Discover more from On Humanity
Interview with Nicholas Pang :: Creative Humans
Spotlighting a sociologist, researcher, and curious human
Welcome to Creative Humans, a feature of On Humanity to engage and inspire readers to create new things and share your own creative journeys. Below is a recent email conversation with Nick Pang, a longtime friend from college, on factors that shaped the contours of his sociology research and some of the behind-the-scenes efforts he has exerted in writing his dissertation, outlining his sources of inspiration, methods, personal family background, thoughts on the broader impact of this work, and future plans. I hope you enjoy reading, and feel free to reach out if you’d like to be connected!
If you’d like to be interviewed on anything you do for inspiration — or know someone who might — please reach out by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org!
Nicholas Pang is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Computational Social Science at Columbia Business School. In the summer of 2023, he completed his PhD in sociology at Columbia University. In his free time, he enjoys hiking, cooking, and reading a mix of nonfiction histories, magical realist novels, and moral philosophy.
1. What kind of research do you do?
I do sociological research. Sociology is a social scientific discipline that examines things like norms, laws, or group identities as “sui generis” phenomena that cannot be reduced to their individual (psychological or biological) bases. Within sociology, I am interested in how legal codes and judicial systems shape the constitution of social groups, and conversely, how social groups influence the enactment and practice of law. Concretely, my dissertation looks at how racialized understandings of economic failure as about “unfortunate” white men shaped the enactment of American bankruptcy law in the early 20th century. In turn, I show how the subsequent practice of the law - which reduced levels of debt relief for Black Americans - actually served to exacerbate the racial wealth gap.
2. What led you to the field of sociology in the first place? How have your academic interests changed over the past decade?
I originally became interested in sociology because it spoke to my experiences as a first generation college student at Princeton. In a freshman writing seminar, we read the work of a major social theorist (Pierre Bourdieu). His works provided me with a language to explain how class is not simply about money, but rather about cultural attributes (e.g., classical music, Impressionist painting, speaking “standard” English) and social relationships (e.g., who you know and who they know). Later during my college career, after taking courses in related social sciences and humanities, I decided that I appreciated how sociology was uniquely open to asking a wide range of questions about the world and answering them using a broad toolkit of data and methods, such as interviews, surveys, and archival research. Since college, I have become interested in how sociological insights can be applied back to understanding economic life. Specifically, what type of relationships are even considered “economic”, and how do cultural values and social ties shape the functioning of these relationships?
3. Knowing (from prior encounters) that your dissertation is on bankruptcy law in the US, can you share with readers some reasons that led you to choose this topic? Feel free to also elaborate on your project’s goals.
My interest in bankruptcy is rooted in my family’s financial struggles during the Great Recession. While no one in my family petitioned for bankruptcy protections during this time, I have strong memories of the stress that my parents were under, and the endless attempts to avoid picking up the phone for debt collectors. Given that this recession was precipitated by a housing bubble and financial crisis, I eventually became interested in why personal lending became such a central part of the American personal economy. More recently, when choosing a dissertation topic, I learned that market credit oriented towards individuals only became common in the early twentieth-century - and the United States did not even have a federal bankruptcy statute until 1898. As such, I decided to focus on how bankruptcy - a legal system organizing debt/asset collection and distribution to creditors - facilitated the expansion of American personal credit markets.
4. What kinds of data analysis tools do you employ in your work? How would you rate the usefulness of each?
In my dissertation, I employ a range of different data analysis tools, including unsupervised natural language processing (NLP), econometric methods, and qualitative text analysis. Given that many NLP methodologists in the social sciences emphasize that these methods “augment” rather than replace traditional reading, I rely heavily on qualitative readings of a sample of legislative records, trade publications, and media. I do not think that any method is inherently more “useful” than the others. Rather they help to answer different types of questions. I use econometric methods to zoom out to see what type of people (and debtors) filed for bankruptcy protection, while NLP makes it possible to read and classify reams of text about bankruptcy instantaneously. Yet reading remains essential to making sure that econometric and NLP models’ output “makes sense” and aligns with how the bankruptcy system actually functioned.
5. Do you enjoy more the process of learning and discovering new information, doing data analysis, or synthesizing and writing about your findings? How so?
I always love reading insightful books on my topic, but the moments of true magic are when I think that I figured something out. It might be when I am collecting data, such as when I find a particularly useful document in a messy stack of archival folders. It might also be during data analysis, when I find an unexpectedly promising result. Finally, I find the process of synthesis and (re)writing less exhilarating, but it is satisfying to see loosely connected analyses and facts come together to make an argument larger than the sum of its parts.
6. Where have you had opportunities to travel in search for primary or secondary sources? Would you like to share any interesting stories or adventures that took place along the way?
I have traveled to access records at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC and the National Archives in Kansas City, MO. Since the National Archives is prohibited by the federal government from owning property, they have increasingly moved records to giant underground caves outside of Kansas City where storage space is very cheap. Most of America’s historical bankruptcy records are stored in Kansas City, so I have spent about six weeks there spread out over five trips. I have no special adventures, though I certainly felt like I was living on the edge trying to walk - rather than drive - around Kansas City. If anyone has a weekend in Kansas City, I would recommend visiting the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s amazing Asian art exhibits and the superb World War I museum (with a cool Art Deco memorial). If you’re a BBQ aficionado, you can try out their special tangy burnt ends, though it’s not for me!
7. How has the pandemic impacted your research, if at all?
The pandemic reoriented my dissertation towards a focus on how people thought and talked about bankruptcy. The National Archives were closed from March 2020 until April 2022. Therefore, the bulk of my bankruptcy record data collection was postponed from the summer of 2020 to the summer of 2022. While this pushed back my analyses of how people used bankruptcy, it gave me more time to examine (largely online documents) to understand how people thought about credit and bankruptcy during the early twentieth-century United States.
8. What considerations do you use to determine when a specific chapter or subsection of your work is complete? Is there a point at which you say, “that’s enough!” and promptly conclude the example or case being researched? How do you limit the scope and level of detail in your write-up?
I find it challenging to bound what each portion of my research is trying to say. This is amplified by the fact that I work with observational data where I often need to piece together different analyses and information together rather than analyze a single (natural) experiment. However, I think that it is helpful to iteratively ask myself a few questions throughout the process of completing a project, such as what is my research question? How am I answering this question? What am I empirically arguing? And what are the implications of this finding? This takes a lot of writing, asking for feedback, and rewriting, but once I have good answers for each question and they align, then I figure that I am about done!
9. What lessons have you learned (from any angle!) while doing this research for the past few years? Any notable discoveries about either yourself or the subject at hand? Anything pertinent to your future goals or vision, professionally or personally?
In the process of completing this project, I realized how much I value historical thinking. In my opinion, the danger of historical research is writing a “just so” story where it is obvious that things turned out as they did. As I became an adult living in America, I learned that people need credit cards and home mortgages. And bankruptcy laws were needed for those who failed. But bankruptcy struggled to be enacted because many people were concerned that it would be a tool for creditors (whether “Easterners” or “Shylocks”) to oppress rural debtors. Furthermore, during this period of industrialization, legislators considered how people could overcome unfortunate life events, like illness or job loss. They proposed options including welfare, charity programs, ethnic or religious mutual aid societies, as well as legalized credit markets. It was through a series of these policy fights, failed experiments, and unintended consequences that credit and bankruptcy became seen as essential to life in America.
I hope that whatever the future holds for me and this project, I can continue to develop this perspective - of not taking the structures of our world for granted - but rather examining how they came to be.
10. Where will this work be eventually published? Would you like to share with our readers any papers you might have written on similar research, or links to others’ works that might be helpful in understanding the subject better? Do you potentially intend to turn your dissertation into something bigger, beyond your university’s internal depository?
Haha, I’m working on it! Beyond Columbia’s repository (which will release my dissertation on ProQuest in a few years), parts of my dissertation are currently undergoing the academic review process at scholarly journals. Ideally, however, this dissertation will be published someday as a book. I hope that this book, through highlighting the debates about and practice of early bankruptcy, can speak to questions that are relevant to Americans who live beyond the Ivory tower, such as when is it appropriate to borrow money, who is at fault (the lender or the borrower) at the point of economic failures, and what costs does each party need to pay in bankruptcy?
Please leave a comment, react to this post, or reply directly: any feedback on Nick’s responses in this interview will be shared with him. I’m always happy to connect! -Pavel
If you’d like to feature your own work or thought process in this publication via a future Creative Humans interview, or you know someone who may, please reach out. Please consider sharing with your friends, family, or neighbors!
I hope you enjoyed reading and found this interview inspiring! If it was forwarded to you, please subscribe for free to learn about other creative humans in the future: