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- CSS Director Earl Lewis Named Distinguished University Professor
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At the Center for Social Solutions, Justin Shaffner is a research associate. But it’s what he experienced before he started working here that really defines who he is and how he approaches things.
Even at a young age, Shaffner enjoyed expanding his knowledge. “My parents had a complete set of 1957 World Book Encyclopedias, and as a kid I would sit for hours in my bedroom reading through them and cross checking different subjects. There were seemingly no limitations. Disciplines are often narrow, with restricted domains. But with the encyclopedias, it felt wide open, like I could travel the world from my bedroom.”
Shaffner’s curiosity proved insatiable. While working at a bookstore years later, he met Michael Wesch, who was pursuing a graduate degree in anthropology—a subject that Shaffner had never really considered. “I was blown away by the possibility of a discipline dedicated to traveling and learning about the world and others in it."
This propelled Shaffner to return to school to pursue anthropology, and eventually conduct 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, with communities living amidst several resource extraction projects threatening both the environment and health of the population. His research focused on the experiences of community leaders as they attempted to elicit and maintain productive relations across various global alliances, from regional ritual networks to relations with transnational mining and logging corporations, NGOs, and the state.
“My time in Papua New Guinea made me question everything I thought I knew. It was a shock, a real education. I was confronted with a radically different world. That experience of deracination, coupled with the friendships made, provide a continual vantage point to reflect upon both what it means to be human, as well as the different kinds of worlds we make for ourselves.”
Shaffner places a high value on education, but he wants to be clear he does not mean it in the traditional sense. “Richard Rorty argued that education should entail expanding one’s moral imagination to include diverse historical experiences other than your own, or as Jadran Mimica once put it, to recognize every other as the possibility of oneself. Rorty placed great importance on literature—especially history, ethnography, journalism and the novel—in its ability to communicate something about lives lived elsewhen, elsewhere, and elsehow.”
To this, Shaffner says he would add travel. “Going out and having conversations with others confronts you with new experiences and perspectives. The more that we can begin acknowledging in an inclusive manner the different ways of being human, the better equipped and ready we will be to tackle the future.”
In Papua New Guinea, Shaffner worked with community leaders whose task it was to gather and leverage diverse perspectives and knowledge toward solving social problems. These leaders, Shaffner explained, did not just want to identify issues or discuss them academically. They were interested in actually solving them. Their lives depended on it.
At the Center for Social Solutions, we strive to accomplish the exact same thing. While uncovering and diagnosing society’s greatest social ills is an important step in the process, we believe that engaging in discussions and investigations that produce real action is the only way to tackle the issues that keep us from achieving a successful democracy.
Though Shaffner says he is “not an expert” on any of the Center’s initiatives, when he first began work here, he soon discovered that his past experience was all that he needed. “It is less about being or becoming an expert, and more about finding ways to leverage the power of diversity—different historical experiences and ways of thinking and being—toward the greater good. And that takes time.”