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Sociologist Alondra Nelson Joins Faculty of the School of Social Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study

April 16, 2019
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Lee Sandberg
Chi-Chi Agbim

Alondra Nelson, an acclaimed sociologist, author, and researcher who explores questions in science, technology, and social inequality, has been appointed Professor and Harold F. Linder Chair in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, effective July 1, 2019.

“In light of her pathbreaking work, her exceptional achievements, and her recognition across multiple fields and beyond academia, it is difficult to imagine a better candidate for the Linder Chair than Professor Nelson,” stated Didier Fassin, James D. Wolfensohn Professor in the School of Social Science. “She will bring her innovative and multidisciplinary work to the School of Social Science, and she will certainly be in conversation with the other Schools as well.”

Nelson is currently Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, where she served as the inaugural Dean of Social Science. She is also President of the Social Science Research Council. In addition to her numerous contributions to anthropological and sociological journals and historical studies, Nelson is exceptional for her intellectual versatility that extends to scholarship in the worlds of biology, medicine, and public health. She is a renowned and influential scholar in the field of the social studies of science and technology, most especially the sociopolitical dimensions of genetics and artificial intelligence.

“A remarkably dynamic and creative scholar, with an exceptionally broad view of the social sciences, Alondra has revealed facets of our society previously overlooked or hidden, diving deeply into the complexities of humanity and illuminating the gray areas of our past and present,” stated Robbert Dijkgraaf, IAS Director and Leon Levy Professor. “On behalf of the Institute, we are proud to welcome Alondra to our IAS family and recognize the unique perspective and opportunity her work brings to our community.”

Nelson’s work offers a critical and innovative approach to the social sciences that is conducive to a fruitful dialogue with the many disciplines represented among IAS Faculty and Members. Her major research contributions are situated at the intersection of racial formation and social citizenship, on the one hand, and emerging scientific and technological phenomena, on the other.

“I’m honored beyond measure to have been invited to join this distinguished intellectual institution and to have the opportunity to carry forward my research as a part of this exceptional community of scholars,” Nelson stated.

Her groundbreaking work brings together several research traditions: political sociology; racial and ethnic studies; the sociology of science, knowledge and technology; medical sociology; and social and cultural theory. She applies qualitative methodology—principally ethnography, historiography, and ethical inquiry—to the study of how conceptualizations of human difference shape lived experience, social relations, and life chances.

While sociologists have long devoted attention to how race is socially constructed, Nelson distinctly also explores how social groups both engage with and contest anthropological and biomedical concepts of race. She explores and connects these dimensions in her two major books, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) and The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome (Beacon Press, 2016).

In Body and Soul, she argues, based on archival research and interviews, that the Black Panther Party was not only a radical political movement, but also a public health movement. The activists established a national network of neighborhood clinics, providing basic health services and implementing screening and counseling programs for genetic disease. Nelson’s work also shows how the group intervened in debates over the medicalization of violence, and challenged theories about the alleged inherent biological inferiority of people of African descent. This highly original book garnered several scholarly awards, including the 2013 Mirra Komarovsky Book Award for the best sociological monograph from the Eastern Sociological Society.

In The Social Life of DNA, Nelson imaginatively excavates a constellation of endeavors initiated by members of the African diaspora, who embark upon journeys to uncover information about their ancestral origins with the aid of genetics and then use this information to varied ends that she terms “reconciliation projects.” Nelson is currently preparing a new book that explores the centrality of science to the practice of governance through an exploration of the Obama administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and its navigation of the ethical, legal, and social implications of the initiatives and regulations it would promote.

Nelson has coedited two important collective volumes that take up the central themes of her research in a broader context and from a comparative perspective. The first book, Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life (with Thuy Linh Tu; NYU Press, 2001), investigates the emergence of then-new information technologies and considers the ways they were informed by prevailing racial ideologies. Technicolor is widely cited as one of the first works on the intersection of race and technology, laying the groundwork for a now-burgeoning area of study. The second book, Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History (with Keith Wailoo and Catherine Lee; Rutgers University Press, 2012), considers the alignment of genetic science with commercial genealogy, with legal and forensic developments, and with pharmaceutical innovation to examine how these developments promise to lend new authority to biological understandings of both race and history. Nelson’s publications also include a recent special issue of the British Journal of Sociology on the use of genetics and genealogy in a project of historical and political reckoning at Georgetown University.

Nelson is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of California, San Diego, with a B.A. in anthropology. She earned her Ph.D. in American studies from New York University in 2003. She was first appointed in 2003 as Assistant Professor and later Associate Professor in Sociology and African American Studies at Yale University, where she received the Poorvu Family Award for interdisciplinary teaching excellence. She was then recruited in 2009 to the Department of Sociology and the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Columbia University.

The recipient of numerous honors and fellowships, Nelson has been a visiting scholar at the London School of Economics, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, the International Center for Advanced Studies at New York University, and the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. She has received fellowships from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the National Science Foundation.

Nelson is presently Chair of the American Sociological Association’s Section on Science, Knowledge, and Technology. She is an elected Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science and of the Hastings Center, and an elected Member of the Sociological Research Association. She was formerly a Member of the World Economic Forum Network on Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, and the Future of Trust, and of the National Science Foundation–sponsored Council for Big Data, Ethics, and Society.

About the Institute
The Institute for Advanced Study is one of the world’s leading centers for theoretical research and intellectual inquiry. The Institute exists to encourage and support curiosity-driven research in the sciences and humanities—the original, often speculative thinking that produces advances in knowledge that change the way we understand the world. Work at the Institute takes place in four Schools: Historical Studies, Mathematics, Natural Sciences, and Social Science. It provides for the mentoring of scholars by a permanent Faculty, and it ensures the freedom to undertake research that will make significant contributions in any of the broad range of fields in the sciences and humanities studied at the Institute.

The Institute, founded in 1930, is a private, independent academic institution located in Princeton, New Jersey. Its more than 8,000 former Members have held positions of intellectual and scientific leadership throughout the academic world. Thirty-three Nobel Laureates, 42 out of 60 Fields Medalists, and 18 of the 20 Abel Prize Laureates, as well as many winners of the Wolf and MacArthur prizes, have been affiliated with the Institute