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SHASS Research Spotlights | 2008–2014

For more recent and complete collections of MIT SHASS research, visit these pages:
Impact: Making a Better World and SHASS research stories by MIT News.




The Power of the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at MIT

From climate change to poverty to disease, the challenges of our age are unwaveringly human in nature and scale; and engineering and science issues are always embedded in broader human realities, from deeply-felt cultural traditions to building codes to political tensions.


The Digital Humanities at MIT

The work going on in digital humanities and new media is one expression of the innovation that characterizes the Humanities more broadly.


Interdisciplinary | Can Water Create More Peaceful Cooperation?

"While water is often perceived to be the source of future wars, rethinking water agreements—and the costs to desalinate seawater— could lead to more cooperation between nations." 


How can we improve education worldwide?

Great gains have been made in getting young children to enroll in primary school, but many still don’t attend regularly. Worldwide, an estimated 115 million children are not going to primary school.


Water and well-being

A study in Morocco shows how much acquiring clean, running water improves happiness. 


What does an anthropologist of science do?

Following his acclaimed, award-winning book, Alien Ocean, Stefan Helmreich, Elting E. Morison Professor of Anthropology at MIT, has turned his attention to the world of wave science, the study of periodic, oscillating, and undulating phenomena.


Examining Ebola

In their inaugural event, "Examining Ebola,” the MIT Global Health and Medical Humanities Initiative led an interdiciplinary discussion of the Ebola epidemic, bringing political, economic, social, and cultural experts together to find new methods of fighting the disease.


What makes science labs safe?

Research by MIT Anthropologist Susan Silbey on the day-to-day reality of what happens in the lab when scientists are working to implement health and safety rules.


How should food safety be determined?

The U.S. government forbids the sale of raw milk cheeses aged under 60 days. Artisan cheesemakers say this rule is arbitrary and may compromise the integrity of their products. Anthropologist Heather Paxson explores the issues of safety and quality in our food.  


Building culture in digital media

In his book Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression, MIT Associate Professor of Digital Media D. Fox Harrell argues that the great expressive potential of computational media comes from the ability to construct and reveal phantasms — blends of cultural ideas and sensory imagination.


Who are the South-Asian-Americans?

To create a more meaningful portrait of the South Asian American experience, MIT scholar and documentary filmmaker Vivek Bald explores a rich, nuanced, and nearly unknown story of identity in his book, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America.


Can a game affect climate change?

The Education Arcade, a research group of the School's Comparative Media Studies program (CMS), planned to find out, using a "curated game"—a new genre of game that combines gameplay with museum-going and social networking.


Can online tools repair U.S.-Iran relations?

“An indispensible way to move toward better relations is to explore parts of the relationship that are fractious,” Tirman says. The team at HyperStudio is helping the U.S.-Iran Relations Project take a fresh look at the conflict by creating a rich online archive of documents related to the Iran-Iraq War.


Can we close the media gap?

Is it OK to sample one person's YouTube video to make another? How do we shape today's stories? Can a blogger be sued for libel? Are there new ways to work together? What does my Facebook page tell my employer about me?


Why are some nations wealthy while others are poor?

In Why Nations Fail, MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, of Harvard, assert that above all else, political institutions—not culture or natural resources—determine the wealth of nations. 


Bengt Holmstrom wins the 2016 Nobel Prize in Economics

Bengt Holmström, the Paul Samuelson Professor of Economics in MIT SHASS, has won a share of the Nobel Prize in Economics for his contributions to contract theory.


What’s the best remedy for inequality within the 99%?

What accounts for the growing economic disparities among the large majority of Americans?


Production in the Innovation Economy

What kinds of industrial production can bring innovation to the American economy? An intensive, long-term study by a group of MIT scholars suggests that a renewed commitment to research and development in manufacturing, sometimes through creative new forms of collaboration, can spur innovation and growth in the United States as a whole.


Alleviating Poverty: The Townsend Thai Project

For 20 years, MIT economist Robert Townsend has explored the links between household finances and economic growth in rural Thailand. His new book, Chronicles from the Field, based on one of the most extensive datasets in the developing world, provides a template for policies that can help alleviate poverty. 


Costinot reexamines the Theory of Competitive Advantage

Arnaud Costinot studies international trade — and is looking again at David Ricardo's Theory of Comparative Advantage as a way to better understand trade between developed and less-developed economies.


Why is Japanese anime a global hit?

Entertainment companies do not necessarily make huge profits off anime, which was an issue motivating Condry’s study; as he puts it, “How can things that don’t make money go global?”


Do visual artifacts expand our understanding?

Visualizing Culture, an initiative in image-driven scholarship and learning, uses new technology to provide context and online access to images that would otherwise languish unseen.


How did slavery shape American universities?

In his new book, Ebony and Ivy, historian Craig Steven Wilder, Head of MIT History, documents the manifold connections between universities and the slave economy in colonial America.


How was the U.S. Constitution adopted?

In 1787-88, as Americans considered their proposed Constitution, they held the most consequential debate in U.S. history—addressing the nature of democracy, structure of government, and federal and state powers. Yet we know almost nothing about this formative debate.


What does "wild" mean?

What does "wild" mean? Scientists, social scientists, and humanists tackled this question during "Call of the Wild," a workshop convened at MIT by Harriet Ritvo, the Arthur J. Conner Professor of History at MIT, and Sally Shuttleworth, professor of English literature at Oxford University.


Nature and Technology in French History

In April 2013, MIT hosted the 59th meeting of the Society for French Historical Studies, the largest annual conference devoted to the history of France. The event featured 110 panels and roughly 550 participants from around the world. MIT News spoke with professor of history Jeffrey Ravel, a specialist in France who has helped organize the event.


Who needs to understand science?

Science and technology so permeate contemporary society—from medicine to climate change to food—that we need some understanding of science simply to make informed decisions about everyday life. 


Teaching STEM in Haitian Kreyol

DeGraff is the Principal Investigator on a $1m grant awarded by the National Science Foundation for research to be conducted at MIT and in Haiti.


How do we understand each other?

Some of the subtleties of language can be challenging to explain using traditional linguistic analysis. Associate Professor Martin Hackl’s experimental approach is expanding the field of linguistics.


The strangely familiar browsing habits of Medieval readers

While reading online, do you sometimes find yourself going from reading articles on, say, politics, to poetry, to humor? If so, your experience is rather medieval says MIT literary scholar Arthur Bahr.


But soft, how doth the Bard now innovate?

"In the future, you may be able to speak a line of Shakespeare and get eight to ten versions—a photo of an early folio, illustrations, film, and theatrical performances from all over the world," says Literature Professor Peter Donaldson. Through the MIT Shakespeare Project, Donaldson has been working toward this future for more than a decade.


Why was the Victorian serial novel such a great success?

Victorian novels, released as weekly or monthly serials, could take more than a year to read. They were savored, shared and discussed publicly. HyperStudio and the Literature Section have teamed up to offer a glimpse into this engaged, social world of reading through the Serial Experience Project.


Can computers learn music theory?

Computers have transformed how we listen to, obtain, compose, and notate music, but they have not fundamentally changed how we research and analyze music.


Is a basic moral sense hard-wired?

If a runaway trolley is destined to hit a group of five people but can be diverted onto a track where it will hit only one, is it right to divert it? What if it can only be stopped by throwing somebody in front of it?


How do societies confront histories of injustice?

“All societies periodically have to do soul-searching,” says Melissa Nobles, the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science, and Head of MIT Political Science.


The Exit Zero Project

“If you really want to understand why there is this expanding class inequality in the United States, one of the places you have to look is the long-term impact of deindustrialization. We have to think historically about how we got into this position and how we can come out of it.”


How do “numbers” influence policy issues?

During his youth in Freiburg, Germany, family meals could occasion lively debate, recalls Jens Hainmueller, a recently tenured associate professor of political science. His parents, deeply influenced by the 1970s student movements, believed in “making politics,” while Hainmueller was “more interested in analyzing political dynamics, and what shapes actual policies," he says. 


Can every citizen's vote count?

“What Florida did was alert us to the fact that blank ballots are a failure of the system,” said Charles H. Stewart III, Professor of Political Science, and Head of the School's Department of Political Science.


How to make factory conditions better for workers

In his new book, The Promise and Limits of Private Power, MIT political scientist Richard Locke says that protecting workers involved in the global supply chain will require 3 things: actions by firms themselves; long-standing supply-chain relationships, and government effort.


How to Map a Democracy

There is a place for each of us on Christopher Warshaw's geopolitical map of the United States. The recently appointed assistant professor of political science can figure out people's political preferences down to the congressional district, city and town.


What are the implications of the Affordable Care Act being upheld?

MIT political scientist Andrea Campbell, an expert in policies of social insurance, interprets the Supreme Court’s health care decision. Campbell's work was cited in one Justice's opinion.


Sizing up Japan, after the disaster

“At that moment, it looked like everything was up for grabs,” says Richard Samuels, a professor in MIT’s Department of Political Science. “The Japanese themselves defined the moment that way. There was a paroxysm of claims that everything would change.”


The Science of Politics

A common piece of received wisdom about the Cold War is that the spread of Western culture helped bring down the Berlin Wall: Exposure to Western television shows, the idea goes, demonstrated to East Germans, among others, what they were missing by not living in a free society, and loosened the hold of that country’s Communist government on its people. It is an appealing hypothesis. But is it true? 


Illuminating technological innovation in Africa

In his new book, Transient Workspaces: Technologies of Everyday Innovation in Zimbabwe, Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, associate professor in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, calls for a historical rethinking about the meaning, prevalence, and application of technological innovation in Africa.


How does history change in the era of human empire?

"History is both what happens, and how we think about what happens. The big questions I am asking have to do with how history — in both senses — is changing in this age of human empire.”


Kaiser on the lumpy universe

"Back in January, the Edge posted almost 200 short essays in response to the question, ‘What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?’ Right away I knew what my favorite candidate would be: the prevailing explanation for why the universe is lumpy.”


How did MIT become MIT?

Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, was conceived and edited by David Kaiser, associate professor in the School's Program in Science, Technology and Society, in honor of MIT’s sesquicentennial anniversary in 2011.


How “plastic” are we—and how determined by DNA?

Evelyn Fox Keller, professor emerita in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, is a leading historian of biology whose 2010 book, The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture, argues that it is a mistake to think that heredity and the environment (nature and nurture) can be separated when “the entanglement” of these two factors “is not only immensely intricate, but is there from the start.”


Do we live in the age of “human empire”?

In a new book, MIT historian Rosalind Williams is asking the big questions about progress and the lived human experience. “There is a deep belief in progress of science and technologies," she says, "but there is also an anxiety that comes from that belief. This book explores that paradox.... A subtext of the book is to take art seriously. That’s the first place to go to figure out what’s going on in the world.” 


How computing is changing architecture

In Co-Designers, Yanni Loukissas, a postdoc in STS, looks at the influence of high-tech simulations on the architecture profession. As a student, Loukissas worked with MIT Professors David Mindell and Sherry Turkle, and his book emerged from an STS research project, funded by the NSF, on the impact of technology on numerous professions.


Why do we love certain things?

"We love the objects we think with, and we think with the objects we love," says Turkle, summarizing the root message behind three new books she has edited: Evocative Objects, Falling for Science, and The Inner History of Devices. Each is a collection of essays about how objects and tools affect us.


What are the gains and losses of the modern pace of life?

Award-winning science writer and author Robert Kanigel has spent his career exploring the evolution of society through a series of unique lenses that reveal what we have gained from modernity—and what we’ve lost.


Why is China building up its military?

Those Americans who grew up in the superpower-vs.-superpower world of the Cold War tend to view China’s growing power and military arsenal with concern.