My approach toward teaching and research is shaped by my experiences attending and later on teaching in NYC public schools. My encounter with classrooms as both sites of marginalization and hope inform my goal of opening up generative spaces for challenging normative ideas, and imagining practices of freedom we have yet to experience. My work is also informed by my disciplinary background in anthropology, and the sociocultural foundations of education. These emphasize a productive tension between theory and practice. This means not only applying theory to explain social and cultural processes, but using long-term observations of everyday life to push and refine theory. My teaching strives to equip students with experiences that will lead them to make connections between theory and practice through placement in fieldsites. I constantly encourage them not to jam the complexities of social life into a theoretical framework, but to use those moments of friction and misalignment to critique and challenge theory. In turn, my students are constantly sharpening my own theoretical understandings through their astute field observations, and through sharing about their own life stories.
My research aims to deconstruct popular liberal ideas. People often have positive associations with the term diversity. Many view its widespread acceptance as a sign of social progress. My research, however, examines the underbelly of liberal values like diversity by tracking its transformation in a changing global political economy. I explore how celebratory discourses about increased racial and economic diversity often obscures the ways in which it limits access to high-quality public schools for the district’s most vulnerable students. This speaks to the limits of well-meaning liberalism. It explores the management of difference in a neoliberal era, which promotes a duplicitous inclusion that is ultimately exclusionary.
Another strand of my research examines the formation of alliances and solidarity among different racial groups. Forming solidarity among groups is commonly thought of as a positive means of advancing social progress. But when these alliances are based on notions of shared suffering, this creates a false equivalence between different racialized experiences, which undermines the work of racial justice. I theorize the concept of thick solidarity as an attempt to forge alliances in ways that do not gloss over difference, but pushes into the specificity, irreducibility, and incommensurability of racialized experiences. A current project examines the work of Asian-American youth activist groups that are also allies of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Their strategic alliance-building illustrates how to build solidarity in ways that are consequential and politically responsible.
My work has been supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the American Educational Research Association, and Penn’s Urban Studies Program. My research articulates with the anthropology of education, activism, ethics, migration, and urban studies.
Liu, R., & Shange, S. (2018). Toward Thick Solidarity: Theorizing Empathy in Social Justice Movements. Radical History Review, 131
Liu, R. Reclaiming Urban Space, Legacies. (12)1.
Liu, R. & Lui, D. (2012). Growing Up is Activism. 20-minute, Non-fiction Digital Film.
Liu, R., Lewis, E., & Snellinger, A. (2011). Editorial Introduction to Virtual Issues on Youth. Cultural Anthropology Online.
ED 14: Introduction to Education
ED 46/SOAN 040: Race, Nation, Empire, and Education
ED 65: Qualitative Research Methods
ED 68/SOAN 020: Urban Education