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.

Co-presenting at the Wheaton Public Library on Race in Illinois: From Southern Counties to Northern Suburbs

With DePaul professor Dr. Caroline Kisiel, I will be presenting via Zoom tomorrow night at the Wheaton Public Library:

Wheaton Public Library on Instagram

Register ahead of time for the Zoom webinar here.

My presentation will largely draw on the 2019 article I co-authored with David Malone titled “Race, Town, and Gown: A White Christian College and a White Suburb Address Race.

Podcast interview regarding Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures

David Hartman and Brooke Christensen of the More Than This podcast recently talked with sociologist Robert Brenneman and me about our new book Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures. If you are interested in religious buildings and architecture, you will want to listen.

More Than This podcast on Anchor

Building Faith, COVID-19, and staying away from religious buildings

When sociologist Ben Brenneman and I went through the final stages of writing Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, COVID-19 was just starting to spread widely in the United States. We did not have a chance to consider the role of religious buildings within a pandemic. And there is a lot that could be said – and that others have already said well. Thus, just a few thoughts on studying religious buildings amid COVID-19:

One reason we started this project was because sociologists of religion, other observers, and religious participants themselves often paid little attention to the influence of religious buildings. Instead of focusing on the physical structure, people emphasized clergy, the congregation, the surrounding community, the religious tradition, the service, and other social dimensions of religious life.

All of these are important – yet, COVID-19 helped expose the importance of buildings. With people not able to worship in religious buildings for weeks and months, it highlights the role of the physical structure. In today’s networked world, religious services and interaction can still go on through Zoom, social media, email, and smartphones. Some might even say that the “essential” activity continued.

Our book focuses more on the construction and/or adaptation of religious buildings. While one chapter emphasizes how congregations present aged religious buildings, we do not consider what happens when congregations cannot meet in their regular building (which could happen for a variety of reasons). COVID-19 provides an opportunity to consider what happens religious groups cannot utilize their buildings as they wish for an extended period. While people need to stay away, the building does not go away: congregations will still need to preform maintenance, pay mortgages, and think about how their physical grounds can best serve their needs. And all of this while giving might be down and congregants cannot experience the benefits of the building.

The lack of gathering together and/or regularly in religious spaces has consequences. The experience of worshiping near others, singing together, talking in person, experiencing the collective effervescence of the congregation or the experience of the divine are essential parts of religiosity. Religious activity is embodied, enacted by people in physical settings. Worshipers and congregants are not “brains on sticks” but creatures who breathe and move and fidget and more. Many religious traditions emphasize collective activity and worship and this takes place within

Once COVID-19 abates, this could lead to more appreciation for religious buildings. Being away so long might make congregations more fond of the actual structures in which they gather. When they return to the places they know so well – and maybe are so familiar with that they do not recognize much – they may appreciate it more fully. Or, the time spent away from a religious building and experiencing religion from afar might prove alluring. Some religious people may have found alternative sacred spaces of their own and without the constrictions of having others around. With technology enabling dropping in to religious gatherings, the temptation might be to stay away from religious buildings.

Religious buildings have affected millions of people around the world and will continue to do so after COVID-19. How they shape religious experiences and groups will continue to matter and provide ongoing opportunities for scholars to explore further.

 

Publication online in Journal of Urban History: “From “God Will Begin a Healing in this City” to “Jungles of Terror”: Billy Graham and Evangelicals on Cities and Suburbs”

Yesterday, the Journal of Urban History published online an article I had worked on for a few years:

BillyGrahamArticleJul20Online

This project began when I became aware of an online archive of Billy Graham’s messages through the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Given Graham’s popularity and influence while thinking as a sociologist about how religion and place are connected, I wanted to see how he addressed the substantial social change brought about by suburbanization during his post-World War II evangelistic career. Here is a summary of the findings from the abstract:

Graham discussed numerous urban problems and suggested solutions should begin with individual spiritual renewal. Graham proclaimed heaven as the ultimate city and did not encourage listeners to stay in cities or challenge white flight. As a respected pastor and leader, Graham’s messages highlight how evangelicals could consider cities in need of spiritual renewal but not require structural responses or living in cities as well as the limited power evangelical religious leaders have regarding contentious social issues.

The anti-urbanism common among white evangelicals has numerous roots. Graham exemplified several of these: a focus on individual action and salvation, consistent reminders of urban problems (meant to help prompt a spiritual response), and a focus on heaven. At the same time, his evangelistic efforts required holding events in major cities and meeting and talking with numerous influential leaders found in cities. I hope this study can help contribute to an ongoing scholarly conversation about the mixing of religion and place and its consequences for American society.

Building Faith by Brenneman and Miller coming soon

Sociologist Bob Brenneman and I are a few weeks away from the release of our book Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures. Here is the description of the book from the Oxford University Press website:

BrennemanMillerBuildingFaith

The social sciences have mostly ignored the role of physical buildings in shaping the social fabric of communities and groups. Although the emerging field of the sociology of architecture has started to pay attention to physical structures, Brenneman and Miller are the first to combine the light of sociological theory and the empirical method in order to understand the impact of physical structures on religious groups that build, transform, and maintain them. Religious buildings not only reflect the groups that build them or use them; these physical structures actually shape and change those who gather and worship there.

Religious buildings are all around us. From Wall Street to Main Street, from sublime and historic cathedrals to humble converted storefronts, these buildings shape the global religious landscape, Building Faith explores the social impact of religious buildings in places as diverse as a Chicago suburb and a Guatemalan indigenous Mayan village, all the while asking the questions, “How does space shape community?” and “How do communities shape the spaces that speak for them?”

This project began with fruitful lunch conversation which led to the publishing of a co-authored 2017 article in Sociology of Religion titled “When Bricks Matter: Four Sociological Arguments for the Sociological Study of Religious Buildings.”  A book proposal, research on several different fronts, and many revisions led up to the book which examines how religious buildings shape and are shaped by those who gather there as well as others around the building.

Addressing race at Wheaton College and in Wheaton, Illinois

In late 2015, Solidarity Cabinet at Wheaton College asked me to give an evening talk alongside one of my colleagues, David Malone, then Associate Professor of Library Science and head of Special Collections at Wheaton College (and now Dean of University & Seminary Library at Calvin College). We gave talks about the history of race at Wheaton College and in Wheaton, Illinois. Afterward, we discussed how even though these had been independent projects, the data and patterns we had uncovered across the two communities appeared to overlap.

In late 2019, the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society published our article titled “Race, Town, and Gown: A White Christian College and a White Suburb Address Race.”

RaceTownandGown2019FirstPage

The synopsis from the journal’s website:

Our final article traces the trajectory of racial attitudes and policies in an affluent Chicago suburb. In “Race, Town, and Gown: A White Christian College and a White Suburb Address Race,” Brian J. Miller and David B. Malone summarize the evolution of Wheaton College and the larger community of Wheaton, Illinois on matters of race. Before the Civil War both college and town were well-known for abolitionism and relatively enlightened racial views. By the late nineteenth century, however, that earlier openness to African American uplift was waning fast. At the college, the reform ferment of the antebellum era gave way to evangelical fundamentalism, steering the college in more conservative directions. Meanwhile, as the town of Wheaton suburbanized after World War II, the new affluence it residents enjoyed corresponded with a more conservative approach to racial integration at the heart of the postwar Civil Rights Movement. The history of racial tolerance that had defined both college and town at their founding, while remaining a point of pride to be remembered, seemed only that, a distant memory. Miller and Malone, however, point to this history to make an important point–that structural economic and social change, coupled with new ideas, profoundly influence institutional and cultural change over time. Wheaton College and the larger suburb of which it is a part can, and no doubt will, continue to evolve, perhaps in surprising directions.

In certain ways, these communities exemplify broader trends in American society: how white evangelicals and white and wealthy suburbs address race. What is more unique in these two particular cases is that at certain points in their history, they were welcoming toward Blacks and minorities, particularly compared to some of their counterparts. Then, a combination of internal decisions and larger societal pressures which then shaped subsequent actions and experiences led to them being less welcoming. The character of places and communities is malleable even as a certain inertia takes hold over time. As as we note (and the editor notes in the paragraph above), communities and institutions can change again.

 

Publication in Soc of Religion: “Religious Freedom and Local Conflict: Religious Buildings and Zoning Issues in the New York City Region,1992-2017”

Sociology of Religion today published online my article referenced in the title to the post:

ReligiousFreedomandLocalConflictWeb

I came to this article through wanting to analyze the connection between religion and place. Having seen at least a few stories of religious zoning conflict in the Chicago area (see an earlier study here), I wondered whether these patterns held across different metropolitan regions (and all the variations that could exist there), a longer time period, and within different communities within metropolitan regions. As the abstract suggests, there are some similarities – for example, locations near residences or requests from Muslim groups receive more attention – and differences – including what religious groups are in each region (with a larger population of Orthodox Jewish residents in the New York City region).
More broadly, zoning is a powerful tool communities have. As they set their land use guidelines, they are making decisions about what they envision their community looking like. This applies both to the physical structure or spaces as well as who might reside or work in the community. Americans tend to like local government, in part because it exercises control over what might locate near their homes or residences. But, this impulse to protect homes and property values can come up against other interests a community might have, such as affordable housing or medical facilities.

Online publication of “Emerging SNS use”

My colleague Peter Mundey and I have a new article published online at the Journal of Youth Studies titled “Emerging SNS use: the importance of social network sites for older American emerging adults.”

The abstract:

This study asks how older emerging adults (23–28 years old) describe, understand, and interpret their own social network site (SNS) use, as well as whether this SNS use promotes social ties and life satisfaction or leads to negative consequences. Based on organic mentions of SNS use in interviews from Wave 4 of the National Study of Youth and Religion (N = 302), we find: maintaining relationships is the largest SNS use while older emerging adults also expressed difficulties in online relationships and finding romantic partners; they use SNS in new domains, such as work and politics; aging and generational changes affect how they view SNS use as they have new demands on their time; and they expect to continue to use SNS. The findings suggest limited support for the argument that SNS use promotes sociality and well-being and some indications that SNS use negatively influences older emerging adults. We argue SNS use will be similar and different as older emerging adults age – they will continue to use SNS to maintain relationships yet new demands will alter other uses – and this has implications for employment as well for as political, religious, and SNS leaders.

 

Publication on long-standing church buildings in the Chicago region

I recently had an article published in Visual Studies titled “Still Standing After All These Years: The Presence and Internet Presentation of Religious Buildings in the Chicago Area, 1936-2016.”

Here is the abstract:

Scholars have examined the changes in religious architecture over time but few have focused on the ongoing presence of religious buildings in communities nor how long-standing congregations interact with their older building. This study utilises two Internet data sources – Google Street View and the websites of religious congregations – to examine the fate and online presentation of the buildings of four Protestant denominations in the Chicago region from 1936 to today: Disciples of Christ, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Presbyterian, and Seventh-day Adventist. The patterns found show the stability of many church buildings over eight decades and how they help anchor some religious groups – even though newer congregations use a number of these structures – yet congregations make unique choices about presenting their buildings through their website. These findings suggest religious buildings continue to influence their original religious congregations, newer groups using the building and neighbourhoods decades after they are constructed.

Addition to the abstract: we could use more research on how older religious buildings are used, celebrated, and renovated by their original religious congregations, new religious groups, and other organizations. Additionally, what do these long-standing buildings mean for their neighborhoods and communities, even if they are no longer utilized for religious purposes?