How Do We Enact Social Change?

Fabio Rojas Discusses Where Tolerance and Classical Liberalism Intersect

The question of ‘how can I make a difference in the world’ can often feel like a daunting one, especially when the impact you’re looking to make is widespread, social change. It’s easy for that first question to often lead into numerous others, such as: ‘how does social change start?’ and ‘what responsibility do we have in fostering a better, more free world?’ These types of burning questions were what eventually led Fabio Rojas into the field of sociology. 

Rojas did not begin his academic career in the social sciences, but rather he was initially studying to be a mathematician. In the summer of 1993, a few months before he was set to start graduate school in mathematics, Rojas attended an IHS Summer Seminar event. There, he began to explore classical liberal ideas more in-depth.

Late-night philosophical debates with his peers and professors, passionate about dissecting classical liberal topics, were a recipe for developing a deeper interest in sociology. However, it wouldn’t be for another couple of years before Rojas would make the switch from mathematics to sociology.

“What I really valued about the classical liberal tradition is that it has roots in philosophy and the study of social relationships, institutions, economics, and even literature,” Rojas recalls as he looks back on his change in career paths.

“I wanted to go down a field that could be flexible, and sociology is a field that’s inherently very wide-ranging, holistic, and very humanistic, but it’s also very scientific as well.”

– Fabio Rojas
Fabio Rojas

It is that holistic approach that has led Rojas to be a frequent return lecturer at Summer Seminars over the years. According to Rojas, speaking at Summer Seminars as a faculty member is a chance to revisit classical liberal topics and view them in a new light. Additionally, it’s an opportunity to take the joy of teaching to a new and informal setting. 

“It’s a place where there’s readings, but no homework… [students] read, and have debates and critical discussions with intelligent, super well-informed people,” says Rojas of the program. “Here you could actually spend the whole day talking about [classical liberal ideas]. The experience is having a set of scholars who really care about ideas.”

Over the years, Rojas has built lectures for Summer Seminars on sociological concepts within the classical liberal sphere, including what a crumbling socialist society looks like from the inside, immigration and open borders, and racial, political, and social movements. He feels drawn to topics and research that foster social change in a more “freedom-oriented direction.” 

With this in mind, Rojas and some of his colleagues created the Open Borders Conference three years ago, where IHS alums Bryan Caplan and Ilya Somin have attended as speakers. “We said, ‘let’s make a conference which is just about open borders, where everybody’s invited.’ We’re not going to filter people out. We’re not going to cancel people or anything, as long as you’re respectful about the position, even if you disagree with it, you’re invited.”

For Rojas, creating an environment where scholars could respectfully address these issues was a cornerstone of the conference. “I wanted to work with somebody who didn’t share my ideological preferences,” Rojas states. “To really walk across the aisle in some way to say, ‘let’s be more bipartisan, more open about this.’”

To Rojas and other scholars attending the annual conference, this open, and respectful forum allows for deeper exploration of ideas and academic thought.

IHS Gala
L-R: IHS President, Emily Chamlee-Wright, 2021 IHS Alum Recipient, Fabio Rojas, and Charles Koch Foundation Executive Director, Ryan Stowers

“We’re using this as an opportunity to really project out to the public, to create a hub, a nexus, for an idea beyond just what you might read in an academic article.”

– Fabio Rojas

This need to delve deeper into social topics has informed his work over the years, and his commitment to fostering a more tolerant and pluralistic society through his research is one of several reasons he was named the Charles G. Koch Outstanding IHS Alum Award recipient for 2021.

“It was completely a surprise,” says Rojas of when he first learned he would be receiving the award. “I feel very grateful that I’m part of this large, organic, and living network of scholars and intellectuals.”

In addition to the Outstanding IHS Alum Award, Rojas served as an IHS Senior Fellow for the Study of Liberalism and a Free Society in the 2020-2021 academic year and has also published several books. 

He began the writing process for his first book, “From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010) as a graduate student, and received funding from IHS to further his research. “It was part of my dissertation, then I took one part of it and expanded it into the book,” Rojas recalls. While the social landscape at the time of working on his first book may share some overlap with the issues of today, the resources were vastly different at the time. 

“The scholarly literature on black power and its consequences was very modest at that point,” Rojas remembers. “There were a lot of books written from a first-person perspective… but there just weren’t a lot of historians or social scientists who said, ‘okay, let’s bring an analytic lens to this. Let’s figure out what happened, what is important to draw out, what’s important to discuss.’ That was kind of absent. Then secondly, within the study of sociology, there’s been this longstanding question which is: what can we say about the outcomes of political movements, the outcome of protest?”

As a sociologist, Rojas is interested in creating a culture of tolerance supported through classical liberal ideas and how to push back on cultural opposition to freedom. Through this lens, enacting social change becomes a societal-wide effort. 

“Instead of focusing on freedom as an issue of ‘does the state make you do X or Y,’ the issue [becomes] is there a general culture of tolerance? And that culture of tolerance is created through interaction, through community, and through speaking with each other. All the things that sociologists like talking about.”

– Fabio Rojas

Rojas notes that the cultural component to tolerance is crucial, as oftentimes when States implement restrictions on people’s freedoms they pull from a bedrock of popular opinion. He argues that the roots of freedom aren’t necessarily grounded in what the Constitution says it is, but rather centered around our personal beliefs and societal discussions around the dinner table.

“You have an impact,” he says. “You’re creating a culture of freedom and toleration.”

The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021. For more scholar spotlights, video interviews, photo galleries, and in-depth conversations on classical liberal ideas, visit TheIHS.org/60.

You Might Also Like

In Memoriam of Ethelmae Humphreys

We lost an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, and a trailblazer with the recent passing of Ethelmae Humphreys, long-serving chairman of TAMKO Building Products. Ethelmae was committed to establishing a better, freer, and more prosperous world. Our sympathies to the Humphreys family, TAMKO staff, and Ethelmae’s friends.