Rosenfeld Receives Guggenheim Fellowship to Explore ‘Choices’

University of Virginia history professor Sophia Rosenfeld has received a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to research a book.

Rosenfeld, a professor in the Corcoran Department of History in the College of Arts & Sciences, is planning a history of “The Choices We Make: The Roots of Modern Freedom.” 

An intellectual and cultural historian, Rosenfeld became interested in choice as a topic because it has become central to the life in the West.

“It has become a truism of political life across the political spectrum that increasing individual choice is a good thing,” she said. “But psychologists also tell us all the time that we are now at risk of being overwhelmed by too many choices in too many domains and that we are not very good at the business of choosing anyway. So I thought it would be interesting to figure out how we got to this point.”

She wants to explore how, and when, having choices became an element of exercising political freedom.

“The main premise behind this project is that maximizing choice has become virtually synonymous with promoting freedom in human-rights struggles and in modern consumer culture alike – but we have rarely asked how this association developed or why,” Rosenfeld said. “In ‘The Choices We Make,’ I will explore how, starting in the 17th century, people in the West learned to assert their preferences in domains ranging from political candidates, to beliefs, to what to eat for dinner, while also constantly looking for mechanisms to limit their menu of options.”

The fellowship will allow Rosenfeld to take a leave from teaching next year to conduct research, but she will continue to run the Pavilion Seminars Program. She also is planning a conference for next spring.

Rosenfeld, the author of  “A Revolution in Language: The Problem of Signs in Late Eighteenth-Century France,” and “Common Sense: A Political History,” said she was pleased with the support of the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

“I was delighted to learn that I had received this fellowship because it makes possible a year of intensive research,” Rosenfeld said. “But it also helps validate the project, which is rather unconventional in terms of its subject matter and sweep.”

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Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications