Making a Better World | Basic Research and Discovery
 



All the MIT SHASS disciplines conduct basic research

Discovery-driven research is the currency of human progress. Research expands our shared body of knowledge, and it handsomely returns society’s investment by generating new knowledge that expands and sometimes fundamentally changes our understanding of ourselves and the world. All the MIT SHASS disciplines conduct basic research, and champion the importance of basic research to society as a whole.

Empowering every MIT student

MIT SHASS faculty also teach every MIT undergraduate. By empowering MIT students with political, economic, cultural, and historical perspectives — as well as skills in critical thinking, languages, and communication — the School increases the capacity of every MIT graduate to serve the world well, across the broad range of humanity's challenges.

 

Selected Stories

MIT political scientist Ariel White

3 Questions: Ariel White on the impact of incarceration on voting

"The story here is not just about whether people are legally allowed to vote, but about whether they are practically able to vote, whether they know they're allowed to vote, and whether they think they have any reason to do so."

Marc Aidinoff

VOICES OF MIT SHASS GRADUATE STUDENTS

Meet Marc Aidinoff, PhD candidate

"What does it mean when civil rights become about access to computers and the Internet? When lack of Internet access is considered a form of poverty? These questions were getting under my skin. I wanted to know how social and economic policy were tied to changing ideas about technology."

Computing and AI: Humanistic Perspectives from MIT

"With a sense of promise and urgency, we are embarked at MIT on an accelerated effort to more fully integrate the humanistic and technical forms of discovery in our curriculum and research, in our institutional structure, and in our habits of mind and action."

Elizabeth Wood

3 Questions with historian and Russia expert Elizabeth Wood

How do we understand Russia’s multi-layered interference in the 2016 Elections? MIT historian and Russia expert Elizabeth Wood analyzes Russia’s motives.

U.S. woman at voting booth

COMPUTING AND AI: HUMANISTIC PERSPECTIVES FROM MIT

Political Science | Faculty of the Department

"The advance of computation gives rise to a number of conceptual and normative questions that are political, rather than ethical, in character. Political science and theory have a significant role in addressing such questions as: How do major players in the technology sector seek to legitimate their authority to make decisions that affect us all? And where should that authority actually reside in a democratic polity?"

3 Questions: Media historian Heather Hendershot on U.S. political discourse

Media historian and expert on conservatism discusses the current state of political discourse and media in the U.S.

Dwaipayan Banerjee receives 2019 Levitan Prize in the Humanities

$29,500 award will support research for "A Counter History of Computing in India."

Historian William J. Turkel

MIT HiSTORY SERIES ON DIGITAL HUMANITIES | 3

Computation and the practice of 21st-century history

In a talk at MIT, Professor William J. Turkel, PhD'04, described the techniques and tools he uses in his study of global21st-century history.

Professor David Pesetsky

3 Questions: David Pesetsky on the field of linguistics

Solving language puzzles, linguists shed light on deep properties of the human mind, on language acquisition in children, on machine learning, social interactions, and meaning itself. David Pesetsky, an internationally acclaimed linguistic scholar, is the Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics at MIT.

MIT HiSTORY SERIES ON DIGITAL HUMANITIES | 1

Talk by Cameron Blevins launches MIT Digital History Seminar Series

“This seminar series is part of our ongoing exploration of computational methods and digital media for research and teaching in the history field. Writ large, this new series is a space for us to reflect on our engagement with the new MIT Schwarzman College of Computing" — Jeffrey Ravel, head of MIT History

Jesse Little Doe Baird

Jessie Little Doe Baird SM'00 receives 2010 MacArthur Fellowship

Award honors her work to revive Wampanoag (Wôpanâak), a language once spoken by tens of thousands of people, which became extinct in the 19th century.

MIT ranked No.2 university worldwide for Arts and Humanities - 2019

MIT has been rated No.2 worldwide in the "Arts and Humanities" subject category in the 2019 Times Higher Education World University Rankings. The ranking is based on an evaluation of the disciplines located in the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences — and in the MIT School of Architecture and Planning. 

MIT ranked No. 1 university worldwide for Economics and Business - 2019

The Times Higher Education World University Ranking system determines a university’s quality in a given subject area by examining five areas: the learning environment; the volume, income, and reputation of its research; the influence of its citations in other research; the international outlook of its staff, students, and research; and its knowledge transfer to various industries.

BASIC RESEARCH | ARTS INNOVATION

What Paris shows us about photography

In The Cliché of History, Catherine Clark develops a new narrative about photography and how it influences history, memory, and identity.

Clapperton Mavhunga

How Africans Developed Scientific Knowledge of the Deadly Tsetse Fly

“I wanted the reader to appreciate how language, deployed as a tool to silence African modes of knowledge, can be mobilized as a tool to recover that same knowledge. In a sense, the book hopes to excite younger scholars — and Africans! — to investigate, imagine, and make science from Africa." 

Q&A with historian Anne McCants
About the World Economic History Congress at MIT
 

"This strikes me as exactly the moment when the work of economic historians is of greatest importance. We have something useful to say about what the disruptions of previous 'waves of globalization' have looked like and how social and political communities have resolved the disruptions of those episodes."

RESEARCH | 21st C. CITIZENSHIP

Study by Devin Caughey demonstrates the people's power.

New study shows that state-level policy in the U.S. is responsive to public opinion.

21st C. CITIZENSHIP | LEGACY OF SLAVERY

The Task of History

MIT historians discuss the power of historical knowledge to help make a better world.

TEACHING AND LEARNING

3 Questions: Alan Lightman on science and the life of the spirit

Lightman's new book, “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine,” examines the tensions between belief and knowing.

SOCIAL INNOVATION

Economist Dave Donaldson asks: How much does infrastructure boost an economy?

Donaldson's historical study details how railroads helped India trade and grow.

Professor Craig Steven Wilder and Dean Melissa Nobles

21st C. CITIZENSHIP | LEGACY OF SLAVERY

3Q Interview with Dean Nobles, Professor Wilder

"The MIT community has the opportunity to be involved in this endeavor in real time, learning from the emerging findings. and making informed suggestions to the leadership about potential responses." — Dean Melissa Nobles

21st C. CITIZENSHIP | RESEARCH

MIT and the Legacy of Slavery Project
Stories, Videos, Community Dialogue
 

“I believe the work of this class is important to the present — and to the future. Something I have always loved about the MIT community is that we seek, and we face, facts. What can history teach us now, as we work to invent the future? How can we make sure that the technologies we invent will contribute to making a better world for all?"   — L. Rafael Reif, President of MIT

BASIC RESEARCH

The writing on the wall

Did humans speak through cave art? New paper by MIT linguist links ancient drawings and language’s origins.

SOCIAL INNOVATION

Anthropologist Stephan Helmreich conducts fieldwork aboard the FLIP ship

As part of his ongoing research on how scientists think about the world, Helmreich wanted to know: What are the changing theories, models, and technologies that physical oceanographers use to apprehend and understand waves?

Q&A with economic historian Anne McCants
On the link between innovation and opportunity
 

"Economic history viewed on a very long timescale tells us that innovation and population size/density are highly correlated. A shorter time horizon tells us that population size alone is not enough. Rather, it is in populations where lots of people are both permitted and capable of 'having a go,' where innovation thrives best."

BASIC RESEARCH

SHASS announces 10 Research Fund recipients for 2018

The SHASS Research Fund supports research in the areas of humanities, arts, and social sciences that shows promise of making an important contribution to the proposed area of activity. The School is pleased to announce ten recipients for 2018.

CORE

MIT named No. 2 university worldwide for the Arts and Humanities - 2018

At MIT, two schools — the School of Architecture and Planning, and the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences — and several centers are home to the arts and humanities.

PLANETARY HEALTH

Citizen Science and the Wild workshop illuminates the value of multidisciplinary research.

Convened by MIT historian Harriet Ritvo, the workshop drew an unusual variety of MIT experts together, including historians of science, anthropologists, scientists, and museum professionals. 

21st C. CITIZENSHIP | BASIC RESEARCH

Making sense of nuclear threats

MIT political scientist Vipin Narang explains the strategies of new nuclear powers. “We’re not talking about Cold War nuclear strategy any more. We’re talking about small states with small arsenals and itchy trigger fingers. It really changes how we think about nuclear risks and nuclear dangers as a result.”

BASIC RESEARCH

Song of the Human: A musical work inspired by Shigeru Miyagawa's research

New work by composer Pete M. Wyer draws inspiration from MIT linguistic scholar Shigeru Miyagawa's hypothesis on the origins of human language: "Human speech can be quite musical — there's pitch, rhythm, tone and dynamics — and if one removes words, what's left is the song of the human, and it's remarkably similar to birdsong." 

BASIC RESEARCH

What we're doing when we try to live our lives well

Philosopher Tamar Schapiro studies how we blend reason and emotion while refining our adult selves.

3 Questions with philosopher Kieran Setiya
How philosophy helps us address climate change
 

"Almost anyone engaged with global issues of human well-being, the distribution of resources, or the future of society is doing moral philosophy Even the most technocratic assessment of costs and benefits makes assumptions about the value of human life and the demands of justice....Making our ethics more explicit, being self-conscious about our principles and premises, improves our moral thinking. This is particularly true when the questions are ones of public policy."

BASIC RESEARCH

Professor Bengt Holmström wins 2016 Nobel Prize in Economics

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences has been awarded to MIT's Bengt Holmström and Harvard's Olvier Hart for their contributions to contract theory. Holmström is the Paul A. Samuelson Professor of Economics in the MIT SHASS Department of Economics, with a joint appointment in the Sloan School. 

BASIC RESEARCH

Norvin Richards explores how our voices shape the rules of grammar

Linguists who study syntax have catalogued myriad distinguishing rules and patterns among world languages — without necessarily explaining why such differences exist. But now Richards has a new explanation, detailed in his book, Contiguity Theory, recently published by the MIT Press.

BASIC RESEARCH

Via IDSS, Christia and Jadbabaie collaborate on study of sociopolitical change

With the new Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), MIT researchers in the social sciences have an official research platform for collaborating with peers in engineering and the sciences. In this project, social scientist Fotini Christia and civil engineer Ali Jadbabaie join forces to study the evolution of cultural norms and the dynamics of sociopolitical change.   

BASIC RESEARCH

Why children confuse "and" with "or"

A study co-authored by MIT linguists concludes that children deploy a more sophisticated mode of logical analysis than many experts have previously realized.

GLOBAL HEALTH AND POVERTY ALLEVIATION

A Sampler of Health Sector projects
Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT

J-PAL’s Health sector aims to encourage health-promoting behaviors and improve the delivery of health care services, as well as to better understand the impact of health care on reducing poverty.

BASIC RESEARCH

Code of the humans

New book by Noam Chomsky and Robert Berwick explores how people acquired unique language skills.

3 Questions with political scientist Andrea Campbell
Healthcare is both a political and a technical issue

"Any initiative to address health and health care goals must wrestle with and address the enormous disparities that exist in health coverage, access, and outcomes across racial and income groups in the United States. It’s as if poor or black Americans are living in a different country, and in terms of poverty, health insurance, and health care access, effectively they are. This is a political and social problem as much as a technical one." 

CORE | BASIC RESEARCH

MIT senior takes on double major in brain and cognitive sciences plus theater arts

Abra Shen pursues medicine and theater, and someday hopes to combine the two.

BASIC RESEARCH: HISTORY OF SCIENCE

Thomas Levenson receives the 2016 Levitan Prize in the Humanities

Levenson, professor of science writing and director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, has been awarded the $30,000 research grant, which will support his investigation into the economic, cultural, and scientific history of an 18th century financial crisis known as the South Sea Bubble.

BASIC RESEARCH

Elizabeth Wood: The Roots of the Ukraine Crisis

In February 2014, Russian troops rolled into Crimea, the garden spot of Ukraine, and seized control, shocking the international community. MIT Professor Elizabeth A. Wood’s new book asks why Russia annexed this peninsula, plumbing the depths of history to explain Russia’s current posture on the world stage.

BASIC RESEARCH + CORE

MIT named among three top universities in the world for humanities, arts

The Times Higher Education 2015 World University Rankings has named MIT one of the top three universities worldwide for arts and humanities education. The three top ranked universities — Stanford University, Harvard University, and MIT — are closely aligned in the evaluation metrics.

BASIC RESEARCH | ETHICS OF CLIMATE CHANGE

MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya analyzes the sources of moral action

“I really feel compelled right now by questions about climate change ethics … the worry that nothing I do may make a difference, the fact that decisions we’re making in the next generation will affect many billions of humans, or possibly even whether human life will exist in a few hundred years’ time,” Setiya says. “I feel there are very challenging, often upsetting, but unavoidable questions raised there.”

BASIC RESEARCH: HISTORY OF TECHNOLOGY

Deborah Fitzgerald receives lifetime achievement award from Agricultural History Society

Fitzgerald, Professor of the History of Technology, and former Kenan Sahin Dean of MIT-SHASS, has been honored for her research, mentorship, and leadership. In its award citation, the society notes that Fitzgerald's research has articulated "important themes in twentieth century America," and that she has been a central force in furthering the society, cultivating next-generation scholars."

BASIC RESEARCH: HISTORY OF SCIENCE

Tom Levenson discusses his new book, The Hunt for Vulcan

Tom Levenson, Professor of Science Writing and director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing will give a presentation about his new book The Hunt for Vulcan — the planet that was repeatedly discovered (although it did not exist). 

RESEARCH TO POLICY: EDUCATION

Haitian educators and MIT faculty develop Kreyòl-based teaching tools

Six veteran educators from Haiti — two biologists, two physicists, and two mathematicians — were on campus recently to work closely with MIT faculty to develop and hone Kreyòl-based, technology-enhanced pedagogical tools for STEM education.

RESEARCH TO POLICY: ADVANCING JUSTICE

3 Questions | Melissa Nobles on advancing racial and restorative justice

Melissa Nobles, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor, and Dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, esearches historical injustices in democracies. MIT SHASS Communications spoke with Nobles recently about the ongoing aftermath of shooting deaths in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland, and what her research suggests about the current efforts to advance civil rights in America.

BASIC RESEARCH: THOUGHT AND DECISION-MAKING

Philosopher Robert Stalnaker solves problems the MIT way

Focus on real-world concerns underpins research in areas including game theory, linguistics, decision theory, and economics.

BASIC RESEARCH: LANGUAGE

Donca Steriade: Searching for the building blocks of language

The syllable has long been considered to be the basic building block of language in the area of rhythm. MIT's Donca Steriade now believes that that different element — known as the "interval" — may be the basic unit of rhythm in human language.

The MIT Campaign for a Better World

Announcing the new comprehensive campaign, MIT President L. Rafael Reif said, "Humanity faces urgent challenges — challenges whose solutions depend on marrying advanced technical and scientific capabilities with a deep understanding of the world's political, cultural, and economic complexities."

Discover the role of MIT's Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences fields in solving the economic, cultural, and political dimensions of global issues, and in problem-solving in collaboration with our STEM colleagues. 

BASIC RESEARCH: LANGUAGE AND MIND

MIT linguist Danny Fox named Anshen-Chomsky Professor of Language and Thought

Fox does research that illuminates both language and the mind itself. "He belongs to the rare breed of researchers who not only discover remarkable new facts about language, but also has the vision to see what these discoveries are teaching us about the mind as a whole, about the structure of language as a part of the human mind, and about the internal workings of language itself." — David Pesetsky, Head, MIT Philosophy and Linguistics 

BASIC RESEARCH: LANGUAGE AND MEANING

Kai von Fintel: Decoding the Meaning of Language

"What makes linguistics, the science of language, so fascinating, von Fintel says, "is that it exists at the intersection of science and the humanities." You use a scientific approach, and you get to apply it to something central to humanity."

BASIC RESEARCH: HISTORY OF SCIENCE

David Kaiser awarded the Davis Prize from the History of Science Society

The History of Science Society has awarded the Watson Davis and Helen Miles Davis Prize to MIT historian and physicist David Kaiser for his book How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival (W. W. Norton, 2011).

BASIC RESEARCH: ORIGINS OF POWER, PROSPERITY, AND POVERTY

Economists Daron Acemoglu of MIT and James Robinson publish new thesis on the wealth of nations

A collection of the significant reviews, interviews, videos, broadcasts about the thesis on the origins of power, prosperity, and poverty

BASIC RESEARCH: HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

Rosalind Williams: on the "Human Empire"

An historian who finds evidence and insight in literature, Rosalind Williams, Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology, recently completed a book examining the critical juncture when human endeavors began to dominate the planet as never before. Forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press (2013), The Triumph of Human Empire, explores this turning point in history and technology through the works of three writers from the late 1800s.

INNOVATION/RESEARCH: MUSIC21 TOOLS

Cuthbert receives $500K Digging into Data grant for innovative musicology tools

Associate Professor of Music Michael Cuthbert, together with an international team of researchers, has been awarded a $500K grant from the Digging into Data consortium (including $175K from the National Endowment for the Humanities). The grant supports his for work using computational techniques to study changes in Western musical style.

Irene Heim

BASIC RESEARCH

Scientific Reunion commemorates 50 years of Linguistics at MIT

To celebrate the first 50 years of MIT’s graduate program in Linguistics, alumni, former faculty and postdoctoral scholars attended a Scientific Reunion, held at MIT on December 9-11, 2011, and participated in a discussion of some of the foundational questions investigated by its past and present members. Professor David Pesetsky writes, "Intellectually, it was first-rate and exciting; there were some fireworks (just as we'd hoped). It was also a very emotional weekend. Collectively, this was the group that built the field." 

neurons firing

RESEARCH

SHASS stories by the MIT News team

The SHASS research, profile, and feature stories on this page are written primarily by Peter Dizikes, Institute Writer for MIT News. This page also includes selected major stories written by the SHASS academic units, and by the SHASS Communications group in the Office of the Dean. 

RESEARCH TO POLICY: HEALTH INSURANCE

MIT economists Finkelstein and Gruber demonstrate the health and financial benefits of Medicaid

Landmark study shows the effects of health insurance program: much better health and more financial stability for the poor; more bills paid for hospitals and doctors. Professors of Economics Amy Finkelstein (a principal investigator) and Jonathan Gruber contributed to the study.

The deaths of others book cover

RESEARCH TO POLICY: CIVILIANS IN WARFARE

In The Deaths of Others, John Tirman explores fate of civilians in America's wars

Americans are greatly concerned about the number of our troops killed in battle — 100,000 dead in World War I; 300,000 in World War II; 33,000 in the Korean War; 58,000 in Vietnam; 4,500 in Iraq; more than 1,000 in Afghanistan — and rightly so. But why are we so indifferent, often oblivious, to the far greater number of casualties suffered by those we fight and those we fight for? This is the compelling, largely unasked question that John Tirman, a principal research scientist and executive director at the MIT Center for International Studies, answers in The Deaths of Others

Daron Acemoglu

RESEARCH TO POLICY: ECONOMIC STABILITY

MIT economist Daron Acemoglu on inequality and the financial crash

This excellent podcast interview with Daron Acemoglu, Charles P. Kindleberger Professor of Economics, examines the role of income inequality in the financial crash.

BASIC RESEARCH: LANGUAGE AND MIND

Q&A with Linguist David Pesetsky

Why is the idea of Universal Grammar controversial?  What does linguistics tell us about how we think? — Q&A with David Pesetsky, Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics, and Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Kresge Auditorium

RESEARCH TO POLICY: ECONOMICS

Economics Symposium launches MIT's 150th celebration | From Theory to Practice to Policy

This symposium, organized by the School's Department of Economics and the Sloan School of Management, celebrated the role of MIT’s faculty and students in advancing the fields of economics and finance, in putting the latest developments into practice, and in contributing to the design of public policy.

Nobel Prize in Economics

RESEARCH TO POLICY: ECONOMIC INNOVATION

Peter Diamond receives Nobel in Sweden

Institute Professor Peter Diamond PhD ’63 will collect the Nobel Prize in economics on Friday, Dec. 10, during a ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall in Sweden. Diamond, Dale T. Mortensen of Northwestern University and Christopher A. Pissarides of the London School of Economics won the prize for their analysis of “markets with search frictions,” which roughly equates to any setting in which buyers and sellers don’t easily find one another.

Fox Harrell

BASIC RESEARCH: ART/TECH INNOVATION

Harrell convenes thought-leaders to catalyze new research informed by science, humanities, and arts disciplines.

Bringing together the resources of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Associate Professor Fox Harrell has led a joint workshop focused on research informed by both the arts and sciences. 55 thought leaders gathered to explore the goal of using technology to better understand society—and using the humanities and arts to build creative computational systems.

US Constitution

BASIC RESEARCH: AMERICAN HISTORY

Maier's Ratification delivers new knowledge about the adoption of the US Constitution, the most consequential debate in American history

"A stunning examination of... 'the beginning of American national politics' — the debate that explains the way we Americans govern ourselves, resolve disputes, conduct diplomacy, choose leaders and protect our freedoms." 

cultures of war cover

BASIC RESEARCH | HISTORY OF CONFLICT

Dower's Cultures of War is 2010 National Book Award finalist

Over recent decades, Pulitzer-winning historian John W. Dower has addressed the roots and consequences of war from multiple perspectives. Here he examines the cultures of war revealed by four powerful events—Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, and the invasion of Iraq in the name of a war on terror. 

violin on score

BASIC RESEARCH: TECHNOLOGY AND HUMAN IDENTITY

Objects and Identity: Sherry Turkle's Research

"In 1976, when Sherry Turkle arrived at MIT to teach the sociology of science, she quickly noticed how the still-new computer was becoming part of the fabric and language of daily life. When she probed deeper, she found 'there was a real passionate attachment to the computer, a possibility to project yourself into the machine.' Within that, Turkle, a psychologist as well as a professor, saw bigger questions about how that might change our very sense of self-identity."

Sir Isaac Newton

BASIC RESEARCH: HISTORY OF SCIENCE

Newton and the Counterfeiter
Boston Globe on Levenson's new book

"MIT professor Thomas Levenson has written a page-turner about Isaac Newton's mind at work, Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). In a little known episode, Newton was tapped to manage England's Royal Mint at a time when the preponderance of fake money in circulation caused a financial crisis.   

RESEARCH TO POLICY: ADDICTION

Natasha Schull examines technology and gambling addiction

Natasha Schull, Assistant Professor in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, observed that gamblers become transfixed for hours at video poker and slot machines. What, she wondered, kept them glued to machines until they lost all they had to lose? Schull is publishing her conclusions that proprietary mathematical algorithms and immersive technology are used to keep people gambling until they—in the industry jargon—"play to extinction."

BASIC RESEARCH

MIT's philosophers release eight books this year

It's unusual for philosophers to publish many books these days — major papers are the more typical way to publish research — which is why the publication of eight books by eight of the 12 MIT philosophy faculty in the span of a year marks a noteworthy chapter for the Institute's philosophy section.

Alien Ocean bookcover

BASIC RESEARCH | CULTURE OF SCIENCE

"Alien Ocean" explores the world of marine microbiologists

When Professor of Anthropology Stefan Helmreich set out to examine the world of marine microbiologists for a new book, his research took an unexpected twist. Helmreich, who has been recognized for his innovative cultural anthropology work, had decided to study scientists who chase some of the world's smallest creatures in some of the world's most forbidding places. So he spent long hours interviewing microbial biologists. But during the years of Helmreich's research, the entire field shifted gears.