Changing Human Experience grants explore society’s most challenging problems
The recently awarded Cultivating Humanities grants fund collaborative teams tackling issues of public concern including political representation of women, changing narratives on sexual violence and emotional and behavioral responses to climate change.
When the Changing Human Experience (CHE) initiative originated as part of the Long-Range Vision it was intended to foster research in the humanities and social sciences that explores our changing world, including our changing bodies, minds, globe and political structures. Little did anyone know how much the world would change by the time the CHE funded its first grants.
“Everybody is scrambling to make sense of something that is unfolding as we speak,” said Gavin Jones, professor of English and co-director of the CHE along with Anna Grzymala-Busse, professor of political science. Although applications came in before COVID-19 struck, Jones said the eight projects that recently received funding will investigate issues of urgent public concern.
“We’re calling them wicked problems,” said Jones, who is also the Rehmus Family Professor in the Humanities. “These are issues that, because of their complexity and persistence, need multidisciplinary and collaborative approaches to bring them into view.”
The funded projects bring together collaborative teams from the Schools of Humanities and Sciences, Education and Law and many include roles for undergraduate and graduate students in addition to faculty and research assistants. The projects address a variety of changes in the human experience, from events of the past, conditions of the present or promises of the future, and focus on areas of contemporary public concern that Grzymala-Busse and Jones expect could engage a broad audience beyond the university.
“On issues like addressing climate change, preserving human dignity as we age or the history and future of democracy, you need to do research to understand the problems before we can solve them,” said Grzymala-Busse, who is also Kevin and Michelle Douglas Professor of International Studies.
In requesting applications, Grzymala-Busse and Jones wrote, “Understanding the past and each other has never felt more urgent as we confront the risks and opportunities of the future” – an urgency that has only increased as society faces unprecedented changes in the human experience brought on by COVID-19.
With the Court Listening Project (CLiP), sociologist Matthew Clair will build an oral and visual history archive of the experiences of some of the hundreds of thousands of people processed in state and federal criminal courts in the United States every year. “We know little about their frustrations in court and the implications of their personal and collective experiences for our society and politics,” Clair said. Much of what we do know about the scale and inequalities of the criminal legal system is based on statistics about crime, conviction and prison admission rates. However, little information exists that compares and contrasts the lived experience of court punishment across multiple sites. The data to be collected include photographs, audio interviews and handwritten reflections. Drawing upon these data, Clair and his team will examine important social problems related to court punishment, including substance use disorders, employment and housing discrimination, pre-trial detention, experiences of racism and problems working with lawyers. Clair plans to make the resulting archive publicly available to other researchers, journalists and community organizers.
Matthew Clair, Sociology
African women writers
By creating a digital archive displaying the work of largely unknown African female writers of the 20th century, historian Joel Cabrita will give greater visibility to marginalized authors. “With few exceptions, the history of early 20th-century literature in Africa is dominated by male figures,” Cabrita said. “Creating a digital archive of female writers and their works will revolutionize current understandings of women as cultural and intellectual brokers during a turbulent century of colonial rule and transition to independent statehood.” The project will begin with the works of Regina Twala (1908-68), an influential South African-Swazi politician and activist who wrote four manuscripts, none of which were published. While highlighting novels, plays and poems, the archive will also include less conventional genres like letters and newspaper columns, through which many female writers transformed African literature. Writers will be selected for inclusion based on their contributions to their region’s literary culture; innovations in redefining genre, form and style; and proximity to key social and political questions of their day.
Seeking to examine the “silent revolution” in the public role of women in India, political scientist Soledad Artiz Prillaman will document how and when heterogeneous groups of women come together at the local level to demand political representation and whether these micro-movements lead to the representation of women’s interests in society. Prillaman will focus on and explore how Self-Help Groups (SHGs), small credit collectives of women that have grown over the past several decades, generate collective action. “These issues are of particular importance given the Indian government’s recent expansion of this policy, which has led to the mobilization of more than 64 million women into SHGs in the last five years,” she said. Semi-structured interviews across five districts in rural Madhya Pradesh, India, will be conducted as part of a larger panel study to examine the effectiveness of using gender consciousness raising and civic training to foster women’s collective action in SHGs. The study aims to link the sociological study of gender norms with theories of collective action and women’s movements.
Soledad Artiz Prillaman, Political Science
History of democracy
At a time when global populism is on the rise and democracy is said to be in crisis, an interdisciplinary group of scholars seeks to better understand democracy’s core features by examining its history. With specialties ranging from political theory to performance studies, these scholars will explore the history of democracy through a nuanced humanistic lens. Issues of inquiry include whether the essence of democracy is non-tyranny, whether democracy demands a certain conception of citizenship and whose rights are necessary for a society to be considered democratic. “Turning back to the periods when democracy was most discussed, disputed and changed highlights the attributes that are (and are not) essential for democracy’s future,” said Bernadette Meyler, law professor. “It suggests that prior instantiations of democracy might furnish appealing alternatives to its present incarnations.”
Dan Edelstein, French and Italian; Jonathan Gienapp, History; Alison McQueen, Political Science; Bernadette Meyler, Stanford Law School; Josiah Ober, Political Science, Classics; Peggy Phelan, English, Theater and Performance Studies
Using detailed linguistic and narrative analyses of conversations of older adults, Japanese linguistics scholar Yoshiko Matsumoto seeks to explore how communities can be inclusive of older adults with diverse conditions, including dementia. “Many of us may have unconsciously ‘othered’ the old and people with cognitive impairment, perhaps from fears of facing our own future decline,” Matsumoto said. “While common forms of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, afflict only a minority of older adults, the disregard of that group is just as problematic as prejudices against other minorities.” In Japan, where older people represent a large segment of the population, there are experimental restaurants where all the servers have dementia and dementia care homes where residents cook, clean and go shopping in town. “Their current success is an encouraging sign that society can transform into a place where older individuals with diverse conditions are integrated with other members of the community,” Matsumoto said. Her research will include examining the crucial factors for maintaining human communication and the conditions that enhance the communicative ability of people with dementia.
Yoshiko Matsumoto, East Asian Languages and Cultures
By examining the human experience of sexual assault, abuse and harassment and the changing institutional responses to sexual violence, historians Estelle Freedman and Allyson Hobbs, and comparative literature scholar Adrian Daub, seek to better understand the many ways that sexual violence has affected individual lives. “The research will contribute to understanding how women and men have resisted violence in the past, shed light on how societal framing of such violence has evolved over time, and hopefully help inform contemporary prevention and recovery programs,” said Daub. The group’s projects explore linguistic analysis of oral history narratives of assault across race and other demographic groups; historical interpretation of the varied survival strategies that African American women weighed in the aftermath of sexual violence; and the role of institutions, including universities, in responding to trauma.
Describing climate change as a “complex and wicked” problem, environmental social scientist Nicole Ardoin, and her research team in the Social Ecology Lab, will examine the human response to climate change, including fear, concern, grief and hope. “In particular, we will explore how emotional and behavioral responses interweave with connections to iconic megaflora such as redwood forests,” she said. Through narrative interviews, collaborative workshops, storytelling and ethnographic approaches, Ardoin’s group will investigate the impact of climate change with those whose lives intersect with redwood forests. These include park rangers, visitors and nearby residents, as they experience not only concern, fear and despair, but also optimism and a desire to strive for a more positive future. Leveraging the humanistic perspective, including through art, literature and philosophy, Ardoin and her team seek to understand when the interplay of climate-related hope and concern inspire action, especially on the community and collective scales. This interdisciplinary work will develop pathways for reflection, dialogue and engagement around climate change through positive connections with our dynamic, changing planet.
Nicole M. Ardoin, Graduate School of Education
An interdisciplinary team will investigate a problem at the heart of the humanities: how to represent concepts and conceptual change over time. Starting with an examination of changing views of morality, the group led by philosopher R. Lanier Anderson and Dan Jurafsky, a linguistics scholar and computer scientist, will examine how to measure changes in the way people think about moral issues like slavery, democracy and women’s rights. The team will develop computational linguistics tools that explore the semantic field of a concept by using structured lists of words. They will trace the moralization of political issues in historical time, measure the ways in which concept changes occur and begin to identify what predicts them. The new models established could eventually be used to study other concepts in historical texts that are linked to external factors. “We believe that the resulting tools will help scholars understand the changing human mind and how ways of thinking can affect changes in the world,” Anderson said.
Lanier Anderson, Philosophy; Dan Jurafsky, Linguistics and Computer Science; Mark Algee-Hewitt, English; Dan Edelstein, French and Italian; Alison McQueen, Political Science; Robb Willer, Sociology; Jamil Zaki, Psychology