American Sociological Association

Elijah Anderson - Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award

Elijah Anderson - Award Statement

In an 1897 essay, W. E. B. DuBois wrote of the paradoxes that the Black intellectual must negotiate in conveying knowledge of the other across the color line.  A master ethnographer of race, Elijah Anderson, the Lanman Professor of Sociology at Yale University, is the recipient of the 2013 Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award.   Beginning his graduate studies at the University of Chicago, he earned his doctorate at Northwestern University. He previously held faculty appointments at Swarthmore College and as the Charles and William L. Day Distinguished Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.

For three and a half decades, Elijah Anderson's prominence and production undoubtedly place him in elite company – how many other contemporary ethnographers' research endeavors that have produced four solo-authored ethnographies:  A Place on the Corner: Study of Black Street Corner Men (Chicago 1978), Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community (Chicago, 1990), Code of the Street:  Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (Chicago, 1999), and most recently, The Cosmopolitan Canopy:  Race and Civility in Everyday Life (Norton, 2011).   Moreover two of the four are award winners. Streetwise received the 1991 Robert E. Park Award of the American Sociological Association’s for the best published book in urban sociology, while Code of the Streets received the 2000 Komarovsky Award from the Eastern Sociological Society.  In addition, Anderson has published five edited volumes and more than fifty articles.

The responsibilities of the ethnographer, as Anderson instructs us, is to observe, apprehend, comprehend and understand the shared conventions  of the people being studied. From the extensive explorations of a Midwestern bar and liquor store in A Place on the Corner to the streets, homes and gentrifying neighborhoods of a northeastern city in his next two books, Anderson has cultivated critical interpretations of the sociological significance of urban spaces.  His commitment to the analytical prowess and narrative artistry of ethnography has produced illuminating and thought-provoking accounts of how people -- especially African Americans and the urban poor -- understand and conduct their lives under the shattering impacts of deindustrialization, drug wars, gentrification, growing wealth gap, and enduring if morphed manifestations of racial discrimination.  His most recent work, The Cosmopolitan Canopy, is situated in the public parks and markets as well as workplaces.  There, he identifies the emergent norms of seemingly desegregated spaces, while revealing the negotiated occupation and bounded interactions by race and class within these civic spaces.  

Anderson’s writings are noted for weaving theory, method, thick descriptions and in situ interviewing, coupled with a rigorous, reiterative process of interpretation.  As one recommender rightly observes, "Few can boast of studying race in urban America as carefully, thoroughly, and sensitively as Elijah Anderson," or as another attests,  "of honoring the humanity or what DuBois called the "soul beauty" of Black Americans," and the community collaborators in his studies.

Anderson has received numerous professional recognition. He has been the Robin M. Williams, Jr. Distinguished Lecturer of the Eastern Sociological Association, on the Board of Directors of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and the Vice President of American Sociological Association in 2002.  He also served on the editorial boards of many key journals among them the American Sociological Review, City & Community, Qualitative Sociology, Ethnography, American Journal of Sociology, Annals of the Society of Political and Social Science, and the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.

Elijah Anderson has also been instrumental in the professional development and success of generations of ethnographers, educators and scholars.  His former graduate students, young scholars of all races and ethnic backgrounds, and other colleagues wrote highly of him as a generous and dedicated mentor, as well as a conscientious and constructive critic.  In hosting a series of conferences, Anderson and his colleagues have helped sustain the significance of ethnography within Sociology.  Moreover, the conferences have featured compelling accounts of what is at stake in the most important social justice battles of our time.  His analysis resound well beyond the walls of the academy, as community members, media, and public officials have relied on his insights in informing urban politics and policy.  Anderson has served as a consultant to a variety of national entities, including the White House, the United States Congress, and the National Academy of Science; and as a member of the National Research Council’s Panel on the Understanding and Control of Violent Behavior.

These are but a few of myriad reasons for which we honor Elijah Anderson as the 2013 recipient of the Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award.  "Much like the men for whom this award is named, his life work reflects the spirit of outstanding scholarship, mentoring and social justice that animate this award."

Dr. Elijah Anderson's Acceptance Speech

It is a real honor to receive this award from the ASA.  The scholars, for whom it is named – Oliver Cox, Charles Johnson, and E. Franklin Frazier, are absolute giants in the history of this discipline, and I am truly humbled to be associated with them in this way.     

I want to thank those who have been important along my journey.  But first I want to thank my family, and particularly my mother.  She worked for much of her life as a domestic and a seamstress.  She attended school to the eleventh grade, and she is an absolutely first rate "folk" ethnographer, and in raising me, taught me everything I know, encouraging me in every way she knew.  Her constant refrain was, "You gon' be somebody!" And with these words, she’d send me off to school each day.

I was born on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta during World War II.  My grandmother, Arlene Porter, was a kind of village doctor there, and the midwife at my birth.  She was also very religious, and she named me Elijah; I also have a brother named Joseph.  As sharecroppers, both my Mom and Dad picked cotton.  Later, Dad fought in the war, and, after returning from Europe, he could not really live in the South anymore, given its racial structure there, and the promise of opportunity in the North. He and many members of my extended family migrated. We first migrated to Chicago, and ultimately to South Bend, Indiana, where he found a job in the foundry at Studebaker's, a defunct automaker; he worked there for many years.  My story really is a lot like those that Isabel Wilkerson told in her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, a brilliant rendering of the "great migration" of blacks to the North.  

I grew up on the streets of South Bend, and as a young boy, sold newspapers on street corners, set pins at a bowling alley, and then finally, at the age of twelve, landed a job in a small typewriter shop, owned by the late Marion Forbes.  I worked there throughout my high school years, before going off to Indiana University in Bloomington (IU) to study Sociology.  

At IU, I met some very impressive professors in the Sociology Department, including men like Sheldon Stryker, the late Walt Risler, the late Frank Westie, and Irving Zeitlin. These men were among my most memorable early teachers and role models.  They strongly encouraged me, ultimately supporting my desire for graduate study in Sociology.  I applied, and was accepted at the University of Chicago, where I then met Morris Janowitz and Gerald Suttles, Victor Lidz, and later, Bill Wilson; they, too, became my teachers and mentors. I also met graduate students like Robert Washington and Bill Kornblum who became good lifelong colleagues and friends. 

Later, after Suttles departed for SUNY in Stony Brook, N.Y., I spoke with Howard Becker about Northwestern University, and he encouraged me to join him there. At Northwestern, I met professors Bernard Beck and the late Charlie Moskos, who also became mentors.  I also met Arthur Paris and Jack Katz, fellow graduate students who became life long friends. At that point, I was still involved in my fieldwork on black street corner men which began while I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago.  At Northwestern, Becker became the primary advisor for my dissertation.  

My Dad was part of the inspiration for that dissertation, which was ultimately published by the University of Chicago Press as A Place on the Corner, and is used in courses around the country to this day.   Along with my Mom, my most important mentor was my Dad, a man with a fourth grade education but with tremendous common sense and street knowledge.  Dad spent a lot of time at the local taverns of South Bend, but almost always took care of home. Just before he died, I was able to express my gratitude to him—and he simply said to me in his most humble way, "Son, I did the best I knew."

Before completing my dissertation, I was appointed to a tenure-track Assistant Professor position at Swarthmore College, where I met James Kurth, a valued friend  to this day.  Then, within two years, the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) began to recruit me. Renee Fox, Digby Baltzell, the late Willy De Craemer, Erving Goffman, Dell Hymes, Philip Reiff, and William Labov: all were involved in recruiting me there.  At Penn, these scholars were supportive and on occasion, both Erving Goffman and Bill Labov would read my work and offer feedback and support.  Erving and I frequently lunched together on Rittenhouse Square near his home, and we would discuss my book project and the state of the field of sociology more generally.  The late Federal Judge, A. Leon Higginbotham, who was an adjunct faculty member of our department and of Penn's board of trustees, was also an important source personal and institutional support.  Every one of these people, from Renee Fox to Digby Baltzell, were important to me, not only as mentors, but also by the example they set, which I’ve tried my best to emulate by supporting my own students in similarly meaningful ways.

Over the years, I’ve had many valued colleagues—this list could go on and on—but I've been most fortunate to have a few who stood out along my way -- at Penn, there were Harold Bershady, Tukufu Zuberi, and Randy Collins.  And at Yale, there was Ivan Szelenyi, and now Julia Adams, Jeffrey Alexander, and Vani Kulkarni, and others too numerous to mention here.

And of course, among my more memorable students are: Faye Allard, Jamie Fader, Kesha Moore, Jacob Avery, Nate Glasser, Raymond Gunn, Scott Brooks, Nikki Jones, Esther Kim, and Waverly Duck -– and this list, too, could go on.  But I think you are beginning to see a pattern in all of this.  Collectively, all of these scholars have been extremely meaningful to me.  And last, but by no means least, are my wife, Nancy, and my children, Luke and Caitlin – whose unending support and encouragement have been absolutely invaluable.