More research on race and space from sociologist Elijah Anderson

Sociologist Elijah Anderson continues his study of race in spaces with a new book. Here is part of an excerpt of that work:

Photo by Josh Hild on

When an anonymous Black person enters the white space, often the people there immediately try to make sense of him or her – to determine “who that is”, or to figure out the nature of the person’s business and whether they need to be concerned. When the Black person is unknown, stereotypes can rule perceptions, creating a situation that can estrange the Black person. In these circumstances, almost any Black person can experience distance, especially a young Black male – not as a measure of his merit as a person but because of his Black skin and its indication of “outsider” status in the white space. Thus, such a Black person is burdened with a deficit of credibility, especially in comparison with their white counterparts.

Strikingly, a Black person’s deficit may be minimized or tentatively overcome by a performance, a negotiation, or what some Blacks refer to derisively as a “dance”, through which individual Blacks may be inclined to show white people and others that ghetto stereotypes do not apply to them personally; in effect, they perform for credibility or for acceptance. This performance can be as deliberate as dressing well and speaking in an educated way or as simple as producing an ID or a driver’s license in situations in which this would never be demanded of whites…

In the minds of many of their detractors, to scrutinize and stop Black people is to prevent crime and protect the neighborhood. Thus, for the Black person, particularly young males, virtually every public encounter results in a degree of scrutiny that a “normal” white person would certainly not need to endure.

A more subtle but critical version of this kind of profiling occurs in the typical workplace. From the janitor to a middle-level manager, Black people, until they have established themselves, live under the tyranny of the command performance. Around the office building, the Black male worker comes to be known publicly as “the Black guy in my building”, and if there are a few such “Black guys” working there who “roam” the premises, white workers at times confuse one with another, occasionally misidentifying the person by name. Given such racial ambiguity, the string of white people standing in line to witness the Black person’s performance, or “dance”, may encourage those who were once approving or convinced to demand an encore. Thus, as long as the Black person is present in the white space, he or she is likely to be “on”, performing before a highly judgmental but distant audience.

While I have not read this forthcoming book, this strikes me as a companion work of sorts to The Cosmopolitan Canopy where Anderson examined spaces where people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds could regularly interact. In those relatively rare settings, people could encounter each other and generally enjoy it.

In contrast, Anderson now highlights the ways in which Black people are not welcomed in numerous spaces. This is not just about abstract spheres in society; this is about physical arrangements and the ways that race matters for who can be there.

There is a lot to explore here and I look forward to the book. In a typical city or suburb, how much space is primarily for whites and policed in the ways Anderson cites above?

Designing “porous cities” for regular interactions by all people

Sociologist Richard Sennett observes a heterogeneous marketplace in India and wonders why more urban spaces can’t have a broad mix of people:

Nehru Place is every urbanist’s dream: intense, mixed, complex. If it’s the sort of place we want to make, it’s not the sort of space most cities are building. Instead, the dominant forms of urban growth are mono-functional, like shopping centres where you are welcome to shop but there’s no place to pray. These sorts of places tend to be isolated in space, as in the offices “campuses” built on the edge of cities, or towers in a city’s centre which, as in London’s current crop of architectural monsters, are sealed off at the base from their surroundings. It’s not just evil developers who want things this way: according to Setha Low, the most popular form of residential housing, world-wide, is the gated community.

Is it worth trying to turn the dream of the porous city into a pervasive reality? I wondered in Nehru Place about the social side of this question, since Indian cities have been swept from time to time by waves of ethnic and religious violence. Could porous places tamp down that threat, by mixing people together in everyday activities? Evidence from western cities answers both yes and no…

If the public comes to demand it, urbanists can easily design a porous city on the model of Nehru Place; indeed, many of the architects and planners at the Urban Age events now unfolding in London have made proposals to “porosify” the city. Like Nehru Place, these larger visions entail opening up and blurring the edges of spaces so that people are drawn in rather than repulsed; they emphasise true mixed use of public and private functions, schools and clinics amid Tesco or Pret; they explore the making of loose-fit spaces which can shift in shape as people’s lives change.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. These thoughts sound similar to what sociologist Elijah Anderson was getting at in The Cosmopolitan Canopy. Anderson asked of American cities: what happens in the rare public spaces where people of different class, race, and ethnic backgrounds regularly mix? Sennett has asked this of international contexts which have their own unique mixes of people.
  2. Key to the mixing of people may be the presence of “normal” commercial activity. Anderson observed a shopping mall in central Philadelphia; Sennett references an electronics market in India. Prices have to be low enough for everyone to have access and there needs to be a range of mixed use activity with some nearby places to work, shop, and eat.
  3. It strikes me that exclusivity is something imposed by the upper classes. One function of higher priced stores is that it tends to keep certain people out. Gated communities, cited by Sennett, are a function of class. As people acquire more wealth, they tend to design or buy into settings where people below them are minimized or removed. Thus, having more porous cities or spaces within cities would likely require significant changes from those with more power and wealth.

The “code of the street” on the real streets

The Boston Globe explores how Elijah Anderson’s concept of the “code of the streetplays out on the streets today:

Both men spoke of the street code as though they thought it would be obvious to everyone in the courtroom what it meant. And to a certain extent, they were right to: Even people with no direct experience with street life?—?whose exposure to the criminal underworld comes mainly from gangster rap and television shows like “The Wire”?—?have a sense that it is governed by its own set of rules and ethics. For law-abiding citizens dazzled by Hollywood stories of loyalty or by tough lyrics about street justice, these rule seem to be part of a parallel moral universe built around its own set of coherent beliefs regarding honor, fairness, and integrity. And in neighborhoods where crime is rampant and gang activity widespread, belief in such rules can be a hugely powerful force in people’s lives.

But behind the seductively monolithic notion of a “code of the streets,” say people who have looked at street justice from up close, lies far less certain terrain. According to former gang members, social workers in frequent contact with inner-city youths, and criminologists, it is all but impossible to pin down a single “code,” or one vision of right and wrong, that everyone on the streets respects and adheres to. And insofar as there ever was such a code, they say, it has largely crumpled since the late 1980s, as gangs have grown smaller, younger, and more poorly organized, and increasingly harsh sentencing laws have made it more difficult for people to withstand the pressure to snitch on their associates to avoid prison time. The street rules that exist, experts say, vary from gang to gang and city to city, and most importantly, they are often ignored.

What remains is less a code of ethics than a set of procedures that dictate how to protect oneself from threats and maintain a reputation in hostile territory. Far from being the proud moral system that some of us imagine it to be, the code today seems to exist as a sort of hollowed-out ideal whose role in the street is not to govern behavior, but?—?as we saw in the Mattapan trial?—?to explain it away.

An interesting read. I am intrigued by the concept that there might have once a “golden age” for the code. Is this just another case of generational differences?

But if you are going to write an article like this, why not interview Elijah Anderson? Indeed, it would be interesting to hear what Anderson thinks or knows about the code since he has wrote an urban ethnography that has become a classic work.

Where do Washington D.C. metro area residents find diversity?

This could be an interesting research question as put by the Washington Post: “where do you experience diversity?” The question comes amidst recent changes in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area:

We all know how diverse our region is; the latest census shows that Washington is one of the eight major metropolitan areas that have become majority minority in the past decade.

But how do those statistics translate into actual diversity? Where are the places in our region where people of all races, creeds, colors and nationalities mix most freely? Where are the markets, playing fields, dog parks, theaters, shopping malls that attract the most diverse crowds? And what does diversity even mean to each of us?

And there is even a reference to Elijah Anderson’s recent concept of the “cosmopolitan canopy,” places where people of different races and social classes mingle.

Several thoughts come to mind:

1. What exactly do they mean when they ask about people “mix[ing] most freely”? Does this mean different people are simply in the same place, like a baseball stadium or a shopping mall, or they are actually interacting?

2. Several studies from earlier this year looked at segregation within American cities. In one study, Washington D.C. is the 20th most segregated city in the country. The dissimilarity score of 61.0 roughly means that 61% of the population would have to move for there to be an equal distribution of blacks and whites in the region. While there are cities that certainly have worse scores (Chicago, New York City, and Milwaukee are the top three), this isn’t necessarily good. The region may be majority-minority but that doesn’t mean that people live near each other.

2a. Here are some of the other US cities that became majority-minority by 2010: “Along with Washington, the regions surrounding New York, San Diego, Las Vegas and Memphis have become majority-minority since 2000. Non-Hispanic whites are a minority in 22 of the country’s 100-biggest urban areas.”

3. I wonder if this is kind of a silly question because it doesn’t get at the real issue: residential segregation. It is better to have people of different backgrounds mixing in public or private spaces than to not have this happen. But the real issue is that people of different races tend not to live near each other in the United States. When presented with the option of living with other races within the same neighborhood, whites opt out more often than not.

4. What will the newspaper do with this data regarding where people find diversity? Since it won’t be a representative sample (as a voluntary, online poll), I suspect they will profile some of these places to try to understand why they attract different groups of people.

Urban ethnographer = “pretty much a good street reporter with a PhD”?

A Baltimore journalist describes Elijah Anderson’s career:

Elijah Anderson, who might be the nation’s leading people-watcher, has spent most of the last 30 years observing human beings of all colors and ethnicities mixing it up in public spaces — Philadelphia’s, mainly — and of late he mostly likes what he sees.

He’s found whites, blacks and immigrants from all over the world shopping shoulder to shoulder in Reading Terminal Market and equally stunning diversity in Philly’s Rittenhouse Square. Attention must be paid, Mr. Anderson says. As segregated as Americans are in terms of where we live, the great melting that occurs in public spaces is a phenomenon of consequence. We might be suspicious of each other on streets, but there are important places where diverse people come together and, for the most part, practice getting along. These “cosmopolitan canopies,” as Mr. Anderson calls them, give us a glimpse of post-racial America.

Mr. Anderson, a sociologist who has been on the faculty of two Ivy League universities, calls himself an urban ethnographer, which is pretty much a good street reporter with a PhD. He’s interviewed Philadelphians in their neighborhoods, homes, bars and workplaces to figure out how they live and what they think. He was in Baltimore last week with copies of “The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life,” his latest book on urban social dynamics.

The journalist describes Anderson in two ways: he “might be the nation’s leading people-watcher” and “an urban ethnographer, which is pretty much a good street reporter with a PhD.” Neither of these seem to be particularly complementary. The first suggests that anyone can do what Anderson does – indeed, people watching is a pastime of many people. The second suggests urban ethnographers do what any good reporter would do by observing and interacting with people in neighborhoods.

I think both of these descriptions shortchange ethnography. To start, ethnography is a process that requires practice and particular skills. It is not enough to show up and start talking to people or sit and watch. It often involves participant observation, taking part in the practices of the people you are studying. Second, the goal of ethnography is to return to theories, sociological or otherwise. Ethnography should not end with description but connect to and provide insights regarding a broader body of knowledge.

Perhaps this journalist was providing his thoughts about Anderson’s latest book (see my review here) through his description of ethnography.

Quick Review: The Cosmopolitan Canopy

While I have already written some about Elijah Anderson’s new book The Cosmopolitan Canopy (here and here), I had a chance to read the book for myself and I have a few thoughts.

1. The book is supposedly about the public spaces in Philadelphia (and other big cities) where people of different races and social classes can mingle and interact without the difficulties that race and social class can often impose. Interestingly, this isn’t really the focus of the whole book (more on this shortly). But in this section, I thought some of the analysis was thin. It is clear that Anderson has spent a lot of time in some of these spaces, such as the Reading Terminal Market. I don’t doubt his observations but others have written before about public spaces and how they operate.

1a. Thinking about this, I would enjoy seeing some work on this in suburban settings. Since this is where most Americans now live, how do public spaces in the suburbs operate?

2. The strongest part of the book, in my opinion, was the latter half when Anderson focuses more on the experiences of black males in these canopies and elsewhere. Here, Anderson provides a lot of insight into how race still is a master status, even within high-powered workplaces. His examples are interesting, including settings like law firms and upper-end restaurants, and he has some insights into how race still has a profound impact on everyday interaction. This section reminded me of Anderson’s extended story of John Turner in Code of the Street where the ethnographic data really tells us about the current state of American race.

2a. It would also be interesting to get the stories of the whites involved in these examples.

3. The emphasis of the book is Philadelphia but I would have enjoyed reading about the flavor of this particular city opposed to other large cities. Would cosmopolitan canopies work the same in other places? Does the interaction depend on the mix of groups and races? What happens in newer large cities where there may be fewer public spaces and established neighborhoods? Are spaces like Rittenhouse Square or The Gallery unique or similar to other spaces?

On the whole, I think Anderson contributes to our knowledge by exploring how race still matters in American lives today. The part about cosmopolitan canopies is intriguing but could be better developed.

Venkatesh argues Anderson’s recent book highlights sociology’s identity problem

Sudhir Venkatesh reviews Elijah Anderson’s new book The Cosmopolitan Canopy (earlier review here) and argues that the text is emblematic of a larger identity crisis within sociology:

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…

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?”

I have several thoughts about this:

1. I think it is helpful (and perhaps unusual) to see this piece at rather than in an academic journal. At the same time, is this only possible for an academic like Venkatesh who has a best-selling popular book (Gang Leader For a Day) and is also tied to the Freakonomics crowd?

2. Venkatesh seems to be bringing up two issues.

a. The first issue is one of direction: what are the main issues or areas in which sociology could substantially contribute to society? If some of the issues of the early days such as race (still an issue but Anderson’s data suggests it is exists in different forms) and urbanization (generally settled in favor of suburbanization in America) are no longer that noteworthy, what is next? Consumerism? Gender? Inequality between the rich and poor? Exposing the contradictions still present in society (Venkatesh’s conclusion)?

This is not a new issue. Isn’t this what public sociology was supposed to solve? There also has been some talk about fragmentation within the discipline and whether sociology has a core. Additionally, there is occasional conversation about why sociology doesn’t seem to get the same kind of public or policy attention as other fields.

b. The second issue is one of data. While both Anderson and Venkatesh are well-known for practicing urban ethnography (as Venkatesh notes, a tradition going back to the early 20th century work of the Chicago School), Venkatesh notes that even Anderson had to move on to a different technique (interviewing) to find the new story. More broadly, Venkatesh places this change within a larger battle between quantitative and qualitative data where people on each side discuss what is “real” data.

This quantitative vs. qualitative debate has also been around for a while. One effort in recent years to address this moves to mixed methods where researchers use multiple sources and techniques to reach a conclusion. But it also seems that one common way to critique the work of others is to jump right to the methodology and suggest that it is limited to the point that one cannot come to much of a conclusion. Most (if not all) data is not perfect and there are often legitimate questions regarding validity and reliability but researchers are often working with the best available data given time and monetary constraints.

In the end, I’m not sure Venkatesh provides many answers. So, perhaps just like his own conclusions regarding Anderson’s book (“Better to point [these contradictions] out, however speculative and provisional the results may be, than to hide from the truth.”), we should be content just that these issues have been outlined.

(Here is an outsider’s take on this piece: “One thing that’s the matter with sociology is that like economics the discipline’s certitude of conclusion outran its methodological rigor. Being less charitable, sociology is just an ideology which occasionally dons the gown of dispassionate objectivity to maintain a semblance of respectability.” Ouch.)

Elijah Anderson on “the cosmopolitan canopy”

Sociologist Elijah Anderson, well-known for his books Code of the Street and Streetwise, talks about the idea of “the cosmopolitan canopy” (which is the title of his just-released book)

Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson writes about those parts of the American city that allow “complete strangers to observe and appreciate one another” across racial barriers. Anderson calls these spaces “cosmopolitan canopies,” and says they let ordinary people become amateur anthropologists, watching and, eventually, reaching out to people of whom they’d be more wary in other places. His broader question: can we encourage the growth of cosmopolitan canopies? Or do they only grow from the bottom up?…

Why do cosmopolitan canopies like Reading Terminal [in Philadelphia]work? (Anderson points to many others: parks, transportation hubs, sports stadiums, even the Whole Foods.) These are safe spaces, separate from the street, made warm and intimate by a shared experience — food, shopping, travel, cheering on a team. But there’s also an intangible ingredient: a mood, Anderson writes, of “civility” that allows people “to stretch themselves mentally, emotionally, and socially,” and to develop “the growing social sophistication that allows diverse urban people to get along.” Because they’re so hard to replicate, Anderson argues, they ought to be treasured and protected — and those of us who enjoy them ought to treat them “not as ‘time out’ from normal life but as a model for what social relationships could become.” That’s how cosmopolitanism spreads.

I may have to check out this book if only for Anderson’s thoughts on the Reading Terminal Market: I have been to this central Philadelphia location several times and it is indeed an interesting place. Between the mix of people and the various food offerings, it is a great place to people watch.

But I guess I will have to read the book to find out whether Anderson thinks the openness of such places is only available to regulars (as this article hints) or whether tourists and sporadic visitors can also participate in this different kind of place. Also, I would be interested in Anderson’s thoughts regarding whether these sorts of spaces can be intentionally constructed and whether these spaces are different when they are privately owned (this would get at some of the debates in sociology over “public spaces”).