Man on the street

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

At lunch with his students in a diner. View full image

Anderson and his wife are now living in an apartment in downtown New Haven, near where the campus and the community meet. But he continues to head his Philadelphia Ethnography Project and commute occasionally to his longtime hometown, where on a recent morning he leads his Yale graduate seminar on a sociological tour.

Following the route traced in the opening pages of Code of the Street, Anderson drives south along Germantown Avenue, from quaint, prosperous, and traditionally WASP Chestnut Hill -- where he and his family moved in 1996 -- to middle-class, integrated Mount Airy, and then to Germantown, now predominantly black and poor. The tour continues through the ghetto of North Philadelphia, whose trash-strewn lots and abandoned houses are occasionally relieved by colorful murals. "I've taken students on this trip," says Anderson, "and they've said, 'Is this America?'"

"You can seen how there's been this disinvestment," he says in his soft rumble as he drives through Germantown. "This is the 'hood, the serious 'hood. On Saturdays, in the summertime and springtime, this whole area is just jumping with activity: fancy cars, people holding up traffic, carrying on conversations, styling, wearing their fancy clothes, their T-shirts, their gold." Here, he says, the police may not come if you call, and "the code of the street prevails." Rufus Thomas, 43, a camp supervisor for Easter Seals, waiting for a bus outside a Burger King, explains the code this way: "If you look like you're soft or act like you're soft, they will take advantage of you."

That afternoon, sitting in the pews of historic Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in the heart of the territory DuBois explored, Anderson tells his class: "You can come to any number of grad programs in sociology and never hear about DuBois, and part of that is because his work was marginalized. His work was obscured by people who pushed him aside. And I think that has affected me in some ways. It's a struggle for black academics to really take their place at the table because people don't appreciate the contributions of black scholars always. And it's got to be changed."

Over the years, Anderson says, he has turned down offers not only from Yale, but from Amherst College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Virginia, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of California at Santa Cruz, among others. Anderson "wanted to stay at Penn," says Harold J. Bershady, an emeritus sociology professor at Penn. "He was well established here." And if Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas had not written Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage (2005), he would very likely have remained in Philadelphia for the rest of his career.

From the first time he heard Edin, then an associate professor of sociology at Penn, present her findings, Anderson says he heard echoes of his own work on sexual relationships in the ghetto. In both a 1989 article and his two most recent books, Anderson has painted a portrait of the conflicting interests of inner-city teenagers. Young men, he says, try to burnish their status by boasting of their sexual conquests, with babies serving as proof of their claims. Meanwhile, their female partners dream of marriage, families, and economic security. This clash, which he sums up as "the game and the dream," is responsible, he suggests, for the current epidemic of unmarried mothers and intermittently involved fathers.

Edin and Kefalas, who interviewed black, white, and Hispanic women of varying ages in eight Philadelphia-area neighborhoods, reach different conclusions. They argue that poor women often explicitly choose motherhood because it imbues their lives with meaning. At the same time, they say, the women may reject marriage to their sexual partners because they associate the institution with a commitment they're not ready to make and a level of prosperity neither they nor their partners have attained. While their focus is on women and Anderson's on men, and they dispute his view that poor women seek marriage and economic dependence, they do validate some of his other findings -- such as the women's belief in fate and the men's frequent denial of paternity. And not all the points of agreement are footnoted.

"I never called it plagiarism," says Anderson, who later released a list of 22 textual similarities in their books. "I always tried to be collegial about it." Over lunch at Au Bon Pain, he tried to settle the matter privately with Edin. According to Anderson, "She said, 'I'll take care of it -- it's an oversight.'" In a conciliatory e-mail to Anderson, she called their talk "extraordinarily helpful" and promised to reread his work and "try to keep a tally of where additional citations should go."

Instead, Edin started fighting back, taking her case to department chair Paul D. Allison and enlisting support from other colleagues. In response, Anderson held firm, telling Allison: "My work has got to be acknowledged. It cannot be marginalized, as has happened with so many black scholars in the past."

Edin has never spoken publicly about the fracas. But she referred questions to Frank F. Furstenberg, Zellerbach Family Professor of Sociology at Penn, who has written a memo dismissing Anderson's charges as overblown. "I pointed out that most of what both he and Kathy have said has been in the literature since basically the beginning of the twentieth century," says Furstenberg, whose most recent book is Destinies of the Disadvantaged: The Politics of Teen Childbearing (2007). "I said [to Anderson], 'You're making a mistake. You didn't heavily cite this material, and neither has Kathy. You basically did the same thing -- which was rediscover parts of it, and make your own original contribution.'"

Nevertheless, Anderson and Edin did finally sit down with a mediator -- Princeton's Duneier, a friend of both. On June 27, 2005, Edin, Kefalas, and Anderson signed an eight-point agreement mandating additional references to Anderson's work in text and footnotes of future editions of Promises I Can Keep. In return, all parties were to "refrain from disparaging one another professionally" and keep the terms of the agreement confidential. Penn offered the University of California Press $5,000 to cover the cost of the changes.

That might have been the end of it. Instead, in October, the dispute escalated into a media controversy after Bershady sent an e-mail to his Penn sociology colleagues accusing the two women of "conceptual plagiarism." He says he was responding to concerns expressed to him that summer at the American Sociological Association and was seeking to quell "a mounting public scandal that, I believed, they needed to address quickly, decisively and above all, openly." Within the department, "what was happening was denial -- denial of any wrongdoing on her part," Bershady says. "It became very quickly partisan, and then it became a women's issue versus a black issue, and that's what I wanted to stop."

But the Bershady e-mail was leaked to the press, and several prominent sociologists responded with a letter calling his charge "absurd." Some 110 other graduate students and professors, many of them African American, rose to Anderson's defense. "We do not believe that such dismissive language would have been used if the author of the original work was a White male," they wrote. And Anderson weighed in with his own views, stating that "Promises exhibits enough unacknowledged similarity to Code that it constitutes an unfair use of another's scholarship."

The epilogue satisfied no one, least of all Anderson. Edin was promoted to full professor at Penn, but left to become a professor of public policy and management at Harvard. Her book, touted on the cover by Harvard's Wilson as "the most important study ever written on motherhood and marriage among low-income urban women," won an American Sociological Association prize. And the promised editorial changes were never made. Furstenberg justifies that reversal by saying that Anderson's public comments had violated the agreement, a view Anderson dismisses. "I put it in terms of errors and sloppiness," he says. "That was not disparaging somebody. If you make an error, it's not to say you're a bad person. If you make an error and agree to correct it, you should correct it." In the end, he says, "what was academic, and should have remained so, became political and out of control. It was an unfortunate series of events."

But a fortunate one for Yale, whose offer he now accepted.

"What should be emphasized," says Fox, "is what an outstanding sociologist [Anderson] is. The reason why he left is touchy. I'm very admiring of Yale for having ignored all this. They wanted Elijah, period. They hung in there. They basically ignored what they should have ignored."

Mayer, the Yale sociology department chair, says simply: "I always believed it would be a good thing for him to make a change."

Anderson, who knows Philadelphia so intimately, is still learning his way around New Haven. But he clearly relishes the opportunity to found a New Haven Ethnography Project here. He is organizing an ethnography conference at Yale in April, bringing together several generations of the field, including his teachers and students. New Haven is "sort of a miniature New York," he says, as we drive west, through areas where prosperity butts up against poverty. "In some ways, it's got all the issues, all the problems of a big city, right here -- writ small. And they're therefore somewhat manageable. At the same time, you've got the same kind of desperation. You've got mayhem and murder in the inner city, where people have no hope."

New Haven, Anderson says, doesn't have many places that function as cosmopolitan canopies. He thinks the city could use their educating influence, and he hopes policymakers will pay attention. For his work here he will examine, among other things, the economic and social impact of recent immigration -- how, for instance, the newly arrived Latinos and Asians and long-established African American communities are sometimes learning, and sometimes failing, to get along. He'll use the same techniques he has always used in new settings: "I begin to observe the life around me. I begin to look at race relations, begin to look at immigrants and natives, and I begin to do the folk ethnography that we all do. I'm not that different from the ordinary person.

"It's just that I try to be more systematic and tell truths that sometimes I don't agree with, that I don't necessarily embrace. But you have to tell the truth," he says. "Otherwise, why do the work?" 


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