Jackelyn Hwang, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Stanford University, was the winner of the 2020 Jane Addams Award for best article. Jackelyn’s innovative research agenda examines the relationship between how neighborhoods change and the persistence of neighborhood inequality by race and class in US cities. We reached out to ask her to discuss her research, and we’re including her responses below. Thanks to Jackelyn for participating in our interview series!Read more
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The winner of the 2020 Robert E. Park Award is Sites Unseen: Uncovering Hidden Hazards in American Cities. New York: Russell Sage Foundation by Scott Frickel & James R. Elliott. It is part of the American Sociological Association’s Rose Series in Sociology. Below is a discussion with the winners on industrial waste and its legacy in the urban landscape.Read more
Colleen E. Wynn
Assistant Professor of Sociology
University of Indianapolis
2021 Winter, Vol. 34, No.1
According to the US Census Bureau, the majority of Americans live in urban areas. And, as urban sociologists, we’ve known cities matter for a long time, but more and more we’re seeing the rest of society take note. Cities played a major role as the location and backdrop for the mass uprisings for racial justice we saw earlier this year, especially mid-sized cities in the South and Midwest that are often included but not highlighted in our scholarly work. George Floyd’s brutal murder by police in Minneapolis helped to spark the mass uprisings we saw earlier this year and the current civil rights movement, as did Breonna Taylor’s murder in her home by Louisville Metro Police in my hometown of Louisville. In Indianapolis, where I live and teach, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police shot and killed Dreasjon Reed and McHale Rose, two incidents which have not received as much national attention but have locally mobilized many activists. These are, of course, only a few cases. Activists and organizers across the country mobilized around these cases, as well as many others that have not received nearly as much national attention.
Zachary Hyde, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia, was the winner of the 2019 Graduate Student Paper Award. Zach’s innovative research agenda brings work in relational economic sociology to bear on longstanding questions in urban sociology. We reached out to ask him to discuss his research, and we’re including his responses below. Thanks to Zach for participating in our interview series!
What were the main findings of your paper?
My paper “Giving Back to Get Ahead” focuses on the popular urban policy of density bonusing, where private development companies provide affordable housing and other social services in exchange for extra density. The main finding of the paper is that density bonusing forms a paradox, whereby “giving back” social services simultaneously increases developer profits. Through contributing services developers enhance their symbolic capital via gift-giving, which can be traded in for economic advantages in future dealings with local governments.
What motivated you to study this particular research topic?
I originally became interested in studying developers through my research on gentrification. I had been looking at social enterprise businesses, which mix profit-making with social service objectives, in the context of low-income neighborhoods. I began to notice that developers were making similar arguments about “socially conscious” mixed-income development, and this was tied to their increasing involvement in affordable housing provision. I wanted to know how these policies of density-for-social benefits were being implemented and understood by different actors in the field of urban development.
I carried out a study focusing on one particular developer that was becoming well-known for negotiating rezoning for social benefits throughout Canada. I studied this developer operating in two cities, Toronto and Vancouver, both with a similar approach to densification, but with different political structures. Based on this approach, these findings can speak to other cases, like New York City, where density bonusing has become central to Mayor DeBlasio’s Housing New York plan since 2014. The Lincoln Institute for Land Policy recently launched a large-scale study of “land-value capture,” which included density bonusing, suggesting that more and more local governments are turning to this policy framework.
What theoretical debates interest you the most, and how do you see your research contributing to them?
My main interest is in the processes through which neoliberalism achieves legitimacy. In my dissertation I contribute to a number of debates related to this overarching topic, for example, by illustrating how non-market exchange, such as reciprocity, obfuscates the privatization of the welfare state. I also unpack the contradictions of progressive, yet growth-oriented, urban politics, or progressive growth machines.
More broadly, I am also interested in combining the concepts and ideas of economic sociology and urban sociology. While there has been some great work in this direction by scholars such as Frederick Wherry, Deborah Becher and Josh Pacewitz, there is still a lot of room for productive interface between the two fields. For example, in my paper I draw on Jens Beckert’s recent framework of imagined futures, which highlights the way capitalism relies on fictional expectations about the future, to explain how developers justify increases in density. Finally, I’ve been working on developing a new framework for economic sociology based on the work of Karl Polanyi.
What surprises occurred as you conducted your fieldwork?
A surprising finding during my research in Toronto was the developer’s reliance on community outreach workers, many of whom were young geography and urban planning graduate students from local universities. These part-time employees were often well-versed in critical urban theory and felt conflicted about their position working for a development firm. However, they also played an important role in providing developers with legitimacy, as they were able to effectively reframe community opposition to new developments as self-interested actions by homeowners. This led me to think about the pathways through which urban knowledge, generated in the academy, makes its way into on-the-ground tensions around development.
What are some future directions for this project?
My latest research project extends my interest in housing and the politics of density by focusing on the resurgence of private rental housing in North American cities, and how this contributes to urban inequality. My plan is to focus on four large cities across Canada and the US, which are sites of two intersecting patterns: state-led incentives for the development of rental housing in the face of housing crises, and the rising acquisition of existing and newly-built rentals by real estate holding corporations and pension funds. This will continue my interest in the symbolic systems of housing by exploring how long-standing associations between rentals and affordability are being used to justify profit-oriented development by the state and the private sector.
The CUSS newsletter team reached out to the 2019 Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award Winner, Harvey Molotch, to reflect on his career and his trajectory as an urban sociologist. Dr. Molotch is Professor Emeritus at NYU and UC Santa Barbara and is a prominent figure in urban sociology and our section. We’re including his responses below:
What initially brought you to urban sociology?
I’ve always had a thing for land and buildings. Children play with blocks; I kept at it. When growing up in Baltimore I liked watching things go up, including houses and especially movie theaters. From family scuttlebutt I learned that a part of making things happen was connections – that’s what gets zoning, building permits, and even permission to have a neon sign. Don’t be shocked, dear reader, but there were bribes.
When I got to urban social science, my Baltimore was not in it. Crime was certainly there but largely sequestered as criminology. Urban science was about concentric circles, demography, and exotic street corner life. I yearned for the developers, the fixers, and the crooks – and their linkages with the more ordinary folks trying to make their way through the thicket. A lot of my life has been to follow up on that.
What has been the most exciting moment of your career?
I was giving a paper at the ASA, circa 1970, in a session called “Radical Sociology.” We were plenty hyped up. It was a full-house in the “Imperial Ballroom” of the Hilton. My paper was called “Oil in Santa Barbara and Power in America” and my big line, which the journal was to edit out: “When the oil hit the water, the shit hit the fan.” It went over big, including with the august Talcott Parsons, rollicking in his seat at my insolence. I doubt he could foresee the demise of his structural functionalism and the rise of the intellectual left that was blowing in the (air conditioned) wind. I got it.
I always taught Sociology One, exciting again and again. It was great to teach our greatest hits, which also included, in my version, wonderful stuff from anthropology, history, political science and even economics. I was a heavy user of slides, video, and music; I loved being there as the students saw the light.
What do you think are the most pressing issues for urban scholars to study today?
Changes in land use, whether through growth or contraction, have specific impacts on wealth distribution, social lives, and the natural environment. We need to understand and publicize these effects – this is a special role for urban studies as opposed to sociology more generally.
I don’t think we fully resolved the problem of the “urban object” – what is distinctive to the urban as opposed to the social and economic more generally. Too often, in my view, urban sociology means whatever goes on in cities. But since cities are the commonplace of life, this delimits very little. The urban matters, not by declaration but by clear display of how taking it up clarifies larger realms of thought and politics.
The danger is that without meaningful framing, the urban aspect can be a sloganeering substitute for confronting larger social issues of inequality, health, and racism. High-rise public housing filled a need for sure, but it was hardly a panacea; the switch to low-rise is equally misguided as general solution. We need intellectual tactics to prevent our beloved “urban” from being misapplied.
For me, a good point of entry is to ask, in effect, “how did that get there and that way or through what process did it cease to be.” The concrete of the city, its shape and form, can be our entry point for the recursive loop between the social, the artifactual, and the natural. In short, the city, in this sense, can be method. It is a way into culture, political economy and comparative analyses.
One critical obsolescence of our prior paradigms is the collective effect of climate change. In grappling with this wicked problem, we need to think about how our urbanism as a way of life is a destroyer. We need to learn the ways particular settlement configuration exacerbate earth impact. We need to figure out how to repudiate the value-free development doctrines, world-wide, that lead to catastrophe. Going green needs some red – with approaches that are positive, practical, and that leverage potential for human solidarity. The downside of recycling is its ineffectiveness; the upside is its display of mass participation for a common cause. How can that “instinct” be bottled but made significant rather than trivial.
What advice would you give to new researchers?
Coming into sociology at a time of plentiful jobs, my own pleasurable enthusiasm was likely historically exceptional. That said, I can declare that I really did follow my fascinations and try to make myself useful. I did see some less fortunate colleagues stuck in the rut of strategizing; it made their work less interesting for themselves and probably didn’t help their careers much either. What to do? Curiosity is really all we have that has at least the potential to pay off both on and off the job. It is a reason to get up in the morning.
Cities face a lot of challenges today. What advice would you give to residents and activists who are concerned about issues in their neighborhoods?
It is discouraging to witness how much urban activism goes not to progressive agendas but to those based in fear of those agendas. Ironically, change is made horrible because there’s such a weak safety net, even for the middle-class. Some of the resulting anxiety clutters public discourse with resentment against newcomers and hostility toward those driven, like the homeless and the ill, to repugnant life strategies. We all know that miseries at the level of appearances — even public elimination at the extreme — come from the deeper realms. Urbanists have a direct line to those appearances as well as means to know their source. We have the job, as a consistent matter, to convincingly explain these extreme local troubles as traceable to policies and politics that do people in.