2011 Lynd Award: Urban Sociology and the Health of the Nation’s Cities

Greg Squires
George Washington University
2011 Fall, Vol. 24, No. 1

The state of urban sociology is probably healthier than that of the nation’s urban and metropolitan areas. I do not think there is a connection. At least I hope this is not the case. But I am reminded of Robert Lynd’s warning from his 1939 book Knowledge for What that academics do not want to be caught “lecturing on navigation while the ship is going down.”

Urban scholars and scholarship seem to be doing well. Membership in the Community and Urban Sociology Section of the ASA is up along with CUSS participation at the annual conference. Our journal, City & Community, is getting more and better manuscripts. Sociologists generally, including many urbanists, are appearing more frequently on the op-ed pages of the New York Times and other major (and not so major) dailies, on Huffington Post and other blogs, in The American Prospect and other general interest and trade magazines. Urbanists have assumed prominent positions with government agencies, non-profit organizations, and businesses. My unscientific reading of job ads suggests that urbanists are in greater demand for academic positions. The Department of Sociology at the University of Cincinnati recently advertised for three positions in urban inequality as a further investment in a cluster of hires in this area. One can never be too sanguine about academic employment of course. We still get over 100 applications for many job openings.

Urbanists are frequently approached for their expertise and consulting services in a wide range of venues. Many are retained as expert witnesses in court cases, often on the winning side but sometimes not. Newspapers seem particularly eager to work with demographers in stories about the changing race, class, and gender composition of their communities. Barack Obama has emphasized the importance of evidence based policy reflected in his Promise Neighborhoods and Choice Schools initiatives which draw heavily on recent urban scholarship and scholars. Unfortunately, the President has been thrust into a series of crises recently that has limited his attention to urban policy and these efforts are basically demonstration projects at this point. But they reflect a concern with urban policy that has been lacking in recent Administrations.

Urban scholarship has taken off in several new, provocative, and hopefully informative directions. The Chicago School (both the “classic” and more recent vintage), the LA School, and other US focused paradigms are giving way to more global and comparative perspectives – an appropriate and welcome development given the realities of our increasingly multicultural urban world. Urban sociologists from the US and other nations are collaborating in their research, engaging each other at international conferences, and publishing in international journals and on global issues in US publications. Sustainability, just city and right to the city social movements, multicultural phenomena of all sorts (addressing national, cultural, and gender related issues) and other very real 21st Century issues are becoming the subject matter of urban and metropolitan research. Urban researchers are also linking up with organizers engaged in emerging controversies including groups like Take Back the Land, Make the Banks Pay, Take Back the Night and others who are using a range of tactics including traditional litigation and administrative complaint procedures, squatters movements, demonstrations, and other direct actions.

Urban scholars have become more of a player in various academic and non-academic settings. The enterprise seems to be in good health and getting stronger. The state of the nation’s cities and metropolitan areas is more mixed.

Cities are making a comeback in some respects and many written off as basket cases in the 1970s have seen their fortunes change for the better. (Remember the famous but apocryphal New York Post 1975 headline “Ford to New York: Drop Dead” when President Ford said the Federal government would not bail out the city.) But the many problems connected to inner city life persist as realities in the nation’s metropolitan areas, with suburban communities often experiencing the problems previously associated with their central city neighbors. Populations of many central cities have stabilized, some neighborhoods are experiencing an influx of wealthy families that had fled years ago, and many mayors are celebrating the rediscovery of urban living. Such gentrification, of course, is also frequently associated with displacement of lower income households who can no longer afford the rising rents or who are simply removed from their public housing with such housing often being razed and removed from the local housing stock altogether. Poverty rates and the concentration of poverty have increased in recent years in cities and suburbs. Racial segregation and the associated costs persist as central features of US metropolitan areas. Urban schools still lag behind their suburban counterparts on almost every measure. And while crime is down, fear of crime persists particularly for many city residents. The violence that erupted in several British cities this summer provides another reminder of the conflicts that prevail in urban communities worldwide. City-suburban boundaries are not the critical divide that they were a few decades ago. But the uneven development of the nation’s metropolitan areas along race and class lines, and the many costs associated with those inequalities, persist.

It would be naïve of course, and awfully self-congratulatory, if we believed that scholarship alone would solve the nation’s urban and metropolitan ills. But we would also be selling ourselves short, and abdicating part of our responsibility, if we did not play a role that is available to us. I’m reminded once again of the words of Robert Lynd from his classic book: we need to ask whether it is possible to build urban people into vital communities in a culture whose economic institutions are operated for private gain by their owners, with little or no acceptance of responsibility for the quality of social living? To the extent that social science believes that this is possible, how does it see that we can do it and what does it propose?…With such research and planning, we may yet make real the claims of freedom and opportunity in America. Urban sociology appears to be alive and well. Perhaps some of that health could trickle down to the nation’s cities and metropolitan areas.

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