Why Americans identify their communities as urban, suburban, or rural: quality of schools, safety

A recent study in City & Community by sociologists Chase M. Billingham and Shelley McDonough Kimelberg titled “Identifying the Urban” includes these findings:

To do so, we utilize data from the 2010 Soul of the Community (SOTC) survey, a joint effort of the Knight Foundation and Gallup “focused on the emotional side of the connection between residents and their communities” (Knight Foundation 2017) in 26 metropolitan regions of the United States. While specifically designed to explore the factors associated with residents’ loyalty to and satisfaction with their communities, the SOTC project also yielded data that allow for an analysis of how people describe the communities they inhabit. We first compare the labels that individuals attach to their residential communities (“urban,” “suburban,” “rural,” etc.) to a categorization of those communities based solely on ZIP code designation, exploring the extent to which people whose ZIP codes reflect a central city, suburban, or rural residence actually characterize their communities as urban, suburban, or rural. As we demonstrate, the data indicate a fair amount of disjunction, with approximately one‐third of respondents embracing a residential identity different from that suggested by their ZIP code…

“Urban” is an imprecise term, open to multiple interpretations and contingent upon a variety of physical, demographic, and social factors. The label that a government bureaucrat or social scientist attaches to a given community does not necessarily reflect what those who inhabit that community believe about their geographic identity. Similarly, next‐door neighbors might disagree about whether they live in an urban, suburban, or exurban area. Municipal boundaries matter, of course. Overall, our findings indicate that a postal address that places an individual within the official city limits is the best predictor of whether that individual identifies his or her community as “urban.” Yet municipal boundaries alone cannot account for the wide variation in individuals’ perceptions of their communities. When most people characterize their communities as “urban,” “suburban,” or “rural,” they do so not by pulling out a map, but by reflecting on how they experience daily life in that community.

As the analyses presented here indicate, two factors in particular — individuals’ assessments of the local schools and how safe they feel in their neighborhood — play a significant role in the identity ascribed to place. A person residing outside the borders of a region’s central city, but in a community where she felt unsafe and had little faith in the local schools, was about equally likely to say that she lived in an urban area as someone with the same characteristics who lived within the city borders, but who felt safe in her neighborhood and had high confidence in the local schools.

Importantly, however, the understanding of place also varies by race. Even when they inhabit similar parts of their respective metropolitan regions, black, Hispanic, and white Americans have different experiences and report different community identities. Most U.S. metropolitan areas no longer resemble the stark “Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs” pattern (Farley et al. 1978) that prevailed in the late 20th century. The lived experience of community is still racialized, however, even as racial and ethnic minorities increasingly settle in suburban communities and gentrification brings new cohorts of whites into central‐city neighborhoods that their peers avoided in previous generations. For blacks, the geographical divide, at least as operationalized by ZIP code designation, is far less salient than it is for Hispanics and non‐Hispanic whites. Rather, our analyses suggest that blacks see the distinction between urban and nonurban living more as a function of community characteristics, especially personal safety. These social factors influence the perceptions of place for all respondents, but they are particularly meaningful for blacks.

Summarizing: the study suggests how residents rate their local public schools and their safety in their neighborhoods affects whether they view their own location as urban or not.

This study sheds light on a long-running American tension between urban and non-urban life. From the beginning of the country, people debated whether city life or more rural life was preferable. They likely did not overlay the issues of public school performance and safety on the conversations but the debates could take on moralistic tones. Move to the mid-1800s and beyond and the arrival of new immigrants as well as industrialization and urbanization changed perceptions of cities. In the twentieth century, suburbs emerged as the morally safe places for many Americans, due to some of these issues as well as changing demographics in cities and increased support for suburban living. At the same time, the image of rural life lost luster.

Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, will the meanings of urban, suburban, and rural places be the same? It will be interesting to see what stays the same and what changes.

Of malls, Mormons, mammon, and Mitt

A long article in Bloomberg Businessweek on “How the Mormons Make Money” discusses City Creek Center, a $2 billion “megamall” development that opened in March 2012 “directly across the street from the church’s iconic neo-Gothic temple in Salt Lake City”:

The mall includes a retractable glass roof, 5,000 underground parking spots, and nearly 100 stores and restaurants, ranging from Tiffany’s (TIF) to Forever 21. Walkways link the open-air emporium with the church’s perfectly manicured headquarters on Temple Square. Macy’s (M) is a stone’s throw from the offices of the church’s president, Thomas S. Monson, whom Mormons believe to be a living prophet.

On the morning of its grand opening, thousands of shoppers thronged downtown Salt Lake, eager to elbow their way into the stores. The national anthem played, and Henry B. Eyring, one of Monson’s top counselors, told the crowds, “Everything that we see around us is evidence of the long-standing commitment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Salt Lake City.” When it came time to cut the mall’s flouncy pink ribbon [press release here], Monson, flanked by Utah dignitaries, cheered, “One, two, three—let’s go shopping!”

Watching a religious leader celebrate a mall may seem surreal, but City Creek reflects the spirit of enterprise that animates modern-day Mormonism.

A few thoughts and questions:

1.  A new, $2 billion retail development seems quite aggressive given the current business climate.  Then again, Utah seems to be faring much better than the rest of the U.S. economically.  The state averaged a 6.7% unemployment rate during 2011, 11th out of 50 states (+DC), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  More specifically, Salt Lake City’s 2011 rate was even lower at 6.5%, putting it at 52 out of 372 major metropolitan areas.  (If you’d like to see Utah’s unemployment rate over time and/or compare it with other state(s), Google has a wonderful interface for interacting with the BLS’ public data here.)

2.  City Creek Center (official webpage here) seems to be neither a traditional mall nor a “lifestyle center“.  Rather, it sprung fully formed within its urban environment (which no doubt contributed to its multi-billion dollar cost) as a rebuilding of Main Street rather than a “Main Streetification”.  If successful, could it usher in a new era of high-dollar, high-stakes urban retail (re)development?  Or does City Creek Center’s strong ties to LDS businesses constitute circumstances so special that they cannot be duplicated elsewhere?

3.  The Bloomberg article seems to connect City Creek Center to Mitt Romney, stating,

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Mormonism, an indigenous American religion, would also adopt the country’s secular faith in money. What is remarkable is how varied the church’s business interests are and that so little is known about its financial interests. Although a former Mormon bishop is about to receive the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, and despite a recent public-relations campaign aimed at combating the perception that it is “secretive,” the LDS Church remains tight-lipped about its holdings. It offers little financial transparency even to its members, who are required to tithe 10 percent of their income to gain access to Mormon temples.

The unstated implication seems to be that Romney’s savvy and secrecy with his own finances is somehow related to the LDS Church’s savvy secrecy with theirs.  Is this a fair conclusion to draw?  Is Bloomberg suggesting that there is something inherent within Mormonism that mandates this particular way of doing business?

 

Photographing Detroit for something more than “ruin porn”

Pete Brook over at Wired profiles Brian Widdis and Romain Blanquart, two photographers whose project “Can’t Forget the Motor City” argues that “Photos of Detroit Need to Move Beyond Ruin Porn“:

As a symbol of the U.S. economy in general, even before the crash of 2008, Motor City has been the subject of much “ruin porn” – photography that fetishizes urban decay.

“The portrayal Detroiters are used to seeing – crumbling buildings with no people to be seen – is frustrating because they know their city is more than that,” says Detroit photographer Brian Widdis. “Nobody here denies that those things are real, but seeing the city portrayed one-dimensionally – time and again – it’s like hearing the same awful song being played over and over on the radio. Detroiters want to hear a different song once in a while.”…

Ruin porn worships the 33,000 empty houses and 91,000 vacant lots of Detroit and overlooks the 700,000+ residents. It doesn’t come close to describing the city.

“I still do not understand her. The complexity of Detroit makes many give up, move out or move on, if they can. But for others, we want to further that relationship with her,” says [Romain] Blanquart….“Detroit is not a tragedy. We attempt to show its humanity[.]”

Widdis and Blanquart’s photographs are indeed beautiful and, generally, full of people.  While I’m not convinced that there’s anything inherently “pornographic” about photographing urban ruins (and underscoring the now-absent humanity those ruins imply), I agree that there is something wrong with hitting this same point to the exclusion everything else, especially insofar as this singled focus implies that there is nothing else to show or say.  However small Detroit’s population may be compared to its heydays, the city is still home to hundreds of thousands of people whose lives–and stories–are still ongoing.  I applaud these photographers’ efforts to document Detroit’s continuing stories through their artistry and not simply focusing on architectural echoes from the past.

Quick Review: The Great Inversion

I recently read The Great Inversion, a book by Alan Ehrenhalt (see an interview about the book here), about how more Americans are seeking denser living areas. This is not a new idea as plenty of commentators have addressed this in recent years but this book attempts to provide a broad overview of the phenomenon. Here are four thoughts about the urban trends discussed in this book:

1. This book is built around case studies. This is both a strength and weakness. As a strength, Ehrenhalt examines several American cities such as Phoenix, Atlanta, and Denver that don’t get as much attention from urban sociologists. Even as urban sociologists admit that the urban landscape in America has changed a lot since the beginnings of the Chicago School in the early 1900s, most studies examine “traditional” American cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston. But these case studies seem more impressionistic than anything else; hard data is difficult to find in this book. There are few figures about how many Americans have actually made the choice to move (versus surveys that suggest Baby Boomers and Millennials desire denser homes). The case studies often look at smaller areas of a metropolitan region, such as the Sheffield neighborhood in Chicago, but don’t address the big picture across regions or throughout the United States.

2. Ehrenhalt is careful to try to straddle the middle line between urbanists and suburbanists (defined a few times as people like Joel Kotkin). But the problem with this is that I don’t think he makes his argument very strongly. Here is what he wants to argue: American urban areas will look quite different in a few decades as more Americans seek out denser housing. However, he doesn’t want to argue this too strongly and backpedals from this at points. Here is his conclusion about Tysons Corner, the last case study of the book:

I’m convinced of that because I see all around me a generation of young, mainstream, middle-class adults who are looking for some form of midlevel urban experience: not bohemian inner-city adventure, but definitely not cul-de-sacs and long automobile commutes. There are more of them coming into the residential market every year. They like the idea of having some space, but they aren’t feeling in terror at the mention of density. They aren’t willing to sell their cars, but they appreciate the advantage of having another way to get around. If Tysons Corner is rebuilt on a reasonable human scale and with a modicum of physical appeal, they will go for it, imperfect as it may be.

And then we will begin to see experiments of this sort in suburbs all over the country, launched by developers and local governments that may still be a little nervous about density but will know one thing for sure: If Tysons Corner can be reborn, nothing in the suburbs is beyond hope. If the effort to rebuild Tysons Corner somehow succeeds, it will become a national model for retrofitting suburbia for the millennial generation.

It is less of an argument that there is a strong push for these options and more of an argument that demographics will change urban forms. This may be correct but it seems like Ehrenhalt seems unwilling to push too hard for this.

3. Ehrenhalt suggests our cities will look more European in a few decades as poorer Americans move to the suburbs and wealthier Americans move back to the cities. This may indeed happen but I think Ehrenhalt generally downplays the cultural factors behind American suburbia and the difficulties that may occur in this demographic inversion (see #4 below).

4. This book reminds me that there are a lot of potentially interesting things that could happen in American suburbs in the coming decades. In particular, the densification of suburbs has the potential to change the character of a number of larger and/or thriving suburbs. Many communities might turn to retrofitting out of desperation in order to start generating tax revenues from vacant properties. However, while Ehrenhalt thinks that demographics will push in this direction, I think there will still be substantial pushback in some places. I’m thinking of a suburb like Naperville, a community that definitely could incorporate high-rises in the downtown and along the I-88 corridor but has thus far resisted big projects. Perhaps circumstances could change but I imagine it might take a while for this to happen.

Trend of some moving back to rural areas?

A sociologist  argues that while there may be a lot of talk (and data) about adults seeking out denser communities, there is a countertrend of some adults moving to rural areas.

Tolkkinen’s experience is similar to that of many people who move from the city to the country. They love the beauty and peace and security. But they tend to have a hard time finding decent paying jobs and don’t like to drive the long distances to work, school and shopping.

Winchester posits that while young people continue to leave rural areas for the cities, there is an ongoing countertrend of people in their 30s and 40s moving back. He calls the phenomenon the “brain gain.” We’ll have more coverage of the report this afternoon, but here’s a summary of what people told us…

Interestingly, Winchester has found that people who move or return to rural areas tend to have higher incomes and be more civically engaged than longtime locals. That’s definitely true of Ann Thompson, who returned to her hometown of Milan, in western Minnesota, seven years ago after living overseas for 18 years. “When I left, I didn’t necessarily think I would come back,” she said. “I just thought I wanted to see the world.”…

Cheap housing draws a lot of people to rural Minnesota, judging by Winchester’s research and responses to our PIN query. Hoglin wrote that her husband “was missing rural life and wanted to be able to hunt and fish more often. I was definitely not missing rural life, but eventually warmed to the idea of moving back when I realized we could afford to buy an acreage, while we couldn’t afford to buy anything in the Twin Cities area.”

Most of this isn’t too surprising; people who move to rural areas find both advantages and disadvantages. I did find it interesting that those who move have higher incomes and higher levels of civic engagement: are they moving because they have the option to do so (you have to have money to move and perhaps going to a rural area is just another choice to try out for a while) and/or they are seeking out some “authentic community” they haven’t found elsewhere?

This article reminds me of a foundational concept in urban sociology: place matters. Even in a connected world where people can use the Internet to communicate and work from a distance, where one lives still matters a lot for jobs, cultural amenities, and social life.

I wish there were actual numbers in this story: how many people are actually moving back to rural areas? How many are doing it because of economic reasons (cheaper), family reasons (caring for family), or looking for something in the rural environment they can’t find elsewhere?

Questioning the value of an outsider’s perspective in MoMA’s “Foreclosed”

MoMA’s exhibit Foreclosed certainly seems to be provoking a lot of strong reactions (see Brian’s previous commentary here).  Diana Lind, editor in chief of Next American City, questions both the motives and the practicality underlying MoMA’s re-imagining of the American suburbs:

Foreclosed seethes with disdain for the suburbs, and the lack of an empathetic understanding of how the suburbs function and are changing, ultimately makes the exhibit look less visionary than ignorant. As an urban dweller who is deeply frustrated by the social, economic and environmental consequences of sprawl and car-centered communities, I too want to see clever ways of retrofitting these parts of the country. But saying that, I wish the exhibit had improved upon the suburbs rather than suggest transforming them beyond recognition.

It was critically apparent that none of the architects participating in the exhibit actually live in the suburbs (a fact confirmed by the exhibit’s curator). To Bergdoll, the last great American architect to live and work in the burbs was Frank Lloyd Wright, who was based in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park at the turn of the 20th century. This outsider perspective on the suburbs is the exhibit’s crucial flaw and inevitably influenced the architects to propose interventions in suburbia that have all the grace of a superblock in the middle of the city grid. Despite their good intentions, their efforts at sustainability and their smart alternatives to homeownership, the architects’ wrath for the suburbs has caused them to create projects that annihilate the suburbs rather than improve them. [emphasis added]

For all their problems, suburbs clearly “work” on some levels.  (If they didn’t, suburbs would hold little attraction for to the millions happily residing in them.)  Lind’s specific examples of cultural clueless-ness on the part of the MoMA-commissioned architects are well worth pondering.  She suggests that failing to consider what aspects of suburbs work (and how) results the same sort of ham-fisted, bureaucratic approach that destroyed thriving urban neighborhoods in the mid-twentieth century:

[MoMA’s] radical visions that are so insensitive to the suburbs remind me of the Modernist public housing projects that were once foisted on inner cities. Created by well-intentioned but essentially ignorant architects and planners, those buildings made sense in theory but not in practice. They didn’t respond to the rhythms and needs of the people who would be housed there, because the architects didn’t really respect or understand the lives of poor people. MoMA should have found some architects who could love and live in the suburbs, showing us the way to make the most of suburban housing instead of wishing it didn’t exist.

Comparing inner vs. outer suburban growth

There are numerous types of suburbs (I think I now have at least 13 different types in one of my lectures in American Suburbanization) but one broad comparison includes looking at suburbs adjacent to cities (“inner-ring suburbs”) vs. suburbs on the metropolitan fringe (often referred to as “exurbs”). USA Today reports on some of the population trends in these two areas:

A new pattern is emerging this century. Most of the growth is happening on opposite ends of the suburban expanse: in older communities closest to the city and in the newer ones that are the farthest out.

“A few decades ago, all the growth was on the edge,” says Robert Lang, an urban sociologist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who analyzed 2010 Census data. “Now, there are citylike suburbs doing well on one side of the metropolis while conventional suburbs still flourish on the fringe.”

Close-in suburbs in the 50 largest metropolitan areas added 6 million people from 2000 to 2010, an 11.3% increase. The nation grew 9.7% in the same period.

At the same time, less populated suburbs on the outer edge grew even faster. They gained 6.7 million, a 24.5% increase.

DuPage County, Illinois is cited in this story as an example of suburban areas that are between these two extremes. Such “mature suburbs” had lower rates of growth as they “add[ed] 3.5 million people, a 7.8% increase” over the previous decade.

I like this emphasis on looking at the different rates of suburban growth depending on proximity to the city. There are a couple of stories that one could tell:

1. The suburban population is growing. I still am eager to hear the final 2010 figures that tell us what percentage of Americans live in suburbs compared to urban and rural areas.

2. The fastest-growing suburbs are on the metropolitan fringe. This is what might be considered typical suburban growth and/or “sprawl” as metropolitan regions continue to expand. It would be helpful to know how this 24.5% population increase over the last decade compares to previous decades.

3. Inner-ring suburbs are also growing quicker than the national growth rate. This may support recent findings that people want denser neighborhoods. It would be interesting to see how much of this growth is due to city dwellers moving just across municipal boundaries (for example, did those 200,000 people who left Chicago move to Oak Park or to Joliet?) or whether this population growth is from people from other areas, such as outer-ring suburbs, moving closer to the city.

4. So where does this leave mature suburbs? They are caught in the middle as they don’t have the open land for sprawl development but also are unlikely to have the denser or taller development of inner-ring suburbs. Most projects will either have to be small in-fill projects or bigger redevelopment projects. It will be interesting to see how these suburbs adapt: they were once outer-ring suburbs but will now have to make decisions about what direction to go.

h/t The Infrastructurist

The relationship between gasoline prices and taxes and sprawl

The Infrastructurist discusses  a recent study that suggests that an increase in gas prices leads to a reduction in sprawl. Here is a summary of the study:

Georges Tanguay and Ian Gingras analyzed data from the 12 largest metropolitan region in Canada for the period of 1986 to 2006 and found that higher gas prices “contributed significantly” to less sprawl:

On average, a 1% increase in gas prices has caused: i) a .32% increase in the population living in the inner city and ii) a 1.28% decrease in low-density housing units…

Tanguay and Gingras addressed this shortcoming by expanding their observations over a 20-year window. The researchers found the aforementioned link between higher gas prices and reductions in sprawl. They also report that a 1 percent increase in gas taxes led to a .2 percent reduction in commuting distance (though the effect is small, amounting to just 14 fewer meters of travel, on average).

The researchers did notice a potential mitigating factor: income. Every 1 percent rise in median income led to a .23 percent decrease in city center living. That means any reduction in sprawl that occurred as a result of rising gas prices could be offset by rising income.

So if gas prices went up more than $2 on average in the US between late 2008 and today (roughly a 140% increase), then we would expect the inner city population to grow by 44.8% (.32% increase in population*140) over the same time period? Perhaps this is extrapolating beyond the scope of this data but this would be quite a population shift. Even a smaller increase in gas prices, say 10%, would lead to a predicted increase of 3.2% in inner city population, still a sizable increase.

It would be helpful to take the same kind of analysis and apply it to American metropolitan areas. Does the same relationship hold? I suspect it might not as some big central cities have not really gained much population in the last decade (see the case of Chicago or New York City). Could some of this observation come from how the Canadian government measures city centers or from a higher proportion of Canadians living in the “city center” (the study suggests the proportion of the population living in city centers is “the average for Canadian CMAs is 55%” – the American population is at least 50% suburban)? Does Canadian culture have less emphasis on sprawl (and single-family homes with yards, driving, etc.) compared to American culture?

This is an interesting finding but I would be interested in seeing more research on this. A 2004 American study cited in the discussion reached this conclusion: “The results show that every penny increase in the state gasoline
tax in the late 1980s is associated with nearly a five square-mile reduction in the size of an average urbanized area.” Additionally, I would be curious to hear more about why this study used the “average-sized” urban area in a state as the dependent variable:

The dependent variable, the average-sized urban area in the state, ranges from a high of337.8 square miles (Arizona, given the large size of the Phoenix metropolitan area) to a low of29.34 square miles (West Virginia). The mean of the dependent variable is just over 120 square miles, which, for point of reference, is slightly more than double the size of the urban area contained in the Burlington, Vermont metropolitan area, or just under the size of the urbanized land area in the Anchorage, Alaska metropolitan area.

I see that the gas tax measure of interest is at the state level but using state level data for cities seems strange as urbanized areas can vary quite a bit (think of the comparison between Chicago, IL and Springfield, IL – both urban areas but quite different in scale and urbanization). Additionally, a measure like the percentage of state residents who use public transportation to get to work would seem to be related to the size of urban areas. Why not simply use each urbanized area as a case?

An argument for moving beyond cities/suburbs to walkable/unwalkable areas

A demographer makes an argument for moving beyond comparing cities and suburbs to looking at walkable and unwalkable areas which are not necessarily concentrated in either cities or suburbs:

Unfortunately, the census shines the light on the terms “city” and “suburb”–neither of which are the keys to understanding today’s built environment.

Core cities are comprised of pedestrian-oriented urban places, how Jerry Seinfeld lived, but they also include auto-centric suburban places, like the San Fernando Valley in the city of Los Angeles or the Palisades in the District of Columbia. Likewise, the suburbs of those core cities include classic subdivisions and McMansions, like the home of Tony Soprano, but they also include booming places like Old Town Pasadena, Reston Town Center near Dulles Airport outside D.C., and revitalized Jersey City and Hoboken, NJ, on the other side of the Hudson River from Manhattan.

The issue is where are walkable urban places being built, and they are being built in both central cities and the suburbs surrounding them. My 2007 survey of the walkable urban places in the top 30 metros showed 50 percent of them were in central cities and 50 percent were in the suburbs. In the metro area with the most walkable urban places, the Washington region, 70 percent of the walkable urban places were in the suburbs. These included Bethesda and Silver Spring in suburban Montgomery County, nine places in suburban Arlington County (like Ballston and Crystal City), and the newly built Washington Harbor in suburban Prince George’s County.

I haven’t looked at this 2007 survey data but it sounds interesting. Is there an easy way to demarcate walkable vs. unwalkable areas through publicly available data? While the Census definitions of and boundaries between cities and suburbs might be frustrating, the data is easy to understand and available to all.

At the same time, this argument is broader: it is about comparing denser versus less dense areas. Walkable areas work because residents can easily walk to or access essential needs like grocery stores, public spaces, eateries, and more. At stake here is whether less dense urban areas, like the north side of Chicago with its many single-family homes, are more similar to suburban areas (which range from inner-ring suburbs to very sparse communities on the suburban fringe) or to more central districts like the Chicago Loop.

I would think that suburban areas are more similar to each other in design and culture than to large portions of large cities. But if more suburban areas become more dense (and this may be what Americans want) and the importance of the core of metropolitan areas decline, perhaps this will change.

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 Slate.com 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.)