2019 Lynd Award: My Mission as a Social Researcher: How I Remember It

Anne Shlay
Georgia State University
2020 Winter, Vol 33, No 1

At 20, I fell in love with the Russians, namely Russian literature.  The passion of Bolshevik poets whose public readings of their work drew the masses excited me.  I cherished the Russian literary thaw that produced the novels of post Stalinist writers and was heart-broken when they were silenced after the fall of Khrushchev.  I studied the Russian language in the hope that I could read Dr. Zhivago in the original.  Yet the inspiration of what became my life’s work came from Dostoyevsky, a writer from the 19th century.

Anne Shlay
Anne Shlay

 I learned Dostoyevsky in a standing room only class taught by the great scholar Edward Wasiolek.   He was flown in once a week from the University of Chicago to teach a class on Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy at my school, Indiana University/Bloomington.  A graduate class filled with students along with every IU Slavic faculty member, I was the 20-year-old sophomore who got in with special permission.  I sat on the floor with others and took the class pass/fail.

     I attached myself to Dostoyevsky whose depth of understanding the motivations of human behavior, particularly insincere behavior captured me.  Dostoyevsky, in my mind, wrote about human authenticity– a form of truth telling about people’s motivations, often dark ones that could not be seen on the surface. 

     Wasiolek’s final lecture on Dostoyevsky led me to become a social scientist.  He offered up a quote by Dostoyevsky that “…if someone proved to me that God is outside truth, and that in reality the truth was outside God, I should prefer to remain with God rather than the truth.” 

     You may think me naïve but I was utterly shaken.  My sovereign of truth chose a religious deity over reality?  That he would rather wallow in religious ideology than face the reality of which he was totally aware. Was I simply taken along for the ride with the idea that Dostoyevsky was a truth bearing idol?  To this day, almost 50 years later I still feel the jolt of disappointment.

Beyond Dostoyevsky

     I felt betrayed. I talked to my friends who gave me nicknames like Moon Girl because they thought I was “spacy,” in the language of the day.  They brought me with them to parties and told me simply to talk and people gathered around to hear me speak about what is truth. 

I thought that talking to someone who knew sociology of religion might be able to help and I found a professor, Whitney Pope, who agreed to study with me.  The topic, “why do people believe.”  He led me to tomes about religion starting with Durkheim and Weber.  I found out that religion had some purpose.  Symbols and rituals were central to keeping society together.  And God maintained its message and relevancy by its organization of bureaucracies that supported the faithful.   God might be part of truth but this was fundamentally irrelevant.  Social order depended on God, ritual and bureaucracy.  My quest for the meaning of God and religion had gotten me nowhere. And I was only 21! 

     I don’t remember how I got into the Frankfurt School of Social Research and then Antonio Gramsci.  There was an additional layer to the preservation of social order and I learned that it had purpose – the preservation of capitalism.  Gramsci called this ideological domination using the concept of political hegemony.  And this domination was so strong that it was virtually impossible to tell truth from fiction.  Right back where I started.  I had only just begun -again.

     Where does one go when obsessed with these types of questions?  You guessed it.  Graduate school.

The Calling of Social Research

     I went to graduate school with the expressed purpose of learning how to do research that would expose the social order as lies.  But I did not want to shout about lies like my Bolshevik poets.  I wanted to prove that lies were untrue using research and methods.  I wanted to be a bearer of truth that could not be disputed.  In my brain, truth would overthrow oppression, sort of like turning Dostoyevsky on his head.

     The world needed facts to show them (whoever they were) the lies upon which social order was based.  To disprove lies required proving truth.  And truth in social research came from methods – the scientific kind.

     The idea that method led to truth was part of the underpinnings of academic sociology in those days, the early 1970s.  The prevailing wisdom was positivism, the idea that truth emerged from research with verifiable methods. The positivists, largely quantitative researchers, were viewed as conservative maintainers of the status quo.  With the belief that empirically verifiable methods were neither right nor left, I thought that I could be to be part of a revolution that used positivism to overthrow capitalism, oppression, whatever.  I embraced positivism and threw myself into learning qualitative and quantitative techniques.  People thought I would become a theorist given my proclivities but I said no.  And then I found Peter Rossi.

     Pete was the methodologist of methodologists in the positivist vein, suggesting that he was one of those arch enemies preserving the status quo.  But his politics became clear to me the day after I was arrested at a demonstration.  He called me into his office.  I thought my research assistantship was doomed.  Instead he said that he had read the newspapers, saw I was arrested and wanted to know if I needed any money. Conservative? No way.

     I came to realize that being a so-called positivist did not mean divorcing politics from research.  Instead methods per se was neutral.  The questions were what counted and methods helped provide the evidence needed for political persuasion.  I thought research could help provide the requisite evidence to support social change.  I believed that applying the best methods devoid of obvious flaws could produce defensible research that could be central to social change.  And to wage what I called a war, I became a Rossi student and tied myself to the best and most creative methodologist in the world.  Attaching myself to Pete Rossi and his research comrade, Jim Wright, remain the best decision I ever made in my life. 

Shaping a Research Career as a Radical Positivist

“What we found and recommended were small potatoes compared to the size of the problem including women’s lower wages automatically creating a ceiling on child care wages.  Gender inequality ripples and ripples and ripples.”

Anne Shlay

     I threw myself into empiricism.  I wrote an MA thesis on tenant organizing based on primary data collection qualitative field work.  My dissertation on the exclusionary effects of zoning regulations, also primary data collection, used multivariate statistical models.  I took books on econometrics to bed. 

Credibility, I thought, required standing in the field so I published.  I wanted to be believed and this is how I thought I would get that.  How could someone dismiss a person with seemingly impeccable methods and a laundry list of publications to their name?

I did not believe in discipline per se; I believed in method.  I took my first job in an economics department. I took jobs doing applied policy research in and outside of universities. I did research on what I thought were important topics, often in collaboration with groups in the community. I continued to publish.  I ignored tenure track jobs.  I was interesting, or so I thought.

It was only after I became a single mother with a 14-month-old daughter that I caved to wanting economic security.  Twelve years after finishing my Ph.D. I took a tenure track position. I got tenure the next year and became a full professor the following year. Getting promoted had never been a serious goal despite my productivity but I was thrilled to have some economic security for my daughter and me. 

I could discuss my misplaced arrogance and the price I paid along the way.  I rarely thought about sexism, a near fatal flaw to be sure.  But I had energy.  I believed I was on the right side.  I was methodologically sophisticated and productive.   And I met a ton of wonderful people along the way.  Many of them remain my closest friends. Buoyed by the fundamental belief that the left could topple oppression with social science, who needed God?

The Work

     Sociologists must make their own judgement of whether they are doing good. I believe that this is central question that should be asked early and often.  I finish this essay by talking about some of my research projects.  As my graduate students and collaborators will attest, I tried to do good, to do good research and be a voice against oppression, not rhetorically but as one proving truth.  My goal inevitably came down to supporting organizing and advocacy. 

Tenant Organizing

     Tenant organizing and rent control were strategies in the 1970 for renters to gain control of their housing, a concept I rarely hear now.  Studying a tenant union in the process of organizing during a massive rent control campaign, I learned the difficulty of using organization to wield power when organizational members were transient.  Most importantly, I came to understand that tenants saw themselves as unworthy of power and control because of the dominant belief that homeownership and homeowners reigned supreme.  Power could not be won without changing the dominant ideology that renters were solely would-be homeowners or deadbeats that failed to become homeowners. 

Land Use Regulations

     Both sociologists and economists viewed urban spatial patterns as natural and inevitable.  Land use regulations, however, stipulated how land could be developed.  Therefore, neighborhood wealth and poverty, housing and land use were not the stuff of forever but were deliberately shaped by local policies.  And if policy shaped housing and neighborhoods as segregated homogeneous spatial areas, policy could be used to mix land use and create housing opportunities for everybody.  I studied zoning in the Chicago metropolitan area to show how these regulations had major and independent effects on neighborhood land use and income levels.  Neighborhood segregation and homogeneity were political creations not because of natural economic or social laws.  Change could and should happen.

Housing and Neighborhood Ideology

But what was holding back change in the spatial organization of metropolitan areas?  Why were land use regulations so popular and effective?  What were the ideas behind zoning for homogeneity?  I decided to look at what I called a housing and neighborhood ideology shaped dominant belief structures guiding housing choices and neighborhood homogeneity.  Market forces be damned.

      Using what is called the factorial survey approach, I empirically measured the values that people place on housing type, tenure (ownership versus rental), racial and income composition, access to public transportation and more.  I found that neighborhood housing tenure (owners or renters) did not matter at all.  But characteristics like racial composition were a big factor.  Race was more important than housing in neighborhood desirability?  Travel time to work and access to public transportation was important to women, not men.  The conventional land use of suburbs was desired by men, not women.  Urban structure was both racist and sexist. 

Fighting the 1992 Chicago World’s Fair

One of the most inspiring perspectives coming out of urban sociology (by Harvey Molotch and John Logan) was the concept of a growth machine that worked behind the scenes to orchestrate growth and development for the benefit of economic elites.  In the early 1980s, Chicago embarked on a mission to attract the designation for a world’s fair in 1992.  This effort, pushed by the 1992 Committee, was to capture the designation for this six- month event (like the Olympics).  These designations unleash public and private spending on targeted development.  What remains, these urban “residuals,” are the stuff of big event planning and a boondoggle for business interests.

Of course, the organizing of these events is typically undemocratic. This was the essence of how the growth machine worked.   With Robert Giloth, we sought to uncover exactly how undemocratic it was.  Through corporate directorship and social membership data, we were able to demonstrate a set of business interests (interlocking directorates) that pushed the 1992 Fair.  We worked directly with local organizers while feeding our work to local publications as well as talking to the press.  Nonetheless, we anticipated that the fair was a done deal and we would, in the end, have documented how democracy did not work.  But surprise, Harold Washington was elected mayor of Chicago.  He looked at this planned event and without skipping a beat, called it off.  This was a short-term successful community organizing effort backed by our research.

Redlining and Neighborhood Disinvestment

Leaving the university for a stint, I took a research job at an advocacy organization that worked on banking issues.  In the early 1980s, the government had released computerized HMDA data, that is data coming out of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act.  It showed the number and dollar volume of residential loans at the census tract level.  I was hired to statistically analyze these data to see whether areas were being redlining – banks not making loans in low- and moderate- income neighborhoods and by neighborhoods of varying racial composition.

This was tricky stuff and very complicated.  I developed a set of statistical models that showed that neighborhood disinvestment and redlining could be demonstrated on a metropolitan wide basis. 

These finding did not go without challenge and I was thrust into what were called the HMDA wars, a multi-year period of arguing about methods and findings with regulators, economists and lawyers.  It was not for the faint of heart.  Doing the research was easy. Fighting the methodological battles was difficult and occurred in public.  A lot was at stake on all sides.  

To cut down on the massive numbers of calls I received about how to replicate my methods, I wrote an academic article called “Proving Disinvestment.”  For years it was the most popular piece I ever wrote, particularly from people involved in the community reinvestment right. 

The most fun was using research to support what are called CRA challenges.  Under a regulation called the Community Reinvestment Act, lenders could be denied permission to merge with or acquire another institution or from even opening a branch if it could be demonstrated that the lender was not making loans in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.  A challenge could slow down expensive business transactions and for lenders, time is money.  There were those who called these challenges holding banks hostage and I suppose we were.  To be honest, that was the entire point which was to give community groups leverage. And it got a lot of attention. 

What was negotiated, however, in the process were huge sums of money (millions of dollars) in CRA agreements that required lenders to make loans in neighborhoods that they had previously abandoned.  I was the lead researcher behind many of these challenges and was often kept in the background to avoid creating the perception of bias in the research. 

Community Organizing

I developed a wonderful partnership with a community coalition called the Eastern Philadelphia Organizing Project known as EPOP.  Its head, Steve Honeyman, understood that fact-based research (call it positivism) could be a critical tool for organizing and winning.  The partnership was called Research for Democracy.  Together we raised substantial funds to conduct research that supported EPOP organizing.  In this partnership, I did not select the research topics.  They came out of the actual struggles that engaged EPOP.  Community organizing tied to quality defensible empirical research would provide leverage in power situations that affected low income neighborhoods in Philadelphia. 

Sometimes it did. The most important project we did was on neighborhood housing abandonment.  In Philly, more than 40,000 structures and lots were abandoned.  The mayor came up with a plan that would benefit developers, not neighborhood residents.  We conducted research that demonstrated what happened to the many neighborhoods with even small amounts of abandonment, not the large areas the mayor chose to target.  I even taught regression analysis to community organizers who became conversant in talking about B coefficients, the measured effect in the specified equations. 

Childcare Quality

    Largely at the behest of policy makers and the foundation community, I teamed up with two developmental psychologists, Marsha Weinraub and Lyz Jaeger, to work on early child care.  My skills in evaluation research, a legacy of working with Peter Rossi, became central to informing funders about the impact of child care intervention programs.  Many questions were central, all of which remain today.  How to improve the quality of care when the profession is so poorly paid with excessive staff turnover.  How to promote access to child care subsidies particularly for very poor women who by law or necessity are required to enter the unskilled, low wage labor force.  How to understand how women, largely low-income women, selected child care arrangements and what could be done to have them make choices that would provide better outcomes for their children.  What we found and recommended were small potatoes compared to the size of the problem including women’s lower wages automatically creating a ceiling on child care wages.  Gender inequality ripples and ripples and ripples.

Jerusalem Spatial


I became interested in Jerusalem after visiting with my synagogue.  I learned on this trip that Jerusalem was a city of multi-ethnic and racial differences with Jews coming from all over the world.  But what was most interesting for me at the time was Jerusalem housing.  All the housing in Jerusalem was high density apartments (at least for Jews).  Wow.  I saw new possibilities for reshaping American land use.  I wrote a Fulbright application and got the fellowship and an appointment at The Hebrew University.

My interests changed when I got to Jerusalem.  I inadvertently learned that I was living on occupied territory near the university, on an actual settlement surrounded by other Jewish settlements.  I was horrified for two reasons: one that Jerusalem successfully disguised occupied land and two, that I had no clue that I was an occupier.  Housing density then took low priority.  I wanted to learn how Israel succeeded in making political boundaries invisible.

The Shifting Green Line Project, named after the 1948 boundary that indicated the borders of Israel, was born in collaboration with then Hebrew University graduate student now professor, Gillad Rosen.  We traveled across Jerusalem and the West Bank, interviewed a multitude of people and more.  I lived in Jerusalem on and off every chance I had.

What transpired over almost a decade were articles and a book on the spatial politics of Jerusalem.  I developed a course on Jerusalem.  My goal, perhaps naïve, was to educate people, particularly Americans, on how the Jerusalem metropolitan area was created both illegally but openly.  What appeared to many as simply Jerusalem suburbanization was a method of conquest, domination and imperialism.  The West Bank of today was even larger before Israel created its “new neighborhoods” and illegally annexed them to Israel and Jerusalem.  The shifting green line was a metaphor for how Israel used its power to reshape perceptions of what is Jerusalem and Israel.  I thought that knowledge of this would help empower policy makers and the like to correct for these obvious spatial inequities.

Giving Back

     I attended my first ASA meeting in 1979. Previewing the room ahead of time, a large ballroom with chandeliers, I was nervous enough to prefer death over giving my paper.  I lived to give many more ASA presentations.

      ASA meetings were particularly important to me because during most of my career, I did not work in sociology departments.  I needed to be reminded spiritually and intellectually where I came from. 

My ASA devotion took off when I got divorced.  My daughter was just a baby and I thought that my conference going was over.  Though I joked about putting her in a locker at the airport, I had no idea how to be a single parent professional.  How unbelievable I discovered that the ASA in 1990 had on-site child care.  Emma went to many ASA meeting to the point where when absent, people asked where she was. 

I joined the Community and Urban Sociology Section and quickly became enamored with its organizational development.  I remember when taking over as chair of the section, someone asked me how I “got” to be chair.  I explained that I started in the mail room and that I probably had headed or been on almost every committee.  I helped champion City and Community with lots of others and even got the section to vote themselves a $3 dues increase when it seemed like our finances were doomed.  I thank the CUSS for this award and I am forever grateful for the love and comradery.

Summing Up

     This four-decade career of research, policy and politics was one of speaking a bit of truth to power.  Did I remain true to my cause of using research to break down prevailing ideologies?  I could have done better. Would Dostoyevsky have chosen my truth over God?  Probably not.

I am today much less certain about research as a vehicle for truth constructing.  I could talk about the pressures of academic publishing, the uselessness of the research dissemination process, the intractability of capitalism and of course, the distracting academic debates that go nowhere.  Gramsci called academics “traditional intellectuals” whose main function is to support the superstructure from which ideological domination successfully emerges.  I wanted to be an “organic intellectual,” a bearer of revolutionary authenticity while having the accreditation and security of my traditional intellectual status. 

     Truth is often buried beneath the weight of rhetoric.  And what is the point of truth if it goes nowhere?    Of course, the struggle is to take that truth where it needs to go. 


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