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Social science, art to connect in New York City event

Internationally renowned social scientists from Cornell and other institutions are getting together with artists on April 18 for a “salon” convened by the Institute for the Social Sciences’ Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) theme project.

“We want to learn the craft of being creative, hear how artists think about their craft, and see if there are crossovers with sociologists,” says Trevor Pinch, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Science and Technology Studies and a member of the CIE team.

Led by Pinch and Richard Swedberg, professor of sociology, the event, “Artists and Social Scientists: Doing Things Together,” will be held at the ILR Conference Center in New York City. It’s Pinch’s and Swedberg’s hunch that social scientists and artists have much to learn from one another.

“If you hang out with people and study them as sociologists do, you get to understand certain aspects of their lives that artists don’t pay much attention to. Knowing about these aspects, painters and photographers would, for example, zoom in on some situations and problems that would otherwise elude them. Likewise, a number of very important themes and emotions in artistic works are missing in sociology,” says Swedberg.

Swedberg has previously delved into ways sociologists can theorize more creatively. One of his recent essays shows how the author August Strindberg used early forms of sociology, ethnology, history, photographs, statistics, interviews and drawings in one of his literary works, “Among French Peasants.” Swedberg’s latest book, “The Art of Social Theory,”explores some of these themes as well.

Similar to Strindberg, other authors and artists have used social science tools. Anton Chekhov incorporated interviews and statistics in his writing about prison life in czarist Russia. Jack London dressed and lived like a poor person to get a better understanding of the poverty he depicted in “The People of the Abyss.” Pop artist Andy Warhol used ordinary items – soup cans, soap boxes, hamburgers – as subjects of art that crosses social class and other barriers.

It’s that intersection and communication between the social sciences and the arts that Swedberg and Pinch are keen to draw out.

“We envision new mix-ups and mash-ups of many kinds,” Pinch says. A sociologist and musician, he hopes to discover new ways to blend the two into something creative.

Other participants of the New York City conference include sociologist Howard Becker, whose now-classic book “Sociology and Photography” argues that photographers can learn from social scientists how to take better photographs. Becker was recently profiled in The New Yorker in January.

Steven Jackson, associate professor in information science, working with interactive media artist Taezoo Park, intends to reflect on their experience creating their collaboration, “Scale,” an interactive art project using discarded and broken technologies.

Another participant from Cornell, Mabel Berezin, professor of sociology, uses the metaphor of cooking as an art and practical process to illustrate how the successful cook parallels the successful social scientist in ways of discovering and selecting the materials to use in the finished product.

Other people joining the conversation are Andreas Glaeser, professor of sociology, University of Chicago; Natalie Jermijenko, associate professor of art and art education, New York University; Franck Leibovici, artist; Susan Ossman, professor of anthropology, University of California, Riverside; and Damon Phillips, professor of business strategy, Columbia Business School.

“This is unconventional social science. We are trying to learn about creativity and bring that knowledge back to innovation and entrepreneurship. This is cutting edge,” says CIE team leader, Diane Burton, associate professor, ILR School.

The event will be simulcast live. For more information, contact

Lori Sonken is the staff writer at the Institute for the Social Sciences. 

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Joe Schwartz