Archive for the ‘Sociology’ Category

Cosmopolitan Canopy

May 23, 2013

I just finished “The Cosmopolitan Canopy: race and civility in everyday life,” a new book by Dr. Elijah Anderson. I am familiar w/ Dr. Anderson’s work, use “Code of the Street” in my classes and have written a short review of it for a forthcoming publication. I also lived in Philadelphia for 3 years, from age 13-16. I also love qualitative work. Dr. Anderson’s specialty is ethnography. I love the richness it gives to description of everyday settings, the analysis of how we interact in terms of race, gender, class as human beings.

My years in Philadelphia were formative in many ways. To this day, I long for a hot pretzel, bought at a corner stand, with large drops of salt and covered with bright yellow mustard. My mouth is watering! I also learned what a “hoagie” is, and know a true Philadelphia steak & cheese sandwich smothered in onions.

In Germantown, I rode a train to school, the same train Dr. Anderson describes riding from Chestnut Hill into inner city Philadelphia. I would get on this train at Queen Lane and gett off in Mount Airy, to attend my school there. One of the things that first intrigued me about “Code of the Street” was Anderson’s description of going down Germantown Ave. from the Chestnut Hill area to inner city Philly. I was a professor’s kid, & my father a mechanical engineer. He left Purdue after 24 years to teach at Drexel, & died at a very young age of 50. At the time of his death, I believe he was Dean of his Dept.

My memories of Germantown are of a 13-year-old girl. Besides being a time of puberty, especially my first year there was a lesson in race relations. My hometown in Indiana was largely white, although today it has a fairly large Hispanic population and is across the river from Purdue, which has one of the largest Asian contingents of any university in the country. The black population is fairly small but was always present, & has a strong history in that community. Moving to Germantown was one of my learning moments in terms of race, as suddenly my school was about 50% African American. I have vivid memories of that year, largely because I hated the school, all the teachers in it, and because of the issue of race. I do not remember any black teachers. There might have been 1 or 2 that I did not have as a teacher of one of my classes. I was elected President of my 8th-grade class that year. I was the outsider. My job as President was to keep the kids (my peers) quiet on the bus when we traveled to a different school for “shop” and “home ec”. I never liked home ec, sucked at using a sewing machine, and found the class frustrating and debilitating. The history teacher was also our gym teacher. If she got mad at us, she would end gym class and take us back to the classroom for another history lesson (as punishment)!

In this school, we could not talk at lunch. We had to file in straight lines, without talking in the hallways, from one class to another. When we went out for “recess” the playground had no playground equipment or “jungle gyms” to climb on. From what I remember, the girls stood around and did hand games and the boys got in fights. The school also appointed 8th graders as “marshall” to walk around the lunch room and tell kids to be quiet, who might attempt to talk to one another. In other words, they were given a position of status and asked to rat on their fellow classmates. It was the most bizarre educational setting I’ve ever seen.

When I think about it, I am amazed that my parents allowed me to walk down to the train station and ride the train to school every day. I find that rather amazing. I can remember different types of black and white students in the school. Some were more street oriented than others. As students, we came together in our hatred for the school, but we were also aware of a racial difference. I do not remember any white kids having “crushes” on black kids. This would have been taboo. In those days, crushes were about all we considered doing, at age 13. I had a secret “crush” on one African American boy, John Dillard was his name. But I would have never stated this openly. I also remember another girl who was mixed race Japanese and African American. We played together every day at school, and at the train station, and we never once considered going to each other’s houses after school.

I didn’t do too well in my Presidential duties and “quit” my job. The administration wasn’t too happy with me, and I was called in for a conference, where one teacher asked me if I was an only child. I remember my father yelling at one of my teachers quite loudly into the telephone, which was very uncharacteristic of him. I “graduated” from 8th grade that year, as the school went from Kindergarden to 8th grade. From there, we went to either “Boys high school” and “Girls high school” (where Patricia Hill Collins graduated from); or to Germantown High. My family moved to Drexel Hill. When my father died of a heart attack, my mother moved her 4 kids back to Indiana.

What strikes me about “Cosmopolitan Canopies” is that they exist as interracial mixing places, where people don’t mix in their neighborhoods or living rooms. THAT is what is really needed— mixing in our living rooms. Without that, we are stuck with these “canopies” where people interact, but so superficially! I guess it is a step in the right direction, but is so far beneath the understanding of human beings as one human  race, where we truly welcome each other into our HOMES, and do our best to make the other feel comfortable, as Dr. Anderson mentions, rather than worrying about our own discomfort………. It is discouraging to me that we are still this segregated. My husband & I don’t live that way. That is, we actively seek out friendships across racial lines and this is our everyday life way of interacting. We are still affected by the racial structure of America the same as anyone else. We are aware of the effort needed to do this, but we do it. We are also aware of how much that stands out, because everyone everywhere mentions it and seems to see it as different. That is also discouraging. It should be the norm. We will never understand how to overcome these barriers without integrating our living rooms and having real discussions and sharing as family & friends. Another friend of ours wrote a book, “Seeing Heaven in the Face of Black Men”. This is about seeing one another in this light. Anderson talks about blacks always having to live with association with the black ghetto, middle class blacks having to disassociate themselves from that group, to show they are not that group. Rather than seeing the ghetto in the face of black men, we must see heaven. This is such a powerful statement, & shows the level of positive-ness that is needed to change that image. We must see the face of God in one another. See family in the face of one another.

Sociologists who influenced me

May 22, 2013

The other day at a gathering of people, I met a fellow sociologist. He had graduated from a school in England and studied Cultural Studies. I understood that is not a study of cultures, in the anthropological sense. It has more to do with culture in the form of media and how we are influenced by it, virtual becoming reality, things in ads becoming more real than that reality, and other such fun topics. He asked me who were the sociologists who influenced me the most. It had been so long since I had thought about that, I went blank. I tend to go blank anyway, when put on the spot. But I’ve been teaching for over 10 years now, and 5 years in the rural south. I learned to muffle my own opinions, in favor of getting students to voice theirs. Coming to the south, even moreso, as I was trained by some of the more liberal thinkers in the north at Purdue University. There were some who revolutionized my world, made me see it in a totally different light than I had seen it before. But in the classroom, the goal is not to promote one’s own theoretical view. I’ve taught social theory for the past 5 years, doing my best to highlight views of ALL theorists we study, as valid in their own right, & letting students critically think about who they agree with most. Sometimes it’s hard to keep my mouth shut. I do my best.

The only person who came to mind that evening at the gathering, was Herbert Blumer, symbolic interactionist I aligned myself with the most. He was one of those who made me switch gears in mid-air, made me look at my world in a fresh new light. People interact on the basis of the meaning they have for things. This meaning is formed in interaction. He also wrote a signature piece on race relations which social scientists still refer to today and use in their new books coming out. In fact, it is being rejuvenized. “Race as a sense of group position” is the title. The idea that nothing is inherently good or bad in itself, that everything that exists has no inherent meaning in and of itself but is formed in interaction with others, is a radical thought. As grad students, we one time visualized this by talking about a chair. A chair is just a piece of wood constructed in a certain way to achieve a certain end: having something to sit on. But then think of all the symbolism involved in something as simple as a chair. How about a throne– a king’s chair? Only a King is allowed to sit on it. Think about a board room — who sits in the end chair, and faces all those coming into the room? In Japanese style management, the person farthest from the door is the most powerful person in the room. In my office, I have my own office chair. It is a comfortable “professor’s chair” that someone placed there for me — although not newly ordered for me. The other chair in my room is for a student or other guest visiting. It is not as comfortable, is older and sits facing me, not facing the hallway. We also played little games with the idea of a chair, and questions different people would ask about a chair:

  • a positivist: A chair is just a chair. There is no question about its utility or purpose.
  • symbolic interactionist: What does this chair symbolize to the person sitting in it? It has no inherent meaning in & of itself.
  • feminist: Has a woman ever sat in this chair?
  • Conflict theorist: The more powerful in society have larger, more comfortable chairs.
  • Functionalist: Chairs have a purpose because they have existed over time, and in every type of culture. What function does it serve?

These are the kind of games you play as a graduate student in sociology.

So in thinking back over who influenced me the most, I came up with some female sociologists. When I read Dorothy Smith, a lightbulb went on inside me and I knew I belonged. Dorothy Smith taught me I belonged in sociology. Suddenly, the way I saw the world, as a woman traversing back & forth across the worlds of academia and home life, made complete sense and was a valid place from which to start research. Sociology didn’t have to always remain in the abstract! It could be a practical place from which to work and analyze information, and one could start from what she knows and move on from that place, to learning about others, and comparing it back to what we know. And then I read Patricia Hill Collins (along with bell ho0ks, Angela Davis & others who were not sociologists) & I learned another perspective– another view of the margins. And I realized that there is no “one” answer, or one way to look at the world. There is no “right” answer. We each just have a different and valid view of reality, and somehow putting them all together makes up the world.

Each person I read taught me another view. Edward Said, Stuart Hall, Herbert Blumer, George Mead, Marx Durkheim Weber (we almost have to say them in one breath), WEB DuBois, Oliver Cromwell Cox, anthropologists Margaret Mead, Foucault, Clifford Geertz, psycho(logist) Freud, the Frankfort School, there is such a rich history of people I read and learned from in taking classes.

Some of my professors were published and influenced me as well: Kevin Anderson (translated Marx); Anthony Lemelle (Black male identity & sexuality); Leonard Harris (Racism, Alain Locke Harlem renaissance philosopher); Siobhan Somerville, Pat Bolinger, Jeffrey Ulmer. I can think of so many who taught me so many things. I do not think I have imparted a smidgeon of the transformative thought I was exposed to in my undergraduate and graduate school days, to my students. Part of that is the culture I find myself in. When I showed Al Gore’s film on the environment, it was met with such a resistance and description of him as the devil incarnate, I quit showing it. Teaching is always a delicate balance of exposing students to new ideas and new thought, but not alienating them completely. It depends on the culture of the place, how much is offered at a time. I am still learning the balance.