Q&A with David Harris: collaborating on social sciences

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David R. Harris
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David R. Harris, executive director of Cornell's Institute for the Social Sciences, at the institute's Hughes Hall office.

Sociology Professor David R. Harris has taken on significant leadership roles since he left his assistant professorship at the University of Michigan to join the Cornell University faculty in 2003. Last year he was appointed the first director of the Institute for the Social Sciences (ISS), and recently he was named Cornell's first vice provost for social sciences.

The ISS is part of an initiative to strengthen the social sciences at Cornell while promoting interdisciplinary research and cross-department cooperation. The directorship, a three-year appointment, was endowed by alumnus Robert S. Harrison '76 earlier this year.

The institute works with more than 80 units and department and oversees collaborative themed research projects -- currently focused on the family, social and information networks, and a third project to be announced early next year.

Harris sat down with the Cornell Chronicle to answer questions about the social sciences.

What is your reaction to the $2 million National Science Foundation grant for computational social sciences research on the Web, as part of your networks theme project?

We were excited because networks has been a topic of interest for social scientists for years. That team will be studying networks in a broader way than a lot of individuals were doing. Lots of schools can throw together on paper a computer scientist and a sociologist, but the NSF said clearly this [proposal] was an indication that they would significantly interact. It also helps Cornell establish itself as a key center for networks research

The institute recently found a new home in a suite of offices in Hughes Hall. How is the new space working out?

We feel incredibly fortunate. We needed the space; there had to be a place for people to come and interact. We were almost homeless -- previously, we were supposed to move to another location and that didn't work out. We had this project, and people who were interested in working with us, but we had nowhere for them to work. Vice Provost John Siliciano told me about this space, and Stewart Schwab, the dean of the Law School, offered it to us. Dean Schwab knows social science has a lot to offer to legal studies, and vice versa.

The space for the offices works well with the mission. It encourages collaboration. We have a large conference area and only one way to enter and exit our space, so people see each other. And being at the edge of Collegetown, it's close to everything, but there's a sense of retreat.

Beta Mannix was recently named director of the institute. What are your individual roles in the organization's ongoing work?

Beta's now the director, and I've moved to executive director. I've continued in my role in the family project, and Beta has taken on the networks project. She's also leading the next project, which we will select in early 2006. She's also now leading the review committee for seed grant proposals, which awards $20,000 grants for faculty projects.

How else has the staff grown?

First there was one person here, me; then two (with administrative assistant Anneliese Truame), and now three and four, with Beta and Judy Eastborn, who joins us after 38 years in CALS [College of Agriculture and Life Sciences]. She brings an incredible amount of experience to the office, both in the university and in technical experience. Supporting three projects at once is a huge undertaking

How is the evolving family project going?

It continues to be exciting. [The team of faculty researchers is] in residence, and they're actually using the space and doing the things we'd hoped they'd do -- having conversations in the hall, meeting at the coffee machine and engaging in activities for engaging different perspectives on the topics they study. That's on the informal level.

We were going to have Stephanie Coontz [author of "Marriage, a History"], but she couldn't make it due to a health emergency. She will reschedule for later in the semester. In addition to a major public event, Coontz will give guest lectures in a family policy course.

There also are courses affiliated with the project. There's a course in Fatherhood, Marriage and Family Policy, taught by Mary Katzenstein and Elaine Wethington; Kathryn March is teaching a course in Family in Asia Through Film, Michael Goldstein is teaching Parenting and Child Development. In the spring, Liz Peters [the Evolving Family team leader] will teach Economics of Family Policy, and Stefan Klonner and Lindy Williams will teach The Family in Asia: Perspectives From Economics and Sociology.

What other events are planned in conjunction with the family project?

There will be a film series, and that will be about engaging students. We're going to show "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?," "Kramer vs. Kramer" and several other films that engage the family theme. Team members will lead discussion on each movie and the topics it raises.

In October, there is a symposium on biology, the environment and policy -- it should be an interesting conversation on how an evolutionary perspective can inform our understanding of families. One of the things I've been pushing with this institute is engagement -- and that means not just engaging faculty, but engaging the larger community. There will be a fatherhood conference in fall 2006.

We're working toward the end product, which is a population center proposal. These centers are funded by the National Institutes of Health. Ours would focus broadly on the family.