Meet Christina Simko

The Department is thrilled to welcome Christina Simko, who will be joining us as Assistant Professor of Sociology. At the recent annual meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society, Professor Simko met with Susmita Paul ’16, and answered a couple of her questions.

1. What courses will you be teaching at Williams in thesimko.headshot coming academic year?

In the Fall, I’ll be hitting the ground running with courses on “Media Events” and “Memory and Forgetting.” In the Spring, I’m teaching “Invitation to Sociology” and a course called “Symbols and Society.”

2. What led you to specialize in cultural and historical sociology? 

 For a long time, I thought I would be an English major in college. I’ve always been drawn to literature, and as a child, I read so voraciously that I’d sometimes try to hide a book on my lap at the dinner table! Later, as an undergraduate, I discovered that the same analytic skills that helped me understand literary texts could also help me unravel the social world—that I could “read” and interpret social life as a kind of text in its own right. One of the quintessential insights of sociology is that we humans are, at our core, meaning-making creatures. At both biographical and collective levels, we construct narratives in an effort to bring coherence to concrete, and often disparate, experiences. We become characters in dramas of our own making—enacting “roles,” playing out “scripts” (and sometimes rewriting them!), and, often, organizing our experiences with reference to familiar plot structures. So, my identity as a cultural sociologist emerged organically out of the literary sensibility I brought to my study of the social world from the beginning.

My identity as a historical sociologist evolved more slowly. In graduate school, I started researching the political discourse surrounding the events of September 11, 2001, in the United States. As I tried to understand how public officials narrated or “emplotted” these events, I realized that I had to understand this political discourse historically. Political leaders interpreted September 11 as a moment in a much longer narrative, and so this new and in many ways anomalous event was filtered through memories of familiar referents such as Lexington and Concord, Valley Forge, Gettysburg, and Pearl Harbor. I think the historical sociologist Philip Abrams said it perfectly: “the past is not just the womb of the present but the only raw material out of which the present can be constructed.” And so my effort to construct a rich cultural sociology of September 11 led me deeper and deeper into the past. While I’m eager to tackle new and relatively recent cases, I think I’ll always pay particular attention to the legacies of the past in the present—to how the “tradition of all dead generations,” as Marx put it, “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

3. What inspired you to study collective crises?

One wellspring for my interest in collective crises is the literary sensibility I bring to my sociology and my overriding concern with meaning-making as fundamental to the human condition. Events are defined as crises when they create a breach in collective narratives—when people perceive a gap between how the world is and how it ought to be. How do collectivities cope with these breaches? What interpretive and existential resources do they have for coming to terms with the human suffering that so frequently accompanies crisis events?

My interest in crises also stems from my commitment to connecting—or, really, reconnecting—sociologists with fundamental human questions that are now ordinarily assumed to be the province of theology or philosophy. What is the meaning of suffering? What is evil, and why do we seem to have so much of it in our world? The classical tradition was very much in dialogue with philosophy and thus attuned to these existential matters. I’ve taken particular inspiration from Max Weber’s writings on “theodicy,” a term he borrowed from theologians and philosophers and adapted for his social theory. Now, as a cultural sociologist, my goal is not to answer these questions directly—to account for the meaning of suffering or the nature of evil. But I do think that sociology can—and should—provide a theoretically informed interpretation of people’s answers, and an account of how they vary across space and over time. For instance, how do people interpret “natural” disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods versus acts of violence? How did people understand the 1906 San Francisco earthquake versus Hurricane Katrina? So, studying collective crises is one way of keeping sociology connected with these basic existential and philosophical questions that seem to be a fundamental part of the human experience.

4. From looking at the “Teaching” subpage on your website, I’m honored to see that you’ll be bringing your expertise in tying history and biography together (a lá C. Wright Mills) to Williams, especially with helping students making connections between dense theory and their own lived experience. How do you go about forging these links in your own research and academic pursuits?

 For me, these links have become more subtle and implicit over time. In introductory courses, I’ll encourage students to reflect sociologically on their own biographies. For instance, how did your “social location” influence your subsequent trajectory? How have the social contexts you inhabit influenced the way you remember and retell the story of your childhood and adolescence? I still remember my own “aha” moment in my introductory sociology course—how my jaw dropped in recognition when my professor suggested that the “self” is not an inherent and unchanging identity, but a social construct that changes profoundly across situations and over time.

But even as we move on to broader questions, our biographies inevitably influence our interests. I was a teenager on September 11, 2001, and surely my generational standpoint informs my interest in that particular “breach” in U.S. national narratives. I heard political leaders proclaim that the post-Cold War moment, a time of relative peace and prosperity, had come to an end, and my friends and I certainly perceived that our sense of security had been disrupted. Witnessing the events from in rural Virginia, I was struck by the power that national symbolism seemed to hold for so many of the people around me—people flew the flag, sang the national anthem and other patriotic songs, and put “God Bless America” bumper stickers on their cars and trucks. Many seemed to derive extraordinary comfort and consolation, as well as a sense of solidarity, from these expressions of patriotism. At the time, I had no idea that a sociological research agenda was taking root, but in retrospect, it’s clear that my project on September 11 sprung at least in part from these experiences. So, there are a number of reasons why I was drawn to that case, but the intersection of biography and history was one of the most powerful.

5. What led you to Williams? Or, how did you first hear about our school? And what were your first impressions when you visited?

I applied to graduate school with the ambition of teaching at a small liberal arts college, so I’ve long admired Williams from afar. There are a couple reasons why I’ve always been attracted to the liberal arts context. For one, I’ve benefited tremendously from close mentoring relationships, and I’m thrilled to join the faculty at an institution that will provide a rich context for “paying it forward.” As an undergraduate, my professors supported me in undertaking original research and opened new horizons of possibility for me when they encouraged me to pursue a PhD. I learned sociology in dynamic, participatory seminars; faculty responded thoughtfully and thoroughly to my written work; and I was able to continue these conversations one-on-one in office hours. In graduate school, I had an extraordinary mentor who has become a collaborator and a constant source of intellectual camaraderie. I’ve derived incredible energy from my teachers, and I’ll be bringing it with me as I join the faculty at Williams.

Liberal arts colleges also offer unique opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, exchange, and synthesis. My research and teaching are firmly grounded in the sociological tradition, but as I’m sure you can tell, I’m also committed to putting this tradition in conversation with other disciplines. I draw both explicitly and implicitly on literary theory, reading social life as a kind of “text.” My work on suffering is deeply informed by philosophy and religious studies, especially the concept of “theodicy.” I turn constantly to cultural history in order to place more contemporary data in context. And I draw on political theory as well as social theory broadly conceived in order to make sense of my findings. During my campus visit at Williams, I was struck by the ease with which faculty engage in cross-disciplinary dialogue. I’m especially eager to talk with students as they connect ideas in new and creative ways and think about education holistically, reflecting on how the ideas we engage in the classroom might inform a way of life both within and beyond the Williams context.

When I visited, my overall impression was that Williams is remarkably friendly, intellectually serious, and breathtakingly beautiful—an extraordinary combination. I grew up in Virginia, so the Berkshires are ostensibly new territory for me. But in other ways, Williamstown immediately felt like home: I grew up with the Appalachian Trail practically in my backyard. I know I’ve been gone for too long when I start to miss the mountains. In Williamstown, they’ll be right there for me once again.

—This interview was conducted by Susmita Paul, Sociology ’16