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Saleena SaleemSaleena Saleem, visiting associate professor of sociology, joined the faculty at Boston University College of Arts & Sciences in Fall 2023. Her research interests lie at the intersection of the sociology and politics of race and ethnicity, religion, and gender, with a regional emphasis on Asia. 

What courses are you teaching this semester at BU? How have they been going?

I am teaching two courses this semester – Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, which is cross-listed with the Sociology Department, and the African American & Black Diaspora Studies Program and Masculinities, which is cross-listed with the Sociology Department and the Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program.

Both classes are going great. I have 98 students in my Sociology of Race and Ethnicity course, which is a large class to teach. I think the large enrollment for the course indicates that students are interested in understanding the subject of race and ethnic relations through scholarly perspectives. From my interactions with students, I gather that some of them are keenly aware of the societal impact of racial polarization, and they are motivated to find solutions. As part of their assignments, I have the students write op-eds on current social problems in which race and ethnicity are central in the US and in international contexts. In this way, students learn to apply scholarship to explain and propose solutions to social problems.

Where do your interests in religion, gender, politics, and sociology come from?

Societies around the world are increasingly becoming more diversified and plural. However, many societies are also facing issues of social and political polarization, which impedes collective action (on both the local and global fronts) that are necessary to address many serious problems of our times from the climate crises to social inequalities. In such a polarized context, race, religion, gender, and politics are crucial elements to study in at least two ways: (1) they tend to be implicated in the causes and processes of social division formation (2) and yet paradoxically they can also be important resources in building bridges across those social divisions. Some scholars argue that our polarized societies are characterized by low social trust, which can render solutions to challenging societal problems even more difficult. However, scholarship and societies are charting new ways out of these seemingly intractable problems. For example, despite low social trust, research has indicated that nonprofit civil society groups still garner relatively high levels of social trust, which can be leveraged to build bridges across social divisions. My research work explores avenues for trust building across ideologically different civil society groups. I am interested in studying how civil society groups – for example secular and religious civil society groups – build trust and cooperate on specific social problems and what extendable lessons that holds for mitigating polarization in wider society. 

What other subjects interest you? 

I am also interested in the scholarship of higher education, which some scholars have argued do not encompass sufficient scholarly perspectives and epistemological knowledge from the Global South, particularly in the social sciences. My experiences in academia thus far have impressed upon me the importance of producing scholarship focused on evidence-based and workable methods to advance diversity and inclusion initiatives in higher education. Based on my experiences, I was recently inspired to write a book chapter entitled “Teaching Global Social Thought: Considerations for Developing a Decolonial and Experiential Learning Pedagogy,” which is forthcoming next year in an edited book on practical approaches for inclusive, critical, and decolonized pedagogy. My chapter provides educators in universities with the intellectual rationale, the ideas, and the methods to develop a decolonial and experiential learning pedagogy and syllabus for undergraduate sociological theory courses.

I am also interested in studying the transnational collaborations between higher education institutions in the West and the rest of the world, particularly in Asia and the Middle East. There is a growing recognition in rapidly developing countries and high-income countries outside of the West of the value and need to implement liberal arts education programs in their universities. I am interested in the cross-cultural diffusion of academic values and scholarship that arise through these transnational collaborations between higher education institutions.

What influenced your pursuit to study the intersection of politics and sociology of Asia? What about Asia appeals to your curiosity? 

I am from Singapore, which is in Southeast Asia. Many societies in Southeast Asia are multiracial, multiethnic and multireligious. Some of these societies tend to be marked – to varying degrees – by complex problems of state authoritarian power, religious nationalism, social inequalities, inter-ethnic tension, and political polarization, which are shaped by the historical legacies of race and colonialism, and external intervention. These long-standing problems are compounded by geopolitical forces from the growing China-US major power competition in the region, intraregional labor migration and new patterns of intra-Asian racism. Southeast Asia is also projected to be an engine for global economic growth, and an important area for international security. The region will be vitally important for the foreseeable future, and I am interested to contribute to scholarly knowledge of the area, with aims to promote social cohesion, mitigate inter-group polarization, and promote cross-cutting cooperation on serious issues such as the climate crisis, racial and gender inequalities.

What is some of the work you do involving secular and religious women’s advocacy groups? How have you found the relationship between these two communities changing over time?

My recent research work examined the prospects for secular and religious women’s advocacy groups in Malaysia to build trust and form cross cutting feminist solidarity despite their ideological differences and history of being on oppositional sides. Contrary to expectations, my research found that several younger women from the religious groups share remarkably similar perspectives with the younger women from secular groups. Some of the women from religious groups adopt similar stances with secular feminists on controversial issues like teenage pregnancies, sex education and contraception, and early marriage. The research also found evidence of inter-group engagements and recent instances of social learning between the women. These findings indicated that the relationship between the women’s groups that had been adversarial in previous decades is now changing to one that is more amenable for trust building and cooperation.

What is your goal in teaching and doing research at BU?

The opportunity for me to:

  • work with students who truly are motivated to contribute to make the world a better place
  • help prepare students to be engaged citizens, both locally and globally, and to be leaders among their generation
  • the prospect for me to make meaningful and lasting positive social impacts via scholarship and research both fundamental and applied 
  • the opportunity to serve my profession and society

What is your hope for BU students after taking your class? 

The societies in which our current students will live in throughout the rest of their professional and adult lives will be diverse. The theme of diversity is a central aspect in the two courses that I am teaching this semester. I am confident that my students will reach the conclusion that we as members of a diverse and plural society can and will collectively find inclusive solutions to society’s most challenging problems – not despite our diversity but because of it.

Interview conducted by Kelly Broder (COM’27).