MAPSS helped launch her academic journey 

By Sarah Fister Gale

Hanisah didn’t always know she wanted a career in academia. After she completed her undergraduate studies in sociology at the National University of Singapore, she spent three years working in the public service, where she encountered many policy constraints that she realized could be best tackled in an academic setting. “It was that experience that made me realize I wanted an intellectual career,” Hanisah says.

Hanisah Binte Abdullah Sani

However, the idea of completing a full Ph.D. program was daunting. “It’s a huge commitment, and I wasn’t sure it was something I was ready to do,” she admits. Then she discovered MAPSS, the University of Chicago’s one year MA Program in the Social Sciences. MAPSS recruits promising graduate students and provides them with access and faculty support comparable to a full UChicago doctoral program, but in an intensive one-year program. It gives students an opportunity to immerse themselves in the academic experience. “MAPSS showed me what was possible,” she says. “It was a wonderful opportunity to decide whether this was the right path.”

Hanisah completed the MAPPS program in 2012, and is currently a PhD candidate in sociology and Committee for International Social Science Research Fellow. Since beginning her doctoral work, she’s secured several grants and fellowships, including the Division of Social Sciences Mellon Dissertation-Year Fellowship, Committee of International Social Sciences Research (CISSR) Dissertation Fellowship, and the Committee of South Asian Studies Dissertation Grant.

The power of free writing

Her research focuses on the politico-legal administration of religion in developmental states. “I’ve always been broadly interested in religious behavior, thought and institutions, and how they operate despite ideological and political constraints,” she says. Her first paper, Corporeal Poetics of Sacred Space: An Ethnography of Jum’ah in a Chapel, explored the religious experience of a minority community in plural society, and how structures and behavior must be adapted when religious practices are performed in unmarked spaces. She’s also studied the effect of religious movements in transnational settings and conflicts of religious ideologies in Southeast Asia.

Though these days, she is focused on completing her dissertation, Elite Politics, Jurisdictional Conflicts, and the Legacy of Colonial State Building in Malaysia, which explores why conflicts between religious and secular courts become politicized and even turn violent in some states despite a highly centralized government. “My dissertation provides a historical explanation to a contemporary problem, which is important as it helps us better understand how states and institutions develop,” she says. “It will help us frame better questions and find better solutions for problems we face in our time.”

As part of her research, Hanisah spent a year in Malaysia, Singapore, and London, using ethnographic and historical methods to examine the relationship between colonial state building, elite competition, and contemporary jurisdictional conflicts on the secular and religious courts. Now, she devotes at least two hours a day to writing. “I am a big advocate of free writing,” she says. She believes that writing a little every day can help overcome the anxiety that some PhD candidates can face in this stage of the process. “It won’t all end up in the final draft, but it is an important part of the process.”

She also talks regularly with her three committee advisors, professors Andrew Abbott and Elisabeth Clemens in the sociology department, and political science professor Dan Slater at the University of Michigan. “They have been so supportive of my work, and helping me to improve my writing,” she says.

What they say is true

Hanisah notes that the cross-departmental nature of her committee is reflective of the collaborative spirit of the UChicago research community. “There is a well cherished tradition that graduate students have the opportunity to position our work outside of our disciplines,” she says. Cross-departmental advisory committees, workshops, and research projects all foster a culture that challenges students and faculty to examine their ideas through different lenses.

Once she completes the program, she hopes to secure a post-doctoral position where she can transform her dissertation into a book and continue her interdisciplinary study on religion and politics. While she may move on to other institutions, she will always credit UChicago with providing her with a foundation of academic excellence that will shape her career. “All the stereotypes about UChicago are true,” she says. “It’s an incredibly rigorous environment where you are expected to think broadly about your own work and the work of others. It’s been an intellectually enriching experience.”