venkatesh on anderson

Sudhir Venkatesh just wrote a review of Elijah Anderson’s new book, The Cosmopolitan Canopy, on Slate. It’s an interesting review. Venkatesh takes the review as an opportunity to suggest that sociology has lost its way. His claim is that we need a new, more flexible approach to socio-analysis. He writes,

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.”)… 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.

The post is bound to annoy a lot of people. But there is something there. Worth a read, if for no other reason than it is a portrait of one major public sociologists by another in a place that many people read.

2 thoughts on “venkatesh on anderson”

  1. Venkatesh may have a point about Anderson’s book. He also does have a point about documentary films and other alternative venues for sociology. But his broader slam against ‘modern sociology’ is an uninformed cheat shot. In fact if he’d make a sincere and real attempt to get out of his Ivy tower once and a while he’d see that there is a great deal of critical, well-down, on-the-ground sociological research going happening all over the country. And his take on the quants versus quals is so 1980s.


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