Sociology professor Elijah Anderson transported students Tuesday from a warm room in the Afro-American Cultural Center to a street corner in the “hood,” as he described the problems of poor urban living and associated social trends.
Anderson, a well-known sociologist who focuses on the structure and functioning of inner cities, was asked to speak of his experiences and work by the Here, Our Voices speaker series run through the Af-Am House. About 40 audience members, mostly students, listened silently for an hour and a half as Anderson presented on his life story and academic studies. Anderson’s interest in day-to-day living in poor, inner cities is rooted in his childhood experiences, he said.
“I love the streets,” Anderson said. “I was always dealing with them, starting when I was a paperboy. [My friends and I] would do everything, like smoke cigarettes, which was a big deal for 10-year-olds. We didn’t inhale, of course, because we were scared. We loved the streets.”
This interest, Anderson told the audience, led him to pursue a career in ethnography, which he defined as the systematic study of culture. During graduate school at Northwestern University, he specialized in the nature of urban living, including the dynamics of street interaction.
“When I got to graduate school, I could study a corner!” Anderson exclaimed. “That may not be a big deal to you, but it was liberating for me.”
Research for his dissertation laid the groundwork for his book “A Place on the Corner,” an analysis of the interaction among the people he met at a corner liquor store and bar in Chicago’s South Side while doing research there as a graduate student, Anderson said.
“The book set the stage for all my later work,” he explained. “It shook up the field.”
Anderson said he thinks his success analyzing the people of inner cities is a result of his ability to relate to them — he comes from a working-class background and therefore has insight into their lives, he said.
Because many American jobs are being exported overseas, Anderson said, “there is an employment vacuum, and people are not making the adjustments. To negotiate, they need education. … Young black men don’t get this.”
This “employment vacuum” has reverberating social consequences, Anderson said. He argued that many people in the inner city lack faith in the justice system — when people call the police, they have little confidence that anyone will show up.
“If you feel the corrosion, street justice will fill the void,” Anderson said. “An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.”
Josh Williams ‘08, who has taken a few sociology classes at Yale and has spent the last two summers working as an ethnographer, said he enjoyed hearing how Anderson’s studies connect to solutions for real-life societal problems.
“I thought it was interesting how he was connecting ethnography to certain philosophies, like employment,” Williams said. “We saw with jobs that more need to be available, like Anderson said he told President Clinton. But something taken so seriously by Anderson was of no concern for policy makers or elected officials, like Clinton at the time.”
Donte Donald ’09, head of Here, Our Voices, said he asked Anderson to speak at the Af-Am House to welcome Anderson, who accepted the post of the William K. Lanman, Jr. Professor of Sociology at Yale in the summer of 2007, to the Yale community.
“I feel like everyone in the audience was inspired,” Donald said. “He showed us there is so much potential for the great things we can do.”
Anderson received a B.A. from Indiana University in 1969, a M.A. from the University of Chicago in 1972, and a doctorate from Northwestern University in 1976.
Before coming to Yale, Anderson held the position of the Charles and William Day Distinguished Professor of Social Science at the University of Pennsylvania.