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Family of Fellows: Q&A with Andy Lakoff

Andrew Lakoff
Jul 24 2017

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Andrew Lakoff, a 2016-17 CASBS fellow, is associate professor of anthropology, sociology, and communication at the University of Southern California. His new book is Unprepared: Global Health in a Time of Emergency (Univ. of California Press).

OK so that’s pretty interesting. Also interesting is that both of his parents – George Lakoff and Robin Lakoff – were CASBS fellows in 1971-72. George was in study #7; Robin was in study #12. Unlike with 2016-17 fellow Robin Stryker, we can’t wax poetic about the nostalgic or sentimental beauty of Andy spending a year in one of those studies; Andy was in study #11 – next door to mom. But the family connection nevertheless is pretty cool, so we talked to Andy about it.

CASBS: In your fellows intro months ago, you made the crowd aware of the family lineage, then quipped about feeling like you’re in a Shakespearean play or something. It got a great laugh. So how did you feel when you arrived in September – or feel now, months later, if differently?

Andy Lakoff: I should say I first came to CASBS [as an adult] in 2015 for a workshop. Until then CASBS had been a kind of hallowed place in family history. But in coming here as a fellow, I suddenly understood, in a more concrete sense, of why this is such an exciting place to be. Not only is it a great individual experience for me and my family to spend a year here. [Editor’s note: Daniela Bleichmar, a USC associate professor of art history and art, as well as Andy’s wife, was a 2016-17 visiting scholar at CASBS. The two brought their daughters, Natalia and Paloma.] But the experience also has solidified some ties with my parents, here 45 years ago.

C: Last year when we did our occasional reach-out to former fellows soliciting news they might want to share, your mom, Robin Lakoff, replied and added this little gem: “We had a small child, Andy, with us, who was between ages 1-2 that year, and spent his days at the Stanford Day Care Center, to which I remain profoundly grateful. Andy himself mostly encountered the other fellows at monthly gatherings – he made valiant efforts to keep his distance from [CASBS fellow] Bruno Bettelheim.”

AL: It’s a famous joke of my mom’s because Bettelheim, of course, was a renowned child psychologist! One of the funny things she says is that you would think, as a child psychologist, he would be good with kids. But apparently he struck fear in me as a toddler…

[Editor’s note: Wikipedia indicates Bettelheim “had an international reputation” for, among other things, his work on emotionally disturbed children. We’ll just leave that there…]

AL: While I’m at it, another interesting thing came out of a conversation with my mom. She mentioned she was one of only two women in the entire 1971-72 CASBS class. So there’s been a massive transformation in the last four decades in how academia works. We have rough gender parity nowadays at CASBS.

[Editor’s note: The other female fellow in 1971-72 was South African anthropologist Monica Wilson.]

C: Oh cool – Margaret [Levi, CASBS director] loves emphasizing that positive change over time!

AL: Also, the monthly social gatherings were a little awkward for my mom, since she was a fellow but fellows’ wives were expected to prepare the hors d’oeuvres. She actually liked to make hors d’oeuvres and wanted to participate, but felt she was being put in a funny place. It’s an interesting historical difference when you contrast my experience with that of my parents.

C: Both your parents did important work while here at CASBS. Do you feel like you’re doing work here that potentially can or will be impactful, or that you’re continuing a tradition…at least until your kid becomes a CASBS fellow?!

AL: Well, while here I finished the forthcoming book Unprepared; at the very least a shelf in the Center’s famed Ralph Tyler Collection will contain my work. That’s just one of a few things I’ve been up to…

One thing I learned from talking to my father about his CASBS experience is that you cannot predict why you are here – what the impact of having been here will be in the future. In other words, he said he made a number of contingent connections, learned about work he didn’t know about, and met people he hadn’t known before – all of which shaped his scholarship over the next decade in unpredictable ways.

C: We love hearing that!

AL: So of course I hope my year here will have an impact on my work and the fields I want to contribute to. But I’d like to think that I don’t actually know quite yet what that impact is going to be, or how it will come to be.

Even though there’s been a lot of really fruitful interactions this year and I’ve enjoyed a really creative year of thinking and writing, the great thing about CASBS is that you encounter things that kind-of stew over the years that follow. That’s what both my parents told me.

C: I would think that stewing or percolating process might be amplified in your case, since you are really interdisciplinary – it’s almost baked into you intellectually. You’re part sociologist, part anthropologist, part communication, and part historian of social science.

AL: That’s right. And this year I still learned a lot from fellows in fields I don’t know: psychology, philosophy, political science, public health, even dentistry. Most weeks, particularly during fellows seminars, I was actually encountering a field I didn’t know much about, despite thinking of myself as interdisciplinary.

C: In your case, interdisciplinary interests often come with a desire to collaborate. This year you’re collaborating with Eric [Klinenberg], I know, but you’ve shown me other work in collaboration with others.

AL: You know, the architecture of CASBS is a good analogy for the way I like to work. We have our studies to be by ourselves and write. But we also have common, social spaces where we talk about what we’ve been up to. Those are the places where I get some energy and inspiration in figuring-out ways I might connect with other scholars.

For example, upon arrival here I had a chance to revisit a long-running interest in the history of 20th-century social sciences. Being at CASBS has been a perfect way to convene people whose work I find interesting in this area.

C: Your parents were here during a tumultuous time – the Vietnam War, the anti-war protest movement, and so forth. There was even an arson here at CASBS in 1970 that was thought to be linked to anti-war protesters. And now you were here during a time when the country took a weird turn of sorts – no one in your CASBS class will forget where he or she was for the 2016 presidential election. It dominated a lot of lunchtime conversations among the fellows and surely will stick in your heads for a while, right?

AL: It’s true. It’s been incredibly distracting. But it may positively influence the direction of our work, in the sense of trying to figure-out how the kind of social science we’re doing can or will be relevant in this era. What’s our place in social life? It’s been quite striking for most of us. So yes, it will help this year stick in our memories…