Shamus Khan joins Princeton faculty as professor of sociology and American studies

Friday, Jan 22, 2021
by Sarah Malone

Recent awards for teaching and a Best Book of 2020 mention by NPR recognize Khan as a leading researcher, mentor and teacher with a deep commitment to public engagement.

Shamus Khan

Shamus Khan. Photo by Andres Oyuela

Shamus Khan comes to Princeton from Columbia University, where he was professor and chair of sociology.

“I’m thrilled to welcome Shamus Khan, a very distinguished scholar whose work has had a broad and significant impact in the field of American studies as well as the discipline of sociology,” said Aisha Beliso-De Jesús, professor of American studies and director of the Program in American Studies. “This timely union will enhance and strengthen American studies within the social sciences. We are so fortunate to have his expertise in this joint appointment!”

Khan co-authored with Jennifer S. Hirsch Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus (W.W. Norton and Co., 2020). At Columbia he was a member of the core faculty at Columbia’s Population Research Center at the Mailman School of Public Health, and served on the executive committees of Columbia’s Institute for Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and the Program in American Studies.

Cover of 'Sexual Citizens' by Shamus Khan
Sexual Citizens, an NPR Best Book of 2020, is based on interviews with over 150 undergraduates at Columbia University and Barnard College, nearly 20 focus group discussions, and hundreds of hours of direct observation of students’ everyday lives. It proposes a new approach to preventing sexual assault, by understanding it as a public health problem — an approach that reveals the complex social ecosystem that makes sexual assault a predictable outcome of how communities are organized. Khan and Hirsch use their approach to point to concrete steps that can change outcomes. By analyzing what young adults are trying to accomplish with sex, the power dynamics and relationships influencing them, and the physical spaces in which they encounter one another, Sexual Citizens aims to create “conditions that promote the capacity for sexual self-determination in all people.”

Complementing the work of sociologists who have dealt with inequality by exploring poverty, marginalization and disadvantage, Beliso-De Jesús said, Khan began his career by examining the other side of those processes: wealth, dominance and privilege.

Khan's first book, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School (Princeton University Press, 2011) marks his scholarly contribution in this area. An organizational ethnography of St. Paul’s School, an exclusive American boarding school, it examines what young people learn at elite educational institutions. In it, Khan shows how students conceptualize hierarchies as ladders, not ceilings, and interact with those above (and below) them by creating intimacy without presuming equality. Today’s elite, Khan argues, are uncomfortable both with hierarchies that are too fixed or present, and with societies that seem closed to upward social mobility. Khan argues that today’s elite display greater egalitarianism in tastes and dispositions than elites of previous generations, and use their privilege not to construct boundaries around knowledge and protect it as a resource, but to convince others that they possess by nature what it takes to be successful — a strategy that helps obscure enduring inequality by naturalizing socially generated distinctions. The book received the 2011 C. Wright Mills Award, one of highest honors in the discipline of sociology.

With Dorian Warren, Khan served as director of a Russell Sage Foundation working group on “The Political Influence of Economic Elites.”

As principal investigator of a Andrew W. Mellon Foundation project for the New York Philharmonic, Khan helped create an open data, digital record of the NY Philharmonic’s archive, and used that archive — analyzing where subscribers from the 1870s to today lived in the city and where they sat in the concert hall — to yield insights about the relationship between cultural participation and social status.

He is also the author, with Dana Fisher, of The Practice of Research (Oxford University Press, 2013); with Colin Jerolmack, of Approaches to Ethnography (Oxford University Press, 2017). Along with fellow Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey, he also created the textbook A Sociology Experiment, with the aim of making course materials more accessible to students. In the year since its publication, it has been used by tens of thousands in prisons, community colleges, and the Ivy League.

Khan was from 2015-19 editor in chief of Public Culture. In addition to Khan’s scholarly work, he writes regularly about sociology in the popular press, appearing in The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Washington Post. In 2016 he was awarded Columbia University’s highest teaching honor, the Presidential Teaching Award, and in 2018 he was awarded the Hans L. Zetterberg Prize in Sociology, awarded annually to a researcher who “with his/her scientific work in sociology, preferably through the fruitful combination of theory and practice, has moved the research front forward.”

In the spring 2021 semester, Khan and Mitchell Duneier, professor and chair of sociology, will co-teach a new in-person hybrid seminar, “The Orange Bubble,” which uses the lenses of race, class, gender, and sexuality to help students understand undergraduate life at Princeton. Topics covered include eating clubs, sexual assault, nightlife, admissions, systematic racism, the concepts of merit, inclusion, and equality.

“I am very honored to teach a class with Shamus during his first semester at Princeton.” Duneier said. “It will be a special treat for our seniors to have an in-person seminar before they graduate with this legendary teacher.”