What is sociology's David Cunningham doing NOW?

He talks truth and reconciliation, the KKK and how president-elect Barack Obama is impacting his research

David Cunningham

David Cunningham is an associate professor of sociology whose primary research and teaching interests focus on community-level contexts for the emergence of social change. Given the historical 2008 presidential race, BrandeisNOW figured this was a great time to talk with Cunningham about what he's working on.

BrandeisNOW: What are you teaching right now?

DC: Well, this semester I am teaching a new University Seminar (USEM) called How to Travel. And it really kind of focuses on how people attach to places and think about home, and then how they move to other places and engage with people there. But next semester I’m excited about a course I’m teaching that’s formally called Applied Research Methods, but it’s basically involving students collectively in a broad social justice-oriented project, where we’re partnering with the University of Mississippi to work on a project called the Mississippi Truth Project, which is culminating in a statewide truth and reconciliation committee that relates to civil rights era racial violence in Mississippi. We’re doing a lot of the background research work for that project, and students are going to be working together with students in Mississippi on this. The idea is that throughout the semester we’ll be compiling a database and having students do some preliminary analysis and gathering data that will directly inform the commission’s work.

BrandeisNOW: What are the goals of the commission?

DC: They’re really designed to provide a space for people to tell stories about patterns of racial violence during the civil rights era in Mississippi, which was incredibly brutal, and also to think about how what happened then relates to inequities in Mississippi today.

BrandeisNOW: Why do issues of social justice and racial inequality interest you so much from an academic standpoint?

DC: For a long time I’ve been interested in different forms of inequities related to power differences, and especially in America, just the idea of race is at the center of so many of those sorts of things. The major research project I’m working on lately relates to the Ku Klux Klan during the civil rights era, so I’m kind of focused on efforts by white folks to resist the tide of civil rights and things like that. I guess I’ve long been interested in groups that try to hang on to different types of power or more importantly are trying to create or eliminate disparities, so how those kinds of justice issues related to power differences have always really interested me.

BrandeisNOW: The 2008 presidential election stirred up public conversation that was directly connected to your research focus areas. How has the election of Sen. Barack Obama impacted what you’re talking about with students, as well as your research?

DC: Research-wise its really been fascinating for a lot of reasons. My project on the KKK is actually focused on the state of North Carolina, which was by far the most active Klan state in the whole country. And the fact that Obama won North Carolina is really phenomenal, because you’re going from a state that had at least 15,000 dues-paying Klan members less than 40 years ago to a state that was electing the first African-American president. So those sorts of differences- I’m really interested in those transformations and how so much can change in that way in such a short period of time. What Obama symbolized as a candidate and now as a president-elect, it just makes it seem incredibly timely to revisit our history in this way and really see it as an opportunity to think about truth that accommodates serious stories related to these things and leading to ideas of justice, but also ideas of reconciliation around past conflicts. So, it seems to me that more than any time in my lifetime, certainly, the possibilities for both justice and reconciliation are just enormous.

BrandeisNOW: Returning back to your USEM on time and place, how has your own time and place influenced the direction of your academic career?

DC: I grew up in central Connecticut and I’ve been at Brandeis since I got out of graduate school. I went to graduate school in North Carolina, so I feel like my experiences in all those places, in terms of both student teaching and research, being in New England and being in Southern communities, and seeing those sorts of differences has, in a lot of ways, sparked my curiosities about things. Obviously, my research on the Klan in North Carolina stems back to my living in North Carolina, and being at Brandeis, a place where issues of social justice are so central to a lot of its mission, really creates an environment that I feel both fits what I’m interested in, but also shapes how I’m interested in it, because I meet so many interesting people- both students and alumni- who have been involved with things here. It’s just embedded with what happens day-to-day here, so I just feel that has always been a big influence.

BrandeisNOW: Are there any other big projects on the horizon for you?

DC: The Klan project is something I’m in the midst of writing a book on, so that takes up a lot of my time, and the Mississippi project is going to take up a lot of time over the next two years. There are some teaching interests that go along with that where I’m going to be- and I’ve done this with professor Mark Auslander in the Department of Anthropology a couple of years ago- we brought students down to Mississippi and we worked with the communities there doing oral history work and archival research and things like that. I’m in the process of thinking through expanding that a bit and then tying it to interviews related to the truth and reconciliation process as well. My other big interest now is probably schooling and issues of school segregation and desegregation, so I’ll probably move more to that in the coming years as well.  

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