Senator Andrew Gounardes.
Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguini and Tortellini.
Liliana Gil and Sidra Kamran have received Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships for the 2021-2022 academic year. Now in its fifteenth year, the fellowships “support a year of research and writing to help advanced graduate students in the humanities and social sciences in the last year of PhD dissertation writing.”
Liliana Gil, an Anthropology PhD candidate, will utilize the fellowship to complete her dissertation, “Beyond Make-Do Innovation: Practices and Politics of Technological Improvisation in Brazil”; apply for jobs; and, if conditions permit, conduct follow-up fieldwork with electronics industry workers in Manaus, Brazil.
Gil’s work is driven by a commitment to questioning hierarchies of knowledge. “Perhaps because I come from a working-class background, I’m drawn to the puzzle of how certain knowledges are recognized as skilled and expert vis-a-vis others that are just as demanding and vital to society,” she explains. “These rankings of value reflect structural forms of inequality – pertaining race, class, and gender – but also other historical and sociocultural factors. In my current project, I get to explore these issues by studying how historically and socially embedded forms of improvisation play a role in different spheres of tech production in Brazil.” Her main advisor is Hugh Raffles, Professor of Anthropology, and she also works with Miriam Ticktin, Associate Professor of Anthropology.
“I was truly honored,” says Gil of receiving the grant. “But I also took a moment to recall all the invisible work that went into this application. This was my second time applying and I was luckier this time around. Although it’s important to celebrate these achievements, I think we focus too much on accolades and don’t discuss ‘failure’ and ‘fortuity’ as part of our jobs. This can be very taxing, especially for first-generation college students. Fortunately, I have peers and mentors who are open about these issues.”
In addition to the Mellon/ACLS Fellowship, Gil has received a Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grant; a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, co-sponsored by the Science and Technology Studies and the Cultural Anthropology Programs; and the 2020 David Hakken Graduate Student Paper Prize, conferred by the Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology & Computing of the American Anthropological Association, for an essay on innovation practices at a public fablab in the periphery of São Paulo in Brazil. She also received a 2020 New School’s Outstanding Graduate Student Teaching Award for her work creating and teaching an undergraduate “World Histories of Anthropology” course.
Sidra Kamran, a Sociology PhD candidate, will utilize the fellowship to complete her dissertation, “The (In)Visible Workers: Gender, Status, and Space in the New Service Economy in Pakistan,” as well as finish work on a journal article.
As Gil mentioned, much invisible labor and time go into applying for academic grants. When Kamran learned she had received the ACLS/Mellon Fellowship, she felt both happy and relieved. “I could stop applying for other fellowships and take some time off!” she says.
Kamran’s work broadly examines the interaction between changing gender and class norms. “In my dissertation, I use qualitative methods to understand how women beauty and retail workers navigate new types of status positions, work, intimacy, and urban life in Karachi, Pakistan,” she explains. Her advisor is Rachel Sherman, Professor of Sociology.
“I am involved in feminist and labor movements in Pakistan and the U.S., but as a researcher I explore how structural changes ostensibly unrelated to social movements shape gender and class equality,” Kamran continues. “I plan to examine how these supposedly ‘non-political’ processes interact with ‘political’ struggles.’” Her other research investigates how working-class women are active, if unlikely, participants in emerging forms of digital culture on TikTok in Pakistan. She is also interested in global flows of labor, social reproduction work, and the intersection between love, work, and money, and is inspired by Marxist-feminist approaches to these topics.
Kamran has also received a Junior Research Fellowship from the American Institute of Pakistan Studies, a Wenner Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grant, and a Graduate Fellowship from the Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies at The New School.