I am applying to the CUNY Ph.D. program in Sociology because I would like to (1) work with others who share my questions, (2) be challenged to develop communicable understandings of social phenomena, (3) work on an in-depth, large-scale research project of my own, and (4) gain the experience and the degree which will assist me in establishing myself as a researcher who chooses his own questions and who earns a living by sharing his findings with others.
I will first detail my goals with respect to theory, orientation, and methodology, and then describe specific areas I would like to explore. An introduction to myself and to my recent past can be found in the appendices. My goals with respect to theory and methodology include: (1) further defining my na´ve views about the mechanics of the social realm or replacing them with something better; and developing (2) an orientation and (3) a methodology for making visible the social realm and for achieving my research aims.
(1) My primitive and optimistic conception of the social realm is as follows:
Any phenomenon dependent on humans for its existence seems to contribute to the quality of the experience of the humans who support its existence. Given time, the phenomena that are most successful at providing desirable experience to individuals are ascendant. These phenomena, almost every salient non-biological aspect of our existence, began as someone's imagining of a better way to experience. I am curious about how well this perspective can be operationalized, whether it can yield productive research questions, and how it might fit into existing social theory.
(2) Orientation: My general research goal is to (a) improve my understanding of the effect of cumulative interactions of individuals on individual experience. I want to be able to watch and to attempt to understand the origin and interplay of the agglomerated dreams of individuals. I would also like to (b) foster a subset of social science research explicitly dedicated to improving the quality of individual experience. A goal of this approach would be (i) to be able to evaluate options in decisions that significantly affect others by comparing the impacts of the options on individual experience. Another goal of this approach would be to (ii) compare the impact that different areas of human endeavor have on individual experience.
I will refer to this orientation as "experiencescience." This orientation is implicit in many research programs, but I would like researchers to explicitly state this orientation, and I would like to be able to easily identify others who share this orientation.
(3) Methodology: I am attempting to develop a methodology for experiencescience that will enable researchers working under the experiencescience paradigm to make steady progress in increasing the understanding of causal relationships of phenomena that affect individual experience. This methodology should also assist in the visualization of social phenomena by specifying measurement and display or reporting techniques. I have begun by looking for existing methodologies in the social sciences that appear to be successful. I am also concerned with the processes by which understanding is communicated and utilized. I have begun to study linguistics and related artificial intelligence efforts with the goal of better understanding what is occurring when I read and write. What is most needed may be a new way of defining research aims and of cataloging the results. The result should be an easily searchable body of knowledge that clearly delineates the understood and unknown, and that is useful to individuals attempting to make decisions--a sort of expert system.
Areas of inquiry
My specific research interests are the ones that have enabled me to apply to Ph.D. programs. I did not want to begin such a long-term process without conceiving of specific projects which I would value working on that would occupy me for that length of time. I will first describe a vision of myself in the future that I formed when considering what kind of experience I would most like to have. Then I will describe some specific projects I am pursuing or would like to pursue. To some extent, these projects are meant to get me closer to my imagined scenario.
I imagined myself giving a presentation to a large number of people. I had collected the profound (profound ideas) and now was presenting them, one after the other-bam! bam! bam!-with the effect of blowing minds wide open, not in the sense of destroying what was there and leaving nothing, but in the sense that here is all this incredible stuff you've never seen before, but which, once you are aware of it, will forever and radically change your perception of experience.
One possible presentation that could have this effect might be showing the audience that they have a powerful ability they had never known about, teaching them how to use this ability and to observe its use in others, and showing them the repercussions of this ability on their experience, their lives, history, and the future. I imagined this ability might be dreaming.
I have defined the following specific areas of inquiry, which I discuss in more detail below:
I would like to:
(1) Explore the conditions that foster an individual's and a culture's vitality.
(2) Better define or replace my perspectives on politics, education, and economics.
(3) Study the formation of life dreams of individuals who have had all that social reformers wish everyone had.
(4) Explore my hypothesis that individuals would benefit from a mainstream dialogue on the role of the individual in the future of humanity.
(5) Explore the possibility that individuals who encourage others to adopt closed knowledge systems reduce the quality of the experience of some of those they attempt to influence.
(6) Explore the concept of personal and societal growth.
(7) Study the behavior of being attracted to people exhibiting vitality and attempting to learn from them.
(8) Balance my focus on great imaginings and vitality with homage to or rather an exploration of the value of doing nothing.
(9) Keep up with developments in understanding the experience of emotion.
I will now discuss these interests in more detail.
(1) Vitality: I am curious about what makes one culture feel more vital and alive than another. By alive, I mean abundant in good, thought provoking, and inspiring things. For example, the culture of the Netherlands appeared more vital to me than the culture of the U.S., at least with respect to architecture. The Renaissance may have been a more vital-feeling time period than the Middle Ages. Cultural vitality may be related to the degree to which people in that culture and in that culture's history have encouraged dreaming within themselves. Assuming successful operationalization of these concepts, I am interested in how dreaming relates to personal vitality as well. If dreaming can be demonstrated to be a positive behavioral trait of individual and of a culture, I would like to explore what social phenomena encourage or discourage dreaming. Another way I have been thinking of dreaming is as an improving orientation. The individuals who dream do not accept the status quo. They consider, "Is there a better way?" or, "There must be a better way!"
(2) Education, governance, economy: Related to my concern with encouraging dreaming may be my interest in unschooling and in libertarian political and economic perspectives. From my review of meaning in life research (Leath, 1999a), I have come to believe that meaningful environments are a subset of environments that are responsive to the individual, and that responsive environments are a subset of environments in which the individual is free to make many choices. Following this perspective, libertarianism and unschooling may be the attitudes and approaches to education, politics, and economics that foster environments more conducive to meaningful experience than environments created by authoritarian approaches. However, I am not content with a na´ve libertarianism, and I would like to give more definition to my position in politics. Additionally, unschooling seems workable for only a small minority with a certain kind of parent. If so, what should be done with the traditional education system if all the children cannot be free to study what they choose?
(3) The dreams of those who lived the dream: I am interested in the problems faced by people who have grown up experiencing everything some wish everyone had: a good family, a good home, good schools, a lack of perceived discrimination or oppression, etc... When the dream has been attained, what happens to the products of the dream? Some of them seem not to be satisfied by the dream that produced them. Assuming these concepts can be usefully operationalized, I am curious about what leads an individual to be satisfied or dissatisfied with the old dream. I am further curious about the processes whereby those who have grown up with everything, but who have not accepted the old dream, create an understanding about the best way to live in an environment in which tradition and dogma carry only the weight one gives to them. I am assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that this group of people is a significant number of those individuals within post-industrial societies. A fascinating and fertile ground for new social phenomena has been created by this population, and I am interested to see what grows there, because they are, possibly, what the rest of the world strives to become.
(4) Mainstream dialogue regarding goals of humanity: I sense a shortcoming in the atmosphere of the culture I am familiar with. It is a failure to encourage individuals to develop a vision of what humanity is doing or becoming in which the individual sees s/he has a place. I believe individuals will benefit from being able to express a conception of what all we humans are doing here, and how each one of us can play a part (Leath, 1999a). Some examples of the recognition of this need include Barbara Marx Hubbard's consciousevolution.net project, and the worldviews project of the Centre Leo Apostel at Vrije Universiteit Brussels, but these do not occupy as much of the world's view as I would like. Some reasons why the average individual cannot articulate his or her philosophy in this area might include a widespread belief in (a) the insurmountability of this sort of question, (b) the irrelevance of any potential answers, or (c) that this is the province of religion.
(5) Is harm caused by the encouragement of closed belief systems? Religious organizations, except those that go out of their way to eschew dogma, emphasizing practice, (e.g., Quaker Universalists, Reform Judaism, etc.), may cause a reduction in the quality of individual experience in a population. This harm may be due to the attempt of individuals involved with these organizations to propagate an approach to existence that cannot be adopted by all individuals. This harm appears to occur in at least one way when individuals raised among those espousing the doctrine are not able to embrace the doctrine. If these intuited remarks survive analysis, the question that follows is: Can (a) a global debate on the focus of humanity, (b) open knowledge systems, and (c) the undeniably positive aspects of the role of religions be (i) combined, (ii) facilitated, and (iii) demonstrated to be positive?
(6) Exploring the concept of personal and societal growth: I am drawn to this concept yet skeptical of it. I would like to explore the use of this term by individuals and their perception of its relevance to their experience.
(7) Exploring idea propagation through vital or otherwise notable individuals or populations: It appears that others I have spoken with are familiar with the phenomenon of encountering an individual remarkable for his or her aliveness, or another desirable personality feature, and then being drawn to learn more about why that individual is the way s/he is with the hope of applying the knowledge gained to one's own experience. I would like to explore this phenomenon in myself and in others. Who are we drawn to and why? Are we able to learn from these people, or are we limited to merely appreciating the difference? What do the behaviors of the people a person is drawn to say about that person? Related to this question are perhaps the following: Is there a set of behaviors which more people find themselves drawn to? Is there an evolution in personal behavior/consciousness occurring (a claim among populations who push, for example, the concept of "cultural creatives"), and if so, how does it proceed? Has there been, for example, a reduction of individuals exhibiting behavior predominantly feminine or masculine behavior, and an increase in individuals exhibiting a synthesis of these two types? Can these questions be defined to the point they can be worked with?
Some populations I have been impressed with are openly gay males and women who have been raised in the Reform Judaism practice. Openly gay men seem friendlier, more open, and more excited about life in general than the rest of the population. Perhaps this is due to the process openly gay individuals must go through in coming to express their sexual orientation to others who may not value such expression. The openly gay male may have developed confidence in his ability to question the status quo, and to improve his experience by doing so. My perception of vitality in the openly gay population is probably also due to the acceptance of one's homosexuality placing the more commonly accepted dream out of reach, and requiring a more creative approach to life than that adopted by many in the heterosexual population.
Women raised in Reform Judaism settings seem to me to be more confident, assertive, and powerful than average women. If really so, this could be due to Reform Judaism being non-dogmatic, emphasizing the value of the practice of certain Jewish traditions over particular belief, or even any belief in anything other than a common appreciation of tradition. It also seems that a basic part of a Reform Jewish Shabbat is an open discussion of what the meaning of a particular Torah passage might be. Perhaps these or other characteristics of Reform Judaism foster the personality traits I believed I perceived.
(8) An appreciation of doing nothing: Masanobu Fukuoka's beautiful "One straw revolution" (195?) helped me to embrace a concept latent in myself. Perhaps we should be asking how little we can do to achieve the ends we desire, not how much--in government, education, economy, personal life, in addition to agriculture. I am not sure how to frame this research orientation. Should I study people who stand quietly by the banks of the Hudson presumably waiting for the ends of their rods to quiver? I am interested in the phenomenon of people who are content to simply pass the time. I find myself unable to progress in defining this question... I find myself staring into space with my mind devoid of thought.
(9) Emotion: I am interested in developments in all fields that advance our understanding of the experience of emotion. I am interested in attempts to give artificial entities (e.g. software) emotion and emotion recognizing ability. I find Affect Control Theory thought provoking, though I am not yet very familiar with it.
I have detailed my general research goals and some specific areas of focus. This document is meant to serve as a record of my starting point and as a base from which to work during the coming years. I look forward to progressing on these questions and on others I have not yet thought of during the years I will be working with CUNY's sociology students and faculty.
Possible collaboration with CUNY professors
About the author
Why I am applying only to CUNY and possibly VUB
Social entrepreneurs who interest me
Books I value
I am currently employed as a part-time research assistant on a visual perception study at SUNY College of Optometry. I moved to New York City on August 16 of last year, after having spent a month bicycling through Europe on a recumbent bicycle, following a month of teaching English at language camps in Italy. Prior to that I worked as a part-time programmer for a small software company in Monterey, CA.
While in Monterey, I completed my most significant academic accomplishment to date, a write-up of a longitudinal study titled, "The effect of participation in the Meaning in Life Forum on participants' experiences of meaning in life" (Leath, 1999b). Prior to that paper, I completed a literature review and presentation of theory entitled "The experience of meaning in life from a psychological perspective" (Leath, 1999a). I have submitted these papers as my writing sample with this application. Another paper that expresses an essence of my orientation is "The Aesthetic Experience" (Leath, 1996), which is available, as are the others, on my web site, http://j9k.com.
My primary research focus since 1996 has been the nature of quality experience, with the goal of developing lasting understandings that I could apply to my own experience. From 1996 to the end of 1998, I focused primarily on exploring the effect of different types of interpersonal interaction on personal experience. I dreamed of creating a way of meeting that created such powerful experience that those who had met that way would spread it throughout the world. I found that some among the Quakers had scooped me, but by then my focus had changed.
From March 1998 to June of 1999, I was searching for a nice community to live in. In mid 1999, I began to emphasize approaching experience as a design problem, and then, as art. I detailed some of this effort on a site called experienceartist.org. This orientation led me first to computer programming and then to dance. Dance brought me to New York City for two weeks in January of 2001, where I found the work of Martha Graham and Gabrielle Roth, the Rose Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library, the Performing Arts Library, and more.
If I were to move to New York, I would need a way to support myself, and I did not want to do programming or IT support. I researched counseling. I researched teaching. No epiphany occurred. I wanted an adventure. I had never been to Europe. I took the opportunity to work in Italy as an English instructor and camp counselor. That experience made it clear to me I wanted to teach, not English to the Italian children (though it was a good challenge), but my own research into meaning and social evolution to the other counselors. My subsequent travel through Europe centered partly on where I would begin my work, if not New York City.
I prefer the CUNY Ph.D. program to others because of its application deadline, its size, and location. I only recently defined this specific direction for myself. I prefer to have many possibilities of students and faculty members to work with. I am here to stay in NYC, at least for the amount of time it would take a driven student to complete a Ph.D. program.
That my home is sociology was made clear to me by reading Ritzer's "Modern Sociological Theory," and finding people who ask the same questions I do; by browsing the sociology section of the library, and wanting to read nearly every book; and by inspecting graduate sociology course descriptions, and finding an interest in each one. That now is the time for me to begin a Ph.D. program became clear when I succeeded in defining a research direction I could conceive of following for years.
Possibly I will also apply to Vrij Universiteit Brussels at this time, assuming I would be able to do a significant amount of work while in NYC, before or in between living in Brussels.
Appreciative Inquiry, David Cooperrider
Grace Llewellen's "Teenage liberation handbook" and "It's not back to school camp" (NBTSC.org, re: unschooling)
Centre Leo Apostel (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) http://www.vub.ac.be/CLEA/
Barbara Marx Hubbard's consciousevolution.net
Stuart Brand, New Games Tournament, The Long Now, etc. http://www.well.com/user/sbb/; Bernie DeKoven's DeepFun.com
James Redfield's Celestine Prophecy phenomenon
Daniel Quinn's My Ishmael, and related efforts
Werner Erhard's EST seminars (now Landmark)
Frankie Lee Slater's ArtOfLiving.com
L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology
How I found freedom in an unfree world, Harry Browne
The one straw revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka
Living the good life, Scott and Helen Nearing
Teenage liberation handbook, Grace Llewellen
Top Shape, Joyce Vedral (JoyceVedral.com)
NEWSTART Lifestyle Cookbook, Weimar Institute, weimar.org
My old windsurfing book
Love in the time of cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez