The decline of sociological interest in rural areas

While addressing rural poverty, this article discusses why sociologists pay more attention to cities:

American disinterest in the poverty of its own pastoral lands can be traced across the Atlantic Ocean and back several hundred years to the origins of social sciences in academia. The rise of these disciplines coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the mass migration of peasants from the country into cities. As an effect of these circumstances, the leading theorists of the era—Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber—were primarily concerned with living conditions in cities and industrializing societies, setting the foundation for the metro-centrism that continues to characterize the social sciences.

“In academia, there’s an urban bias throughout all research, not just poverty research. It starts with where these disciplines origins—they came out of the 1800’s—[when] theorists were preoccupied with the movement from a rural sort of feudal society to a modern, industrial society,” Linda Lobao, a professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University, tells Rural America In These Times. “The old was rural and the feudal and the agricultural and the new was the industry and the city.”

Similarly, the advent of the study of poverty in sociology departments across the United States during the Progressive Era centered nearly exclusively on the metropolis. In the 1920s and 1930s, the University of Chicago’s influential School of Sociology utilized the city of Chicago as a laboratory for the development of the discipline. According to an article published in Annual Review of Sociology by sociologists Ann Tickamyer and Silvia Duncan, poverty in the city was “one of the many social pathologies associated with urbanization, mass immigration, and industrialization”—issues that were at the heart of the Progressive movement.

Lobao explains that around the same time there arose a “small,” but “vibrant” contingent of rural sociologists at Penn State, University of Wisconsin Madison, Cornell, Ohio State and University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. But the role of rural sociology, she says, has remained perpetually marginalized, a “residual category” outside of the mainstream discourse. Today, it is not uncommon to see rural sociologists placed into colleges of agriculture, where corporations like Monsanto rule, rather than sociology departments—pushing them further into the recesses of the social sciences.

American sociologists have a number of blind spots and this one is when I’m aware of as an urban sociologist. While the founders of sociology were not primarily focused on cities, many of the changes they observed were based on urbanization. Marx, Durkheim, and Weber wrestled with the changes from agrarian societies to city-based industrialized systems. The first major sociology programs in the United States – places like Chicago, Columbia, and Harvard – tended to be in or near large cities and this still holds true today. This all happened as the United States rapidly transitioned in 100 years from a rural country in the early 1900s to a society where more than 80% of the population lives in metropolitan areas. What’s left behind? Those places further away from the major research schools – which I would argue also includes suburbs – that sociologists find less exciting and tend to generalize about.

There are occasional counterexamples to the urban focus of American sociology. For example, see Robert Wuthnow’s 2013 book on rural America.

How much do academics cite work in another discipline?

Sociologist Jerry Jacobs has a new book about the value of specific academic disciplines and presents this data regarding how much academics cite work outside their field:

“Interdisciplinarity depends on strong disciplines,” he said.

He said he became interested in the topic while serving as editor of American Sociological Review. He wanted to see if the articles in that journal were showing up as citations in the work of non-sociologists, and found that they were, leading him to question the idea that disciplines don’t communicate with one another. Using National Science Foundation data, he looked at where science journals are cited, and found that a “substantial minority” of citations come in other fields.

Citation Outside of Disciplines

Discipline % of Citations From Outside Field
Physics 18.3%
Chemistry 31.0%
Earth and space sciences 16.8%
Mathematics 22.6%
Biology 38.3%
Biomedical research 24.6%
Clinical medicine 28.6%
Engineering and technology 38.1%
Psychology 34.5%
Social sciences 22.7%

Jacobs then analyzes the various social sciences, and finds that scholars in the interdisciplinary field of area studies are more likely to cite non-area studies work than their own fields, while economics scholars are mostly likely to cite their own field. “These data on cross-field citations raise an important question for advocates of interdisciplinarity, namely whether the fields that are most open to external ideas are also the most intellectually dynamic,” Jacobs writes. “If this were true, area studies would be the envy of the social sciences, and economists would be busy trying to figure out how best to emulate the success of areas studies scholars. In fact, the reverse is true: economics is the most influential field in the social sciences, and it is also the most inwardly focused.”

While interdisciplinary is a hot topic, it is nice to see some data on the topic. How much should scholars cite those outside their disciplines? Jacobs suggests here that he thinks 20-30% of citations outside of one’s field is a good total – roughly one-fifth to one-third of citations. Should this be higher? Who gets to set these guidelines? The table also suggests this can vary quite a bit across disciplines.

I’ve noticed in my own research that certain topics in sociology lend themselves to more interdisciplinary citations, particularly for certain subject matter and new areas of study. I study within the subfields of urban sociology and the sociology of culture, subjects with plenty of sociologists but also plenty of interest in other disciplines. Some of my recent projects have been more historical, meaning I’m interacting more with historians, and about the media, meaning I’m interacting with work in media studies, communication, English, and elsewhere. Also, studying less-studied topics means one has to go further afield to understand what all of academia has said. In my work with McMansions, I’ve found that sociologists haven’t said much so I’ve worked with sources in history, planning, law, and housing (a rather interdisciplinary field).

“Who Governs” the city?

Political scientist Robert Dahl authored the influential 1961 book Who Governs? and here is a quick summary of his work upon his recent death:

His career lasted for more than half a century, but he was best known for the 1961 publication “Who Governs?” Cited by the Times Literary Supplement as among the 100 most influential books since World War II, “Who Governs?” probed the political system of Dahl’s own community at the time, New Haven, which he considered an ideal microcosm for the country: two strong parties, a long history and a careful progression from patrician rule to self-made men to party rule, where candidates of varied ethnic and economic backgrounds – a garage owner, an undertaker, a director of publicity – might succeed.

Dahl wanted to know who really ran the city, and, by extension, the country. Sociologist C. Wright Mills, in “The Power Elite,” had written that wealth and power were concentrated within a tiny group of people. Dahl believed no single entity was in charge. Instead, there were competing ones – social, economic and political leaders whose goals often did not overlap. He acknowledged that many citizens did not participate in local issues and that the rich had advantages over the poor, but concluded that New Haven, while a “republic of unequal citizens,” was still a republic.

Dahl’s conclusions were strongly challenged in the 1970s by sociologist G. William Domhoff, who used research provided in part by Dahl himself to find that he had underestimated the power of the business community and overestimated the divisions among New Haven’s leaders. Domhoof alleged that Dahl relied too much on the people he spoke with.

“It may be that the most serious criticism I can make of Dahl is that he never should have done this interview-based study in the first place, for it was doomed from the start to fall victim to the ambitions and plans of the politicians, planners, lawyers and businessmen that he was interviewing,” Domhoff wrote.

Impressive – many social scientists could only dream of having a book that is named among the most influential.

This debate is related to a leading perspective in urban sociology, the political economy paradigm, which argues that urban development is the result of powerful and politically connected actors. In cities and suburbs, development is often the work of politicians and the FIRE industries – finance, insurance, and real estate – working together to make money. These groups, dubbed growth machines, can access a range of resources not available to average citizens including credit, political influence, and public booster efforts often led by leading citizens and local media. Across cities and locales, the particular configuration of growth machines can differ but the key is to know where to first look when understanding development.

Analyzing the SuperZips of the Washington D.C. region

There are a lot of wealthy and educated people living in SuperZips around Washington D.C.:

Clarksville sits in one of the nation’s “Super Zips” — a term coined by American Enterprise Institute scholar and author Charles Murray to describe the country’s most prosperous, highly educated demographic clusters. On average, they have a median household income of $120,000, and 7 in 10 adults have college degrees…

A Washington Post analysis of the latest census data shows that more than a third of Zip codes in the D.C. metro area rank in the top 5 percent nationally for income and education. But what makes the region truly unusual is that so many of the high-end Zip codes are contiguous. They form a vast land mass that bounds across 717 square miles. It stretches 60 miles from its northern tip in Woodstock, Md., to the southern end in Fairfax Station, and runs 30 miles wide from Haymarket in Prince William County to the heart of the District up to Rock Creek Parkway.

One in four households in the region are in a Super Zip, according to the Post analysis. Since the 2000 Census on which Murray based his analysis, Washington’s Super Zips have grown to encompass 100,000 more residents. Only the New York City area has more Super Zips, but they are a much smaller share of the total of that region’s Zip codes and are more scattered…

Yet many who live in these rapidly evolving communities do not think of themselves as rich or elite. The cost of living, particularly for housing, eats up a large chunk of the two incomes it typically takes to afford a comfortable home in a good school district.

Interesting look at social class today in America; those on the upper end tend to argue they worked hard to get there, deserve what they have, and they aren’t really rich (though comparisons to much of the U.S., let alone most of the world, suggests otherwise). As the article goes on to note, a number of people are concerned about what the lack of interaction with others might mean down the road.

This is a story that has developed in recent years. For example, a number of people have noted that a large number of the wealthiest counties in the United States are in the Washington region. While conservatives tend to tie this wealth to the growth of big government (and the businesses associated with it), how come scholars haven’t looked at this more closely? There have been some studies of a few areas in the Washington metropolitan area, such as Prince George’s County and its large suburban black population or the growth of the edge city of Tysons Corner or responses to growing immigrant populations in Prince William County, but little look at the region as a whole. Perhaps this is a lingering artifact of American urban sociology’s emphasis on some “traditional big cities” like Chicago, New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia and not paying as much attention to newer big cities like Washington D.C., Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and others. Do we need something like a “Georgetown School” or “Brookings Institution School” of urban sociology?

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?

Including city smells in urban sociology

The word Chicago may be linked to smelling onions so why not try to track down distinctive smells in Chicago?

It’s a gorgeous Friday afternoon in July, and we’re walking through Archer Park with Diego and Juliet’s nine-year-old daughter Paula. We’ve gone in search of Juliet’s latest smell interest, an odor she noticed last fall when Paula was taking tumbling classes at the park. While Paula practiced forward rolls, Juliet and Diego killed time at the playground. And that’s where she smelled it: the unmistakable, nostalgic odor of Silly Putty.

Haven’t heard about Silly Putty in a while or maybe never? Well, it’s the putty that bounces, stretches, and (most bizarrely) snaps when given a blow, and it comes in a plastic egg. According to Juliet, it also has a distinctive “plastic-y chemical type of smell.” It’s this smell she recalls wafting over the playground from Archer Park’s industrial western edge on those fall evenings…

All this assumes of course that the city’s odor detectives are successful in tracking down an odor’s source. What happens, I ask, in cases like ours where investigators show up only to find that the smell has left the building? Omenazu says this happens a lot, and unfortunately, there’s not much the city can do.

“Odor is very transient,” he says. “It might be intense now, but in the next ten minutes, it’s gone.”

Smell also poses the additional challenge of being a moving target. “Sometimes it’s from Indiana” Omenazu says. “Sometimes it’s from as far away as Peoria. There was a case of a gas smell that everybody was smelling. … People’s Gas discovered that [the leak] wasn’t even in Chicago.” One complaint and one investigation may yield nothing, but Omenazu suggests persistence usually wins out. When I ask him how often he inspects facilities, he says if there are complaints “then we visit them as many times as we get complaints.”

All of this makes me think that somehow urban sociology has failed to deliver on urban smells. What we often say or show about cities often has to do with sight and sounds. Think of maps, impressive photos, words on a page, movies. But isn’t a key part of the urban experience the smells? For example, walking around in New York City during ASA two weekends ago was not only an impressive visual and auditory experience: there were plenty of competing smells. And, I would contend that midtown Manhattan smells a little different on the whole than Chicago’s Loop.

There is no easy way to put smells back into descriptions of cities outside of visiting them. However, it is a key part of experiencing cities and should not be overlooked.

The Chicago School model of urban growth doesn’t quite fit…but neither do other models

Sociologist Andy Beveridge adds to the ongoing debate within urban sociology over the applicability of the Chicago School’s model of growth:

Ultimately, Beveridge’s interesting analysis found that the basic Chicago School pattern held for the early part of the 20th century and even into the heyday of American post-war suburbanization. But more recently, the process and pattern of urban development has diverged in ways that confound this classic model…

The pattern of urban growth and decline has become more complicated in the past couple of decades as urban centers, including Chicago, have come back. “When one looks at the actual spatial patterning of growth,” Beveridge notes, “one can find evidence that supports exponents of the Chicago, Los Angeles and New York schools of urban studies in various ways.” Many cities have vigorously growing downtowns, as the New York model would suggest, but outlying areas that are developing without any obvious pattern, as in the Los Angeles model.

The second set of maps (below) get at this, comparing Chicago in the decades 1910-20 and 1990-2000. In the first part of the twentieth century, decline was correlated with decline in adjacent downtown areas, shown here in grey. Similarly, growth was correlated with growth in more outlying suburbs, shown here in black. In the earlier period growth radiated outwards — a close approximate of the Chicago school concentric zone model. But in the more recent map, growth and decline followed less clear patterns. Some growth concentrated downtown, while other areas outside the city continued to boom, in ways predicted more accurately by the New York and Los Angeles models. The islands of grey and black–which indicate geographic correlations of decline and growth, respectively–are far less systematic. As Beveridge writes, the 1990-2000 map shows very little patterning. There were “areas of clustered high growth (both within the city and in the suburbs), as well as decline near growth, growth near decline, and decline near decline.”

Interesting research. It sounds like the issue is not necessarily the models of growth but how widely they are applied within a metropolitan region. Assuming the same processes are taking place over several hundred square miles is making too much of a leap. We might then need to look at smaller areas or types of areas as well as micro processes.

This reminds me that when teaching urban sociology this past spring and reading as a class about the Chicago School, New York School, and Los Angeles School, students wanted to discuss why sociologists seem to want one theory to explain all cities. This isn’t necessarily the case; we know cities are different, particularly when you get outside of an American or Western context. At the same time, we are interested in trying to better understand the underlying processes surrounding city change. Plus, Chicago, New York, and LA have had organized (sometimes more strongly, sometimes more loosely) groups based in important schools pushing theories (and we don’t have such schools in places like Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Portland, etc.).