In conjunction with this weekend’s Annual Chicago Ethnography Conference, leading urban ethnographer Elijah Anderson gave a public lecture on race relations entitled “South Bend Days: Reflections of a Field Worker.” Anderson, a professor of sociology at Yale University, provided a sociological account of the nexus between race interactions and the morality of inner-city neighborhoods based on his own childhood experiences living in South Bend, Indiana.
Anderson began his talk by defining ethnography. “Ethnography is a systematic study of culture,” he said, “(of) how people see and understand the world.” Anderson continued, “Thus, an ethnographer will put oneself in the setting to try to comprehend people in their own social background.”
Anderson explained how his perspective as a field researcher is different from an outsider’s perspective. Because of this difference in perspective, part of his job as a field researcher is to illustrate his fieldwork with a written account. Anderson emphasized, “One must be courageous enough to articulate the cultural truth.”
Anderson cites the experiences of his youth as influential in his decision to become an ethnographer. Anderson was born into abject poverty, and he worked from a young age as a newspaper boy for The South Bend Tribune. His various other jobs allowed him to meet people who would form the foundation of his life as an ethnographer. In one of his jobs as a pin boy for a local bowling alley, the other pin boys’ became archetypes for him. Anderson started to analyze social roles and interaction by observing their dress and demeanor.
After many sprained fingers from his job as a “pin boy,” Anderson decided to search for a new trade. It was not until he took a job in a typewriter store that his pre-ethnographic work opened up to the investigation of race relations. He expressed how this was his first time interacting daily with those of another race, specifically with white people.
Anderson remembered his significant experiences with his boss, Mr. Forbes. Although Mr. Forbes had a gambling problem, he was a father figure to Anderson. Mr. Forbes at times would chastise him for his mishaps and inspire him to live an ordered life. Anderson also articulated how his grade school teachers encouraged him. In particular, Mr. Myers, who was in the audience, challenged him to be ‘somebody,’ and to embrace a life of dignity.
He recalled the varieties of social behavior he stumbled upon in his interaction with a variety of races. In one account, Mr. Forbes and a friend were fascinated by an African American woman dressed up in bright and feathery clothing. Anderson highlighted that this occurrence was not one of mockery but rather of awe at a novel sight.
Through these experiences, full of hard work and of racial diversity, Anderson gravitated more and more into the study of ethnography. He wanted specifically to examine the racial divide, and, in his forthcoming work, “The Cosmopolitan Canopy,” he attempts to uncover a social space where people of all races respect each other and interact with one another. “A colorful tent,” said Anderson, “with no person subject to provisional status.”
Adriana Garcia is a junior theology/honors sociology major, which means she enjoyed every bit of this sociological inquiry. If you enjoy the field of sociology or ethnography too, feel free to chat with her! She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.