Commentary on Sara McDougall’s “Bastards and their Families in Medieval Europe” by ARC Student Fellow Priscilla Bustamante

Sara McDougall is an Associate Professor of History and French at John Jay and the CUNY Graduate Center. Her work broadly focuses on investigating the practices and consequences of adultery in fifteenth century France with an emphasis on the roles of gender and social hierarchy. Her most recent book entitled Royal Bastards: The Birth of Illegitimacy was published this past December, and is the single dedicated history of illegitimate children in Medieval Europe to date. On Thursday, February 23, we were fortunate to have Professor McDougall present her latest research on the topic.

Professor McDougall began by contextualizing her work, painting a vivid picture of the world of Medieval Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, along with its obsession with sin and the punishing of minorities. She described her initial desire to study identity within this context—identities tied to labels such as woman, wife, Christian and illegitimate child. McDougall was more specifically interested in how these identities interacted with the law, which at the time was understood as far from universal with many recognizing their position above law. Contradictions abounded as church and state sought to regulate marriage, and nepotism was simultaneously reviled and widely accepted.

Prior to McDougall’s work, scholarship revealed very little about illegitimate birth and its consequences, with available research focusing almost exclusively on fathers. Yet McDougall began to unravel these complexities for us, with a much-needed focus on their consequences for children and mothers. Born outside of legitimate marriage, illegitimate children were widely excluded, and neither able to inherit from parents nor attain high-status societal positions. Interestingly, false ideas circulating around illegitimate birth were founded on two misconceptions: 1) that the church was the leading cause of illegitimate children’s dispossession and 2) that illegitimate children were oppressed because of adverse societal notions about illicit sex. Catholic teachings and ideas of who could count as an heir certainly came into play; however, concerns about marriage were mistaken for concerns about lineage. McDougall illuminated the lineage and social status of both parents as the primary source of the oppression of illegitimate children.

According to McDougall in fact, prior to the thirteenth century, maternal lineage mattered far more than any ideas of legitimate birth. During this time, there were no binding rules of inheritance that uniformly governed variables for heir in/exclusion. Eldest sons of kings could be excluded for any number of reasons unrelated to being illegitimate. Status depended on a combination of paternal and maternal descent, and a child with a high-status mother could be considered an heir regardless of illegitimate birth. It was only after the ushering in of a new dynasty that an altered concept of marriage was utilized to solidify control.

Perhaps most significantly, in studying who counted as illegitimate children and what that meant for them, McDougall complicated a misunderstood reality, challenging many preconceptions about the circumstances of illegitimate children and women in premodern Europe. Between 1449-1533 at least 38,000 illegitimate children had dispensations, with thousands becoming priests. Many children of illegal marriages were a part of royal and famous families, while many more regularly inherited property. Moreover, people in Medieval Europe took advantage of many different familial relationships. Mothers successfully passed their illegitimate children off as the sons and daughters of their husbands, with no hard evidence of any public or private punishment for these mothers.

Professor McDougall’s work reminds us that we cannot project the knowledge we hold of current societal norms onto other historic periods. In questioning what constitutes marriage and family, she illuminates the concept of illegitimacy as a socially constructed spectrum. She breaks down the common binary that exists between our ideas of what marriage is and is not. In doing so, her work highlights a continuum of shifting legal/illegal, marital/non-marital relationships, and prompts us to historically contextualize the trajectory of gender roles today.

~ Priscilla Bustamante





Commentary on Marnia Lazreg’s “Gendered Pathways to Culturalism and Cosmopolitanism on the Islamic Periphery” by ARC Student Fellow China Sajadian

Dr. Marnia Lazreg is a professor of Sociology at Hunter College. Raised in Algeria, she received her Baccalaureate in Mathematics and Philosophy and a licence-ès-lettres from the University of Algiers and received her Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University. She is the author of several books, including  The Emergence of Classes in Algeria:  A Study of Colonialism and Socio-Political Change (1976), The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question (1996), Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad (2008), and Questioning the Veil: Open Letters to Muslim Women (2010). She has also recently completed a manuscript about Michel Foucault’s struggles with how to theorize cultural difference.

In her talk at the Advanced Research Collaborative, “Gendered Pathways to Culturalism and Cosmopolitanism on the Islamic Periphery,” Dr. Lazreg shared her ongoing research, which explores contemporary examples of what she calls “de-centered universalism” and “practice-oriented cosmopolitanism” in Iran and Algeria. Drawing inspiration from Immanuel Kant’s definition of cosmopolitanism as knowledge of man as a “citizen of the world,” she grounds her theoretical discussion in relation to several specific case studies — the anti-fracking movement in the oil-rich desert town of In Saleh in Southern Algeria, an anti-veiling campaign sponsored by an Algerian Sufi order, Iranian Islamic scholars’ efforts to read and rethink Western cosmopolitan thought, and cases of Islamic feminism.

The title of her talk refers to two intellectual traditions: Euro-American literature on cosmopolitan studies, on one hand, and scholarship on unequal exchange between countries of the “center” and those of the “periphery” under global capitalism, on the other. She argues that the trend toward “decentered cosmopolitanism” in Iran and Algeria poses a challenge to the unequal exchange of ideas by “de-localizing Western thought and practices while redrawing the intellectual boundaries of local as well as Western cultures.” In this context, her endeavor is to develop a comparative transnational and transcultural analytical framework focused on how regions on the “periphery” engage in cosmopolitan practices and ideas in times of crisis. In doing so, she aims to reframe some of the central questions in debates on cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism: Are cultures incommensurable? Is cosmopolitanism Eurocentric?

The conceptual background of Dr. Lazreg’s talk covered three main bodies of literature which each deal differently with what she calls the “conundrum of cultural difference”: cosmopolitan studies and debates on multiculturalism, Ulrich Beck’s critique of sociological theory, and anthropological approaches of “local knowledge” (idealized knowledge from the periphery). She finds fruitful the well-known debate between Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth focusing on the relationship between movements aimed at the recognition of cultural rights and those centered on the pursuit of redistributive justice, but finds that the debate still obviates the central question of cultural difference. She argues that Seyla Benhabib’s question about whether universalism is Eurocentric is also problematic in its implicit assumption that cosmopolitanism, by definition, is theorized only in Western contexts. In contrast, she finds more useful Ulrich Beck’s concept of “second stage modernity” which foregrounds “risk” as a ubiquitous feature of late-modern social existence, in which “relations of definition” (analogous to Marx’s relations of production) are a defining factor in the unequal production and valuation of cultural difference. Finally, Dr. Lazreg praises the trend among anthropologists who seek to turn to knowledge produced by countries of the periphery in an attempt to rejuvenate their theories, from Levi-Strauss to Jean and John Comaroff.  However, in “going south,” Dr. Lazreg argues, such anthropologists do not necessarily ask whether the theories of “local knowledge” they are adopting actually work for the people they are studying. Building from her critical engagement with this literature, she suggests an exploration instead of what she calls “de-centered universalism,” through which she aims to develop a non-reified conception of cultural difference. She asks: “How do non-Western peoples in the present historical conjuncture read and mark the very systems of knowledge that are being either questioned or broadened at the center?”

Segueing from this theoretical discussion, Dr. Lazreg presented two different cases in Algeria as examples of “practice-oriented cosmopolitanism.” She began with the anti-fracking movement in the Southern Algerian town of In Saleh that began in January 2015 in response to the Algerian government’s plans to begin exploratory drilling for shale oil. In Saleh is a town of 32,000 in the heart of Algeria’s oil and gas region, which is dominated by multinational oil corporations. Dr. Lazreg argued that the protests were a culmination of grievances against Algerian state policies which exploit the South as a resource for energy export, but which systematically neglect the socioeconomic needs of the population. Water is a scarce resource in this extremely arid region, and local residents depend on non-renewable groundwater resources for their livelihoods. Recognizing that fracking poses a threat to the ecological sustainability of their region, In Saleh residents gathered in the town square which they called Sahat as-sumud (resistance square), echoing the famous Tahrir square in Cairo, demanding an immediate halt to shale oil exploitation. Nearby cities staged solidarity protests with In Saleh residents, eventually attracting international solidarity.

According to Dr. Lazreg, the In Saleh anti-fracking movement has had more enduring power than almost any other movement since the Algerian civil war from 1992-2002. Further, in contrast to other social movements in the Middle East, protesters did not demand a change of government or single out particular politicians, but instead framed their demands as citizens concerned for the environment. When the Algerian government alleged that protesters were committing a sin by opposing the exploitation of a “God-given” resource, protesters responded with a discourse of civility, attachment to land, and love for water as a shared resource, creatively reorienting the idea “local” cultural patrimony toward a broader planetary cause inclusive of others beyond borders. The protests also became a stage from which to challenge long-standing elitism from North Algeria against the South, epitomized by “Samidoune,” a joint North-South collaboration of Algerian rappers, Lotfi DK and the Desert Boys, expressing solidarity with In Salah.

Dr. Lazreg’s second case of “practice-oriented cosmopolitanism” is an anti-veiling campaign led by a Sufi order in the coastal city of Mostaghanem, Algeria. Much like the anti-fracking movement, this anti-veiling campaign is notably female-led. Dr. Lazreg discussed an exhibition launched by this Sufi order, which subtly calls into question the growing centrality of the veil within Islamist and Islamic feminist discourse, by pointing to its pre-Islamic origins and historicizing the multiple uses of the veil across time and space. In this way, the exhibition shows that the veil is a culturally and historically variable formation, not an immutable tradition. Though Dr. Lazreg avers that the anti-veiling campaign is more symbolic than substantive when compared to the anti-fracking movement, she draws parallels between the two as acts “blurring custom and faith” – water and faith, on one hand, and veil and faith, on the other.

Finally, Dr. Lazreg moved on to discuss intellectual trends in post-1979 revolution Iran as examples of “reframing universal thought.” Over the past three decades, a range of Islamic philosophers in Iran have sought to engage with Euro-American Enlightenment philosophy through interpretation, translation, and inviting Western scholars to lecture in Iran. Her discussion focused on Abdolkarim Soroush, a prominent contemporary Islamic philosopher who teaches at the University of Tehran. According to Soroush, religious knowledge, though sacred in subject matter, is fallible and ephemeral because it, like any other branch of knowledge, is a product of human understanding. Because of its contextuality, time-boundedness, and relativity to external circumstances, he argues, any form of religious knowledge is subject to expansion and contraction. Soroush, in this sense, is relinking to an earlier hermeneutic tradition in Islam, the mu’tazilah, a school of Islamic theology that emerged in Basra and Baghdad during the 8th–10th centuries. What is interesting for Dr. Lazreg is that Soroush is also reading Kant and Hegel, thus reframing the perceived aporia between Islamic studies and Enlightenment philosophy.

Building upon the topic of cosmopolitanism, Dr. Lazreg also mentioned that Soroush is critical of the cultural nationalism put forth by some Iranian revolutionary thinkers, as well as African liberation thinkers, such as Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon. Paraphrasing Dr. Soroush, she asks: does “learning from others (meaning the West) threaten one’s identity?” Challenging essentialist definitions of cultural or national identity, Dr. Lazreg suggests that Soroush’s writings problematize the epistemological premise of a “return” to one’s authentic self, whether in the form of culturalist nationalism, anti-religious nationalism, or fundamentalist religious revisionism. He also broaches the vexing status of “reason” within Islam in Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in IslamIn this context, Dr. Lazreg drew parallels to Kant’s conception of critique and the universalism of human nature.

Ultimately, Dr. Lazreg’s talk demonstrates that serious intellectual engagement with these examples of “practice-oriented cosmopolitanism” and “reframing universal thought” can each inform a notion of the “supra-cultural good,” with converges Ulrich’s cosmopolitan conception of exposing oneself to the risk of decentering the self. One possible limitation regarding Dr. Lazreg’s approach, which she mentioned during the Q&A, is that there is a subtle epistemological split between her approaches to Iran and Algeria – “theory” in one country (Iran) and “practice” in another (Algeria). As the project takes shape, Dr. Lazreg suggested that she will explore ways to bridge this through engagement with more “theory” in the Algerian context, such as the work of French-Algerian-Kabyle scholar Mohammed Arkoun. Notwithstanding such considerations, which will no doubt be resolved with further development, Dr. Lazreg’s work poses a very compelling challenge to the insularity of debates about cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism in the United States and Europe by treating social movements and intellectual traditions in two Muslim-majority countries not merely as an adjunct to Euro-American theorizing, but as producers of theory and practice in their own right.

~ China Sajadian


Luis Guzmán Valerio: “The Myth of Latino Fraud and Illegal Latino Voters” by Professor Robert Smith


Professor Robert Smith is a professor of Sociology at Baruch College and at The Graduate Center. He was trained as a political scientist at Columbia University and describes himself as an ethnographer who likes numbers and masquerades as a sociologist. His book Mexican New York is based on 18 years of ethnographic research and makes a practical contribution to the lives of immigrants. His research interests arose when he taught English at a labor camp in college and most workers were Mexican. In his talk at the Advanced Research Collaborative, he shared with us some of the findings for a book he is writing with Andy Beveridge titled This is Still America! Voting Rights and Immigration.

His ethnographic research takes place in the 100-Acre Wood Community, a pseudonym for a small, suburban town. Professor Smith’s involvement in the town began when he received an e-mail from the U.S. Department of Justice to serve as an ethnographer and expert witness in a case involving voting rights. The 100-Acre Wood Community is small town that used at-large voting. This meant that there were no voting districts. Conflicts began to arise when the Latino population of the town grew outnumbering African Americans who have moved out because of the lack of opportunities. The at-large voting meant that all voters cast their ballots for all candidates in the town (NAACPLDF, 2016). These circumstances made it impossible for minority candidates to be elected. As minority populations all over the U.S. grow, jurisdictions with at-large voting rules are faced with the challenge of fairly representing their communities. Conflict in the town intensified after the voting rights act trial began and public hearings were held to decide whether to continue with at-large voting or have districts.

Professor Smith has been in the field in the 100-Acre Wood Community since 2006. As part of his research, he interviewed and recorded participants, attended school board meetings and church seminars about immigration, and joined Facebook groups. While conducting his interviews of people’s experiences in the town as voters and political candidates, Professor Smith found that Latinos were continually seen by the majority white gaze as illegal, not eligible to vote, immoral, and illegitimate. Illegality makes immigrants into a moral point. The logic of illegality allows those who believe they do not break the law to position themselves on a moral high ground compared to those who are perceived as breaking the law by entering the U.S. without proper documentation. This led Professor Smith to ask how the discriminatory narratives about race and voters are enacted. In interviews with poll workers and in public speeches by leaders in the town, people expressed moral panic about immigration in the U.S. and a feeling of white dispossession. This was part of a discourse that stigmatized Latinos as illegal and framed them as not enjoying moral righteousness. In this discourse, Hispanics are not in the same moral category of worth as others and are dehumanized. When the issue of taking out a bond to pay for education in the town came up, people expressed a sentiment that illegal children should not be entitled to education, and the bond was voted down. Even if they are immigrants themselves, the participants interviewed feel a moral hierarchy and think that Latinos are all illegal.

The U.S. Department of Justice eventually won the voting rights lawsuit. The 100-Acre Wood Community became a town at war with itself and incidents were reported in the press. This led Professor Smith to conduct 153 doorstep interviews. He found that about a quarter of those interviewed believed that illegal voters would vote. Older, retired white people who have a difficult time paying taxes, white people who live in places that used to be mostly white and are now Latino, and very white districts reported feeling dispossessed.

In town council and community school board meetings, Latinos constantly had their U.S. citizenship brought into question and hence their right to participate in the democratic process. Latinos were even called “illegal” by some of the other attendees at these meetings. When they went to vote, those asking for a Spanish interpreter or perceived as speaking English with an accent reported being asked to present identification –which is an outright violation of voting law– and were told that they either were not in the right district or that their name was not in the voter registry. These incidents occurred even though the town does a full day of training for poll workers. Did Hispanic voters not know their rights? Professor Smith ended his talk by suggesting that there should be implicit bias training for voting place poll workers. In addition to this, explicitly requiring poll workers to record every request for identification would make a difference in the bureaucratic process.

Despite these experiences of discrimination, the Hispanic and non-Hispanic participants Professor Smith interviewed were still reluctant to categorize anyone as racist. Yet, how is it that a town does not want to see Latinos elected to office? I have always ideologically imagined the U.S. as a racist place because of my own experiences of discrimination and racism. Is this not the case everywhere in the U.S.?

~Luis Guzman Valerio


NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (2016). At-large voting frequently asked questions. Retrieved from

Sumru Atuk: Commentary on Henrique Espada Lima “Vulnerability and Modernity Reinventing Coercion through Free Labor in the time of Abolition in Brazil”

What is freedom? Is it the opposite of slavery? Does its meaning remain unchanged across historical and geographic contexts? Does it apply to everyone equally? Professor Henrique Espada Lima’s presentation titled “Vulnerability and Modernity: Reinventing Coercion through Free Labor in the time of Abolition in Brazil” provided thought-provoking answers to these questions. Prof. Lima’s historical approach to the issue of freedom revealed that the content of freedom may vary depending on the historical and politico-economic contexts, as well as the groups of people whose freedom is at stake. In other words, freedom is not a self-explanatory concept similar to other generic concepts of liberal democracy, such as human rights and equality. Its content may be replete with exclusions, limitations and even a kind of bondage in the form of free labor.

The point of departure of Prof. Lima’s long-term research was an inquiry of poverty and precarious labor in slavery and post-emancipation. The broader subject Lima pursued was a specific narrative of freedom presented as an ever-expanding one. Lima’s study on 19th century Santa Catarina, Brazil provides a critical intervention to this progressive understanding of history using sources such as notary records, manumissions, judicial records, legal codes, collections of legislation, parliamentary debates, and legal journals. He contests this narrative by documenting that the transition from slavery to freedom did not necessarily mean an expansion of liberty for the newly freed individuals. It was instead a transition to free labor disguised as contractual freedom.

The productive tension between the large questions and local answers is one of the major sources of the critical capacity of Lima’s research. We cannot decipher the actual relationship between slavery and freedom by treating them as ahistorical and universal concepts. For instance, Lima’s research reveals that slavery had a very different meaning in 19th Century Brazil than its North American form. Far from being limited to plantations, it was deeply engrained and normalized in the society. Small property holders, poor individuals and even former slaves could have slaves. It had a significant place in social body and economic activities.

As Lima’s research reveals, the meaning of freedom was also very different from its current connotations. The historical documents Lima uses demonstrate that a slave could be freed but still be bound to their former master for extended periods of time (until they pay the price of their freedom through unpaid labor, until the master dies or even after the master’s death). According to Lima, due to the dominant mindset of the era slaves did not consider their precarious situation as an extension of their slavery. To the contrary, they regarded many aspects of these agreements as securing their and their children’s well-being since they were far from self-sufficiency right after gaining their freedom.

In this regard, one important implication of Lima’s study is that it reveals the importance of questioning the meaning and effects of taken for granted concepts. As Lima underlines, the language of freedom was important given the transforming politico-economic relations of the era. Yet its content was rather ambiguous. He insightfully points out that the notion of freedom itself has very rarely been discussed, and this is a contemporary problem as much as a historical one. The dominant discourses of a given era might cloud one’s judgment of the quality of one’s freedom as in the case of these newly freed slaves. Today’s dominant liberal discourse may also cloud our judgment about the quality and extent of our freedom. Freedom defined through a contractual logic suggests that the slaves were free to enter into the contracts that changed their status from slave to free people. Among the limited options the slave chose their freedom whose substance lacks significant characteristics of liberty. The illusion of choice here is very similar to the choices that we make in the 21st Century each time we choose to be parties to unfair labor contracts.

~ Sumru Atuk

Ian Haberman on John Goering’s ‘Fiscal Austerity and Housing Inequality’

On Thursday, September 15th, Dr. John Goering of Baruch College and the Graduate Center presented joint research done with Dr. Christine Whitehead of the London School of Economics.  The presentation, titled Fiscal Austerity and Housing Inequality: US and UK from 2010 – 2026, takes a comparative approach to analyzing the causal relationship between austerity and housing inequality.

Dr. Goering’s presentation of the joint paper focused on the United States’ housing policy, using the United Kingdom policy framework to highlight policy difference.  The comparison between the two countries is natural, as both countries introduced significant austerity policies in the wake of the 2008 global recession.  The very conception of this research was born out of these austerity policies, as funding for another project was unexpectedly denied due to the funding cuts being enacted.

Surprisingly, not much is known about the impact of cutting funding to public housing programs.  However, Goering makes a few observations in the wake of austerity policies.  These policies hurt people living in poor communities, but can benefit more affluent communities, and welfare programs that are not cut provide enormous help to combat the negative impacts of austerity.

Several of these observations are mirrored by others.  Shaun Edwards finds that austerity measures adopted at the federal level lead to a tightening at the state level that further exacerbates the impact on the most vulnerable citizens.[1]  While Paul Krugman takes a comprehensive look at how austerity policies have failed, in no uncertain terms, noting that “Since the global turn to austerity in 2010, every country that introduced significant austerity has seen its economy suffer, with the depth of the suffering closely related to the harshness of the austerity.”[2]  The consensus view is clear; austerity has not delivered the benefits its champions promised.

Austerity has not cut funding from all social programs equally.  Funding for public housing was cut by $1.6 billion from 2010 to 2016, and these cuts occurred despite an increased need for housing support.  Since 2003, Renters facing severe rent burden has increased steadily from 6.4 million to 9.7 million, making up 8.4% of all households.[3]  These numbers are projected to go even higher through 2025, as funding is projected to dwindle.  This mismatch of supply and demand has led to closed waiting lists at public housing authorities, resulting increases in various forms of homelessness.

These disparities are even worse for people of color.  There is still strong discrimination in the rental market, homeownership rates are much lower, and income inequality much higher – leaving people of color more vulnerable to the increasing cost of housing.  Goering highlights a report which finds African Americans were quoted higher rents and security deposits or were told no apartments were available, compared to whites interacting with the same rental agent.[4]  Homeownership statistics display a similar picture with white homeownership rates and 72.9% and black rates at 43.3%.[5]  To address this disparities and increase the effectiveness of public housing, systemic, institutional changes are needed.

The presentation concluded by looking at the future landscape, highlighting potential policies that would improve this environment, and identifying potential pitfalls.  Goering sees government assistance to the housing poor continuing to diminish both in the United States and the United Kingdom.  In the case of continued income inequality and, hence, growing public frustration with government, it is likely increased government involvement will be shunned despite potential advantages.  As governments enact further austerity policies and housing values further prop up rents, housing insecurity will rise and the numbers of the housing poor will increase.  Additionally, the move to privatize the housing stock will increase, removing the few remaining public options for those in need.  In the United States, homeownership will continue to be a strength and those that own will continue to benefit from a supportive tax code.  In the United Kingdom, the shift from permanent, lifelong services will continue toward 5-year term limits targeting lower income households.

The presentation put forward two primary ideal policy responses.  First, building on the success of tax credits by roughly tripling these allocations from the current $7 billion to around $15-25 billion.  The second desired policy response is to add $30 billion a year dedicated to rental vouchers for the very poorest.  The first policy designed to increase supply-side housing stock and the second targeting demand-side funding for the housing poor.  Of course, these policies face several pitfalls in the current political environment.  Goering notes that these policies face political headwinds.  Funding increases for polices already on the “chopping block” are unlikely, let alone introducing new funding for vouchers.  The continuation of austerity policies will keep pressure on the trend of increased housing poverty.


~ Ian Haberman



[1] – Edwards, Shaun. “The Downstream Effect of Fiscal Austerity.” Chicago Policy Review (Online) (2015).

[2] – Krugman, Paul. “The austerity delusion.” The Guardian, 29th April (2015).

[3] – Steffen, Barry L. “Worst case housing needs 2015: Report to Congress.” (Online) (2015).

[4] – Freiberg, Fred. “Racial Discrimination in Housing: Underrated and Overlooked.” Fair Housing Justice Center (Online) (2013).

[5] – Morial, Mark. “Locked Out: Education, Jobs & Justice.” 2016 State of Black America. National Urban League (Online) (2016).


Nora Goldman: Commentary on Elana Shohamy’s “Linguistic Landscape as a Lens for Interpreting Societies Critically and its Contribution to Education and Learning.”

As Elana Shohamy, Professor of Language Education at Tel Aviv University’s School of Education, prepared to introduce the concept of linguistic landscapes to the ARC cohort, she was confident it would be accessible even to those who had never heard the phrase before.  Everyone present, she observed, was motivated by an interest in inequality and a desire for social justice.  It soon became clear that Shohamy’s work indeed transcends the disciplinary boundaries of linguistics or education, and is at its core concerned with equality.

A linguistic landscape, as Shohamy explained, includes all language in public spaces—signage, graffiti, advertisements, and anything else you can read when you go out in the world.  However, she was quick to stress that language alone does not make up the linguistic landscape.  All symbols can be “read”, and Shohamy’s work takes a broad view, arguing that the full semiotic landscape includes not just written linguistic symbols, but also buildings, art, sounds, smells, and human beings themselves.  Once one learns how to read the linguistic landscape, it serves as a window into much deeper societal issues: the social, political, economic, and educational realities of a community.  She argues that a linguistic landscape is a lens through which countless social issues can be discovered and analyzed, making this research relevant to all social scientists.

Shohamy’s work focuses on use of Hebrew, Arabic, and English in Israel.  Despite the passing of a law in 1999 requiring major freeway signs and street signs in integrated cities to be in both Hebrew and Arabic, the linguistic landscape remains a very uneven representation of Israel’s multilingualism.  To demonstrate this empirically, Shohamy and Eliezer Ben-Rafael (2006) conducted a quantitative study to determine the numerical breakdown of public language representation in multilingual cities.  They found that linguistic landscapes reflected the ideology and social realities of their communities, but not necessarily their demographics. In heavily Jewish areas, for example, Hebrew and English were the primary languages of public signage, whereas signs in Arab communities were almost exclusively in Arabic and Hebrew, with very little English peppered in.  In the contested region of East Jerusalem, the linguistic landscape was overwhelmingly Arabic and English, with hardly any Hebrew.

Ideology is also often transparent in the linguistic landscape as a result of top-down propaganda campaigns. Whether a city is attempting to turn inward and emphasize its essential Israeli-ness (as Tel-Aviv did with its Hebrew-only decorations for its centennial celebration) or present itself as a bastion of tolerance and multiculturalism to attract tourists, the government’s desired image is reflected in the language of its public spaces.  Unequal language representation can have obvious alienating effects on those excluded by the linguistic landscape, but can also have an observable practical impact.  If emergency exits and safety instructions are only labeled in Hebrew, for example, Arabic speakers do not have the same access to these public service announcements. Furthermore, the educational implications of exclusion from the linguistic landscape are striking.  In Hebrew-dominated areas, children who learn Hebrew in school can leave the classroom and remain surrounded by the medium of instruction.  But the Arabic-speaking children do not share the experience of continuous exposure to their mother tongue both inside and outside the classroom.

So what are we to do about the inequality of public spaces?  The goal of Shohamy’s work is to raise awareness of the importance of the linguistic landscape and to harness it for pedagogical purposes.  The linguistic landscape contains multitudes of insights that remain untapped by educators.  To illustrate the potential of incorporating the linguistic landscape into a curriculum, Shohamy shared a few illustrative anecdotes.  In one, high school students in the heterogeneous town of Jaffa documented the linguistic landscape in their community.  Before doing so, they all expected Arabic to be the best represented language in their data, reflecting the demographics of the area, but were surprised to find that Arabic was hardly attested at all.  The linguistic landscape they had inhabited for years had been mostly invisible to them until they were forced to examine it critically.  Shohamy also shared a personal anecdote starring her own granddaughter, whom she took linguistic-landscape-exploring.  When they came across an anti-war graffito, an intergenerational critical discussion ensued about the current state of political unrest in the region.  If educators incorporate the linguistic landscape into their pedagogical approach, the opportunities for critical thinking and debate are endless.  We are living in a giant text, Shohamy’s work tells us, so why aren’t we reading it?


Ben-Rafael, Eliezer, et al. “Linguistic landscape as symbolic construction of the public space: The case of Israel.” International Journal of Multilingualism3.1 (2006): 7-30.

~Nora Goldman

Commentary on Lourdes Follins’ “Lifting Voices: Experiences and Perceptions of Historically Underrepresented Faculty at Three CUNY Community Colleges” by ARC Student Fellow Kalina Gjicali

As the largest urban public higher education system in the country, CUNY represents a diverse population on all levels: from students to faculty. Although this diversity is often praised, we must think if the diversity of the faculty represents the diversity of the student body as well as how underrepresented faculty members are being supported in their roles in academia. Historically underrepresented faculty members mere presence in higher education institutions enhances performance and enriches the educational experiences of all students. Although there’s much literature to support this, much of this research is not reflected in practice. And despite the underrepresentation of people of color, LGBTQ, and disabled persons as faculty members, a greater challenge comes with: What are the experiences of these faculty members in higher education institutions, what are their social support systems, how are they navigating and understanding opportunities for tenure, promotion, and reappointment? These research questions are investigated in a tale of three community colleges of CUNY: LaGuardia Community College, Kingsborough Community College, and Bronx Community College.

Throughout CUNY community colleges, the student body is composed of 86% people of color and 44 % of the faculty body is people of color. There is an apparent discrepancy between who is in the seats of classrooms and who is standing in front of the room. The goal is not necessarily about making it an equal ratio; it is about following the research about the added benefits of having underrepresented faculty members on college campuses. However, for the historically underrepresented faculty members who are working on college campuses, it becomes imperative to know what are the experiences of these faculty members when it comes to recruitment, retention, promotion, and tenure?

Preliminary analyses of interviews done with over 60 faculty members across the campuses mentioned, indicated different levels of satisfaction with teaching when compared to compensation, feelings of microaggression, and feelings of separation from the full-time faculty in their departments. Most participants said that they love their job and love their students, but were dissatisfied with salary (typical 27 hour teaching load – 9 courses per for full-time faculty). Female faculty of color felt racial and gender microaggressions (e.g., were perceived as incompetent instructors by their students). Additionally, some participants indicated that they were not satisfied with their school’s efforts to diversify faculty.

There were a few recommendations that were generated as a result of this discussion: (1) on the issue of inequity – need to promote general appeal and concern for teaching in community colleges (2) understand How does one know about positions at CUNY? How does CUNY reach people? What is the dissemination of information to faculty in community colleges? (3) And promoting mentorship – What does that mean and what does it look like? Are only department chairs available to non-tenured faculty just once a year? What would a model for ongoing, constructive feedback look like?

~Kalina Gjicali

Commentary on Jose Cao-Alvira’s “On Bank Microcredit and Access to Formal Credit” by ARC Student Fellow Nishant Yonzan

“This is not charity. This is business: business with a social objective, which is to help people get out of poverty.” – Muhammad Yunus on Microcredit (Founder of Grameen Bank; Nobel Laureate)

Microcredit is a concept established to assist the poorest of the poor break out from the cycle of poverty. It provides small uncollateralized loans to help individuals and families make productive investments – for example to buy a cow so that they can sell milk, to buy a sewing machine so that they can set up a tailor shop, etc. These are usually informal economic activities that have low return and low market demand. Hence, these individuals, prior to the emergence of microcredit, were considered “not bankable” by the formal financial sector.

The impact of microcredit/microfinance on poverty has been mixed. The emergence of microcredit in the 1990s, with Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank, was a source of hope for a solution to global poverty. Jonathan Murdoch in his 1999 paper wrote “… the promise remains that microfinance may be an important aid for households that are not destitute but still remain considerably below poverty lines.”[1] Although Murdoch saw opportunities, he was also skeptical of the high costs associated with lending small loans to many people compared to lending large amount to few. By early 2000s hope had turned to celebrations. Microcredit was considered the panacea to solve global poverty. It was poverty fighting at two fronts: helping the really poor escape poverty and at the same time empowering women within these poor households. Like many, Khandker for his World Bank 2005 paper, found that microfinance contributes to poverty reductions, especially for women, both at a personal level and also at the local village level.[2] But, by the late 2000s, effectiveness microcredit/microfinance was being challenged by a host of researchers. Banerjee et al.(2015) conducted a randomized trial in Hyderabad, India, providing microcredit to one group of households but not to another; they did not find any significant changes due to this microcredit on health, education, or women empowerment among the households that received this credit.[3]

Despite the fact, there are merits to microcredit in the developing world where poor households face stifling credit constraints. As a result, there has been a mushrooming growth of microcredit lending institutions over the last 20 years. One of the byproducts of increased access to microcredit is the growing heterogeneity in the market for lenders and the differentiated products.

In one of his trips to Colombia, Jose, ever curios about this market, started asking people about the interest rates on these microcredit loans. To his surprise, he got a universally coherent response. No matter whom he asked, the answer was ‘usury rate’. Usury rate is the highest rate that can legally be charged by regulated financial institutions – mostly traditional banks. Unregulated Micro Finance Institutions (MFI) and Non-Government Organizations (NGO) are exempt from the cap. Colombia, one of many countries, issues an interest rate cap. Intrigued, he and his coauthor, Luca G. Deidda, started exploring the effect of this interest rate constraint on the market for microcredit. In particular, he wanted to understand the mechanism by which traditional banks entered the microcredit market and the effect of interest rate caps on this credit market. Described below is his ongoing project:

Today the lending market for microfinance is very heterogeneous. The lenders not only include traditional MFIs and NGOs but also traditional banks, who have been induced into the microfinance market by its apparent profitability. Although the philosophy of microcredit has changed, from helping the poor to making a profit, the argument for increased competition is that they lend at a lesser cost to the poor reducing interest rates that are on average as high as 30% from the traditional MFI/NGO channel.

Banks, ‘downscaling’ into the microcredit market, need an efficient method to screen the previously unbanked microcredit lenders.

José and Luca explore the coexistence of microcredit lending for a bank alongside its standard loan practices, in a model of a competitive credit market characterized by adverse selection. Potential borrowers are heterogeneous both with respect to their ability to repay loans and to the degree of informational transparency about such ability. Lenders (banks), while not informed about borrowers’ type, have access to a costly screening technology such that – by devoting enough time to screen applicants – they can extract an informative signal about their ability to repay. The authors identify the characteristics of economic environments where (i) both types of credits are offered by the bank, (ii) only traditional credit is offered, and (iii) only microcredit is offered. According to José and Luca’s model, the emergence of bank microcredit always results in a higher degree of participation in the credit market, provided that adverse selection is not too extreme, and microcredit is viable.

The authors empirically test the main predictions of their model using three comprehensive data sets. The first of the data sets is an international cross-section of bank MFIs, the second is a panel of bank-level data from the Colombian banking sector, and the third is a panel of individual loan data from a Colombian bank which downscaled into microcredit. The estimated results from analyzing the data sets show a significant impact of bank microcredit and financial liberalization on the broader population’s access to formal credit along the lines predicted by the model.


– Nishant Yonzan


[1] Murdoch, Jonathan. “The Microfinance Promise.” Journal of Economic Literature (1999): 1569-1614.

[2] Khandker, Shahidur R. “Microfinance and poverty: Evidence using panel data from Bangladesh.” The World Bank Economic Review 19.2 (2005): 263-286.

[3] Banerjee, Abhijit, et al. “The miracle of microfinance? Evidence from a randomized evaluation.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 7.1 (2015): 22-53.


Commentary by ARC Student Fellow Jessie Fredlund on John Georing’s ‘Austerity and Inequality: A Potentially Fateful Linkage’

In his talk “Austerity and Inequality: A Potentially Fateful Linkage,” John Goering, professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center and Public Affairs at Baruch College, shared research he is presently conducting with colleague Christine Whitehead, Professor of Housing Economics at the London School of Economics. This project examines the contexts, contents and outcomes of austerity policies implemented in the United States and the United Kingdom since 2010. The opportunity for this research knocked in an unusual way – the authors found their proposals to conduct research in public housing authorities unexpectedly denied due to looming budget cuts, the result of new austerity policies. Recognizing the importance of the moment and the opportunity afforded by the parallel situations in the U.S. and the U.K., Goering and Whitehead launched a comparative study of the impact of austerity on housing in the two countries. Like the austerity policies themselves, this research is still unfolding.

One of the early results of this research suggests that austerity policies in the U.S. and U.K., while commencing nearly simultaneously, differ significantly in the political climate and political discourses that surround them. For instance, in the U.K., national debt has been an explicit issue in recent campaigns, but has had less political traction in the United States. Also, while the U.K. has enacted a mixture of tax policies, including both tax cuts and tax increases, political opposition has prevented virtually any increase in taxes in the U.S. In the U.S., Goering noted, austerity policies were enacted in a climate of growing distrust of government. In a 2015 Gallup poll, nearly half of Americans agreed that “the federal government poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens,” up from 30% in 2003.[i] Austerity policies in the United States must be understood in light of this anti-government sentiment.

Goering and Whitehead’s interest in austerity policies follows on longstanding engagements with issues of housing. In both the U.S. and the U.K., housing programs have been heavily impacted by austerity measures, despite ongoing shortages of affordable housing. In the U.K., where public housing programs have touched a broader spectrum of lower and middle class households, lifelong tenancy rights to public housing have been reduced to five year leases. Similar policies are being tested in the U.S. on a smaller scale. Austerity policies in the U.S. have also spelled the end of federal funding for housing for the elderly and disabled, and existing public housing authorities have seen a sharp decline in funds available for maintenance of existing properties. In addition, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is experimenting with various forms of privatization, especially through its Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance program.

While many scholars have highlighted the negative impacts of austerity policies on low income households, Goering’s research suggests these policies may worsen more than just gaps in income and wealth. They are also positioned to further widen racial inequality. In the U.S., decades of discriminatory policies and practices have led to significant racial disparities in home ownership and have entrenched racial segregation in residential areas across the country. Anti-integrationist opposition and violence continue to enforce racial boundaries and limit opportunities for households of color. While austerity policies may not contain the explicitly discriminatory dimensions of the policies of decades past, they are implemented in a context already profoundly shaped by racial inequality. While federal policies that benefit homeowners have remained largely sheltered from austerity policies, the budget cuts to housing programs continue to impact rental markets for low and middle income families. In this context, it seems inevitable that the burdens of austerity will fall unevenly across racial as well as class divides.

With this bleak vision of growing inequality, what can be done to work toward more equitable and secure housing today? Goering’s modest policy suggestions – tax credits, rental vouchers and repairs to existing public housing – are virtual pipe dreams the contemporary political climate of the United States. As Goering and Whitehead point out, both the public and the government have found austerity preferable to policies that would de-concentrate wealth. The question then becomes more difficult: is a shift in political momentum possible, or is increasing austerity and deepening inequality an inevitability of history?


[i] Frank Newport. “Half in U.S. Continue to Say Gov’t Is an Immediate Threat.” Gallup, 21 Sept. 2015,