What Is the Matter With Sociology?
Elijah Anderson's new book points up an identity crisis.
Its earliest practitioners—Robert Park, Jane Addams—saw the American city as not only their laboratory but their mission. Europe was their symbol of a dying tradition. The American metropolis offered an opportunity to build a civil (and civilized) society, with reform efforts guided by on-the-ground knowledge. They were fascinated by the most straightforward problems, like counting the number of people living in a neighborhood—the census arose from these efforts—or finding out how groups "think"—the focus group was then created. Their toolkit was a hodgepodge of pragmatic thought. Today they fielded a survey, tomorrow they took apart a government budget, the day after they used patient observation to understand how a gang works. They weren't proud, nor were they technocratic policy-wonks. They diagnosed, opining only when necessary, though they were driven by the goal of social improvement.
As a consequence, sociologists were deeply fascinated with conflict, in particular the black-white tensions that were threatening the health and welfare of 20th-century cities. W.E.B. DuBois, the great African-American activist and writer, became the nation's first sociologist of race by exposing Philadelphians to the injustices and impoverishment that its black citizens faced at the dawn of the 1900s. In The Philadelphia Negro, DuBois marshaled facts, observations, statistics, and a perceptive understanding of the American capacity for tolerance to call for a humane approach toward racial inequity.
Anderson's work has remained squarely in this tradition, so much so that during his tenure at the University of Pennsylvania, he was dubbed DuBois' heir. (He is now at Yale University.) In his most influential books, Streetwise (1992) and Code of the Street(2000), he stayed quietly in the shadows of public spaces and came away with a precise, tactile understanding of local mood at a time when an entrenched, impoverished black population—the so-called "underclass"— seemed unable to integrate into the American mainstream. He presciently described the rifts between middle-class and poor blacks who shared ghetto streets. He wrote compassionately about gentrifiers intent on improving the neighborhood yet agonized about evicting low-income households. His gift was to glean the underlying "codes" or moral dichotomies that shaped the intimate rhythms of daily life he subtly observed from a perch in a café or on a park bench.
So, for example, he argued that two kinds of people live in the ghetto. He championed the "decent" families who attend church and have two parents, by pointing to their need to defend against "street"-oriented neighbors who drink in public, are on welfare, and commit crimes. He boiled down the ghetto to a battle between the two to define the neighborhood. If this sounds simplistic, well, that was one criticism of his work. His scientifically oriented colleagues complained that this approach was shallow, journalistic even. The humanists down the hall said that the disparaging view of "street" families was just a form of pandering to the popular need to blame the poor. But Anderson kept on, rarely addressing either camp, except to say that his observant eyes did not deceive. He focused instead on the power of this moral pas de deux to reach a wider audience. Though he studied Philadelphia, his writings engrossed Americans across the country who found in his work a direct and morally sensible way to understand their own cities, where the races and classes struggled to mix. That, in itself, was sufficient validation for his approach, even if his field was growing less enamored of his authoritative eavesdropping style.
The most illuminating chapter of his new book shows him marshaling this same determination to be the informant who uncovers hidden codes—and in doing so, he boldly departs from his usual observer role. Sensing that race is no longer solely a public matter, Anderson heads into a corporate office to interview middle- and upper-income black employees. He emerges with another dichotomy to highlight the intra-racial tension that persists four decades after the civil rights movement. He finds that highly successful black Americans still face some inner demons. Those who adhere to an "ethnocentric" perspective feel as though whites will never really accept them, and so they are primarily loyal to their own racial group. Their counterparts are "cosmopolitan," which means they place great weight on the social strides made by American blacks; they are quick to point out that the color of one's skin doesn't get you preference—or poor treatment. Anderson finds that, akin to their "decent" and "street" counterparts, the two moral "codes" can live in tension. Two people might take sides, or a single person can struggle psychologically, pulled by the merits of both.
This is timely terrain, and it is sociology at its finest. There are few writers openly exploring this undercurrent of hostility and self-doubt experienced by a historically subjugated group that just managed to elect one of their own as president. Not since DuBois' impassioned declaration a century ago, that black Americans had a "double consciousness," have we seen such sharp use of social analysis for truth-telling. There is an unfulfilled promise in this country, a real divide that persists, and we shouldn't ignore these sentiments as paranoia or whining.
Having made our hearts race with this venture into a new and more psychologically subtle frontier, however, Anderson retreats to the public terrain of more humdrum interactions and to the posture of detached eavesdropper that have been his staples. He concludes his book with some tepid observations about the "canopy" that embraces us all. He pursues neither the theme of black animus nor the public-private split.
Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociology professor at Columbia University and author of Gang Leader for a Day.
Photo by Martha Spanninger.