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Dahms Looks for Intellectual Challenge in All He Does

An expert in theoretical sociology, Professor Harry Dahms is interested in a wide range of topics, including planetary sociology, the sociology of film, artificial intelligence, and social justice.

He’s co-director of UT’s Center for the Study of Social Justice, the editor of Current Perspectives in Social Theory, and the director of the International Social Theory Consortium. The recipient of the college’s 2021 Senior-Level Excellence in Teaching Award, Dahms is a member of the AI TENNessee Initiative task force, a UT-led effort to explore ways the state might benefit from the use of artificial intelligence. 

When there’s time, Dahms enjoys listening to music. And he’s a science-fiction buff with a special affinity for “The Matrix,” a film allegory on the contradictions at the heart of modern societies.

“I like to be inspired and challenged intellectually by everything I dedicate my time to,” he said.

Though some experts debate whether sociology is part of the humanities or the sciences, Dahms says it exists at the meeting point; sociologists study what’s going on behind the scenes that create and maintain the facts on the surface, and the links between both.

After earning his master’s degree in sociology in his native Germany, Dahms came to the United States where he completed his doctorate in sociology at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He taught at Florida State University before coming to UT in 2004.

Dahms in Innsbruck, where he taught summers 2010-2019

Dahms said UT’s Center for the Study of Social Justice was founded in 2009 to secure grants for social science research. Over the years, the center has become a forum for academics to engage in research-related discussions and to facilitate collaborative projects.

“One of my priorities is to create a sort of catalog of ‘policy briefs’ in which faculty explicate their expertise and research and teaching focus as far as social justice is concerned …. as well as on certain issues of public concern whose discussion would benefit from firm and available expert knowledge,” he said.

Dahms said the college recently made a substantial commitment to supporting the Center for the Study of Social Justice.

“Part of the assignment is for us to create a graduate social justice certificate,” he said. A collaboration with the College of Social Work, it will debut in 2024.

Although he’s always been a sociologist, Dahms said he once toyed with the idea of going to film school.

This past fall, he indulged that interest by providing students in his 400-level course on Sociology and Science Fiction with the opportunity to create a 15-minute science fiction film. (Watch it here.)

In the film, two students meeting by the statue of Sergei Rachmaninoff in World’s Fair Park discuss the composer and are inspired to listen to some of his music.

The film cuts to a classroom where students listen as Dahms describes the work of German sociologist Max Weber, who developed the Sociology of Music.

“Composers were trying to master the material but also being part of the vanguard, pushing the envelope while being steeped in the tradition,” Dahms said. “Music became more accessible to more people over time. It’s like a language that helps us understand better how we became who we are.”

Finally, the students encounter a robot powered by artificial intelligence. Through a discussion about music, rational thought, human emotion, and empathy, the robot learns more about humankind and the students learn more about themselves.

-Story by Amy Blakely