Illuminating national issues is goal of Yale’s renowned urban ethnographer

Yale’s newest Sterling Professor, sociologist Elijah Anderson hopes his work can broaden our understandings of race, life, and culture in America’s cities.
Elijah Anderson
Elijah Anderson

When Yale’s newest Sterling Professor, sociologist Elijah Anderson, speaks to the students in his urban ethnography courses, he emphasizes that it’s the questions — and not just the answers — that lead to intellectually invigorating conversations.

When Anderson engages in the ethnographic field work that has shaped his life’s work — and for which he was recently honored with the prestigious W.E.B DuBois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award from the American Sociological Association — the Yale social scientist stresses that it is imperative to apprehend, comprehend, and to render the local culture of the people who live within the city, to accurately portray their lives.

To understand this culture, the ethnographer engages in field work, immersing himself or herself in a particular community — walking, talking, eating, and sometimes drinking with the people,” says Anderson. “Through such ‘up close’ observation, the ethnographer can gain a sense of how his or her subjects go about meeting the exigencies of everyday life, how they solve their everyday problems, and through this process, develop a local knowledge. The ethnographer listens to what people say and watches what they do, and then tries to make sense of it all.”

Anderson adds: “Essentially, the ethnographer’s task is to paint a cultural picture, or to place these lives on a canvas.” That canvas, explains Anderson, is the book or the article that results from these experiences and observations of the neighborhoods he studies.

Through the ethnographic method, explains Anderson, you become not only an observer but something of a communication link to people in the larger society, who have lots of opinions but no real knowledge of the state of affairs of so many of their fellow citizens.  “In this way, ethnography becomes an indispensable tool for public understanding of urban life and culture,” says Anderson.

The key issues of race and poverty facing the nation are adumbrated in those neighborhoods,” says Anderson. “Through engaging in this field work, I’ve been able to observe and learn about the city, and then to report my findings to other scholars, but also to policy makers, to local governments, and to the general public –- work that has also enriched conversations about public policy.”

This work is not without controversy, notes Anderson. “The context in which you are presenting the work is always open to politics and ignorance, because the people reading your book or article, or who listen to your account, have not been where you’ve been and may not understand what you’ve been able to observe. The findings are not simply opinions, but social facts grounded in observation,” he says.

Anderson, who has been teaching at Yale for a decade, says that the main thing he hopes students in his urban ethnography class learn is the importance of ethnography in contributing to conversations about national issues. “What I try to get my students to do mostly is to see these realities more clearly, and for this, a perspective on the world is required,” says Anderson. “It is critical to come to terms with what is happening every day in the news, locally and nationally.” 

The field of urban ethnography has evolved — much in the same way that the world has changed — since Anderson was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the early 1970s. The urban environment is a lot more diverse and complicated than it once was, says Anderson. “Maybe the biggest differences are that the country has undergone massive immigration and deindustrialization at the same time — changes that have powerfully impacted national and local economies that have transitioned from a manufacturing base to, increasingly, a service and high technology base in the context of a global economy. Major dislocation has occurred.

As jobs become more automated or leave certain inner-city areas for non-metropolitan America or are relocated off shore, structural poverty has occurred, in which ordinary people find it difficult to make a decent living. At the same time, in this context, many more people struggle or compete for place and position, as race relations are exacerbated.”

At an earlier time when the jobs were plentiful, structural poverty wasn’t the issue, he says. “Then, people could count on working for a living and being able to move forward and upward. Today it is different. Not only because of this structural poverty but also increasingly the middle class is also under the gun.

These are challenges, says Anderson, not only for the urban environment but also for ethnographers, who are trying to figure these issues out and provide understanding and answers that can impact policy. “We have a role to play even if it is nothing more than helping people to be enlightened. Sociology — and certainly ethnography — are important in that way.”

My hope is that policy makers and ordinary citizens will be better informed because of my work,” says Anderson. “What I find when I’m in the field isn’t always pretty but I like to think it’s accurate. I’ve been able to investigate these issues in a way that people have been able to benefit from and understand, and move forward with illumination.”

Of his appointment to a Sterling Professorship — Yale’s highest honor bestowed on its faculty — Anderson says: “I am deeply honored by this appointment because it reflects Yale’s recognition of my sociological work in urban ethnography and particularly the condition of black people in the American experience.”

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