Elijah Anderson’s new book points up an identity crisis.

By Sudhir Venkatesh

In the late 1980s, I fell in love with the discipline of sociology by reading books written by patient, perceptive observers like Elijah Anderson. As I told my father excitedly during my sophomore year in college, these scholars helped me see my immigrant anxieties as “normal” and a signature American experience. Concepts like identity and ethnicity let me express sentiments that until then had been inchoate and threatening. Going deep into the pockets of American society and hanging out at length, sociologists could draw on the human ballet to examine our cherished beliefs and institutions as well as our stereotypes and misguided social policies. This seemed to me to be a great magic trick, taking us into foreign, seemingly impenetrable worlds and emerging with useful insights.

For over a century, sociologists were some of our country’s influential truth-tellers. They gravitated to those issues—race relations, social inequality, and the workings of government—that were part of the American experiment to build an open, free democracy. Think of battles to end school segregation, ensure fair housing policy, and promote public sector accountability. A data-carrying sociologist—St. Clair Drake, Herbert Gans, James Coleman—was often at hand, gathering evidence, providing analysis, writing intelligibly for the citizenry. Anderson’s own ideas shaped criminal justice, welfare, and urban development policy. The sociologists may not have been household names, but they were important cogs in the civic wheel.

"The Cosmopolitan Canopy."On the face of it, Anderson’s new book, The Cosmopolitan Canopy, an in-depth portrait of race and public life in contemporary Philadelphia, calls our attention to another great national achievement. The City of Brotherly Love, like much of the country, has become racially and ethnically diverse. Whites are no longer in the majority in many cities and throughout the American South and West (Texas, New Mexico, California). By 2050, the nation will lose a white majority population entirely. With Latinos and Asians rising in numbers, Anderson says we’ve generally grown more tolerant and less conflict-ridden—at least in public. He applauds us for creating a canopy, “where diverse people converge, defining the setting as belonging to everyone and deemphasizing race and other particularities. No one group claims priority.” This is a far cry from the last half of the 20thcentury, when Philadelphia was a cauldron of black-white animosity, and when Anderson took it as his mission to report on ghetto tensions imperceptible and incomprehensible to much of the rest of the city. The bulk of The Cosmopolitan Canopy is Anderson’s attempt at timely sociological analysis that moves forward the country’s civil discourse in a new era of far more extensive multiethnic mixing.

Yet to devote pages of vintage “fly on the wall” sociological observation to a portrait of safe public intermingling can’t help seeming like a curiously superficial endeavor in 2011. It’s as though Anderson himself recognizes the limitations of his trademark method of public eavesdropping. Tucked into the middle of his book is a new twist on his abiding interest in African-American experience: He ventures behind closed doors in a corporate world that, thanks to a generation of changes, has become a relevant venue for exploring the minority experience in America. There, using private interviews, he discovers a rather different story, which challenges his main argument of diverse assimilation: Among African-American employees, there remains a vein of distrust of whites and suspicion about racial progress. This observation is left hanging, and so is the reader: Are black Americans content, angry, or just keeping their mouths shut? And why the celebratory “canopy” reference if a current of hostility lies underneath?

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.

Sociology was born in Chicago in the early 1900s, and was from the outset made by Americans, for Americans. (I have always thought Saul Bellow’s wonderful opening to The Adventures of Augie March makes a perfect epigraph for the field: “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”)

Its earliest practitioners—Robert Park, Jane Addams—saw the American city as not only their laboratory but their mission. Europe was their symbol of a dying tradition. The American metropolis offered an opportunity to build a civil (and civilized) society, with reform efforts guided by on-the-ground knowledge. They were fascinated by the most straightforward problems, like counting the number of people living in a neighborhood—the census arose from these efforts—or finding out how groups “think”—the focus group was then created. Their toolkit was a hodgepodge of pragmatic thought. Today they fielded a survey, tomorrow they took apart a government budget, the day after they used patient observation to understand how a gang works. They weren’t proud, nor were they technocratic policy-wonks. They diagnosed, opining only when necessary, though they were driven by the goal of social improvement.

As a consequence, sociologists were deeply fascinated with conflict, in particular the black-white tensions that were threatening the health and welfare of 20th-century cities. W.E.B. DuBois, the great African-American activist and writer, became the nation’s first sociologist of race by exposing Philadelphians to the injustices and impoverishment that its black citizens faced at the dawn of the 1900s. In The Philadelphia Negro, DuBois marshaled facts, observations, statistics, and a perceptive understanding of the American capacity for tolerance to call for a humane approach toward racial inequity.

Anderson’s work has remained squarely in this tradition, so much so that during his tenure at the University of Pennsylvania, he was dubbed DuBois’ heir. (He is now at Yale University.) In his most influential books, Streetwise (1992) and Code of the Street (2000), he stayed quietly in the shadows of public spaces and came away with a precise, tactile understanding of local mood at a time when an entrenched, impoverished black population—the so-called “underclass”— seemed unable to integrate into the American mainstream. He presciently described the rifts between middle-class and poor blacks who shared ghetto streets. He wrote compassionately about gentrifiers intent on improving the neighborhood yet agonized about evicting low-income households. His gift was to glean the underlying “codes” or moral dichotomies that shaped the intimate rhythms of daily life he subtly observed from a perch in a café or on a park bench.

So, for example, he argued that two kinds of people live in the ghetto. He championed the “decent” families who attend church and have two parents, by pointing to their need to defend against “street”-oriented neighbors who drink in public, are on welfare, and commit crimes. He boiled down the ghetto to a battle between the two to define the neighborhood. If this sounds simplistic, well, that was one criticism of his work. His scientifically oriented colleagues complained that this approach was shallow, journalistic even. The humanists down the hall said that the disparaging view of “street” families was just a form of pandering to the popular need to blame the poor. But Anderson kept on, rarely addressing either camp, except to say that his observant eyes did not deceive. He focused instead on the power of this moral pas de deux to reach a wider audience. Though he studied Philadelphia, his writings engrossed Americans across the country who found in his work a direct and morally sensible way to understand their own cities, where the races and classes struggled to mix. That, in itself, was sufficient validation for his approach, even if his field was growing less enamored of his authoritative eavesdropping style.

The most illuminating chapter of his new book shows him marshaling this same determination to be the informant who uncovers hidden codes—and in doing so, he boldly departs from his usual observer role. Sensing that race is no longer solely a public matter, Anderson heads into a corporate office to interview middle- and upper-income black employees. He emerges with another dichotomy to highlight the intra-racial tension that persists four decades after the civil rights movement. He finds that highly successful black Americans still face some inner demons. Those who adhere to an “ethnocentric” perspective feel as though whites will never really accept them, and so they are primarily loyal to their own racial group. Their counterparts are “cosmopolitan,” which means they place great weight on the social strides made by American blacks; they are quick to point out that the color of one’s skin doesn’t get you preference—or poor treatment. Anderson finds that, akin to their “decent” and “street” counterparts, the two moral “codes” can live in tension. Two people might take sides, or a single person can struggle psychologically, pulled by the merits of both.

This is timely terrain, and it is sociology at its finest. There are few writers openly exploring this undercurrent of hostility and self-doubt experienced by a historically subjugated group that just managed to elect one of their own as president. Not since DuBois’ impassioned declaration a century ago, that black Americans had a “double consciousness,” have we seen such sharp use of social analysis for truth-telling. There is an unfulfilled promise in this country, a real divide that persists, and we shouldn’t ignore these sentiments as paranoia or whining.

Having made our hearts race with this venture into a new and more psychologically subtle frontier, however, Anderson retreats to the public terrain of more humdrum interactions and to the posture of detached eavesdropper that have been his staples. He concludes his book with some tepid observations about the “canopy” that embraces us all. He pursues neither the theme of black animus nor the public-private split.

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?”

Academic disciplines should not have to apologize for serious scholarship that does the unheralded work of systematically breaking down stereotypes, advancing policy, and ameliorating social inequity. We need sociologists to keep applying their fine-tuned antennae to social frictions because these will never be topics that can count on appealing to public curiosity about social reality—a consumer base that is always moving on to the next big idea. In Anderson’s case, the greatest contribution of his book may be simply the diagnosis of a contradiction that cannot be neatly summed up in a tidy blog post or expedient reportage—or a scientific, sociological survey for that matter: Americans have become more tolerant in their public dealings, but at the cost of moving some of the animus to quieter, less visible quarters. Better to point it out, however speculative and provisional the results may be, than to hide from the truth.