Summing up Mayor Daley’s mixed “public housing legacy”

There wasn’t much talk about public housing before the election earlier this year to replace Mayor Daley in Chicago. (Frankly, there isn’t much talk about this at the federal level either.) But one journalist suggests that Mayor Daley left a “complex public housing legacy” for the new Mayor Emanuel:

Last month, as Richard M. Daley approached retirement, the Chicago Housing Authority released a first-of-its-kind report on residents who were forced to leave the high-rises. It concluded that the changes made life safer, more stable and more hopeful for thousands of families.

But while Daley was praised by some for abandoning the high-rise system, housing advocates say the changes have done little to break the grip of poverty.

“As an urban-development strategy, the transformation is an A. It gets a far poorer grade if it is approached as a strategy to help low-income populations to achieve social and economic stability in their lives,” said Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, who spent 18 months living in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes as a graduate student in the early 1990s.

Some observers, like author Alex Kotlowitz, fear the disappearance of the high-rises means Chicago’s poverty has passed out of sight and out of mind.

Some of the media talk about public housing in Chicago has been positive: the once notorious high-rises, particularly those at the Robert Taylor Homes on the south side and the Cabrini-Green complex on the north side (see thoughts about the demolition of the last high-rise here, here, here, and here), are now gone. (It was a bit strange last week to ride the Brown Line north out of the Loop and not see any Cabrini-Green high-rises.) In the eyes of the media, the problems of concentrated poverty and crime have been reduced. The land can be put to other uses, particularly at Cabrini-Green as it is very valuable land between Lincoln Park and the Loop.

On the other hand, the concerns of people like Venkatesh and Kotlowitz will not go away. Simply destroying public housing high-rises does not deal with the larger issues: there are still large parts of Chicago where residents have reduced life chances compared to better-off parts of the city. In the article, new Mayor Rahm Emanuel is cited as saying that the goal of reducing the isolation of the public housing residents (the goal that was “short of ending poverty”) has been successful.

I can’t imagine the new mayor will or perhaps even can devote much time to this issue as the persistent problems of budgets, crime, jobs, and education need to be addressed. Still, it will be interesting to see how Emanuel addresses public housing moving forward.

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.)

How recorded music might limit social action

iPod headphones are ubiquitous on college campuses and many other places. What effect such devices and more broadly, recorded music, might have on modern society is explored in this essay that includes references to sociologists Sudhir Venkatesh and Pierre Bourdieu:

Two years ago, at the nadir of the financial crisis, the urban sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh wondered aloud in the New York Times why no mass protests had arisen against what was clearly a criminal coup by the banks. Where were the pitchforks, the tar, the feathers? Where, more importantly, were the crowds? Venkatesh’s answer was the iPod: “In public spaces, serendipitous interaction is needed to create the ‘mob mentality.’ Most iPod-like devices separate citizens from one another; you can’t join someone in a movement if you can’t hear the participants. Congrats Mr. Jobs for impeding social change.” Venkatesh’s suggestion was glib, tossed off—yet it was also a rare reminder, from the quasi-left, of how urban life has been changed by recording technologies.

Later in the essay, Bourdieu is presented as the anti-Adorno, the sociologist who argued that music doesn’t help prompt revolutionary action but rather is indicative (and helps reinforce) class differences:

In the mid-1960s, [Bourdieu] conducted a giant survey of French musical tastes, and what do you know? The haute bourgeoisie loved The Well-Tempered Clavier; the upwardly mobile got high on “jazzy” classics like “Rhapsody in Blue”; while the working class dug what the higher reaches thought of as schmaltzy trash, the “Blue Danube” waltz and Petula Clark. Bourdieu drew the conclusion that judgments of taste reinforce forms of social inequality, as individuals imagine themselves to possess superior or inferior spirit and perceptiveness, when really they just like what their class inheritance has taught them to. Distinction appeared in English in 1984, cresting the high tide of the culture wars about to hit the universities. Adorno had felt that advanced art-music was doing the work of revolution. Are you kidding, Herr Professor? might have been Bourdieu’s response. And thus was Adorno dethroned, all his passionate arguments about history as expressed in musical form recast as moves in the game of taste, while his dismissal of jazz became practically the most famous cultural mistake of the 20th century.

This is an interesting analysis. Sociologists of culture have been very interested in music in recent decades. One line of research has insights into “omnivore” behavior, those high-status people who claim to like all sorts of music. (See an example of this sort of analysis here.)

But this essay seems to tap into a larger debate about technologies beyond just recorded music: do computers, laptops, iPods, cell phones and smart phones, Facebook memberships, and other digital technologies serve to keep us separated from each other or do they enhance and deepen human relationships?

What influences how residents feel about their communities: social ties

New research to be published in the American Journal of Sociology suggests that how people feel about their particular community is not influenced by the community itself:

Prior to this research, many sociologists believed that certain community traits influenced how attached residents felt. That list of suspected factors included cultural heritage, levels of acquaintanceship, the pace of economic development, population density and habits of the predominant ethnic group.

Instead, the BYU researchers found that none of these dimensions of a locale produce a higher sense of attachment – or at least they don’t anymore.

“I take our findings to be part of the bad news of modernity,” said lead study author Jeremy Flaherty, who is completing a Ph.D. at BYU. “How people interpret their local community has probably changed substantially over the generations.”

While the researchers found that no characteristics of the community played a role, they did find that feelings of attachment develop if a person develops social ties where they live – and that usually takes time.

So it is not really about the community but rather the relationships one builds and the social standing one has in a community. This would fit with a lot of research in the last decade or so about community life in places where many would suspect there is not much community life. For example, Sudhir Venkatesh has written several books that show there is a strong community structure in poor neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago. While outsiders would look at each community and see chaos or disorder, Venkatesh found a well-established social structure where people were still tied to each other.

I will be interested to read then how if it is really about social relationships, some people do come to have such attachments to particular places. Do they not find such social relationships elsewhere? Do these relationships then taint or influence their view of every community thereafter?

If this is the case, perhaps the “Best Places to Live” lists should include some new measures of things like friendliness, openness, and social ties within a community. Does the average new person who moves to the community become part of new social networks in a relatively short amount of time? Do neighbors know each other beyond just saying hello? And if people knew that some places were friendlier or more open than others, would that be a draw to majority of Americans or a detriment?

Venkatesh discusses five myths about prostitution

Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh quickly dissects five myths regarding prostitution. Here are the myths: “prostitution is an alleyway business,” “men visit sex workers for sex,” “most prostitutes are addicted to drugs or were abused as children,” “prostitutes and police are enemies,” and “closing Craigslist’s “adult services” section will significantly affect the sex trade.”

Two quick thoughts:

1. It is difficult to tackle a social problem if people don’t know what is really going on. If Venkatesh is right about the role of Craigslist, then lawmakers and officials are just dealing with symptoms of the problem.

2. One common argument against the need to study sociology is that everything about the social world is “just common sense.” Venkatesh is suggesting based on research of his own and from others that much of the accepted wisdom about prostitution is inaccurate.

Chicago police and meeting with gangs

When the story came out last week that Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis had met with gang leaders to deliver a warning that the police would crack down if the violence continued, I wondered if there would be some backlash. Many people looking at this story might be incredulous: why didn’t the police just arrest the gang members? If they know who the people are who are responsible for the violence, why not crack down already? Why are the Chicago police negotiating with gangs?

Mayor Daley defended Weis today:

The mayor, who faces re-election in February, has been trying to address criticism about continued violence on city streets. One approach has been to send Weis out for more public appearances to talk about crime…

Today, Daley likened the idea to the negotiations between war combatants.

“It’s a good concept. You’ll sit down with anyone,” Daley said. “We’ll negotiate after the Second World War. We’ll negotiate with anyone to have peace. Even during the war. So you sit down with anyone. If you can save one life, if I can save your son’s life, you’d want me to sit down with them,” the mayor said.

While this may not convince people (just read the comments after the story), the story behind such negotiations is much more complicated. Sudhir Venkatesh’s research about poor Chicago neighborhoods reveals that the police and the gangs actually have a relationship. Gang members may be partaking in criminal activities but they are also active, powerful, and important actors in their community. It is not as simple as just going in and arresting everyone.

The TV show The Wire illustrates this gray area. In the series, the police are generally after the leaders of the gangs, the guys in charge. They could crack down on the small-time dealers or runners but others just pop into place. While the crack-downs may look good for the media (and outsiders looking in), it doesn’t solve the larger problems.

Both Venkatesh’s research and The Wire suggest the problems of these neighborhoods are deeper than the gang activity. There are persistent problems of poverty, a lack of jobs, a lack of opportunities, poor schools, broken infrastructure, and isolation from the outside world. How to solve these issues and the problems of gangs is difficult – and would require a much broader perspective than just counting the number of crimes, arrests, and meetings between the police and gangs.