Innovation Matters: Competition Policy for the High-Tech Economy

An interview with Professor Richard Gilbert

What’s wrong with antitrust policy for regulating the tech sector? In his new book, Innovation Matters: Competition Policy for the High-Technology Economy, Richard Gilbert, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Economics at UC Berkeley, argues that regulators should be considering the effects of mergers and monopolies on innovation, rather than price.

From 1993 to 1995, Gilbert served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. He also served as Chair of the Berkeley Economics Department from 2002 to 2005, as President of the Industrial Organization Society from 1994 to 1995, and as the non-lawyer representative to the Council of the Antitrust Section of the American Bar Association from 2011 to 2014.

Julia Sizek, Matrix Content Curator, interviewed Professor Gilbert about the arguments in his new book. (Please note that responses have been edited, and links were added for reference.)

Q: As large technology companies have increasingly come under fire for their monopoly-like powers, many have been asking about how antitrust policy needs to change to address this industry. What motivated you to investigate the changing landscape of antitrust policy?

Traditionally, antitrust policy has been about prices, and antitrust officials have focused on stopping mergers that would increase prices or limiting conduct that would cause prices to rise or prevent them from falling. But we know that innovation — new or improved products or production methods — is more important for the economy and consumer welfare than a reduction in prices. We need to change antitrust policy from price-centric to innovation-centric.

Antitrust authorities appreciate the importance of innovation, but until recently they have not had the tools to analyze how mergers or the conduct of dominant firms might suppress innovation. Many antitrust enforcers and academics endorsed views associated with the writings of Joseph Schumpeter in the 1940s. He wrote that progress proceeds through a process of creative destruction, with new technologies replacing old products and methods, and that large firms were often better suited than small firms to create these new technologies. This Schumpeterian perspective suggested a defense for mergers and monopolization, rather than a basis to challenge them. Indeed, the Merger Guidelines published by the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission barely mentioned innovation as a merger concern until they were revised in 2010.

More recent economic research challenges the Schumpeterian perspective and shows how the lack of competition can suppress innovation incentives. Having fewer firms engaged in research and development lowers the probability of discovery. A firm that has monopoly power has little incentive to invest in costly R&D if a successful discovery would merely replace the profits it earns from its existing products. It is no surprise that many major discoveries have been made by firms that do not have existing products that would be threatened by the discovery. Electric vehicles, the smartphone, digital photography, ride-hailing services, digital mapping, photolithography, and mRNA vaccines are some examples of innovations that emerged out of non-dominant firms.

So, the motivation for my book was to collect in one place what we now know about the relationship between competition and innovation. That includes the Schumpeterian perspective, but also more recent scholarship that shows how monopoly is a threat to innovation. My objective was to describe the central principles that support an innovation-centric antitrust policy.

Q: As you note in the book, current antitrust policy in the U.S. asks how consumers would suffer if a merger or acquisition were to be completed, and that this harm to consumers is measured through looking at prices of products. What are the limits of using prices to measure competition (or lack thereof)?

A merger that results in a small reduction in the pace of innovation is likely to cause greater consumer harm than if it causes a small increase in price. That is why we need an innovation-centric antitrust policy when mergers or conduct are likely to affect the pace of innovation.

Sometimes we can account for innovation effects by incorporating quality into product prices. That is, we can measure the consumer benefit from an improvement in the quality of a product by an equivalent reduction in its price, or the consumer cost from a reduction in quality by an increase in price. This is straightforward for some products. If Hershey sells a smaller candy bar at the same price, it is equivalent to an increase in the price of the bar. If a new car gets lower gas mileage, it is equivalent to an increase in the price of the car.

This quality-adjusted price approach has limitations. It is difficult to apply to complex changes in the dimensions of a product. Moreover, in today’s digital economy, many services are provided without a monetary price. It doesn’t make much sense to ask whether the price could be lower, but instead we should ask whether companies are creating new services that benefit consumers or interfering with the ability of other firms to compete with new services.

Digital platforms such as Facebook and Google complicate the analysis because they provide services to consumers (e.g., social networks and search) without a price while generating revenues from advertising. The services that the platforms offer at a zero price and the advertising services that the platform sells at positive prices are interdependent. However, they raise different issues for antitrust analysis. For example, the Federal Trade Commission has filed an antitrust complaint related to Facebook’s acquisitions, including Instagram and WhatsApp. The complaint alleges that Facebook maintained its personal social networking monopoly by systematically tracking potential rivals and acquiring companies that it viewed as serious competitive threats.

A price-centric analysis might be appropriate for the advertising service, but an innovation-centric analysis is more appropriate for the effects of such acquisitions on the quality of Facebook’s social networking services.

Q: Your book offers innovation as a metric to understand antitrust policy. What is innovation, and how does one measure it?

Innovation is a new or improved product or process that differs significantly from previous products or processes. Innovation is more than invention, which is the act of discovering a new product or process, because innovation requires that an invention be put into active use or be made available for use by others.

Innovations can be measured in different ways. This can include direct measures, such as a technical or economic assessment of the value of the innovation. For pharmaceuticals, a new drug application that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration is a measure of innovation, although drugs differ greatly in their therapeutic and economic value. Indirect measures of innovation include the number of patents that cover the innovation. Because patents can differ greatly in significance, economic studies often use citation counts to determine the significance of the patents. Patent counts are generally better indicators of the value of innovations when they are adjusted by citations to measure quality, but there is still a gap between citation-weighted patent counts and the value of innovations. The gap depends on the industry. For example, patent counts tend to be aligned with the values of pharmaceutical and chemical innovations. However, in other industries, patents provide a measure of protection from competition that is not necessarily related to the value of the innovation that is disclosed by the patent. This disconnect is particularly problematic for industries in which many patents cover the same product, such as electronics, software, and communications technologies. In that case, a patented technology can represent a small fraction of the value of a product, yet the patent owner might be able to demand a high royalty because the product cannot be produced with the right to use the patent.

Economic studies of competition and innovation often use research and development (R&D) expenditure to measure innovative effort. R&D, however, is an input to the activity of innovation. It does not measure the output of innovation. R&D expenditures can increase with no effect on the output of innovation, or R&D can become more efficient and decrease with the same or greater output of innovation. Nonetheless, because R&D expenditures are often more accessible than measure of actual innovation, many empirical studies have used R&D expenditure as an indirect measure of innovation.

Q: In the book, you note that the number of complaints about innovation loss increased from the 1990s through the 2010s. What do you think accounted for the new focus on innovation, rather than other kinds of complaints? (In other words, how did innovation emerge as a means of thinking about anti-trust law?)

Courts generally follow economic developments in their evaluations of antitrust law, but usually with a substantial lag. Economic analysis plays a central role in almost every merger case, but economic analysis was almost always absent in merger evaluations that took place before 1980. Economic analysis became important in merger analysis after courts recognized that economics has something to say about whether a merger is likely to result in a “substantial lessening of competition,” which is the standard for review under the antitrust laws.

Economics did not have much to say about the relationship between competition and innovation until the latter part of the 20th century. As I mentioned, the prevailing sentiment was a Schumpeterian view that some monopoly power is conducive to innovation. When innovation appeared in antitrust cases, it was mostly as a defense to otherwise anticompetitive conduct. Indeed, in the monopolization case against Microsoft brought by the Department of Justice and several states, the Federal Court of Appeals quoted Schumpeter in the introduction to its opinion.

Innovation became more of a concern for antitrust enforcement by the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission in the 1990s. This coincided, perhaps incidentally, with the publication by the agencies of the Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property. (I led the effort that resulted in these guidelines when I was Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice.) The Guidelines brought innovation to the forefront.

The DOJ and FTC publish and update guidelines that describe their enforcement intentions for mergers. The first edition was published in 1968. Neither the first edition nor many subsequent editions mentioned innovation as a competitive concern until the guidelines were revised in 2010. (UC Berkeley professors Carl Shapiro and Joe Farrell led the 2010 effort to revise the guidelines.) The 2010 guidelines describe several ways in which mergers might suppress innovation. This discussion paralleled economic developments beginning in the late 20th century that showed why mergers and monopoly power can harm incentives to innovate.

Q: Large technology companies like Alphabet (Google) and Meta (Facebook) are known for acquiring companies in their start-up phases, and this has become widely accepted for small companies in the technology sector. How do you think this model has shifted possibilities for innovation in technology, and how might regulators change their approach to regulating these acquisitions?

Google and Facebook (and Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft) have acquired hundreds of start-ups. Few of these acquisitions were even reviewed by the antitrust agencies, and none was blocked. The reasons for the lack of enforcement are complex. The companies operate in fast-moving technologies, so it is often difficult to know whether a start-up represented a competitive threat to the acquiring firm.

The US and European authorities reviewed, but did not challenge, Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram. The European Commission noted that WhatsApp and Facebook were but two of many messaging services, and that WhatsApp did not compete with Facebook for online advertising. Both agencies should have paid greater attention to the possibility that WhatsApp could have become a rival social network, much as the multi-purpose messaging service WeChat has done in China (albeit censored by the authorities). Indeed, the $19 billion that Facebook paid for the app, despite little usage at the time in the US, should have been an indicator of its potential as an industry disruptor.

Some acquisitions escape review by the antitrust agencies because they fall below the required reporting thresholds. Many of these acquisitions are “aqui-hires.” They are groups of talented individuals that bear little resemblance to the corporate acquisitions that are the usual targets of antitrust enforcement.

In my opinion, the most significant reason why antitrust enforcers have not been able to restrain the growth of the dominant digital platforms through acquisition is their inability to deal with potential competition. The antitrust agencies are quick to challenge a merger of X and Y when both have large shares of a concentrated market. But what about a dominant company X that acquires a startup Y that has no product, but might develop a product that competes with X? Y is not an actual competitor of X, Y is a potential competitor. Antitrust legal precedents impose a high bar to challenge an acquisition that eliminates a potential competitor.

Congress is currently considering several proposed bills that would strengthen antitrust enforcement, particularly for dominant platforms. While some of these bills are not, in my opinion, a step in the right direction, those that make it easier to challenge acquisitions of potential competitors could, if properly crafted, be a positive change to antitrust enforcement.

Q: How do these approaches to innovation need to change in the context of platform markets, like Google Shopping or Amazon? How do platform economies change how we should think about antitrust issues?

Platforms are challenging for antitrust enforcement. First, for platforms such as Google or Facebook, one side is supplied without a monetary price, although consumers “pay” by supplying valuable data. Second, many platforms have powerful network effects and scale economies from the accumulation of data. Network effects imply that users of the platforms benefit from the participation of other users. Scale economies imply that rivals would have to incur large and irreversible costs to duplicate the values that the platforms obtain from their data. The presence of network effects and scale economies imply large barriers to entry of new platform competitors. For both of these reasons, new competitors can’t gain a toehold in the usual way by providing the same service at a lower price. They have to compete with a differentiated product. Third, there are competitive interactions between the “free” and paid sides of the platforms. Platforms have incentives to maintain service quality on the free side if it is useful to attract paying advertisers, although such incentives are limited. Fourth, innovation concerns are particularly relevant for many platforms because the pace of technology development is rapid and some platform services are provided without charge, which makes a price-centric analysis less useful.

Of course, antitrust is relevant for platforms, and the challenges they present are not entirely new. But enforcement has to be mindful of platforms’ unique characteristics. Designing workable remedies for antitrust abuses is challenging for platforms. Consumers do not benefit from breaking up a platform if network effects imply that only one firm will survive. And behavioral remedies can be difficult to enforce or may have little effect. The Google search remedy imposed by the European Commission is still being criticized as too weak, years after it was first implemented. The European Commission requirements to offer choice screens for default browsers and search engines (i.e., screens that allow users to choose their preferred search engine) has not had a significant effect on utilization. The alternative approach to remedies might involve a regulator that supervises conduct by the platforms or that can impose fines large enough to affect their behavior.

Q: What is the future of antitrust policy in the United States, especially now, when prominent antitrust lawyers Lina Khan and Jonathan Kanter have been confirmed as Chair of the Federal Trade Commission and Assistant Attorney General, respectively?

Interesting question. Lina Khan is a self-professed member of the New Brandeis (NB) movement. The NBs believe that monopoly is a corrosive force for the economy and an obstacle for social justice. They want to break up monopolies without having to demonstrate a pattern of abusive behavior. This will be a tough sell in the courts. Established precedent requires a finding of anticompetitive conduct for a finding of unlawful monopolization under the Sherman Act.

Nonetheless, as Chairman of the FTC, Khan might be able to make some significant changes in antitrust enforcement. The FTC Act empowers the Commission to challenge “unfair” competition. Courts have ruled that the standard for unfair competition is the same standard for violation of the Sherman Act. But the Commission might have wiggle room to bring cases that would be difficult to prove under the Sherman Act. That would be an important development. Furthermore, the FTC has an administrative structure that gives it enforcement leverage that is absent at the Department of Justice. Specifically, the FTC can send cases to an administrative law judge (ALJ) before they go to a traditional court of law. The ALJ process takes time, and some defendants are willing to make concessions to avoid the extra delays.

I don’t expect to see the same movement of the antitrust needle at the DOJ, because the DOJ can’t avoid or delay judgments in the courts. Both agencies can be tougher on merger cases. There is some evidence that is happening and I expect it to continue. (But again, they have to deal with the courts if merging parties contest a challenge.) The DOJ also can have an impact through a process called the business review letter, where it can state an intention not to challenge a practice. For example, Democrats tend to be softer on enforcement of intellectual property rights, and the DOJ can signal this intent through a business review letter.



Individual Trauma, Social Outcomes: A Matrix Podcast Interview with Biz Herman

Biz Herman

In this episode of the Matrix Podcast, Julia Sizek, PhD Candidate in Anthropology at UC Berkeley, interviews Biz Herman, a PhD candidate in the UC Berkeley Department of Political Science, a Visiting Scholar at The New School for Social Research’s Trauma and Global Mental Health Lab, and a Predoctoral Research Fellow with the Human Trafficking Vulnerability Lab. Herman’s dissertation, Individual Trauma, Collective Security: The Consequences of Conflict and Forced Migration on Social Stability, investigates the psychological effects of living through conflict and forced displacement, and how these individual traumas shape social life. 

Herman’s research has been supported by the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, the University of California Institute on Global Conflict & Cooperation (IGCC) Dissertation Fellowship, the Simpson Memorial Research Fellowship in International & Comparative Studies, the Malini Chowdhury Fellowship on Bangladesh Studies, and the Georg Eckert Institute Research Fellowship. Along with collaborators Justine M. Davis & Cecilia H. Mo, she received the IGCC Academic Conference Grant to convene the inaugural Human Security, Violence, and Trauma Conference in May 2021. This multidisciplinary meeting brought together over 170 policymakers, practitioners, and researchers from political science, behavioral economics, psychology, and public health for a two-day seminar on the implications of conflict and forced migration. She has served as an Innovation Fellow at Beyond Conflict’s Innovation Lab, which applies research findings from cognitive and behavioral science to the study of social conflict and belief formation.

In addition to her academic work, Biz is an Emmy-nominated photojournalist and a regular contributor to The New York Times. In 2019, she pitched and co-photographed The Women of the 116th Congress, which included portraits of 130 out of 131 women members of Congress, shot in the style of historical portrait paintings. The story ran as a special section featuring 27 different covers, and was subsequently published as a book, with a foreword by Roxane Gay.

The Matrix Podcast interview focuses primarily on Herman’s research on mental health and social stability at the Za’atri Refugee Camp in Jordan, as well as her broader research on the psychological implications of living through trauma and the impacts of individual trauma on community coherence.

The research in the Za’atri Refugee Camp, Herman explains, was part of a project developed by Mike Niconchuk, Program Director for Trauma & Violent Conflict at Beyond Conflict, who created a psycho-educational intervention called the Field Guide for Barefoot Psychology. “The goal of The Field Guide is to provide peer-to-peer mental health and psychosocial support and education,” Herman explains. “It’s a low-cost intervention, and it can be scaled. The idea was that in Za’atari Camp, where mental health care is very stigmatized, there are a lot of barriers to entry. And there are a lot of needs — physical security needs and community needs — and mental health is often de-prioritized. [The Field Guide provides] one way to address the lingering psychological implications of living through conflict and forced migration in a way that is accessible, and that can be provided without attracting attention or producing any kind of stigma, and that’s really connected to the context.”

The Field Guide uses narrative storytelling and scientific education, paired with self-care exercises, Herman explains. “Each chapter starts with a narrative of a brother and sister and their lives in Syria before conflict, during conflict, during migration, and in resettlement,” she says. “Through the story, different themes and ideas and issues come up, with different physiological and psychological responses. As these different responses come up, the next part of the chapter talks about the science behind that in a way that allows for some psychoeducation on what’s happening, but allows people to engage with it through someone else’s story.”

Listen to the interview below, or on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.





Online Extremism and Political Advertising: A Visual Interview With Laura Jakli

Laura Jakli

How can we track online extremism through political advertisements? Using data from online advertising, Laura Jakli, a 2020 PhD graduate from UC Berkeley’s Department of Political Science, studies political extremism, destigmatization, and radicalization, focusing on the role of popularity cues in online media. She is currently working on her book project, Engineering Extremism

She is currently a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. Starting in 2023, she will be an Assistant Professor at Harvard Business School’s Business, Government and the International Economy (BGIE) unit. From 2018 to 2020, she was a predoctoral research fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, and at the Program on Democracy and the Internet.

Social Science Matrix content curator Julia Sizek interviewed Jakli about her work, with questions based on political advertisements and graphics from Jakli’s research.

Your research uses the Facebook Ad Library to understand far-right political parties. What insights do advertisements provide for understanding far-right parties? 

Since 2018, the Facebook Ad Library (also known as the Ad Archive) has publicly documented the political advertisements hosted on the platform, as well as some limited metadata for each ad (for example, the name of the ad buyer, the number of ad impressions, total ad expenditure, geographic target, and audience gender and age demographics). Initially, the Ad Library exclusively featured ads run in the United States, but it expanded to dozens of other countries within a year. Since I study European politics, this expansion of the Ad Library opened up a new way to explore party messaging at scale.

Much of my research considers the gap between the publicly stated and privately held beliefs and preferences of far-right voters (and party elites themselves). In line with this, I was interested in examining party ads because the far right may be incentivized to present a more mainstream right-wing ideological profile in formal documents and in mass media campaigns to appeal to a broad audience. Meanwhile, when the far-right is targeting a narrow, custom audience through online media, the party may use more extreme campaign content. This is because, with digital micro-campaigns, they do not have the same political incentive to appeal to the masses or signal ideological common ground with center-right parties.

With my current political ads research, the objective is to better understand far-right party strategy and political positions. The main advantage of ads in this regard is that most parties field hundreds of unique online ads in the months leading up to an election. The sheer volume of political ad text available means that it is quite feasible to construct reliable ideological profiles for small parties, and to create valid inferences about party strategy. Moreover, since online ads are time-stamped and geographically targeted, they can be used to trace how positions change over time, both sub- and cross-nationally.

How do political ads work on Facebook? Who buys them, and how are political ad purchases split between groups? In other words, who is posting these ads, and how do they find their audiences? 

Many party ads are purchased by the national party itself, meaning that they are sponsored by the party’s main Facebook page, even if the ad content is focused on a specific regional or candidate campaign. But it can be a more decentralized process, and each political party can choose to run its political campaign through a combination of national and local advertising. In some European countries, I see party candidates and local party organizations paying for and running their own ads. 

Facebook allows advertisers to target not just by age, gender, and geographic location, but also by political interests and hobbies. Email lists gathered through rallies, fundraisers, and other events can be used to target customized political audiences. Moreover, these inputs can be used to find “Lookalike Audiences” that share interests, traits, and demographics with the established email list. These advertising parameters allow campaigns to target political ads quite narrowly and precisely.

One weakness of the Ad Archive is that it doesn’t actually reveal how the campaigns found their audiences. All you have available as metadata is basic demographic information, including a breakdown of the audience by gender, age, and geographic location. You can make some inferences about whom parties targeted based on this information, but the ad algorithm may also be impacting that audience.

For example, you can’t distinguish between when the party directed ads to be delivered to males between the ages of 18-24, or when the ad algorithm picked up on the fact that men between 18-24 interacted with the ad at higher rates, and therefore “learned” to deliver more ads to this segment over time. In other words, the audience is curated both through what ad buyers specify as their parameters (e.g., let’s target XYZ demographics), and the algorithm independently determining who would be an efficient target to display the ad.

This advertisement (Figure 1) from Vlaams Belang, a far-right party in Belgium, is fascinating because of the way that it is designed to track viewer reactions. How are advertisements on social media different from ordinary advertisements, and are you able to track how people interact with these advertisements?

sample facebook ad
Figure 1: Translation: “They have gone completely mad and want to actively participate in the return of ISIS terrorists! Vlaams Belang resolutely says NO. We must protect our people from these time bombs. We must take their nationality and try them in the countries where they committed their crimes. What do you think? Return possible for terrorists? [Indicate Yes (with a smiley) or No (with a like).]

The ability to rapidly field and test the performance of different political ads is one aspect of online advertising that distinguishes it from older forms of campaigning. Parties don’t have to commit to one message or thematic policy focus through a campaign season. This flexible, feedback-based approach is precisely demonstrated in this ad from Vlaams Belang. It asks ad viewers to signal using the laugh emoji if they agree with the return of foreign terrorist fighters (known as “returnees”) and “like” if they disagree with the policy. Presumably, the idea is to quickly and cheaply test how salient this issue is for potential voters.

Researchers are not easily able to track how people interact with these advertisements unless the advertisement links to a post on a public Facebook page. But in the case of Vlaams Belang and most parties that do these quick polls through ads, the poll takes you to a party webpage so they can get more information about their audience (and possibly elicit donations). One other way to get a sense of how people interact is simply through the number of impressions the ad gets. Impressions count the total number of times the ad is displayed on viewers’ screens. This is broadly informative, but doesn’t mean that audiences are actually clicking on the ad or interacting with its content in any way, so the inferences researchers can draw are quite limited.

One of the benefits of online advertisements, in contrast to traditional advertising, is the ability to target certain groups. This ad (Figure 2) shows an ad that targeted audiences specifically in Austria. How did you find that targeted advertising worked for far-right groups, and how did advertisements differ at the local and national scales?

Facebook ad
Figure 2: Translation: “There is a huge boiling point at Europe’s borders, because masses of illegal migrants want to return to certain European target countries, including our Austria. While patriotic politicians like Matteo Salvini are doing everything possible to stop illegal migration, completely different signals are coming from Berlin. Angela Merkel even wants to have the refugees picked up from Africa….”

Broadly speaking, the demographic metadata suggests that the far right has a much higher ratio of male ad audiences than do other parties, which makes sense, given the male skew of their voter base. But there is such limited metadata provided by the Facebook Ad Library that I have not been able to establish any other notable demographic trends. I am currently working on understanding the geospatial trends of far-right advertising but cannot say anything definitive yet.

I will say that the more localized advertisements — typically fielded by regional party organizations or local candidates — differ substantially in content from national ads. The more localized campaign material is crafted to resonate with local news events and community issues. Far-right political ads that target a narrow geography appeal to voters less on abstract political platforms or ideological principles and more on tangible and immediate localized concerns. In effect, this represents a shift to digital “home style” politics, by which the far right frames their platforms such that constituents of each district are led to believe party representatives are “one of them” and have their immediate interests in mind when crafting policy. 

In my qualitative analysis, I found that regional far-right party branches often stylize themselves as accessible, populist, and anti-political, presenting their party as concerned with what is “happening on the ground” and what the “people” really want. Relatedly, these online campaigns are crafted and fielded rapidly, in a manner that is less professional, less polished, and more casual than offline campaigns. Knife crime is one example of a localized thematic focus common in far-right ads (see Figure 3).

Sample Facebook ad
Figure 3: Translation: “Migrants at the forefront of knife crimes. ‘Dangerous people have no place in the middle of our liberal society and therefore have to be deported.’ Those were the words of #CDU Interior Minister Roland Wöller after the horrific knife murder in Dresden in October 2020 by an Islamist Syrian. This should give the impression that the CDU-led government is finally taking action against serious criminal foreigners….”

Working from a large dataset of far-right political ads, you translated the advertisements into English, and then used the NRC Word-Emotion Association Lexicon to identify how the ads evoke emotions like fear, disgust, and anger. These images (Figure 4) show word clouds based on advertisements from the German AfD (Alternative for Germany) party. What do these word clouds show?

Disgust and anger word clouds
Figure 4: Disgust and anger word clouds for Alternative for Germany ads, using the NRC Word-Emotion Association Lexicon (aka EmoLex).

First, I want to note that the share of negative emotive ad content is typically much higher in far-right ads than in the ads of other parties. Their negative ad campaigns focus on — and often exaggerate — social and economic problems, while identifying other people, parties, and institutions as responsible for them. Consistent with much of the literature, I also found that the far right is associated with specific emotive appeals, most prominently with fear and disgust, but also with a higher share of anger emotion words, on average.

Using the NRC Word-Emotion Association Lexicon, the disgust word cloud visualizes the terms tagged in the far-right AfD’s (Alternative for Germany) ads as being words associated with disgust. The size of the term in the word cloud helps visualize its relative frequency in appearance across the ads. The anger word cloud visualizes the same, but for anger-associated terms in the ads. These figures show that illegality, criminality, and violence are some of the most prevalent disgust-associated themes found in German far-right ads. There is quite a bit of overlap here with the most frequently found anger-associated words. Themes of criminality, violence, and terror attacks are frequently discussed by AfD, presumably with the intent of evoking anger toward the political status quo.

One of your findings is that far-right groups in Europe tend to claim ownership over the topic of immigration, as is reflected in this advertisement (Figure 5). How did you measure the focus on immigration among far-right parties in comparison to their more moderate counterparts? 

sample facebook ad
Figure 5: Translation: “Swept under the rug: the huge refugee costs. The AfD has been talking about it for a long time, but the other parties and the associations and companies of the so-called ‘asylum industry’ that benefit from them consistently avoid talking about this topic….”

I use a method called structural topic modeling to determine whether the far right maintains issue ownership on immigration. In topic modeling, each document (in this case, party ad corpus) is modeled as a mixture of multiple topics. Topical prevalence measures how much each topic contributes to a document. Put simply, I use metadata on which party fielded each ad text to examine differences in topical prevalence across the ad texts, and sort topical prevalence by party family. I estimated the mean difference in topic proportions for far-right parties and all other parties to determine which topics are more prevalent in far-right ads.

I use this to gauge whether there is disproportionate emphasis on immigration in far-right campaign ads, or whether immigration topics are prevalent across different types of parties. In a large majority of sampled EU countries, I found a disproportionate emphasis on immigration issues on the far right, which is consistent with issue ownership. There are three notable patterns in how the far right discusses the immigration issue across Europe. First, many parties specifically emphasize Muslim migration and frame Islam as a unique threat to national values and cultural identity. Second, immigration is often tied to criminality as well as to issues of women’s safety. Third, it is linked to general Euroscepticism and the EU’s multiculturalism.

While your analysis focused on the text of far-right political advertisements, the images would seem to be an essential part of ads’ effectiveness, as we can see in this image (Figure 6). What do you think are the limits of a text-based analysis, and what are avenues for investigating visual complements to your text-based research? 

facebook ad
Figure 6: Translation: “A sobering word for Sunday: The persecution of Christians in many countries around the world is increasing. But the Christian churches in Germany have paid too little attention to it for years. They prefer to curse the AfD, although the protection of Christians abroad is an important issue for this party….”

It is definitely an important limitation. Many ads also have videos embedded, not just images. By reducing the current study to text analysis, I may miss the fundamental features that lead viewers to interact with the ad, click on related content, or mobilize for the party. 

More broadly, there seems to be a trend in recent years of decreasing emphasis on text and increasing emphasis on visuals and videos in political ads. These trends mirror other social media trends (e.g., the rise of TikTok and YouTube). I think the political parties that acknowledge this trend and craft their online ads accordingly have a leg up over those that do not.

Based on a small qualitative assessment of these ad visuals, what I can say is that the inflammatory, emotive content I try to capture through text comes through much more explicitly in images and video. My sense is that the visuals associated with far-right ads are quite striking and substantively different from the ad visuals of other parties, although I have not tried to quantify these differences systematically. As our tools for image and video analysis improve in social science, I hope to study these features more rigorously.



Science and Socialism in Cuba

A Matrix Podcast interview with Clare Ibarra and Naomi Schoenfeld

Clare Ibarra and Naomi Shoenfeld

In this episode of the Matrix podcast, Julia Sizek interviews Clare Ibarra, a PhD candidate in history, and Naomi Schoenfeld, a public health nurse practitioner and recent PhD from the joint UC San Francisco/UC Berkeley medical anthropology program. Both Ibarra and Schoenfeld study the history and present of socialist science and medicine in Cuba.

Ibarra’s dissertation examines scientific exchange between Cuba and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Her research seeks to answer how socialist ideology affected each country’s approach to development, resource extraction, and decolonization.

Schoenfeld’s areas of expertise include medical anthropology, STS, pharmaceuticals, vaccines, postsocialism, social medicine, and critical public health. She has conducted ethnographic research examining (post)socialist technoscientific formations through Cuban cancer vaccines. Her new research examines a novel program providing thousands of rooms in tourist hotels to persons experiencing homelessness during the COVID19 pandemic. (See her recent paper, Vivir En Cronicidad: Terminal Living through Cuban Cancer Vaccines, here).

On the podcast, Sizek, Ibarra and Schoenfeld discuss the history of science and medicine in Cuba and its relationship to the socialist project, as well as how Cuba has developed vaccines during the current pandemic.

Produced by the University of California, Berkeley’s Social Science Matrix in collaboration with the Ethnic Studies Changemaker Studio, the Matrix Podcast features interviews with scholars from across the UC Berkeley campus. Listen to other episodes here. You can also listen on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts. Excerpts from the interview are included below.

Q: What makes Cuban science socialist science?

Clare Ibarra: From my research of the 1950s, as Cuban scientists are beginning to make contact with Soviet scientists, there’s a lot of Soviet literature that reaches them, where the Soviets are actually making this distinction between socialist science and capitalist science. Capitalist science is science that has the privilege of engaging in projects that are more lofty and don’t necessarily have that social impact. By contrast, both the Soviet Union — and definitely Cuban scientists after the revolution after 1959 — their method is to approach every single project from the standpoint of, how is this going to serve society? And if they can’t prove that, it makes their projects ineligible for support. They really emphasize this social impact, more so than in the US or in the West.

Naomi Schoenfeld: In my research, I argue that Cuban science is socialist science for a variety of reasons, but fundamentally, it is completely sponsored and controlled by the state. That has a couple different sides. Scholar Loren Graham has said that continuous state funding explains why the Soviet Union could continue to produce so many Nobel Prize-winning scientists, even while many were in labor camps.

This turned out to be really important in my research. I did ethnographic research with a variety of different interlocutors, but including people who are scientists who are clinical and bed scientists. This notion of having continuous research funding from the state, where you’re not on a grant cycle. As we academics know, chasing money, or chasing the next project, is always a challenge. There’s continual state funding. It’s a closed system, where your ultimate goal is not to develop a patent or a novel agent to be able to sell to a company or make profit. There’s fundamental state support.

But because the Communist Party ultimately controls everything that happens, the decisions are ultimately going to go to the Party, at least in the biological sciences, the biotech sector. And the leaders of that research are very well connected. They’re familial. They are the children and the grandchildren of the Revolutionary generation, and so they’re very well connected to the Party.

Q: One theme that seems to make science socialist is its relationship to intellectual property. How did that come up in your research?

Schoenfeld: Cuba is coming up with all sorts of patented biotech innovations. And ultimately, what I argue is really special and interesting about Cuban science — and what is most radically distinct from what happens in Europe in the US and North America and some parts of Asia — is that the fundamental science is not driven by the idea that somebody might make money off of something, or that something has to make money. Ultimately, they do need to try to figure out how to make some money to go back into the state to fund more research, and to fund the healthcare system. And there are cynics and critics who will say, well, where is this money actually going? Look at our deteriorating hospitals, and at how some people are living. But nevertheless, the idea of a patent doesn’t have that same notion at, say, GlaxoSmithKline, which is going to make huge profits. It’s really quite different, and the fact that they’ve been able to do so much innovation really flies in the face of the notion that capitalism is necessary for creativity and innovation.

Ibarra: From the historical perspective, it’s interesting that you say there’s a clear vision of property. Because in my research, especially in the late 60s and 70s, the greatest issue where the Soviets and Cubans butt heads is over who has the right to access these natural resources, and use them. The ownership is contested, mainly because in this period, there’s such a strong adherence to socialist internationalism and socialist brotherhood, where all socialist republics, including Cuba, are supposed to exchange to produce one socialist market. Cuban scientists really push against this, because they understand that their environment, their natural resources, are their own, and they have to protect it. That comes from a legacy of especially the US using and abusing the natural resources that are there, and even to increase their status within their own scientific communities. That is also true of the Soviet scientists who go to Cuba. They know that, because they’re exploring this new area, it’s going to give them greater standing once they go back home.

Q: One of the interesting points of tension you’re highlighting is the question of whether natural resources are owned by the state of Cuba or by an international group of socialized nations. What were these natural resources, and how were they involved in scientific research?

Ibarra: It’s both minerals in geology, and agriculture. When it comes to agriculture, there was great interest from the Soviets in understanding a tropical environment. There was also great interest from the German Democratic Republic. And they were both guilty of using or creating technology that they would test in Cuba to see if it would withstand the climate, to be able to export it to other places in the Global South.

In geology, there is a lot of nickel laterite throughout the eastern portion of Cuba. They needed that to be able to extract things that would make it easier for Cubans to convert Soviet crude oil, which is one of the biggest exports from the Soviet Union, into usable oil. The Cubans justified this because oil is necessary for energy, and part of the program of the revolution is to provide energy to even the most rural places, and creating more equitable access to energy. At the same time, the Soviets are interested in having access to this nickel because their supplies have been diminishing, and they also need the iron ore to convert their own oil.

Q: You note that Cuba was localizing Soviet technologies, especially in the instance of tropical medicine. Tell us more about the emergence of tropical medicine as a category.

Ibarra: One of the martyrs of Cuban science is Carlos Finlay. He developed the idea that yellow fever was transmitted through a vector. He was able to do this research along with a few US scientists, most prominently Walter Reed, and after this, the idea starts circulating, Walter Reed became the main scientist associated with the work that Carlos Finlay had done.

This story became one of the greatest narratives that the Cuban Revolutionary government used to remind the Cuban people that, since the early 1900s, the US had been coming into our country, and not only using our natural resources to their benefit, but even stealing the intellectual property created by Cuban scientists.

Schoenfeld: Tropical medicine goes beyond Cuba. The countries that were tropical zone countries became labs for white scientists to come and learn, then take that knowledge away. The Finlay-Reed story is classic. Finlay was the grandfather of Cuban science and important in staking a claim to an intellectual history that is independent from the Soviet Union, which is very important. They will acknowledge how much training they got from the Soviet Union, but they really wanted to make it evident that there was a precursor, a very strong tradition of research that predates the revolution.

As part of my research, I looked at the history of vaccinations and why vaccines are so important to Cuba. The centerpiece of my research was the Cuban cancer vaccine. It has everything to do with Carlos Finlay and with tropical medicine, because this pioneering research and the strengths that Cuba has built on all come from infectious disease.

Infectious disease completely dominated the landscape of life and death for people in tropical countries, and Cuba is no exception. The major investment in science and medicine after the revolution really transformed the health statistics in Cuba, as they were able to bring the levels of illness and death down on par to developing countries. What they were able to achieve with biotech in the late 70s and early 80s, they were building on everything that they knew from infectious diseases. The vaccines were explained to me as antigen-antibody “keys and locks.” This conceptualization has helped them continue to think of novel ways to use vaccines, including the therapeutic cancer vaccine that I’ve studied.


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Grad Student Profile

Addressing Latinx Social Inequality in Later Life

grandmother and granddaughter holding hands

Americans are aging, but the experience of retiring is far from equitable. The dream of an adequate pension or retirement fund, and of residing in an age-friendly community, seems increasingly inaccessible for many historically marginalized older Americans. What does aging look like across the spectrum of older Americans, and what does it specifically look like for Latinx older adults? 

For this Q&A, Julia Sizek, Matrix Content Curator and a PhD Candidate in the UC Berkeley Department of Anthropology, spoke with two graduate students from UC Berkeley — Isabel García Valdivia and Melanie Z. Plasencia — whose research examines what aging looks like for the Latinx communities in the United States, particularly in California, Mexico, and New Jersey.

Isabel García Valdivia
Isabel García Valdivia

Isabel García Valdivia is a PhD candidate in the UC Berkeley Department of Sociology whose research focuses on the life course of Latinx immigrants and their families in the United States, focused on California and Mexico. Her 2020 paper, “Legal Power in Action: How Latinx Adult Children Mitigate the Effects of Parents’ Legal Status through Brokering,”published in Social Problems, received student paper awards from the American Sociological Association’s Latino/a Sociology Section and the Society for the Study for Social Problems’ Youth, Aging, and the Life Course division. The paper discusses how children of immigrant parents broker, or liaise, on behalf of their parents, and how citizenship status affects their success in navigating legal and financial institutions.

Melanie Z. Plasencia
Melanie Z. Plasencia

Melanie Z. Plasencia is a PhD candidate in the UC Berkeley Department of Ethnic Studies who examines the role of social support and place in shaping the health and well-being of older Latinx people, in order to improve older immigrants’ social, economic, and health conditions. Her research on how older Latinxs envision an age-friendly environment was published in The Gerontologist: “Age-friendly as Tranquilo Ambiente: How Socio-Cultural Perspectives Shape the Lived Environment of Latinx Older Adults argues that social and cultural elements must be considered when constructing “age-friendly” communities for older Latinxs. A second publication, “‘I don’t have much money, but I have a lot of friends’: How Poor Older Latinxs Find Tangible Support in Peer Friendship Networks,” will be published in Social Problems and was awarded Second Place in the Emerging Scholars Poster Competition at the International Conference on Aging in the Americas (ICAA) in 2017. This article demonstrates how older Latinx peer networks are an important source of support, as they take into consideration the limitations of the aging body and affirm their intersectional identities as Latinxs, as immigrants, and as older adults in the United States. Her research has been supported by the Ford Foundation and Dartmouth College, where she resides as the 2021-2022 César Chávez Predoctoral Fellow. She is also presently the student representative for the ASA section on Aging and the Lifecourse

Q: How did you decide that aging is an important part of the immigrant experience, and that you wanted to study this particular lifestage?


Melanie: I have both a personal and academic investment in the fields of race, ethnicity, and aging. I was raised by my grandmother and her group of friends, who were foreign-born immigrants from Latin America and the Hispanic-Caribbean. Witnessing my grandmother’s and her friends’ experiences as older persons really clued me into the realities that older adults face, and some of the ways that we can better support them. 

However, it wasn’t until college that my mentor, Professor Ulla Berg, recommended that I turn my personal interest in aging into academic study. Since then, I have been focused on understanding the experiences of older foreign-born Latinxs and how they adapt to growing old in the U.S., especially under extreme duress and hardship. From my research, I’ve uncovered significant needs within the older Latinx population that researchers should pay closer attention to. A majority of older Latinxs worked in jobs that did not afford them an adequate pension or retirement. If they do qualify for federal aid, it is often a very small amount that does not meet their basic standards of living, especially in areas where gentrification is presently taking place and housing and other basic necessities are continually on the rise. It has been reported that 42% of married couples and 59% of unmarried older Latinxs relied on federal aid for more than 90% of their income to survive (Social Security Administration 2017), but this does not capture the experiences of those who do not qualify for institutional support. The number of older undocumented Latinxs is expected to increase in the next 20 years, and this population will be in need of health insurance and other modes of support for their survival as well (Ro, Hook and Walsermann 2021). (The Elder Index is a helpful tool to learn more about what older adults would need to cover housing, healthcare, transportation, food and other miscellaneous items in different geographical areas across the U.S.)

Isabel: Similar to Melanie, I have an academic and personal interest in learning more about the aging process of Latinx communities. In particular, I am interested in learning how the racialized United States immigration regime impacts immigrants’ lives across the life course. My academic interest in studying Latinx aging experiences stems from interviews with past research participants. In some of my research, I work with mixed-status families, whose members include a combination of legal statuses; specifically, I refer to the subset of families with at least one undocumented member. In my study, parents I interviewed expressed their concerns about accessing critical support like healthcare and financial security as they aged without an immigration status. Individuals need an immigration status to access federally funded safety nets. Similarly, their adult children highlighted how they expect to take care of their undocumented aging immigrant parents with little support from traditional safety nets, such as Medicare and Social Security. 

A little-known fact is that immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, were not always barred from safety nets due to their immigration status. Undocumented immigrants began to be excluded from federally funded safety programs starting in the 1970s with the Old Age Assistance program, now known as Supplemental Security Income (Fox 2016). In recent years, access to safety nets has diminished for legal immigrants, too.

At a personal level, I am the daughter of immigrants and I feel responsible for reducing barriers for my parents and improving their aging experiences. They are still young, but they have worked physically and mentally straining jobs that impact their aging experience. This influences my interest in learning more about aging and the factors that impact immigrants’ experiences.

Q: Both of you spent significant time in the communities where you worked, conducting interviews and ethnographic research. Discuss what your research methods were, and how this kind of ethnographic attention differs from how aging is typically studied.


Melanie: Typically, research on older Latinxs has been quantitative, using rich datasets from population-based surveys that measure the health and well-being of older Hispanics/Latinxs, such as the Hispanic EPESE and the Health and Retirement Survey (HRS). However, as stated at a recent virtual talk by gerontologist Professor Deborah Carr, immigrants on average only make up about 15% of these analyses. Isabel and I are offering a qualitative examination that focuses specifically on older Latinx immigrants in the U.S. (in my case) and binationally, via Mexico and the U.S. (in the case of Isabel’s work). 

Isabel: The EPESE and HRS are well-known as exceptional for understanding U.S. aging experiences, but they also have limits. For example, the HRS is nationally representative and oversamples the Latinx population, yet given the migration histories and patterns of different Latinx ethnic immigrant (or foreign-born) groups (e.g., Mexicans, Central Americans, Cubans, South America), the samples are still small. Many Latinx immigrants migrated to the United States after 1965, and these datasets are just starting to sample these cohorts. These older adult cohorts have also come to the U.S. in an era when greater restrictions have been imposed on immigrants’ access to safety nets.

Because the people I interview include undocumented older adults who may feel more vulnerable if they self-identify, trust is key. I conducted semi-structured, in-depth interviews with participants in California, and with migrants who have returned to Mexico. To create trust and to learn more about these communities, I had to build trust by volunteering at organizations at churches, and by making connections one-to-one with respondents. This meant showing up at their coffee meet-up locations where older adults gathered to drink coffee, socialize, and play games in a local store that provided outdoor tables, chairs, and benches and helping when asked to. It also gave me a lot of insights beyond what the research participants shared in the interviews. For example, I heard more stories about their day-to-day interactions with family members and struggles with bureaucracy. Since the initial interviews in spring/summer 2019, I have reinterviewed some of them, am still interviewing others, and some have reached out to check-in. It has been a very insightful experience.

Melanie: My work differs from how research on aging typically has been studied in a few different ways. I use my interdisciplinary training to conduct research that uses an intersectional approach. For example, key considerations for my research are the role of race, ethnicity, gender, class, immigration status, and disability in relation to the lives of older Latinxs. I see my work as building critical connections across the fields of Latinx Studies, gerontology, and sociology. While Latinx Studies has called attention to the importance of community formation and pan-ethnicity among Latin American immigrants in the U.S., we know little about what community means for older Latinxs. In sociology, there is an emphasis on older adults and inequality, but the work on older Latinxs has been largely limited, and in gerontology there is increasing demand for more research on the needs and experiences of older immigrants broadly. I see myself as an interlocutor between fields and between the academic institution and community. My training in Ethnic Studies, for example, makes it so that much of my work is grounded in being among the community and learning from participants as collaborators, with collective goals to create better living environments for poor, historically marginalized older adults on their terms (for example, based on the concept of tranquilo ambiente, which I describe in my manuscript as a concept developed by my participants to describe what an age-friendly community should encompass), and to push for better local and federal solutions that improve their livelihoods as they grow older. 

Q: How does immigrants’ legal status affect their ability to access social services and benefits as they age?


Isabel: It is complicated. In short, lacking an immigration status (i.e., being undocumented) bars immigrants from accessing most federally funded safety net programs. This is purposeful and is embedded in current immigration law. Exclusions also apply to legal migration. For example, at the time of applying for permanent legal residency, individuals (regardless of age) must provide an affidavit of financial support from a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident (usually a family member or friend) to immigration officials and are barred from using federally funded safety nets for at least five years following their arrival in the United States. 

However, given the distinction between federal, state, and local governments, some jurisdictions allow immigrants to access some forms of care and safety nets. For example, under its program Health Program of Alameda County (HealthPAC), California’s Alameda County provides affordable healthcare to low-income, uninsured people living in Alameda County, regardless of immigration status. This helps immigrants of all ages, including older adult immigrants.

The main institutions of support for older adults are Social Security and Medicare, which are federally managed and are essential sources of support for aging low-income workers. Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for most federal public benefits, including Medicare and Social Security.

Melanie: Isabel’s description is spot on. It is complicated both federally, but also by each state. In New Jersey, undocumented immigrants use Charity Care, which is also for low-income and uninsured people. However, Charity Care might not cover all of their medical services and needs. For example, one undocumented woman I interviewed had become deaf in one ear and was in need of $850 dollars to complete the purchase of a hearing device, which was not entirely covered by Charity Care. The undocumented older adults that I interviewed or spent time with during my ethnographic work had to rely on family and friends for economic support for their daily survival. Undocumented older adults often used their networks to find employment, to ask for a loan of money, or to even ask for a collection on their behalf when times were extremely difficult. It was also common to hear older undocumented immigrants express that they were having a hard time finding work because of their status and their age. Many faced age discrimination, which added an additional layer of precarity that they had to navigate on a daily basis. 

Q: As both of you note in your research, older Latinxs have among the highest rates of poverty in the United States, and their economic status shapes how they and their families can access social services. How do you account for these economic determinants in your research in comparison to other factors, like citizenship status? What do they explain, and what can they not explain?


Isabel: Economic and citizenship status are interrelated in my work. The current immigration system stratifies the lifelong economic opportunities of immigrants. It starts with, how did the immigrants arrive with or without visas? From where did they arrive, and were they with family, immigrant-friendly communities, or neither? What opportunities were available to them? What types of employment opportunities were available? How have they been integrated (or not) into U.S. society? Do they have language barriers? I try to understand immigrants’ experiences through a life-course perspective because context really matters.

We must be cautious about looking solely at economic factors because they do not take historical context into account. For Mexicans, there is a long history of using workers as cheap disposable labor, for example through the Bracero Program, a federal temporary guest worker program that allowed Mexican men to come to the U.S. to work mostly in low-paying agriculture jobs. When the Bracero Program ended, many men continued to return to the U.S., and sometimes their offspring did, too. In 1986, many agricultural workers adjusted their immigration status with amnesty through the Immigration Reform and Control Act, or IRCA. This was the last and only large-scale legalization program. In the life trajectories of many of the older adults I interview, I see how these historical events and programs shaped their lives.

Melanie: I agree with Isabel that context matters, and several social, economic, and political factors influence the life-course trajectories of older Latinx immigrants. In my own work, I was inspired by my upbringing to consider how older Latinxs survive with limited economic means, and that became the impetus for my larger dissertation study on how they adapt and adjust to growing old in the U.S., by observing the role of the family, community, and place. I would say that economic factors are interrelated with other factors, including the social determinants of health. With limited means, they have poorer chances of surviving with a high quality of life.  

Another example of how historical context, migration, economics, and health converge can be seen in the case of older Puerto Ricans. As a colony of the U.S., Puerto Ricans who remain on the island have been relegated to second-class citizenship status, which does not permit them the same rights as other U.S. citizens, such as the right to vote for the U.S. president in primary elections. In Puerto Rico itself, there is increasing financial debt, governmental mismanagement, and the historical legacy of several policies that have stripped the island of its independence. These conditions have led to a large out-migration of both young and middle-aged Puerto Ricans and has increased population aging on the island (Abel and Deitz 2014).

Presently, the island is facing a “parallel pandemic” as a result of poverty and inequality, the COVID-19 pandemic, and recent hurricanes (García et al. 2021). These compounding disasters (see Garriga‐López) have furthered health disparities among Puerto Ricans, such as the older adult population, who were already suffering at high rates from several chronic conditions, including diabetes and hypertension (García et al. 2021). Island-born Puerto Ricans residing in the U.S. have also been shown to have worse health compared to other Latinxs and non-Latinx whites (Pérez and Ailshire 2017).

Q: Isabel, your research emphasizes the intergenerational aspects of aging. How are families affected by the aging of the older generations?


Isabel: Broadly speaking, their lives are linked. I see how immigration status stratifies the experiences of both older adults and their adult children. For example, I see how adult children take on more of the care and costs of their aging parents, who do not have access to safety nets. This contrasts with research on poor, aging citizens who still have access to basic safety nets and whose children may provide support after they exhaust all other sources. Providing support to aging parents is especially difficult for low- and middle-income families in areas with high cost of living, like the San Francisco Bay Area. High costs are also forcing their children to move farther away from them, as Melanie’s work also shows. The lack of support not only affects older adults, but also their adult children and grandchildren. Their lives are intricately linked.

Q: Melanie, your forthcoming piece in Social Problems discusses the evolving role of family and how we must also consider the role of friends in the lives of older Latinx people. What support do friends provide that might make them as important as that offered by family members?


Melanie: We know from the literature on Latinx populations and immigration that family can be tenuous due to one’s social conditions, expectations, and needs. In my research, I found that older Latinxs spent considerable time with friends, especially when family was not available due to a variety of factors, such as their children being incarcerated or sick or having children of their own to care for. They may also turn to friends when their children move to the suburbs and attain some level of upward mobility, as they may not want to live with them or be seen as a burden. There were several dynamics at play that made friends an easier avenue for support. 

I wanted to shift the conversation by offering another lens to view older Latinx care. I argue in the piece that friends or peer networks have the ability to support older Latinxs by providing them with social, economic, and emotional support that other networks may not be able to provide, since they are removed from some of the conditions affecting them as older Latinxs. For example, peers have the unique ability to understand each other’s migration experiences, the challenges that they have faced while adapting to the U.S., and also the challenges they face in the present as they grow old, such as understanding medical and health services and institutions and planning for later life. I wrote this paper on peer networks as a way to consider another avenue that can offer support to older Latinxs, and to consider how we could collectively infuse these networks at the community-level. 

Q: While you both work on similar topics, your research takes place across different coasts. How do the histories of the places where you work — the East Bay of San Francisco and New Jersey — shape the possibilities for the Latinx people who are aging there? What are some of the consequential differences between your fieldsites?


Melanie: The location of my fieldsite is Hudson County, New Jersey, relatively close to New York City, near the Lincoln Tunnel that goes into Times Square. One of the reasons I was drawn to my fieldsite is because, often in Latinx Studies, we focus on three dominant geographies for Latinx life —  New York, Los Angeles, and Texas — but now more than ever, Latinxs are moving beyond these epicenters into new areas and creating communities and enclaves that support their survival.  

In the case of Hudson County, people forget about its close proximity to Manhattan and how that has played a role in the creation of the community as a Latinx enclave. Many of the older Latinxs from my study actually arrived in New York City to work as domestic or factory workers, but found their way across the Hudson due to informal networks and a lower cost of living. 

My dissertation, Con Suenos Que Ya Son Viejos [With Dreams That Are Already Old], focuses on the older Latinxs who arrived in the U.S. to make money and planned to one day return home, but due to a series of circumstances have lived out their remaining years here in the U.S. Many of them are what Brian Hofland and Fernando M. Torres-Gil describe as “stuck in place,” a gerontological term that discusses how some historically marginalized older adults do not have the choice to grow old where they want. I would argue that some also decide to stay in place because they value the social and cultural aspects of the enclave. Here they can more readily find support, such as emergency assistance and food and furniture referrals, and it is easier to find facilities that accept Charity Care from uninsured patients. However, more research is needed to examine how state and federal governments provide limited assistance to care, which can make obtaining support to navigate older adulthood precarious, stressful, and expensive. 

Isabel: Melanie is correct that Latinx populations are moving beyond the traditional locations. My dissertation work, Becoming Invisible: Aging and Stratification for Older Immigrants in the United States and Mexico, takes place in California, a traditional immigrant receiving state, and the East Bay. Many of the older Mexican immigrants that I interviewed moved to the East Bay due to family connections. Some had parents or other family members who were part of the Bracero Program, while others used established social networks from their hometowns or rural areas to move to the area. Return migrants I interviewed in Mexico were from Jalisco, a traditional sending Mexican state that has a long history of migration to California. I selected these sites because there are many studies with the Mexican-origin population that assume that older adults return to Mexico to retire. Thus, my binational approach sought to compare the experiences of Mexican immigrants who are aging in the U.S. and those who opted out.

California and the East Bay are immigrant-friendly geographic locations and have deeply shaped how low-income older adults access low-cost health care and housing subsidies. California is shaping immigrant-friendly progressive policies. For example, the state of California has just approved the expansion of medical health coverage to all low-income adults over 50 (regardless of immigration status) starting in May 2022. Meanwhile, the returnees I spoke to in Mexico often have a legal immigration status that allowed them to gain capital, or accumulated wealth, or social benefits (e.g., Social Security). They are also able to return to the U.S. if they desire, and their retirement income goes a long way in Mexico where their cost of living is often lower.

Q: How has the pandemic reshaped your research?


Melanie: The pandemic has raised questions about structural discrimination and its effects on older minority populations, and has brought to the fore the highly unequal environments that Latinx older adults face. For example, a recent study has shown that Black and Latinx older adults face an accumulation of disadvantages across the life course that makes them more susceptible to contracting and having health complications from sicknesses like COVID-19 (Garcia et. al 2021). I am working on an epilogue to my dissertation that looks at how social distancing mandated by COVID-19 mitigation measures have impacted and possibly undermined the rich networks that existed for older Latinxs in my fieldsite. My sense is that older Latinxs in the community I study felt supported during the quarantine, based on the ease of partaking in alternative forms of their daily activities and the care and concern provided by the community. For example, critical cultural resources evolved: churches shifted to online platforms, many older adults used phone chains to pray and stay in touch, and the city brought food and masks to older adults’ doors and provided rental assistance and socially distanced transportation to medical appointments. Together, communal care and daily activity helped to limit feelings of social isolation. However, I should also say that the use of this landscape differed remarkably by gender, immigration, and marriage status, which I plan to write about in an upcoming piece.

Isabel: I have maintained communication with the older adults in my research and begun reinterviewing them since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The experience of the pandemic for older adults was significantly shaped by their immigration status. Undocumented older adults were not able to access much of the federal stimulus. Grassroots funds emerged, as well as private and state support, that only some were able to access. However, it was difficult for many older adults to apply for these opportunities because of their lack of  technological knowledge or understanding of whether they qualify. There was a lot of misinformation about the pandemic, and many feared being punished for accepting help. Prior to the pandemic, President Trump also sought to make it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to adjust their immigration status by changing the “public charge” requirements by amending the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) regulations on how DHS determined whether an immigrant applying for admission was likely to become a dependent on certain government benefits in the future, or “a public charge.” The revised regulations added Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicare Part D, and Housing Assistance to the benefits that must be considered for immigrant admission. This influenced older adult immigrants’ willingness to actively seek pandemic-related support, including healthcare.

Q: What has previous research by gerontologists and policymakers helped us understand about how aging is changing in the United States? How does this differ from what you’ve been finding in your research?


Isabel: Work by gerontologists and social scientists has begun to show demographically who the aging population is and how it will change. The next groups of older adults will be less white, more diverse, and the cohorts will have grown old under different policy conditions. This forecasts that their needs will be different. For example, immigration dramatically changed after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which imposed limits on immigration from nations in  the western hemisphere for the first time, and after the exclusion of immigrants from social safety nets began in the 1970s.

Life course and aging theory show us how inequalities across an individual’s life shape their aging experience, and how policies further shape these inequalities. For example, laws that exclude immigrants from participating in formal employment also bar them from accessing important programs like Social Security and Medicare in late adulthood, even if they contribute to the fund. Federal funding often omits safety nets for undocumented individuals, even though many pay income taxes (as required by federal law). The intention of these restrictive immigration laws is to punish individuals, but we are really hurting their entire families (often citizens), who must carry the costs. It is critical to understand that every policy we enact has long-term consequences — everything from immigration to housing to social safety nets. We need to go no further than the Social Security Act to see how it helped decrease poverty among the elderly (even though it is not sufficient).

Melanie: As stated by Isabel, the general trend among gerontologists and policymakers has been to shift the conversation to “diverse aging,” which includes older Latinx immigrants, as well as other racial/ethnic populations, disabled older adults, and other historically marginalized populations, such as older LGBTQIA adults. My work is a continuation of the work of several scholars who have shifted the tides of gerontological work with important theories on race, ethnicity, gender, and class. Before I began my work, there were scholars who developed concepts like double jeopardy (Beale 1970, 2008), which became the impetus for studying the compounding effects of race, gender, and age. That was followed by triple jeopardy theory, which additionally considered sexuality as well as other categories of social stratification among older adults, and cumulative advantage/disadvantage theory, which focuses on the ways in which one’s early life, including advantages and privileges, or lack thereof, come to shape one’s life course into old age.

My work is different because I am working with a strong foundation from people before me, and because times have evolved, so much so that someone like myself who is a Latina, raised in a single-headed household and in a low-income area, can now complete a PhD at a place like UC Berkeley. I also benefit from having had the opportunity to work in a field that has afforded me an interdisciplinary range of ethnic and cultural studies courses, and has allowed me to take classes in public health, sociology, and social welfare. This combination informs my focus on ethnic aging and community, and also affects the policy interventions I am interested in highlighting in my work. As a result, I believe that aging equitably is part of meeting the challenge to live in a just world. This includes the incorporation of immigrants, as mentioned by Isabel, and also policies that focus on addressing affordable housing, food insecurity, healthcare needs, and policy interventions that address earlier determinants of one’s life chances, such as better working conditions, fair wages, and better education, to name a few. Once we address these and other social inequalities, we can see those fruitful changes at play at the end of the life course for everyone. Aging equitably can be our measure of success as a society.



Abel, J. R., & Deitz, R. (2014). The Causes and Consequences of Puerto Rico’s Declining Population (SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 2477891). Social Science Research Network.

Beal, F. M. (2008). Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female. Meridians, 8(2), 166–176.

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Grad Student Profile

The History of Astronomical Illustration: Q&A with Lois Rosson

Lois Rosson

How do we imagine and illustrate outer space? Lois Rosson, a PhD candidate in the UC Berkeley Department of History, focuses on the history of astronomical illustration as a lens into the history of science and technology. She worked at NASA for two years before starting graduate school, and recently completed a research internship at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. She has held fellowships at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, and the Huntington Library. Her background is in studio art, and she is primarily interested in the ways both artists and scientists construct visual truth claims. 

Matrix content curator Julia Sizek interviewed Rosson about her dissertation research, drawing on astronomical illustrations that Rosson features in her work.

image of probe heading toward a planet
Art by Paul Hudson Pioneer Venus: Multiprobe Artwork

How did you become interested in the role of artists producing astronomical images?

I came to this project via a somewhat zigzagged trajectory. My undergraduate training is actually in studio art; I was very interested in portraiture. I didn’t have the vocabulary for this at the time, but what I was really interested in was mimesis, or how someone could paint an image of another person that could be recognized as “realistic.” In portraiture, there are thousands of ways to produce a painting that resembles an individual, but we don’t use the rubric of accuracy or objectivity to make sense of this relationship.

When I was an art student at Santa Cruz, there was an interesting split between painters who used photography as reference material and those who didn’t. The paintings people colloquially described as “realistic” typically used photography as a tool in the visualization process. What I noticed was, most of the time when people used the term realistic, what they actually meant was photographic.

When I graduated, I got a job doing graphic design at NASA’s Ames Research Center. NASA as an organization is great at preserving its own institutional history, and each of the ten NASA centers has its own history office that maintains a local archive.

The history office at Ames has an incredible collection of illustrations NASA commissioned to visualize the unmanned satellite and probe missions of the late 1970s. These images were circulated in print, so their final form was fairly small, but in person they are really large and stately-looking art objects. I couldn’t resist the urge to describe the type of realism they deployed as a photographic one. But what photographs do you use as reference material when you’re painting a largely unobserved topography? No one had ever seen the surface of these planets from these vantage points with the naked eye. I wanted to know more about how these artists were trained, and what kinds of reference material they were using.

From there, I got very interested in the conceptual differences between fine art and scientific illustration. Astronomical illustration was especially fascinating, because space has historically been such a difficult subject to visualize. I discovered that these illustrators were often trained as artists, but that the illustrations they produced were circulated as a sort of neutral scientific image. A lot of times, the illustrations were simply attributed as anonymous “artist’s depictions,” in ways that downplayed an individual illustrator’s interpretive lens.

I left Ames after two years to start a doctorate in history, and work with Berkeley’s resident historians of science. The history of science is really a study of how groups of people produce truth, and since I was interested in why certain images are read as more “real” than others, it felt like a great fit intellectually.

These images come from the Mariner 9 mission, which was the first mission to orbit another planet. Can you describe the process and techniques that they used to sharpen their images?

The Mariner 9 images are really fascinating because we used artists to literally help us “see” it better. Artists at the USGS took fuzzy Mariner 6 and 7 images and redrew them into a smoother, more coherent landscape. Then, by the time Mariner 9 sent back slightly clearer images, we used those earlier drawings to help us make sense of what we were seeing. In this case you have human observers collapsed into a larger, institutional “seeing” apparatus, which is why their identity as artists is collapsed into a process that sounds almost mechanical. These artists make visual observations, and then transcribe what they see. In my dissertation, I argue that astronomical illustrators exerted much more autonomy over their images than we typically account for, and that they actually held quite a bit of purchase over the “look” of outer space that emerged over the course of the twentieth century.

While the black-and-white image is a composite from the Mariner 9’s cameras, the color image comes from an artist rendering from the same mission. What did the production process look like for artists rendering images of Mars, and what does this show us about the relationship between science and art at this time, which you call “astrorealism”? How do the processes of astronomical illustration compare to scientific illustrations in other fields?

The Mars mapping efforts of the early 1970s — the maps we made with Mariner images — were actually made with a set of techniques developed in the 1960s for mapping the lunar surface in preparation for Project Apollo. In the early 1960s, photographing the Moon with high enough resolution for effective mapping was fairly difficult. The solution was to hire artists to come in and bolster the resolution of fuzzy photographs by hand with an airbrush. Patricia Bridges refined the technique of airbrush editing at Lowell Observatory, and trained a whole roster of illustrators in the process. She used a lot of the same techniques again in the 1970s to make clearly legible drawings of the Martian surface.

This is largely a story about artists being deployed to “see” in situations where cameras can’t, and I argue that the maps produced during this period were largely contingent on replicating images that could be read as sufficiently photographic. There’s a growing literature in the history of science about the history of scientific photography, and the ways in which it displaced human illustrators in botany and medicine not because the images were necessarily  “more objective,” but because viewers were anxious about human fallibility and trusted mechanical reproductions to be more neutral. The epistemological anxieties baked into the way we read hand-drawn images are part of the reason the artists in my story were cast as passive transcribers of astronomical information. In reality, they were just teasing out photographic-looking clarity from ambiguous scientific images.

“Realism” is the most confounding word in the entire dissertation project. In art, you have French Realism, photorealism, Socialist Realism, hyperrealism, etc. They all mean slightly different things, and usually refer to a specific historical movement as opposed to “naturalism” or mimesis, which typically refer to attempts at visually inscribing reality in some way.

I coined “astrorealism” after Douglas Dewitt Kilgore’s “astrofuturism,” which treats a lot of space advocacy work in the 1970s and 80s as a body of fictional literature. That’s not to say what these advocates were doing was fake, but by framing it as a form of literary futurology, you can tease apart the cultural meaning baked into descriptions of humanity’s place in the cosmos. For me, astrorealism refers to the artwork that accompanied much of this writing. The astrorealist impulse is one that depicts space accurately in an attempt to make space futures seem more tangible. There’s a long history of these landscapes being framed as a form of scientific illustration in order to differentiate them from science fiction art. This is typically done to make the views seem more scientifically plausible, which is useful if you’re trying to convince a wide audience about the feasibility of an orbital space colony.

In this image, we can see artist Donald Davis producing what became “The Two Former Faces of the Moon,” renderings of what the Moon used to look like. How did these illustrations circulate, and how did they shape American understandings of outer space?

Don Davis’s career is an incredible through-line through most of the dissertation project. He was hired by the U.S. Geological Service’s Branch of Astrogeologic Studies in the late 1960s, while he was still a high school student in Menlo Park. Because large-format color printers did not yet exist, the agency hired high school students to hand-color maps with a numerical coding system, much like a large color-by-number picture. Davis’ artistic dexterity was quickly noticed, and in 1971 he was sent to Flagstaff to help support the Mars mapping project that was newly underway. While in Flagstaff, Davis came under the tutelage of none other than Patricia Bridges, who by this time had a decade of experience using airbrushes on astronomical images.

Around the same time Davis relocated to Flagstaff, Donald Wilhelms, one of the USGS’s planetary geologists, had an idea for a project that would deploy Davis’ talents as a transcriber of visual astronomical information. In a gesture to the Moon maps produced by Lowell in the early 1960s, Willhelms wanted to produce a series of images that illustrated earlier periods of the Moon’s history. They collaborated on a paper published in Icarus titled “Two Former Faces of the Moon.” In it, Wilhelms described what the lunar surface looked like at various points in its history and paired his analysis with Davis’ detailed airbrush drawings of the Moon. Just as Bridges helped fill the gap cameras couldn’t, Davis’ used her techniques to make visible a view of the Moon humans could not photograph or view through a telescope. In this case, the views he was clarifying were unphotographable because they existed only in the past.

The paper was a pivotal moment for Davis’ career. Just after the publication of “Two Former Faces of the Moon,” Davis attended a party at a commune owned by Joan Baez. Carl Sagan, also in attendance, was the editor of Icarus and remembered the drawings of the Moon Davis had produced. Sagan was impressed by the series, and the meeting kicked off what would become a long and fruitful set of collaborations. Davis produced several illustrations for Sagan’s books over the course of the 1970s — including the cover of Dragons of Eden — and joined the Cosmos Art Department in 1979 when production for the television series began.

Davis went on to enjoy a highly visible career in the field of astronomical illustration. In addition to his many collaborations with Carl Sagan and JPL, Davis helped produce one of the 1970s’ most iconic visions of space. In 1974, Davis spotted a newspaper article titled “Princeton Plan for a New Frontier: A Space Colony by the Eighties,” written by Gerard K. O’Neill. The article outlined a plan for developing a space colony as early as the 1980s, and for no more money than the Apollo Program. In Davis’s view, O’Neill, a Princeton physicist, had the credentials necessary for this to be a reasonable claim. Davis was intrigued and reached out to O’Neill to advertise his services as an astronomical artist. In response, O’Neill sent Davis a newsletter with drawings and early ideas on the subject. Davis used these to produce a painting of one of the cylindrical space colonies O’Neill described in his plan.

Davis’s collaborations with O’Neill are a prime example of how the brand of scientific realism cultivated at Lowell Observatory helped develop the look of outer space in the public imagination. Davis was trained to make his images appear as plausible as possible by rooting his art in photographic reference material. O’Neill, actively trying to sell Congress on the viability of a 10,000-person space station, wanted images that appeared as realistic as possible. O’Neill and Davis’ 1975 Space Station Design collaborations are some of the most visually iconic artifacts of the post-Apollo period. Their production was contingent on Davis’ training as an astronomical illustrator, and the belief that artists can be deployed in the absence of cameras to document scientific information.

In other instances, art became a means to express what were seen as the limits of human expression, and a response to earlier modes of nationalist space exploration. What does the art included on the Golden Record show us about how the politics of space exploration and ideas about space are changing in the 1970s and 1980s?

Outer space is the perfect cultural Rorschach test. What’s fascinating about the Golden Record is that it represented an attempt to produce a snapshot of life on Earth, and attempted to make it legible to an imagined alien species.

As an artifact, it’s also a great representation of how space advocacy changed over the course of the twentieth century. Carl Sagan’s approach to drumming up support for new space ventures was a dramatic departure from the space boosterism of the 1950s. Rather than celebrating space exploration as an activity that would cement American hegemony in space, he framed the cosmos as an intellectual antidote to aggressive political impulses. The hardware that allowed space science to cohere into a bounded discipline in the mid-twentieth century was not a function of the same defense-minded spending habits that gave us nuclear weapons, but rather part of a much older tradition of astronomical observation. He framed space science as part of an ancient practice of human star-gazing, rather than a set of technologies similarly borne out of Cold War conflict. This rhetorical move allowed him to use scientific practice as a vehicle to critique the military-industrial-academic crucible that created a U.S. missile program, in spite of muddled historical boundaries. In Sagan’s view, which was reiterated in his popular writing and television appearances, the cosmos offered the type of humbling perspective the political squabbles of the 1970s so desperately needed.

The Golden Record’s emphasis on a single human race inhabiting a single planet is a great encapsulation of this philosophy. At its conceptual core, the project’s goal was to produce an object that represented the non-technical dimensions of Earth, and to communicate them to an imagined alien species. Jon Lomberg, one of Sagan’s long-time artist-collaborators, was tasked with collecting a range of images that described human life in a coherent way. Of course, no totalizing narrative of Earth could be communicated in 116 images; the selection included says much more about the compilers of the record’s contents than anything essential about life on Earth in 1976. There were diagrammatic images meant to describe concepts believed to be universal: lists of mathematical equations, a diagram of a DNA helix, as well as a chart describing the distances between all the planets in our solar system. There were also photographs of various human activities: one image showed three people eating and drinking, while another showed a baby breastfeeding. Olympic athletes, a teacher, and a woman at the grocery store were shown, as well as several city-scapes, cars, and Titan Centaur rocket.

Lomberg’s participation in the project is largely unknown, and is my favorite part of the Golden Record’s creation. Lomberg was concerned that, even if an alien civilization intercepted the record and was able to decode the disc, they might not be able to read photographs as containing any intelligible information. In his view, “not even all people can necessarily read photographs” unambiguously, and that most people take for granted the extent to which the ability to decipher visual information is a learned skill. His solution, which I think is fascinating, was to include eleven drawings on the record that broke down visual information into black and white shapes. He concluded that if an alien organism were ever to encounter the record, its physical ability to decipher visual information encoded by humans would warrant proximity to some sort of star system. In other words, if an alien being were to “see” visual information the way humans do, it would likely be the result of evolutionary sensitivity to a centralized light source. Thus, Lomberg’s solution was to depict certain forms as shadows. If the hypothetical alien observer had any familiarity with light emanating from a single source, then it was likely familiar with the concept of a shadow. If it was familiar with shadows, it might also understand that they represent complex physical objects in two-dimensions. If it got that far, it might also realize that the rest of the images on the record were two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional beings and structures.

While many images of space sharpened actual images, others imagined new frontiers in space. In these images, Donald Davis imagined donut-shaped spinning space colonies that physicist Gerard O’Neill’s envisions in a 1974 Physics Today article. How did these designs reflect the relationship between astrofuturism and astrorealism, and in what ways were these visions inspired by life on Earth?

I’m always fascinated to learn where the artists in my story source their reference material. When you’re depicting an unobservable topography — or, as in this case, an imagined one — it’s easier to deploy an existing reference as a proxy. Gerard O’Neill had worked out the basic architecture of the structures in his plan, but the look of the interiors still needed to be filled in. I had the pleasure of interviewing Don Davis about his working process in 2020, and when I asked him about the space station designs, he emphasized that the landscapes around him played a significant role in the visual formulation of O’Neill’s space colonies. He had recently moved back to Northern California from Flagstaff, and used the rolling green hills of the San Francisco Bay Area to inform his work. He considered trees and other natural features to be integral to a pleasant living experience, but also an important nod to the types of ecosystem design that would be necessary on a self-sustaining colony. Davis felt that would be as big a challenge as anything else and wanted to make sure environmental engineering was an implied task in the illustrations he produced.

Don Davis’ illustrations provide a clear material link between Gerard O’Neill’s space station designs, and Douglas Dewitt Kilgore’s analysis of them as literary objects that cast outer space as a type of suburban frontier. According to Kilgore, O’Neill’s design was the astrofuturist’s answer to the economic and political ills of the 1970s.  The energy crisis on Earth wouldn’t be a problem for orbiting space colonists, who could tap into the limitless supply of solar energy offered by the sun. Resources scarce on Earth could be mined from the surface of the Moon, and the absence of gravity meant the construction and expansion of space station structures could continue into perpetuity. O’Neill’s answer to the resource limitations of Earth was not to re-examine consumption, but rather to extend the possibilities of capitalist growth indefinitely into a new and endless frontier.

This would presumably also help ameliorate the political problems of the 1970s. By giving different groups of people the resources they needed to live independently, governments wouldn’t need to mediate their peaceful coexistence. Groups could self-organize however they pleased and splinter off to form new colonies, should the need arise.

At the time that Davis began collaborating with Gerard O’Neill, he was living in Atherton, a suburb south of San Francisco, close to his first job at the USGS. Atherton’s surrounding natural landscapes greatly influenced the look of the interiors of the space colonies Davis produced, but so did the layout of the city itself. Davis’s designs deliberately included a lot of greenery, foregoing the dense “shopping mall” aesthetic he often saw applied to space colonies. The beauty of O’Neill’s design was the prospect of infinite expansion, which eliminated the need for cramped space stations and the miserly economization of resources in an extreme environment. Atherton was a wealthy suburb, and a perfect example of the low-density housing Davis thought represented ideal living conditions.

I think this is a great example of the ways in which these images function as robust historical artifacts. Kilgore observed that the embrace of the suburban pastoral in space station design mirrored the same impulses that drove white flight out of urban environments in the same period. As with the new suburban neighborhoods sprouting up across the United States, Davis’ colonies implied the existence of life on the idyllic periphery of an industrial center. I think this is especially evident in illustrations of O’Neill’s toroidal designs, spinning rings that simulated gravity using centrifugal force. In a visual sense, the colonies are a suburban halo around a city that has ceased to exist. The problems of city life have been literally absented, leaving only a verdant and harmonious mode of existence.

How did astronomical illustrations change after the 1970s, and what does this tell us about the relationship between art and science today? How has the field of astronomical illustration changed today?

I think the visualization efforts of the late 1970s—when we had to rely on largely unmanned satellite views of distant cosmic neighbors—really resulted in a critical mass. By the early 1980s space art and astronomical illustration actually professionalized into a formal guild with its own in-house journal. I have an entire dissertation chapter about a trip they took to the Soviet Union in 1987 to meet with a parallel guild of Russian space artists, and the differences between their respective approaches. As you might imagine, both groups cultivated very different philosophical approaches to representing the cosmos.

The International Association of Astronomical Artists, or the IAAA as they were abbreviated, is actually still around today. There’s definitely less of a market for handmade illustrations than there was closer to the mid-twentieth century, but outer space is still extremely hard to make visible.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to interview Dana Berry, who worked on Hubble imaging at the Space Telescope Science Institute at Johns Hopkins. The question of how to represent space subjects in an intelligible way was still a pressing one, even with the use of digital image processing tools and the help of a space telescope.

In Berry’s view, science visualization is a competition between believability, pedagogy, and accuracy. For instance, if you’re trying to show the solar system on a computer screen, you have to be able to show the planets. In reality, they’d be so small they’d fall between pixels. In order to scale the planets up in a way that viewers can recognize, accuracy has to take a hit. So in this way, pedagogy and believability win out.

Berry emphasized that is especially true with representations of the Big Bang. To keep with the computer screen analogy, the Big Bang is usually shown as an empty screen, and then a pixel emerges, and blows up to include the entirety of the frame. But the problem with this visualization is that the Big Bang created space as well as time, so the computer screen technically didn’t exist yet. We’re trained to think of the universe as emerging from a single dot suspended in space—how do you show something expanding into a realm that doesn’t exist yet? In these views, accuracy takes a backseat to believability.

To answer your question, while we don’t see many handmade illustrations of space these days, we’re still very much grappling with the same kinds of questions that astronomical artists were trying to figure out over the course of the twentieth century. Space is hard to conceptualize, which makes it hard to see. I think our attempts to picture it will always inevitably function as cultural products.



Genetic Ancestry Testing and Reconnection: An Interview with Dr. Victoria Massie

Victoria Massie

In this episode of the Matrix podcast, Julia Sizek, a PhD candidate in Anthropology at UC Berkeley, interviews Dr. Victoria Massie, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology, and Faculty Affiliate for the Center for African & African American Studies (CAAAS), the Medical Humanities Program and the Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality (CSWGS) at Rice University, in Houston. 

Dr. Massie completed her Ph.D. in Sociocultural Anthropology with a designated emphasis in Science & Technology Studies at UC Berkeley. Her expertise sits at the intersection of African and African Diaspora Studies, feminist kinship studies, postcolonial science studies, vitalism, and anthropology of race and racialization. Her work broadly explores the political economy of emerging technologies from West and Central Africa, addressing geopolitical processes of racialization shaping the conditions of exchange, belonging, and scientific authority in the 21st century.

Her first book project, Sovereignty in Return: Building Utopia through Genetic Reconnection in Cameroon, draws on ethnographic and archival research examining how the emergence of a genetic Cameroonian diaspora has created new opportunities to rewrite the legacy of the postcolonial nation building project. Dr. Massie’s work has received generous support from the Mellon Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, the Wenner Gren Foundation, the National Science Foundation, in addition to the UC Center for New Racial Studies, the UC Berkeley Center for Race & Gender Studies, and the UC Berkeley Center for African Studies. She has also been invited to speak on how a black feminist bioethics can help better understand the stakes of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology by Black Women for Wellness in Los Angeles and the Francis Crick Institute in London.

Outside of academia, she has worked as a journalist and freelance writer. Her writing focuses on the intersection of racial injustice, technology, politics, and pop culture, with features in The Intercept, Vox, Complex Magazine, GeneWatch Magazine, and Catapult Literary Magazine. Massie also worked as a communications coordinator at the Center for Genetics & Society. She is also a Nonfiction Writing Fellow with the Hurston/Wright Foundation.

On the podcast, Sizek interviews Massie about her research tracking diasporic connections between the United States and Cameroon, and the wider world of genetic ancestry testing.

Produced by the University of California, Berkeley’s Social Science Matrix, the Matrix Podcast features interviews with scholars from across the UC Berkeley campus. Listen to other episodes here. You can also listen on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.




Grad Student Profile

Land, Camps, and the Remains: Heba Alnajada on the History of Syrian Refugee Camps

Heba Alnajada

Heba Alnajada is a Ph.D. Candidate in Architecture History at the University of California, Berkeley, and a 2021-2022 ACLS/Mellon Fellow. Her research focuses on architecture and urban history, with particular interests in the connections between the built environment, law, migrants and refugees, and the history of Arab and Islamic cities. 

Her dissertation project situates the Syrian refugee crisis within an architectural and socio-legal history that spans from the late Ottoman period to present-day Jordan. Heba’s research builds on ten years of professional experience in architectural NGOs and urban development projects in Yemen, Libya, Jordan, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Social Science Matrix content curator Julia Sizek interviewed Alnajada about her research, using images from her dissertation. (Follow Alnajada on Twitter at


Figure 1: The image of the refugee camp dominates most representations of contemporary refugees, particularly Arab and Muslim refugees. World Bank image of Za’atari Refugee Camp, the world’s largest United Nations (UN) camp for Syrian refugees, buffeted in Jordan’s borderlands with Syria. Source: World Bank

Q: This image above (Figure 1), depicting refugees at a refugee camp, might seem familiar to our readers. In your research, you consider the history of the refugee camp as one of the predominant modes of understanding contemporary refugee life. How does this image reflect the history that is often told about refugee camps? 

The image of the refugee camp dominates the public imagination of refugees. We see such images next to news headlines and on Facebook and Instagram feeds, with hashtags for humanitarian crises and links for donations. In such accounts, Arab and Muslim refugees are racialized, typically portrayed as flooding into European shores, or as security threats to be contained in camps. Surprisingly, such tropes appear not only in journalistic accounts, but also in academic literature. Journalists, practitioners, and policymakers often claim that refugees and western humanitarianism have a coeval history.This is especially true for Arab and Muslim refugees.

Engaging with such tropes is reductive and leads to an erasure of rich and diverse histories of refugees in various Arab and Muslim countries. After all, migration is not a new phenomenon. 

In my Ph.D. dissertation, I counter the orientalist prism and ahistorical bias of such representations  by situating the contemporary Syrian refugee crisis within a history that spans from late Ottoman times to the present. I look at the case of Jordan, one of the largest host-states for Palestinian and Syrian refugees in the world. By moving across geographies and historical periods, I try to underscore various forms and norms of refugee shelter. Which, I think, challenges the monolithic narrative of the refugee camp and the singular architecture of the UN camp.

Figure 2: 1851 Map of Syria map showing the southern Eyalets and Sanjaks of Ottoman Syria — Damascus, Jerusalem, Tripoli, Beirut, Acre, Gaza, Salt, and Ma’an among others. Ottoman Syria encompassed present-day Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan. (Map from the Illustrated Atlas, and Modern History of the World, Geographical, Political, Commercial, and Statistical: Index Gazetteer of the World. London: John Tallis and Co., 1851.)

Q: While much of your research has to do with contemporary issues, you also go back historically in your analysis of the Ottoman period of Syria, which existed prior to the splitting of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. How does the Ottoman period help us understand contemporary refugee issues? 

When I began my PhD, I applied to work on the Syrian refugee crisis and contemporary urban life. But in the course of my fieldwork, clues from the present directed my attention toward Palestinian refugee camps, and then all the way back into the Ottoman Empire. I realized that to understand how most Syrian refugees in Jordan have come to find housing and employment, one needs to look at their relations with earlier groups of refugees. 

In fact, less than 20 percent of the total number of Syrian refugees in Jordan live in UN camps. The rest — more than 80 percent — live outside of western humanitarian aid, among multiethnic communities that are largely migrants and refugees themselves: Palestinians, Iraqis, Egyptians, Sudanese, and Circassians and Chechens (who are the descendants of Ottoman Caucasus refugees).

In my research, I attempt to recover the thread connecting late 19th century Ottoman refugees, Palestinian survivors of 1948, and contemporary Syrian refugees. Each chapter of my dissertation serves as a reminder of an episode in an ever-evolving history of migration and the remains of earlier migrations.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a romantic portrayal of Ottoman history. On the contrary, it is rich with accounts of contestation, ethnic/racial tension, and coexistence. I also show the persistence of Arabo-Islamic traditions of sanctuary amid the growing role of international humanitarian protection. And, in contrast to the cliché tropes of a violent and sectarian Middle East, I think that refugee settlements in this region are at once a manifestation of historical crises and the remains of alternative projects of refugee aid, solidarity, and multiethnic coexistence.

Figure 3: A typical Circassian House in Amman, 1920s. Following the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78, the Ottoman state received about a million North Caucasian Muslim refugees fleeing Tsarist Russian expansion. As part of the efforts to open up new areas for agricultural development, the Ottoman government resettled Caucasus refugees, primarily Circassians and Chechens, in the southern ‘frontier’ of Amman, then part of Ottoman Syria, Caucasus refugees. Source: History of Jordan (

Q: You also study Circassian refugees, who came to Syria in the late 1800s. Who were Circassian refugees, and how are they relevant for understanding contemporary Palestinian refugee camps in Amman? 

Yes, who were Circassian refugees? That’s a question I often get asked, especially in the American academy, but certainly not in Arab universities. Circassians are Muslim refugees from the North Caucasus, a region between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. After the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78, the Ottoman state resettled about a million North Caucasus refugees fleeing Tsarist Russian expansion across the Empire’s southern region. Caucasus refugees, primarily Circassians and Chechens, were granted Ottoman subjecthood. In Amman, then a scarcely inhabited area (today, a capital city with over four million inhabitants), the Ottoman government gave state land as shelter to each refugee household, giving some eight hectares to large families. In addition, refugees were allowed to sell and transfer usufruct rights of these lands after twenty years of cultivation. It’s fascinating to see how Ottomans had a totally different view of refugees, not as temporary asylum seekers to be contained in camps, but as permanent and mobile subjects.  

After World War I and the eventual dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, Britain and France divided Ottoman Syria into four states. (Syria and Lebanon became French protectorates, while Palestine and Transjordan became British protectorates; contrary to colonies, protectorates are not directly possessed but governed by local rulers.) Britain installed the Hashemite monarchy to rule Transjordan. Amman was chosen as the capital city. As a result, lands owned by Circassian and Chechen refugees began increasing in value. Many members of the Circassian community became wealthy and influential land-owning families in Amman. 

Then, in 1947, the United Nations divided Palestine. In 1948, Israel established itself over more than three-quarters of Palestinian lands. Most Palestinian refugees sought refuge in Amman since it was less than 120 miles away. Many working-class and peasant Palestinians settled in camps established by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency solely dedicated to the relief of Palestinian refugees. Others built their own camps on squatted lands near the center of the city. Most squatted lands were (and are still) owned by the descendants of Circassian and Chechen refugees. These camps remain unrecognized by UNRWA and are deemed “squatter settlements” by the Jordanian government. As such, property (land and houses) remains a site of intense contestation and legal disputes. Legally contested refugee camps are put into a catch-22 situation: in order to rent the land, the camp needs to be recognized by UNRWA, but the land needs to be leased to UNRWA to get that classification. In such a situation, the state authorizes what is deemed “illegal” construction. However, the lack of official resolution pits the landowning families against both the state and the camp residents.

Today, Palestinians have been moving out of these camps to better neighborhoods in the ever-growing city. In the wake of the 2011 revolution and subsequent civil war in Syria, Palestinians have been renting or giving houses for free to Syrian refugees. So, as you can see, to understand how Syrians have come to find housing in Palestinian camps, one needs to excavate the layers beneath, all the way back to the city’s Ottoman layer. In such a layered understanding of land and housing, other refugee histories, urban histories, and legal structures are made visible.

Q: Your research involved conducting oral history interviews as well as taking photos of material signs documenting property rights. Can you describe your methods, and how these images help you shape your understanding of contemporary refugee issues? 

My research relies on a mixed-methods approach that combines archival research in the Department of Lands and Survey and municipal and geographic collections with field-based methods, such as oral histories, on-site architectural documentation, and ethnographic research among refugees, attorneys, engineers, government officials, ethnic associations, local NGOs, and humanitarian-aid workers. To focus on lived experience and how people manage to build and claim property, I asked my interviewees to recount their families’ stories of migration (or more accurately expulsion) from Palestine, listening to what they felt was important without pushing for information. My interviewees were primarily first-, second-, and third-generation Palestinians. I followed multiple entry points to reach interviewees who varied by age and gender, and made sure to interview camp elders. My interviews were all carried out at people’s homes and conducted in Arabic; most were audio-recorded. They ranged from thirty-minute one-on-one conversations to group discussions involving several family members over hours and days. To build trust, I shared information about myself, my Jordanian origins, and my husband’s origins from Palestine.

During a four-hour-long interview with a Palestinian family, I learned about the continued use of Ottoman sale contracts (called hujja) for installing new electric meter boxes. Hand-written hujja contracts are widespread, and are used as property titles, for inheritance, buying and selling houses, establishing building guidelines, and demonstrating occupancy. To my suprise, I found out that various state entities, including the Jordanian Electric Power company, authorize the use of what are now deemed “non-legal” written property documents, including hujja contracts, to serve as property titles. Therefore, I began to take photos of house sale ads sprayed on buildings. I also asked my interlocutors if they would be willing to share these handwritten documents with me. Following this clue, during my house visits, I began to take photos of electric meter boxes installed by the Jordanian Electric Power. My focus on material signs extends the existing literature on land tenure and property disputes in the global South. It is, therefore, not surprising that a socio-legal reality is manifest in many objects, most tangibly in papers and architectural and urban artifacts.

Figure 4: An abandoned house in a legally contested Palestinian camp that Palestinian refugees gave to Syrian relatives in the wake the revolution turned civil war in Syria. The Syrian refugee family stayed in the house free of rent for almost three years (2013-2016). At the time of writing, the war in Syria was in its eighth year, the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan stands at 665,834 million, of which less than 20% live in UN camps, the rest that is more than 80%, have chosen to settle outside of officially administered UN camps, among communities primarily refugees themselves. Despite this wide discrepancy in numbers, Syrian refugees in cities and among local communities are typically referred to, in humanitarian reports and scholarly works, as “self-settled” refugees.

Q: The photograph above (Figure 4), which depicts an abandoned house, serves as a reminder of the contemporary war in Syria. How does your research address the ongoing war, and how did it shape the conditions under which you could conduct your research?

Because of the war, I have not been able to reach Syria. Before the war, for many people living in Amman and northern Jordanian cities, a trip to Damascus for lunch and back was part of routine life. After all, Damascus is less than 200 km away (around 120 miles). I remember my mother and her girlfriends going shopping and having lunch at their favorite restaurant in old Damascus during the weekend. The increasing securitization of national borders and, by extension, Syrian refugees affected who/what I could access when conducting fieldwork in Syrian refugee camps in the Syria-Jordan borderlands. For instance, when I was doing research in Za’atari refugee camp, the world’s largest camp for Syrian refugees, humanitarian organizations prohibited me from talking to refugees because refugees were considered too vulnerable to speak to researchers. In Azraq, another Syrian refugee camp, I was restricted from entering certain zones where Syrian refugees with possible ISIS connections are detained for fears of possible ISIS infiltration. Although my research primarily focuses on different groups of refugees in Amman, my fieldwork with Syrian refugees in the border region was shaped by the events unfolding in Syria and the increased influence of international humanitarian aid.

Q: Finally, you use Arab and Islamic traditions to understand contemporary networks of refugees. How do refugees provide assistance to each other, and what implications does this have for our understanding of refugees today?

As a student parent, I knew that I could not do one consecutive year of fieldwork, customary to the humanities and qualitative social sciences. So, from early on, I decided to conduct fieldwork over summers. In the summer of 2018, before my qualifying exams, I did pre-dissertation fieldwork on a grant from the Human Rights Center. During that summer, I worked with a local community development organization that works with women in Palestinian refugee camps. 

 I think that summer was a real turning point. During an interview with a Syrian refugee woman, I realized how she had been provided a house for free in a Palestinian camp. She told me how she escaped Za’atari camp to come to live with her distant Palestinian family members. 

 I began to follow clues. I interviewed the Palestinian families who gave their houses for free and gathered that these houses were abandoned. That is, Palestinians did not host Syrians inside the space of the home but in vacant houses. I came to realize that such practices of refugee-to-refugee sanctuary happen between family members, and not based on hospitality shown to a random stranger. Now, looking back, I think that this was my first “a ha” moment. Because of this interview, I began to look into Palestinian camps, which opened onto a whole world of Ottoman refugee shelter. I also noticed how Syrian refugees of Circassian origin were provided housing in the abandoned houses of Circassian-Jordanians. 

 This pushed me to take seriously what remains from the past, and consider transnational networks of family and kin, a connectedness that is partially related to the interconnectedness of Ottoman Syria. This also led me to investigate the Islamic notion of Hijra (migration), which carries the heavy symbolism of Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca and his sanctuary among the locals of Medina. I found that Hijra, which also has connotations of abandonment and departure, overlaps with urban vacancy. The urban and architectural dynamics through which houses built by earlier refugees become re-inhabited by newer ones remain overlooked within the overstudied Syrian refugee crisis. 




Politics of Indigeneity in El Salvador

An interview with Hector Callejas, PhD candidate in Ethnic Studies, UC Berkeley

In this episode of the Matrix podcast, Julia Sizek, PhD candidate in anthropology at UC Berkeley, interviews Hector Callejas, a PhD candidate in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley and a 2021-2022 ACLS/Mellon Dissertation Completion fellow.

Callejas specializes in Native American and Indigenous studies and Latin American studies. He researches and teaches on the relationship between Indigeneity, race, space, and power in the Americas. His dissertation theorizes the territorial turn in Latin America from a settler colonial perspective. It draws on extensive ethnographic and archival research on transnational Indigenous politics in contemporary El Salvador.

In the podcast, Sizek and Callejas discuss his research and how Indigeneity is understood in El Salvador, as well as contemporary Indigenous movements in El Salvador.

Produced by the University of California, Berkeley’s Social Science Matrix, the Matrix Podcast features interviews with scholars from across the UC Berkeley campus. Listen to other episodes here. You can also listen on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.





A New Voice for Black History: Xavier Buck, PhD

Xavier Buck

In this episode of the Matrix Podcast, Julia Sizek interviews Xavier Buck, Deputy Director of the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, a nonprofit that has preserved and promoted the legacy of the Black Panther Party for over 25 years.

Buck graduated with a PhD in History from UC Berkeley in 2021. His work blends organizing and educational pursuits in the service of sustaining movements for Black lives, and he has previously been a fellow at Prosperity Now, the Education Trust – West, and the Digital Equity Initiative at the City & County of San Francisco.

The discussion focuses on Buck’s work in public history, including his @historyin3 channel (which can be found on TikTok and Instagram), his current work at the Huey P. Newton Foundation, and his dissertation research, which shows how Black experiences in Louisiana from 1927 to 1945 were integral to Black political organizing, cooperative economics, and government partnerships in California from 1945 to 1975.

Produced by the University of California, Berkeley’s Social Science Matrix, the Matrix Podcast features interviews with scholars from across the UC Berkeley campus. Stream the episode above, or listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.


About Xavier Buck

Dr. Xavier Buck is the Deputy Director of the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, a nonprofit that has preserved and promoted the legacy of the Black Panther Party for over 25 years. Prior to joining the Foundation, Buck was a fellow at Prosperity Now, the Education Trust – West, and the Digital Equity Initiative at the City & County of San Francisco, where he conducted research on racial equity gaps, wrote policy, and designed innovative programs for building black and brown wealth. Encouraged by the impact he made through these fellowships, he started Xavier Buck Research Ventures, LLC to continue supporting nonprofits, policy companies, and government agencies to advance black economic growth through data-driven research. At the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, he directs public art installations, manages public-private partnerships, leads strategic planning, designs curriculum, among many other things.

Dr. Buck earned his B.A. in history from St. John’s University (Queens) and his Ph.D. in history from the University of California Berkeley. As an undergraduate, he led the largest student movement in the history of the university which led to the hiring of more faculty of color and a chief diversity officer, the establishment of an inclusivity counseling center, the introduction of a required course on microaggressions, and a legacy of strong black and brown leadership. Buck has always believed that what we learn in the classroom is applicable to sustaining movements for black lives and continues to blend his organizing and educational pursuits.



Matrix Podcast: Interview with Juliana Friend, PhD Candidate, Anthropology

Juliana Friend

In this podcast, Matrix content curator Julia Sizek interviews Juliana Friend, a PhD candidate in the UC Berkeley Department of Anthropology, whose research focuses on the intersection of technology, privacy, and culture. Her dissertation, “Don’t Click Here! Porn, Privacy, and Digital Dissidence in Senegal,” examines how digital dissidents are transforming the idea of sutura (discretion or modesty), a concept used to describe the appropriate relationship between private and public life in Senegal.

Friend’s research shows how citizenship, subjectivity, and nation are being redefined in online spaces by eHealth activists and women who work with pornographic images. Her dissertation research has been featured in The Conversation, and she was a 2020-2021 Charlotte W. Newcombe fellow. 

The interview focuses on the concept of sutura and Juliana’s research on the topic in Senegal.

Listen to the interview through the link below, or on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.



Matrix Podcast: The Past and Present of Teletherapy

The Distance Cure


In this episode of the Social Science Matrix podcast, Julia Sizek, a Phd candidate in the UC Berkeley Department of Anthropology, interviews UC Berkeley scholars Hannah Zeavin  and Valerie Black about the history and present of teletherapy, which describes all forms of remote therapy, from letter-writing to chatbots. Both researchers study the history and experience of these tools of therapy, which are often assumed to be more impersonal than and inferior to forms of in-person therapy. They discuss the past and present of teletherapy, how the ongoing pandemic has affected mental health care, and the business of artificial intelligence-based therapy.

Valerie Black is a PhD Candidate in anthropology at Berkeley completing her dissertation, “Dehumanizing Care: An Ethnography of Mental Health Artificial Intelligence.” Her multisited dissertation research has been conducted in Silicon Valley at a mental health chatbot company and in Japan at a mental health videogame company. Her research concerns how chatbots and other AI health might reshape our understanding of care and labor. She was recently awarded the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship to complete her work on her dissertation.

Hannah Zeavin is a Lecturer in the Departments of English and History at Berkeley, and sits on the Executive Committee for the Berkeley Center for New Media.she received her PhD from NYU’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication in 2018. Her research considers the role of technology in American life. Her book (2021, MIT Press), The Distance Cure: A History of Teletherapy, is a transnational history of mediated and distance therapy, starting with Freud himself. Her second book, Mother’s Little Helpers: Technology in the American Family (MIT Press, 2023), considers the history of techno-parenting in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Produced by the University of California, Berkeley’s Social Science Matrix, the Matrix Podcast features interviews with scholars from across the UC Berkeley campus. Stream the episode above, or listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.