Elijah Anderson's The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race, ethnicity, and the future of sociology.

Reading between the lines.
April 18 2011 6:58 AM

What Is the Matter With Sociology?

Elijah Anderson's new book points up an identity crisis.

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Anderson's fascinating foray and his inability to tie together the seemingly contradictory threads highlight the new challenges that face our field. On the one hand, sociology has moved far away from its origins in thoughtful feet-on-the ground analysis, using whatever means necessary. A crippling debate now pits the "quants," who believe in prediction and a hard-nosed mathematical approach, against a less powerful, motley crew—historians, interviewers, cultural analysts— who must defend the scientific rigor and objectivity of any deviation from the strictly quantitative path. In practice, this means everyone retreats to his or her comfort zone. Just as the survey researcher isn't about to take up with a street gang to gather data, it is tough for an observer to roam free, moving from one place to another as she sees fit, without risking the insult: "She's just a journalist!" (The use of an impenetrable language doesn't help: A common refrain paralyzing our field is, "The more people who can understand your writing, the less scientific it must be.")

For Anderson to give up "fly on the wall" observation, his métier, and put his corporate interviews closer to center-stage would risk the "street cred" he now regularly receives. This is sad because Anderson is on to the fact that we have to re-jigger our sociological methods to keep up with the changes taking place around us. Understanding race, to cite just one example, means no longer simply watching people riding the subway and playing chess in parks. The conflicts are in back rooms, away from the eavesdropper. They are not just interpersonal, but lie within large institutions that employ, police, educate, and govern us. A smart, nimble approach would be to do more of what Anderson does—search for clues, wherever they may lie, whether this means interviewing, observing, counting, or issuing a FOIA request for data.

If you search hard enough, you can find pockets of experimentation, where sociologists stay timely and relevant without losing rigor. It is not accidental they tend to move closer to our media-frenzied world, not away from it, because it's there that some of the most illuminating social science is being done, free of academic conventions and strictures. At Brown and Harvard, sociologists are using the provocative HBO series, The Wire, to teach students about urban inequality. At Princeton and Michigan, faculty make documentary films and harness narrative-nonfiction approaches to invigorate their research and writing. At Boston University, a model turned sociologist uses her experiences to peek behind the unforgiving world of fashion and celebrity. And the Supreme Court's decision to grant the plaintiffs a "class" status in the Wal-Mart gender-discrimination case will hinge on an amicus brief submitted by a sociologist of labor. None of this spirited work occurs without risk, as I've found out through personal experience. Each time I finish a documentary film, one of my colleagues will invariably ask, "When are you going to stop and get back to doing real sociology?"

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Academic disciplines should not have to apologize for serious scholarship that does the unheralded work of systematically breaking down stereotypes, advancing policy, and ameliorating social inequity. We need sociologists to keep applying their fine-tuned antennae to social frictions because these will never be topics that can count on appealing to public curiosity about social reality—a consumer base that is always moving on to the next big idea. In Anderson's case, the greatest contribution of his book may be simply the diagnosis of a contradiction that cannot be neatly summed up in a tidy blog post or expedient reportage—or a scientific, sociological survey for that matter: Americans have become more tolerant in their public dealings, but at the cost of moving some of the animus to quieter, less visible quarters. Better to point it out, however speculative and provisional the results may be, than to hide from the truth.

Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociology professor at Columbia University and author of Gang Leader for a Day.