Why studying multiple suburbs is helpful compared to studying suburbia or a single suburb

As I prepare to present research tonight on suburbs and race, specifically in Wheaton, Illinois, I reflected on my methodological approach. In sociology and the social sciences, we often seek data that is both generalizable and detailed. In my research, I have largely worked to study suburbs through comparisons with other suburbs. I believe this has some distinct advantages, even as it also presents limitations.

One approach to studying suburbs would consider them as a whole: suburbia. Even though there are thousands of suburbs, they share common characteristics. Suburbs are distinct from other settings and their geography, density, physical arrangements, and social and cultural life separate them from big cities and rural areas.

Instead of focusing on the whole, a study could go another direction: focus on one specific suburban community. Perhaps it is a suburb that exemplifies suburbs as a whole, perhaps it is a more unusual suburb. Studying the history and particulars in depth could provide rich details about suburban communities and life.

My research thus far has tried to take a middle approach. This involves finding a small set of suburban cases to compare and contrast. I studied each of these cases in a good amount of detail. The comparison between cases helps me assess whether patterns in one community are unusual or not. The detail I have about each community helps me know whether these suburbs fit broader patterns.

Urban Affairs Review article

Selecting the right suburban cases can be difficult. Among all the suburbs, it is better to choose ones that share certain traits or better to find more different ones? All the detail about specific places may not be that useful if the cases cannot relate to suburbs.

Another downside of the historical/comparative method is the amount of time it requires. Gathering details on specific suburbs can take time. Going through the data and finding patterns can take time.

And, the study of American suburbs benefits from all of the approaches I mentioned above: broad patterns in all suburbs, case studies of particular communities, and historical/comparative work among sets of suburbs. Even as my initial study of suburbs took this middle approach, I have also written in the other veins considering suburbs as a whole and focusing in more on a specific community. With complex suburbia and many suburbs to consider, there is plenty to study from multiple angles.

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