Elijah Anderson is a Yale professor of sociology and director of the Urban Ethnography Project. Anderson studies ethnography, a field that examines human culture and ethnicity, and is particularly interested in the black urban experience in America. The News sat down to talk about his work, his views on ethnography and Urban Ethnography Project’s conference that runs from April 10 to April 12.


Q: Can you describe your background in ethnography? 

A: I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and ethnography is the kind of thing the University is known for. The first real graduate department of sociology was at Chicago, with scholars like Charles Henderson and Robert E. Park. Robert Park introduced urban themes and told the students to go and get their hands dirty and do research, get out of the library. He taught them to apprehend and document people’s lives and the practice of life in the city. His students wrote some of the classic tomes of sociology.

I came along and started to read Dubois, who wrote “The Philadelphia Negro” in 1859. His work is the first real urban empirical study in America, and it’s about black people. I said Dubois was the founding father of American sociology. The book is a major document in American sociology, and yet, you can go to many, many departments in sociology in this country, and never read it or hear about Dubois. It’s not been given its due. He did this work in Philadelphia by using the methodology of ethnography.

Q: In talking to individual people on the street, do you see students overgeneralizing when they go out and do field research?

A: No — this is the theory of it all. People as they live in the city, in every day life, go about meeting the demands and exigencies of life. As they do this, they gain what we sociologist call “local knowledge.” They develop an ideology, a working conception of the world. These human groups all over the city have these notions of how things are — norms, values, rules, all this is in their heads. They share them with their families [and] their loved ones. An ethnographer wants to tap into that. He or she wants to apprehend, comprehend, understand, and then represent that. There’s a whole systematic way of doing that, and I’ve been teaching that methodology. I went and hung out with street corner men to write my dissertation.

Q: Can you describe your current research on ethnography?

A: My most recent book is called “The Iconic Ghetto.” It’s about how people live race everyday. For example, you look at Trayvon Martin, and you look at Emmett Till, both of whom were killed in the South. Till was murdered by racist men for whistling at white women in the South. Some people look at Trayvon Martin and say it was the same thing, racism. But I beg to differ.

Q: To clarify, you think it was not racism that drove the murder of Trayvon Martin?

A: No, I think it’s racism, but I think it’s a new kind of racism. What killed Emmett Till is this deep, kind of white supremacist racism that’s rooted in slavery. What killed Trayvon Martin was this iconic ghetto. I’m not sure that Zimmerman was racist. The men that killed Till were more overtly racist — they thought black people were inferior. I don’t think Zimmerman had the same feeling. What I’m suggesting is that Trayvon, by presenting himself with the emblems of the hood, even the means of engaging this man, all that together basically set the stage for his demise.

Q: Can you expand on the idea of presentation of emblems of the hood?

A: The argument that I’ve put forth is that the ghetto has become a very important icon in American society. But it’s also a very deep source of prejudice, discrimination, and racism. Black people are walking through the world as black people, and a lot of people associate them with the ghetto. Once that association is made, the black person has a deficit of credibility. The deficit has to be made up by performance of some sort. Speaking well, acting well, wearing a suit and tie, even that doesn’t get you over, because you graduate from the deficit to provisional status, which means having something to prove. It’s racism, it’s a new kind of racism, but its racism is in many ways a function of that icon. Today, I believe that the iconic ghetto and the symbolic racism that comes from that becomes conflated with the old to make life very difficult for black people.

Q: How do you contend with a history of racism in the field of sociology? 

A: I think that the times have changed in ethnography. If you go back to the old school at Chicago, you’ll see these people who are dealing with white supremacy that was really rampant at the turn of the century. Their work reflected that — even Dubois’ work. The symbols he used were often times those kinds of symbols. You can detect social Darwinism in [his] book the Philadelphia Negro. What it meant to be an educated person was to use the language of the day. To us, looking back, that seems like eugenics.

Q: Do you find that in ethnography today, scholars enter with preconceived notions of the group of study?

A: Absolutely. One of the problems with social science is that it’s done by human beings. They’ve got presuppositional frames that are in some ways a function of their culture. So the really good ones, the ones who are really critical, try to come to terms with that baggage. It’s important for people to be critical, to try very hard to deal with one’s baggage and see the world clearly.

Q: How do you teach your students to take their own biases into consideration when studying other groups?

A: I use the idea of baggage. What you have to do is to come to terms with who you are and what you mean, and how you’re seeing the people given your own presuppositional frame. There’s a way in which ethnography tries to be scientific. This is through analytic induction, which is looking at particular things in the field that allow you to come up with this generalization or hypothesis. To go one step further, you look for negative cases. These are cases that might require the revision of your hypothesis, given the observation that you have. So you’re trying to be systematic, you’re not just trying to come up with stuff.

Q: What are the goals of the Yale conference on urban ethnography taking place later this week? 

A: Typically, this is a conference where the senior people teach the younger people the methods. The people doing the presentations will be assistant professors, and the moderators will be senior people. The first day, I’ll be on a panel where we discuss the method, how to do ethnography. This is a place for people to network, come together, connect, and learn more about ethnography. We want to establish a network of people who are doing ethnographic work at a high level, and to further this goal of producing high quality ethnographic work. The presumption is if we can do that, the field itself will be enhanced because we’ll have a solid description of what people do in life, and everybody will have to take this work seriously, or ignore it at their peril.