What courses do you teach?
I teach introduction to sociology pretty regularly. I also teach a course called Neighborhoods, Culture, and Poverty, which serves the interdisciplinary Shepherd Program of Poverty and Human Capabilities Studies. In the spring, I teach a course called Exploring Social Networks in which students learn how to do network analysis. We graph and then study the properties of structured sets of relationships between people, states, and other entities. That's a fun class. I'll also be teaching a new course in winter 2016 on social simulations. I'm especially excited about that one. Occasionally I teach upper division electives on topics like nationalism or social revolutions.
How did you become interested in sociology?
Really it was a teacher. As an undergraduate, I was a philosophy major and then transferred into this small interdisciplinary program called the University of Professors Program, where they assigned each student to a mentor. My mentor was a sociologist named Liah Greenfeld. She really had, and continues to have, a big effect on me.
What is your area of research?
I work on a few different things. The common theme is an interest in collective identities. How are collective identities shaped by other societal factors and how do they then affect the societies in which they are embedded? Mostly I focus on nationalism and national identity. By national identity, I mean the type of identity that prioritizes the nation, thinking of it as fundamentally sovereign and therefore the source of legitimacy in politics. I'm interested in how that form of identity, which was not widespread globally 500 years ago, took over the world in the sense that now every country and individual is expected to have a national identity. This can be tricky because there are many areas of the world where boundaries of states do not necessarily correspond to the group identities that are meaningful to people. In such cases, many questions arise. How did colonialism, for example, which often involved the external imposition of political boundaries, affect the development of colonial and post-colonial populations' identities over time? How might we expect these areas to develop differently than if there was a one-to-one correspondence between the group identity and the state? With these sorts of questions, I use the comparative method to generate, examine and test theories about how the timing of different societal factors — such as politics, economic development, group identities, and religion — affect each other.
Sociology seems to examine a convergence of elements. Many students at W&L have multiple majors and academic pursuits. Do you see students combining these interests in your classes?
Definitely. W&L's a great place for that. We have some strong interdisciplinary programs that facilitate this kind of thinking. I am involved in the Shepherd Program for Poverty and Human Capability Studies and the Latin American and Caribbean Studies programs. My department — the Department of Sociology and Anthropology — is itself interdisciplinary. Those are just a few of the many great interdisciplinary programs here at W&L. Beyond classes, I'd point to great opportunities for interdisciplinary learning and exchange in this year's Questioning Passion Series, in the various programs sponsored by the Mudd Center for Ethics, and others.
How would you explain interdisciplinary studies to a prospective student?
We would have to start by discussing what disciplines are. You can think of "disciplines" as organized groups of scholars who have developed specific theories and methods for tackling their chosen problems. When you pick a major, you are really selecting the core theories and methods of its corresponding discipline as those in which you will develop undergraduate level expertise. However, none of the disciplines are exhaustive of the ways in which a person might want to examine some question. At an undergraduate level, you want to make sure that you master at least one discipline with its particular theories and methods. But you don't want to limit yourself to just one perspective. You want to be able to see some subject matter from multiple angles. Take Latin American and Caribbean Studies, for example. Latin America is a group of societies and a geographical space. You can study that like I would, as a social scientist, asking questions, gathering data, generating hypotheses, and testing those hypotheses. Or you can study those societies from a literary point of view and try to understand how people have narrated life in them. Or you can view Latin America in terms of its physical geography, and so forth. While those are different methods, experience has taught us that employing multiple methods to look at the same thing really enriches your perspective.
What kind of interdisciplinary projects have you and your students worked on?
There have been many good ones, and I'm sure you don't have time for more than a couple. Right now, I'm working with Ford Carson '18 on developing an agent-based model, which is a computer simulation, of the diffusion of national identity in a population. We are trying to develop a theory about how identities shift in a population, then examine and illustrate it by simulating it with a model we construct in software called NetLogo. The software will take our theory's determinate features of identity choice, add an element of randomness, and allow us to run simulations. This will allow us to see how the theory would shake out in a large population of individuals as we vary key parameters in the model, extending our ability to imagine where our theoretical ideas lead. Here's a very different example. Last summer, another student, Amira Hegazy '15, did field work in Egypt. She interviewed artists and curators of galleries and other art forums for her Sociology of Art project that tried to understand the Egyptian art world after the Arab Spring revolution. She was looking at how it has changed and whether it is becoming more global in its style and reach. Those are just two projects that spring to mind out of many.
What tangible results have your students' Poverty and Human Capability Studies projects had in the community?
One of my students, Catherine Elder '15, did a network analysis of information sharing and referrals among local nonprofits that serve individuals experiencing poverty. She identified all those organizations and interviewed their representatives. She pulled these data into a graphing package and created visualizations and ran some analyses. She produced a report that allows people who work in the local nonprofit sector to see: who is sharing information, who is referring clients to whom, where there might be gaps, where they might be redundancies, and where the network itself might be endangered if a relationship were severed. She did an excellent job. That was a really fun project to be involved in.
What keeps you busy outside the classroom?
When I am not working, most of my time is family time. I'm married and have three kids, ages 11, 6, and 3. They're wonderful, and they keep me busy. I also run. I was a very ambivalent runner for a number of years, and then a group of friends drew me further into it. A growing group of runners, many of them W&L faculty and staff, has developed over the last few years. I wouldn't call myself a serious runner even now; but I do spend a lot more time with it, mostly because of that group of friends. It's just fun.
- interview by Laura Lemon '16 and Jinae Kennedy '16