Understanding the world from others’ points of view: Daniel Souleles | Teachers College Columbia University

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Understanding the world from others’ points of view: Daniel Souleles
(Ph.D., Joint GSAS Program in Applied Anthropology)


Life Before TC:

When Daniel Souleles graduated from the College of William and Mary in 2008 with a degree in ancient Greek, “I knew I wasn’t going to be a classics professor,” he recalls with his distinctively self-effacing humor. But after finding life as a paralegal less than stimulating, “I got the sense that I wasn’t done with my education.”  Daniel considered applying to doctoral programs in English literature, but worried that he would need to find a narrow field of specialization to find success in academia. When he hit upon anthropology, a field that was still relatively unfamiliar to him at the time, the light bulb quickly began flashing. He would race home from his paralegal job to scour the internet for course syllabi, graduate theses, major works in the field, and anything else he could get his hands on. “I thought to myself, ‘Oh my god, if this is a job I want to try for this.’” 

Why TC:

Daniel’s experience in TC’s doctoral program in Applied Anthropology, a joint venture between the College and Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, quickly confirmed his suspicion that  anthropology was a good fit. One factor was the opportunity to work closely with George Bond, William F. Russell Professor of Anthropology and Education, who served as Daniel’s advisor until he died in 2014. “He was an intellectual in the truest sense of the word,” Daniel recalls. “He was so excited by ideas. His class was the very first class I took in graduate school, and it took me a year or two to realize not everything would be like that. He had a sense that he wanted a university to be a kind of place that really valued ideas and gave people a place to explore them.” 


TC Takeaway:

Under Professor Bond’s direction, Daniel focused his dissertation research on a topic that at first sounds a far cry from traditional anthropological investigations, though one that gained a lot of attention during the 2012 presidential election: the world of private equity investors in New York City, “the Mitt Romneys of the world, the people who buy and sell companies for profit.”  As Daniel explains, anthropology is all about “trying to understand the world from someone else’s point of view” and looking at cultures through a comparative lens to identify commonalities with other cultures. “When you try to bring that comparative lens to something like private equity, it starts looking a little less weird and scary,” he says. “Regardless of where you go, one of the ways in which social inequalities are maintained is through people who have control over what is considered worthwhile and valuable.” Once society grants private equity investors and firms such as Bain Capital (the private equity firm co-founded by Romney in 1984) the ability to decide what a company is worth, and empowers them to make critical decisions about those companies, from an anthropological perspective one can argue that “private equity people are just another in a long string of people we’ve empowered to tell us what our lives are worth.”   


What’s Next:

A version of Daniel’s dissertation, Songs of Profit, Song of Loss: Private Equity Investing in New York City, is currently under review by an academic publisher, and he has been writing academic journal articles with intriguing titles, such as “Don’t Mix Paxil, Xanax, and Viagra: What Financiers’ Jokes Say About Inequality.” He has also been teaching at Brandeis for the past year, and will continue there as a Lecturer in the fall. Daniel has no doubt that the world of anthropology is where he will stay. “The whole basis of anthropology is fieldwork,” he says. “Unlike the other academic disciplines, we get out of the university, and we cherish that time. We don’t presume to be the expert in the field we study. We think the people we study are the experts.”
– Ellen Livingston

Published Friday, Jun 3, 2016