What Is the Matter With Sociology?
Elijah Anderson's new book points up an identity crisis.
In the late 1980s, I fell in love with the discipline of sociology by reading books written by patient, perceptive observers like Elijah Anderson. As I told my father excitedly during my sophomore year in college, these scholars helped me see my immigrant anxieties as "normal" and a signature American experience. Concepts like identity and ethnicity let me express sentiments that until then had been inchoate and threatening. Going deep into the pockets of American society and hanging out at length, sociologists could draw on the human ballet to examine our cherished beliefs and institutions as well as our stereotypes and misguided social policies. This seemed to me to be a great magic trick, taking us into foreign, seemingly impenetrable worlds and emerging with useful insights.
For over a century, sociologists were some of our country's influential truth-tellers. They gravitated to those issues—race relations, social inequality, and the workings of government—that were part of the American experiment to build an open, free democracy. Think of battles to end school segregation, ensure fair housing policy, and promote public sector accountability. A data-carrying sociologist—St. Clair Drake, Herbert Gans, James Coleman—was often at hand, gathering evidence, providing analysis, writing intelligibly for the citizenry. Anderson's own ideas shaped criminal justice, welfare, and urban development policy. The sociologists may not have been household names, but they were important cogs in the civic wheel.
On the face of it, Anderson's new book, The Cosmopolitan Canopy, an in-depth portrait of race and public life in contemporary Philadelphia, calls our attention to another great national achievement. The City of Brotherly Love, like much of the country, has become racially and ethnically diverse. Whites are no longer in the majority in many cities and throughout the American South and West (Texas, New Mexico, California). By 2050, the nation will lose a white majority population entirely. With Latinos and Asians rising in numbers, Anderson says we've generally grown more tolerant and less conflict-ridden—at least in public. He applauds us for creating a canopy, "where diverse people converge, defining the setting as belonging to everyone and deemphasizing race and other particularities. No one group claims priority." This is a far cry from the last half of the 20th century, when Philadelphia was a cauldron of black-white animosity, and when Anderson took it as his mission to report on ghetto tensions imperceptible and incomprehensible to much of the rest of the city. The bulk of The Cosmopolitan Canopy is Anderson's attempt at timely sociological analysis that moves forward the country's civil discourse in a new era of far more extensive multiethnic mixing.
Yet to devote pages of vintage "fly on the wall" sociological observation to a portrait of safe public intermingling can't help seeming like a curiously superficial endeavor in 2011. It's as though Anderson himself recognizes the limitations of his trademark method of public eavesdropping. Tucked into the middle of his book is a new twist on his abiding interest in African-American experience: He ventures behind closed doors in a corporate world that, thanks to a generation of changes, has become a relevant venue for exploring the minority experience in America. There, using private interviews, he discovers a rather different story, which challenges his main argument of diverse assimilation: Among African-American employees, there remains a vein of distrust of whites and suspicion about racial progress. This observation is left hanging, and so is the reader: Are black Americans content, angry, or just keeping their mouths shut? And why the celebratory "canopy" reference if a current of hostility lies underneath?
Anderson's struggle to make sense of the current multicultural situation is not only a function of his own intellectual uncertainty. It is also a symptom of the field in which he is working, which is confused about its direction. Where sociology once gravitated to the most pressing problems, especially the contentious issues that drove Americans apart, it no longer seems so sure of its mission. With no obvious crisis, disaster, or glaring source of inequity as a backdrop demanding public action, a great American intellectual tradition gives every sign of weathering a troubled transition.
Sociology was born in Chicago in the early 1900s, and was from the outset made by Americans, for Americans. (I have always thought Saul Bellow's wonderful opening to The Adventures of Augie Marchmakes a perfect epigraph for the field: "I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.")
Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociology professor at Columbia University and author of Gang Leader for a Day.
Photo by Martha Spanninger.