Neubauer Collegium’s new research projects to tackle complex global questions

From the impact of a new government health insurance program in India to the profound questions surrounding death and end-of-life care, the 15 new research projects supported by the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago aim to provide new ways of studying some of the most complex questions facing contemporary society.

Now in its second year, the Neubauer Collegium has established itself as a thriving center for innovative, collaborative and cross-disciplinary research in the humanities and social sciences. Last year, the Neubauer Collegium’s 18 inaugural research projects brought together leading scholars from across UChicago and the world to tackle topics ranging from global literary networks to the economics of historical societies to the future of Iraq’s intelligentsia.


"Like our inaugural group of research projects, this new class of projects is inspirational. The difficulty and scale of the questions they are asking, the diversity of their approaches to those questions, the breadth of the conversations they are catalyzing across the campus and beyond: These are exactly the kinds of inquiry that the Neubauer Collegium was founded to support,” said David Nirenberg, the Roman Family Director of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society. “The projects range across topics from death and violence to art and comedy, and unite scholars from just about all the divisions of our University. But what they have in common is that they all promise to teach us something vital about our world.”

Speaking across disciplines

For its faculty fellows, the Neubauer Collegium offers a rare opportunity to undertake sustained, collaborative research projects that straddle the interests and methodologies of multiple fields.

While many centers and institutes provide funding for short-term collaborations and workshops, the Neubauer Collegium is unique in its support for more ambitious collaborative projects, according to Paul Staniland, assistant professor in political science and the College.

“It is an opportunity to speak across disciplines in a way that is really hard to do otherwise,” said Staniland.

For Anup Malani, the Lee and Brena Freeman Professor at the University of Chicago Law School and a professor at the Pritzker School of Medicine, the Neubauer Collegium is “more than a source of funding—it’s about intellectual contributions to our methodologies.”

New approaches to contemporary questions

Along with their collaborators, Malani and Staniland will undertake Neubauer Collegium research projects that apply diverse methodologies to the study of contemporary concerns.

“Unpacking the Value of Health Insurance in India” will build upon ongoing economic, psychological and epidemiological research examining the impact of a new government-sponsored health insurance program that will extend benefits to some 300 million Indians. The initial project, which Malani led, followed the financial and health outcomes of 12,000 households.

With support from the Neubauer Collegium, the team has grown to include Anuj Shah, assistant professor at Chicago Booth; Alessandra Voena, assistant professor in Economics and the College; as well as cultural anthropologists and ethnographers from Yale University, University College in London and the University of Edinburgh.

Malani said the Neubauer Collegium’s leaders encouraged the team to merge the qualitative research methods of the humanistic social sciences with quantitative methods to gain a more holistic view of health insurance, how Indians perceive it and how it influences well-being.

“They provided great intellectual guidance,” Malani said. “What they wanted was not just to help us think about how we can answer our questions with help from other disciplines, but also foster dialogue across different disciplines about how we do our research.”

Staniland will partner with fellow political scientist Benjamin Lessing and sociologist Forrest Stuart to study how citizens and the government navigate issues of violence and social control.

Using ethnographic, historical and quantitative research methods, the team hopes to understand how citizens and non-state actors respond when government puts its power into action. The team will undertake field research in three very different areas—Latin America, South and Southeast Asia, and Los Angeles’ skid row—and hold public workshops on campus.

Not only does the project unite geographic regions that are rarely studied together, “it brings together toolkits that are not often used in combination,” Staniland said.

Shedding new light on history

Alongside projects with a contemporary focus, several Neubauer Collegium projects offer new approaches to the study of the past.

“Humanism, Classics and the Historical,” led by Boris Maslov and Rocco Rubini, hopes to facilitate a dialogue between scholars in classics and Renaissance studies about their fields’ shared foundational questions, such as the place of history, historical consciousness and the role of humanism. Support from the Collegium will enable UChicago faculty to bring leading scholars from around the world for a series of colloquia designed to refine common research questions and create new hybrid forms for exchanging ideas that bridge disciplinary practices.

“Knowing and Doing: Text and Labor in Asian Handwork,” led by Jacob Eyferth and Donald Harper, aims to develop a new understanding of the interaction between theorists and craftspeople in premodern and modern societies. The project compares different ways artisanal knowledge was passed on, whether by hand or through text. 

While there is a significant body of scholarship on crafts and skills in European society, Asian handwork has received less attention. In addition to field research on East and South Asian crafts and texts, Eyferth and Harper will convene a series of symposia on campus focused on the relationship between people who work with pen and paper and those who work with their hands.

“Our sense was that there was a whole new field on mind and hand emerging. We wanted to contribute,” explained Eyferth, associate professor in East Asian Languages and Civilizations.

Eyferth believes the Neubauer Collegium will provide an ideal forum for the new line of research. “It gives us the freedom to experiment,” he said.

The Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society was founded in June 2012, and is named in honor of Joseph Neubauer, MBA’65, and Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer. Their $26.5 million gift to the University is among the largest in support of the humanities and social sciences in the institution’s history. The Neubauer Collegium was formally inaugurated in October 2013 with a lecture by internationally acclaimed artist William Kentridge.