Studying poor neighborhoods alongside “Racially Concentrated Areas of Affluence”

Scholars in recent decades have spent a lot of time studying neighborhoods with concentrated poverty but what about those areas of concentrated wealth?

Cities such as St. Louis, Boston, Baltimore, and Minneapolis have more racially concentrated areas of affluence (RCAAs) than they do racially concentrated areas of poverty (RCAPs). Boston has the most RCAAs of the cities they examined, with 77. St. Louis has 44 RCAAs, and 36 RCAPs. Other cities with a large number of racially concentrated areas of affluence include Philadelphia, with 70, Chicago, with 58, and Minneapolis, with 56.

In Boston, 43.5 percent of the white population lives in census tracts that are 90 percent or more white and have a median income of four times the poverty level. In St. Louis, 54.4 percent of the white population lives in such tracts…

Public policy has “focused on the concentration of poverty and residential segregation. This has problematized non-white and high-poverty neighborhoods,” said Goetz, the director of the Center for Urban and Rural Affairs at the University of Minnesota, when presenting his findings at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “It’s shielded the other end of the spectrum from scrutiny—to the point where we think segregation of whites is normal.”…

In racially concentrated areas of affluence, federal dollars come in the form of the mortgage-interest deduction. In areas of poverty, they come through vouchers and subsidized housing units. In the Twin Cities, the total federal investment in the form of housing dollars in RCAAs was three times larger than the investment in RCAPs. On a per capita basis, it was about equal.

Federal dollars are now being spent to “subsidize racially concentrated areas of affluence,” Goetz said.

Three quick thoughts:

1. Sociologists studying such topics may not spend enough time studying elites and the wealthy. This could be for a variety of reasons: those with power and money can limit access (hence moving to smaller exclusive communities or compounds or towers of the uber-wealthy); sociologists tend to be middle to upper-class themselves; poverty presents a more visible social problem compared to the shadowy actions of those with money and influence.

2. Suburban scholars have long noted the government support for wealthier areas. The American suburbs came about partially due to certain cultural values (individualism, private property, racism) but may not have been possible on such a grand scale without federal money for mortgages (as the industry was altered in the first half of the early twentieth century), highways (interstates as largely paid for by the federal government), and diverting money away from cities to suburban areas.

3. From a policy perspective, is it easier to move those in poverty to wealthier areas (though programs like Moving to Opportunity) rather than encouraging the wealthy to move to less advantaged areas? Policy sometimes gravitates to solutions that seem doable (as opposed to what might be most effective in the long run) and I imagine the wealthy really don’t want to move to areas with more poverty.

 

Sociologist is the “Jane Goodall of the [insular] art world”

Sociologist Sarah Thornton provides a behind the scenes look at the elite art world:

It’s an exclusive, insular world, but Thornton’s first book about art, 2008’s “Seven Days in the Art World,” was pure populism, a dishy, behind-the-scenes read about heady auctions at Christie’s, the cutthroat atmosphere of art fairs, and much more. It became an unexpected bestseller and landed the writer in art’s inner circle…

Thornton has the ability to “seduce people to expose themselves,” the artist Andrea Fraser recently told an audience at New York’s New Museum.

The author’s two volumes on art read nothing like most art books, which are often academic tomes or picture-filled coffee-table books. But “33 Artists” has just one muddy black-and-white image for every chapter. Instead, Thornton fills in the blanks, writing so evocatively that the reader can easily imagine the immensity of a hundred million sunflower seeds rendered in porcelain by Ai…

Fraser and others opened their doors to Thornton as she traversed the globe to interview and observe artists in their own world. The author watches as Maurizio Cattelan prepares for what he called his retirement retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim in 2011. She is with eccentric Japanese pop artist Yayoi Kusama on the eve of her phenomenal 2012 comeback, when she landed a retrospective at the Whitney and a complementary Louis Vuitton line. And Thornton spends time in the studios of photographer Laurie Simmons and her husband, painter Carroll Dunham, just before their daughter, Lena, lands a deal with HBO.

This is one of Thornton’s greatest knacks: She tends to arrive on artists’ doorsteps just before some seismic shift in their public profiles. But her other talent is gaining access, penetrating artists’ private spheres as both an art-world insider and an academically minded outsider.

While the article is short on details about the art world, it does describe three unique features that help Thorton’s work stand out. First, she effectively uses the ethnographic method. One artist describes her as “like a ghost” and she clearly has the ability to build relationships and then use connections to explain the broader world of major artists. All of this takes time, sustained effort, and the ability to systematically gather information. Second, she is able to write in a way that appeals to a popular audience. How many sociologists write bestsellers or are said to write evocatively? Third, she gets access to an elite group. Artists whose works sell for millions have a particular social status and can be inaccessible to the average person. (I remember one of my art colleagues asking a group of other faculty about how many of the most famous artists alive today they could name. We did not do well.)

It all sounds interesting to me…

Answering suburban critiques by firing back at educated urban elites

After one professor suggests strip malls are closely tied to the ills of global capitalism, one conservative’s response is to fire back at urban, educated elites:

Because Deneen cannot wring meaning from big-box stores and six-lane roads, we are meant to assume that no one can. But this elision of any distinction between personal aesthetic preferences and objective universal laws is as empirically false as it is politically problematic. As a happy son of the suburban Midwest, I can personally attest that plenty of good people have little difficulty finding much to worship and be thankful for, no matter what they drive or where their kids’ toys were constructed.

Erudite, comfortable people are always so bemused that middle-income Americans could possibly opt for a suburban life of cars, backyards, and affordable goods. The alternative, of course, is an urban life spent waiting for buses and watching the erudite, comfortable people enjoy boutique brunches that they will never be able to sample. For millions of our brothers and sisters without PhDs, the parking lots and mini-malls that Deneen dismisses are sites of real grace and meaning. They are places where paychecks are earned, conversations are shared, and the sanctification of even mundane work can transpire.

While there are some interesting conversations to have about how spaces shape social life (think of the differences between the strip mall and the urban street with mixed uses), this particular response simply falls into an argument pattern that has been around at least 60 years. When a critic attacks the suburbs, someone is bound to respond that middle Americans seem to like the suburbs and the pretentious of the elites prevents them from seeing the good side of suburbs. And, this often devolves into name-calling and generalizations, elites versus average Americans, city dwellers against suburbanites, about morality and community life. Does this get anybody anywhere?

In other words, this is nothing new.

Confessions of a Community College College Dean: “Foucault, plus lawn care”

The “Confessions of a Community College Dean” blog at Inside Higher Ed has this intro tagline for the author:

In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Is it fair to say the implied contrast here is that this cultural studies scholar wouldn’t have imagined being part of suburban life? Knowledge of lofty French thinkers and maintaining a yard. I suspect there are many in academia who would have similar thoughts: I’m an expert in such and such field, study important things all day, and for sure won’t end up in the populist and anti-intellectual suburbs. Yet, some certainly do become suburbanites. How do they reconcile these two areas of life?

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?

Argument: elite colleges offer MOOCs because they can afford to

Here is an interesting argument about MOOCs, massive open online courses, that a hot topic of discussion these days: elite colleges can offer them because they accrue status and can afford the financial losses.

Millions of people were already taking online courses in 2011, when The New York Times noticed that thousands were taking a Stanford course online. The MOOC surge has been driven by the warm feelings associated with elite American colleges. Brand equity is obviously the principal admissions criterion for edX and Coursera, and for Udacity by implication, with its pedigree of Stanford origination and Silicon Valley cool.

Ideally, this will allow elite colleges to profit from and enhance their brands at once. Penn can’t ever be Coca-Cola. Its brand is tied to the noble purpose of higher learning. If it’s seen as a crass profit-taker, the whole thing falls apart. Many observers have asked where the “business plan” is for Harvard, MIT, and other institutions leading MOOCs. That misses the point.

Elite colleges are ultimately in the business of maximizing status, not revenue. Spending a lot of money on things that return a lot of status isn’t just feasible for these institutions—it’s their basic operating principle. It’s not hard to make money when you’re already wealthy—witness the performance of the Harvard Management Company over the past 20 years. The difficult maneuver is converting money into status of the rarefied sort that elite institutions crave.

MOOCs offer that opportunity. Elite colleges are willing to run them at a loss forever, because of the good will—and thus status—they create. Free online courses whose quality matches their institutional reputation (a tall order, to be sure, but MOOC providers have strong incentives to get there) could ultimately become as important to institutional status as the traditional markers of exclusivity and scholarly prestige.

In other words, MOOCs offered by elite colleges can reinforce existing status structures where these elite schools can continue to amass resources, financial, knowledge-wise, and social status and still claim they are helping the masses. On the other hand, can takers of MOOCs use them as real stepping stones to move up in society?

Lack of WASP candidate for election due to the Internet?

Several commentators have picked up on this feature of the 2012 presidential election: neither candidate is a WASP.

Right now, we’re looking at an absence that would have been a startling presence 50 years ago. With all the focus on economic issues in the U.S. presidential race, there’s hardly any talk about the fact that, for the first time, none of the leading presidential and vice-presidential candidates is a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court has no WASPs. These are new phenomena in the United States.

The totally non-WASP tickets signify major political and social shifts in the networked age. As Robert Putnam showed a decade ago in Bowling Alone, organized groups such as churches, political clubs, fraternal clubs and Scouts have declined in importance. People have moved sharply away from traditional, tightly knit groups into more loosely knit networks that have fewer clan boundaries and more tolerance. The rise of the Internet and mobile connectivity has pushed the trend along by allowing people to expand the number and variety of their social ties…

In 1955, sociologist Will Herberg showed how white America was rigidly divided in Protestant, Catholic, Jew. Indeed, one of the authors of this article was barred from college fraternities because he was Jewish.

Now, when Chelsea Clinton marries, no one remarks on the kippa on her husband’s head. This year, a poll by the Pew Research Center found that 81 per cent of those who know Republican Mitt Romney is a Mormon are either comfortable with his affiliation or say it doesn’t matter to them.

I’m not sure I buy the Internet argument; WASPs lost their elite control because of the Internet? I think the process had started way before this. I wonder if the most basic explanation is that there are simply less WASPs overall in the population. Since the 1950s, there has been a sharp uptick in immigration and more people have had access to education and college and graduate degrees.