Forrest Stuart

The Urban Village – Continuing the Chicago Tradition of Urban Sociology

It’s not hard to draw a line between Robert Park and Forrest Stuart, even though the sociology professors worked 100 years apart.

With his fieldwork in high-risk neighborhoods such as Los Angeles’ Skid Row and on Chicago’s South Side, Stuart embodies the Chicago School of sociology that Park helped establish.

Stuart studied sociology while he was a PhD student at UCLA, which he says was ground zero for Chicago School-style ethnography. With the assignment to go out and “start taking some notes,” he branched off from his undergraduate work studying prisoner rights and focused on Skid Row, an area some estimate to contain a third of Los Angeles parolees. He started asking questions, not knowing what he’d find. “‘Okay, you just got released from prison, you’re trying to get your life back together: can you?’”

There are three stages to Stuart’s mode of ethnography. First he introduces himself, and then the initial interviews are followed by an “awkward” phase where his sources wonder, “’What are you still doing here?’” Stuart says sociologists like him are always striving for the third stage, where “you just hang out, where someone is engaging in the same behaviors whether you’re there or not.” Ultimately, he finds that people like being the authorities on their own lives.

Some of Stuart’s work has altered the way he sees himself through the eyes of others. Despite the fact that his parents are Mexican-American and African-American, on the south side of Chicago, “There is no ambiguity whatsoever. I’m seen as white.” Even when Stuart corrects them, they don’t believe him. “The guys I’m hanging out with don’t see a whole lot of non-white professors so they very quickly peg me as that.” Thus, at times he’s had to alter his wardrobe, gait and manner of speaking in order to seem less out of place, not so much to fit in with his sources as to avoid standing out and attracting police attention. He finds the process an integral part of ethnography because “We enter the field and are the data collection instruments.”

Stuart has been surprised several times by his fieldwork. While on Skid Row, he was struck by “the incredible sense of a tight knit community.” He’d observe someone walking down the street encountering someone from a flophouse hotel room yelling hey. They’d catch up, then five feet later they’d encounter someone in a lawn chair sitting on the side walk. “This is the poorest 50 blocks in the city, but in many ways it resembles the idealized urban village,” he said.

In his work, Stuart says he became dissatisfied by what he sees as economic ways of thinking about human behavior.  “I realized that there are all these other compounding factors that weigh into people’s decisions,” he said. For instance, while many Americans can’t understand why a homeless person would willingly spend the night on the street, his research shows that there are complicating factors at play. “Maybe this homeless person had been assaulted in a different shelter, or maybe he has a wife but the shelter won’t allow couples.” Stuart highlights these messy complex factors that often don’t weigh into current policy discussions about how to end homelessness.

Stuart credits his background in the Chicago School of Sociology with giving him a certain kind of respect to people even when it seems as if they might be making bad decisions. “We give people the benefit of the doubt as competent interpreters of their own lives.”

This year, Stuart has been on research leave after receiving a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship while he prepares for the publication of his forthcoming book, Down, Out, and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row (University of Chicago Press). He is also at work on a second book, which investigates the intersections of poverty, digital social media, and hip-hop on Chicago’s south side. Meanwhile he works on the violence intervention program Story Squad, which he helped design and launch through a fellowship with the Urban Health Initiative. Story Squad combines training in audio production with storytelling to help youths to process and analyze violence in their communities. “Doing this within a storytelling curriculum builds in space that really doesn’t exist for a lot of young urban males to express feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability,” says Stuart. “It’s been a total smash success.”

— Claire Zulkey

Read more about Stuart’s research here.  

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