Last year I had the opportunity to hear a talk from Alexandra Murphy, a sociology Ph.D. and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center. Her talk was about her dissertation research on the experiences of families living in a poverty in a suburb of Pittsburgh. Her talk was fascinating not merely for her findings but for the originality of her project: Alexandra Murphy was taking sociology to the suburbs.
In my (admittedly limited) experience, the suburbs are unknown territory for much of sociology. From its earliest days, the discipline has focused much of its attention on urban settings. This is hardly a surprise or an outrage – if one intends to study society, why not go to an urban setting where society exists in its most concentrated form? Chicago would ultimately become the unofficial capital of urban sociology. That sociologists swarmed Chicago instead of, say, Philadelphia is undoubtedly an interesting story; that sociologists swarmed Chicago instead of the nearby bedroom community of Crystal Lake, Illinois is a no-brainer.
Today, to at least a limited extent, things have changed. For one, rural concerns have grabbed the attention of a significant subset of sociologists. The Rural Sociological Society publishes several journals and holds a recurring annual meeting. However, no comparable organization or infrastructure exists for sociologists interested in suburban affairs, at least from what I can tell. There is no “Suburban Sociological Society.” A JSTOR search for sociology articles with some version of the word “suburb” (including, for instance, the variation “suburban”) in the title brings (as of this writing) 399 results, which may sound like a decent number until one realizes that this count is way below that of sociology articles whose titles include the words “rural” (1,975 articles) and “urban” (2,587 articles).
Why would suburbs be so comparatively overlooked? One might suspect that it could be because sociologists, like other highly-educated, progressive-leaning individuals, prefer to live in urban environments and that these environments would then capture their scholarly attention. But this hypothesis weakens in the face of suburbs’ unpopularity even relative to rural areas, which one would figure the average sociologist would find to be even less tolerable than suburbs. You could also point to the relative newness of the suburb as a concept, but “relative newness” has not stalled sociological analysis of other cultural trends, such as new social movements and the recent growth in income inequality.
For lack of a better explanation, I suspect that the shunning of the suburbs might be rooted in a tacit assumption that the suburbs and their inhabitants do not have a coherent or compelling sociological story to tell. Sociology concerns itself with themes of diversity, oppression, and inequality. These forces, one might suspect, can’t be found in suburbs, which are (supposedly) exclusive domains of middle and upper middle class Whites. The formation of suburbs and how those processes relate to race relations and White Flight – that might be an interesting sociological story, but once that story is told, the ongoing lives of those living in the suburbs are not our concern. Work like Alexandra Murphy’s is beginning to challenge the conception of suburbs as merely a playpen for the privileged. But could even the “stereotypical suburbanites” have a sociological story to tell? I have no doubt that they can offer a story of some sort. I’m reminded of a line from the TV show The Wonder Years in which the narrator speaks of the disdain he feels “Whenever some blowhard starts talking about the anonymity of the suburbs, or the mindlessness of the TV generation.” We should remember, he says, that “Inside each one of those identical boxes, with its Dodge parked out front, and its white bread on the table, and its TV set glowing blue in the falling dusk, there were people with stories. There were families bound together in the pain and the struggle of love. There were moments that made us cry with laughter. And there were moments, like that one [referring to the character’s first kiss], of sorrow and wonder.”
Very poignant, and very true in my opinion, but is it sociological or merely personal? I want to claim that those various personal moments can be woven into a larger sociological narrative – but how? A narrative of what? Just “middle-class American life?” Perhaps you could argue that the field of family sociology has dedicated itself to interrogating the conception of the nuclear family that we have come to associate with the suburbs. Or maybe the concept of public opinion, of which sociology certainly makes use, is a way of giving voice to suburban dwellers. Are there other possibilities? Perhaps a commenter may have a thought. Before we gleefully proclaim “The End of the Suburbs,” let’s at least consider the possibility that these much-derided territories may have something to teach us.