Erik Schneiderhan

Sociology Professor Erik SchneiderhanThree years ago Erik Schneiderhan sat in an interview with two U of T Mississauga faculty members, whom he says blew him away with their energy and dynamism. He left this interview full of excitement, and decided that the University of Toronto would be a great fit for him and his family. 

Currently as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, Schneiderhan teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in subjects such as Contemporary Social Theory and Political Sociology. He conducts research, which he also uses to support student learning, through U of T Mississauga’s Research Opportunity Program. Schneiderhan loves the interaction with students. “As they are formulating their ideas and their world views, I like being a part of that process,” says Schneiderhan. “And I feel honored to have the opportunity to help shape those ideas.”

It was about 10 years ago while working as a Teaching Assistant at the University of Wisconsin that Schneiderhan felt this surge of enthusiasm for education. “The more time I spent in the classroom, the more excited I got about teaching and generating ideas,” says Schneiderhan. He also found himself increasingly interested in the sociological approach that thinks about structure and social relations with political dimensions, specifically in terms of democracy and the allocation of (state) resources. This reflects Schneiderhan’s earlier life prior to venturing into academia when he worked on political campaigns and as a policy analyst in New Hampshire.  

Schneiderhan’s research has consisted of archival work on 19th-century charity in the United States and Canada, in conjunction with an exploration of pragmatist theory. Pragmatism is a philosophy grounded in connecting experience and practice to theory in order to ask and hopefully discover how and why people do what they do. His project takes a theoretical approach to showing how pragmatist social theory can help us to understand historical events in different ways, particularly the unintentional dimensions of social phenomena.

More recently, Schneiderhan has done field experiments in London and Birmingham, England, working with The Runnymede Trust, the leading think tank on race and ethnic issues in the United Kingdom. With this organization, Schneiderhan and his collaborator, Shamus Khan from Columbia University, work to create deliberative assemblies, where groups of multi-ethnic minorities can get together and talk about their concerns for financial security, retirement, and social inclusion. [The most recent deliberation in Birmingham, England, can be viewed here.] Schneiderhan’s earlier work shows that deliberation in a political milieu differs from just talking. “Deliberation is a different way of communicating that leads to better outcomes because it is grounded in inclusiveness and reason giving,” says Schneiderhan, who has also researched deliberation on the U of T Mississauga campus with about 150 UTM students discussing opinions about who should hold the responsibility to cover tuition costs.

Schneiderhan describes his deliberation research as “current and relevant,” and through his work he has found that the people he worked with in England mainly want their concerns to be validated. “We have created a space where they could be heard and have a voice,” says Schneiderhan. “Now we’re taking the results of those conversations and we’re bringing them to policymakers through the Runnymede Trust, and that has a potential to have a real impact through policy and through heightened awareness; it has a real opportunity to impact their lives.”

Schneiderhan notes that there are often concerns with a breakdown in communication within heterogeneous and multi-ethnic groups. However he has found in his research that mixed groups have a high quality of discourse, often engaging in “robust and spirited political communication.”

As a part of his next project, Schneiderhan plans to conduct similar multi-ethnic deliberations, comparatively, in Canada, Great Britain, and the United States. Schneiderhan hopes to conduct bigger projects looking at the reality of multiculturalism in terms of people’s everyday lives. He is trying to bring questions of racial and ethnic justice to Canada and then do a comparative analysis with similar countries.

In the midst of an active teaching and research agenda, Schneiderhan still devotes much of his time to his family. He enjoys spending time with his two young kids and two dogs, and he trains for triathlons with his wife. “She is much better at it than I am,” he admits with a chuckle. Schneiderhan also enjoys reading, particularly science-fiction and fantasy novels. Growing up, Schneiderhan says he learned to cook from his mother and now does all of the cooking at home. When asked about his signature dish, he says that he makes “a really good bouillabaisse and a great Lasagna.”

Much like that perfect go-to recipe, Schneiderhan has found a great balance that equally blends his love of teaching and research combined with his interests in sociology and politics; a fusion that allows him to shape and explore ideas both inside and outside of the classroom. And it’s clear from listening to him speak so passionately about his work that he found the ideal complement at U of T Mississauga.

By Baasima Parnell-Hendrickson