Sociologists looking at the “seamy underside” of cities

A number of media reviews of sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh’s latest book highlight his look at the “seamy underside” of New York City:

A finishing school for young minority hookers. A Harlem drug dealer determined to crack the rich white downtown market. A socialite turned madam. A tortured academic struggling to navigate vicious subcultures.

All in all, this might have made a pretty good novel. Instead it’s “Floating City,” the latest nonfiction look at the urban underbelly by self-described “rogue sociologist” Sudhir Venkatesh…

Much of what the author finds out about the seamy underside of urban life has already been discovered by predecessors as various as Emile Zola, Nathan Heard and Tom Wolfe (to say nothing of the producers of “The Wire”).

This reminded me that this is not a new approach for urban sociologists. The classic 1920s text The City from Robert Park and others in the Chicago School looks at some of the seamier sides of Chicago including boarding houses and slums. Numerous other sociologists have explored similar topics including looks at bars, drug use, and criminal activity in cities. This sort of approach works to challenge more cultured American society who can’t understand what motivates urban dwellers involved in these activities, satisfy curiosity.

While this research might help expose the plight of some urban residents, it might have another effect: limit the number of sociologists looking at elites. I remember hearing sociologist Michael Lindsay speak about this a few years ago after carrying out his research with elites. Who is closely studying elites who have both influence and resources?

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