Q&A: Award-winning urban ethnographer Elijah Anderson on illuminating issues that affect the world

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Yale sociology professor and renowned urban ethnographer Elijah Anderson was recently honored with the Eastern Sociological Society’s Merit Award for his “outstanding contributions to the discipline, the profession, and the Eastern Sociological Society.”

Anderson, the William K. Lanman, Jr. Professor of Sociology and professor of African American Studies, is the author of “Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City,” winner of the Komarovsky Award from the Eastern Sociological Society; “Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community,”winner of the American Sociological Association’s Robert E. Park Award for the best published book in the area of urban sociology; “A Place on the Corner: A Study of Black Street Corner Men,” which is regarded as a classic sociological text; and “The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life.” Anderson was the 2013 recipient of the Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award from the American Sociological Association.

The Yale scholar recently spoke with YaleNews about what it means to be an urban ethnographer, and how he encourages his students to follow in his footsteps. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

What does winning this award mean to you?

I am deeply honored. This prestigious award is associated with some of giants of the field of sociology, and I feel quite humbled to be in the company of the greats who have received this award. It is especially nice to have one’s work appreciated.

What led you to become an urban ethnographer, and what issues do you explore in your work?

That’s a complicated story. As a young person, the world around me was socially intriguing, and my sense of wonderment got me interested in class and race relations, or social organization, the heart of sociology as a discipline. Urban ethnographers look at the everyday lives of their subjects and try to study and comprehend, and then to represent how they live, preferably in a way that outsiders can understand, particularly scholars and policy makers, but the general public as well. 

My work has dealt with some of the most pressing racial, class, and urban issues of our time, beginning with my first book, “A Place on the Corner,” which is a study of black street corner men. My next book, “Streetwise,” deals with race and class relations in a gentrifying neighborhood of Philadelphia. My third book, “Code of the Street,” examines the nature of violence in the inner city. My latest book, “The Cosmopolitan Canopy,” is a study of public space that introduces the “cosmopolitan canopy” concept as an “island of civility,” located in a virtual sea of racial segregation. It represents how diverse peoples come together in urban settings and get along, or don’t. Such urban “canopies” can now be observed not just in the United States, but in cities around the world.

Over the course of my career, my work has focused largely in Philadelphia, which is a wonderful urban laboratory. But increasingly I work in Paris and other global cities. As a social scientist I conduct field work on aspects of urban life and culture, or social situations from an ethnographic perspective, and then try to make sense of all this. One of the most critical issues for our nation is racial inequality.  

As our nation becomes increasingly diverse, the issue of inequality becomes ever more urgent and pressing. Ethnographers are uniquely positioned to contribute to the study and clarification of these issues, adding immeasurably to our knowledge and understanding.

How do you integrate your research for your books into your classroom teaching?

I teach urban ethnography, and encourage my students to grapple with the subject both in terms of substance and method. I encourage them to engage in social observation and to consider the persistent questions of human existence. With these tools, we explore the mundane, everyday lives of the people who make up our diverse urban society. I encourage them to think critically, and whenever possible, to imagine and develop solutions to the pressing social problems of the day. Often, we simply come up with further questions, which for critical thinkers are really more important than the answers. 

In effect, my students learn to do ethnographic fieldwork. And in fact, many of them — both undergraduate and graduate — have pursued their own field research. I also hold a weekly workshop in urban ethnography to which scholars are invited from all over the world. The speakers present their ethnographic work, and the discussions are typically rich and rewarding, as we raise issues pertinent to their ongoing work.

What is on the horizon for your research?

I am currently working on a project that builds on my previous work, including “The Cosmopolitan Canopy.” This research considers the perceptual categories of “white space” and “black space,” as well as the implications these concepts have for understanding the segregation of American civil society today.

As a nation, we’ve made great progress since the days of slavery, but we still have a very long way to go. We need to know and understand ourselves, and for this, ethnography is a critically important tool.

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Media Contact

Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324