Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A more inclusive university

The challenge of creating a truly inclusive university is a difficult one. Inclusiveness is more than diversity. It is an institution and culture in which people from all social groups -- race, nationality, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity -- are fully embraced and respected. It is an environment in which every individual is afforded the opportunity and space to do his or her best work, unimpeded by stereotype or discriminatory arrangements. But achieving this harmonious and democratic outcome is challenging, for a variety of reasons. Most important among these is the difficulty of overcoming limitations of perspective from the various groups, including especially the majority group. Practices that seem innocuous and neutral to majority group members are often experienced as demeaning and limiting by non-majority group members — what some students now refer to as “micro-aggressions”.

The inter-university consortium know as the Future of Minority Studies continues to do good work in attempting to make progress on improving the inclusiveness of universities, and the most recent contribution to its publication series is particularly salient. This is The Truly Diverse Faculty: New Dialogues in American Higher Education, a collection of essays by highly talented young faculty of color who write honestly about their experiences at a range of universities around the United States. Edited by Stephanie Fryberg and Ernesto Javier Martinez, the volume goes beyond the rhetoric of diversity that is present at most American universities to probe honestly the challenges that exist for faculty of color. The volume contains primary articles from talented younger scholars like Victoria Plaut, Denise Sekaquaptewa, and Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, as well as comments by more senior scholars such as Chandra Mohanty, Nancy Cantor, and Michael Hames-Garcia.

A central challenge for the goal of a truly inclusive and democratic university is the patterns of race and privilege that are built into our institutions through their history. Most universities in the United States are overwhelmingly “white” – their faculty and their cultures have been constructed through a history that made it difficult to impossible to genuinely incorporate racial diversity. And this appears to be more true the further one ascends into the ranks of the elite research universities. These observations are less true of several segments of American higher education: the historically black universities and colleges, the non-flagship public universities, and the community colleges in many parts of the country. But for the elite colleges and universities in the US, the demography, history, and culture all tip sharply towards what Phillip Goff calls “Whiteness” in his contribution to the volume. (One could say much the same about the gender composition and culture of many universities and departments.)

This fact presents a major challenge to people who want to see universities change fundamentally with regard to race and culture. We want the twenty-first century university to be genuinely multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic. We want these “multi’s” because our country itself is multicultural, and because we have a national history that has not done a good job of creating an environment of equality and democracy across racial and cultural lines. And we want the universities to change, because they are key locations where the values and skills of our future leaders will be formed. So if universities do not succeed in transforming themselves around the realities of race and difference, we cannot expect the larger society to succeed in this difficult challenge either.

This means that university faculty and administrators need a much better understanding of the scope of the problem. Why is it that the current American university is often such a negative environment for many faculty of color – especially junior faculty? What concrete and practical steps can we take to get from where we are to where we want to be – from an environment defined by majority values, culture, and power, to one that is genuinely and democratically framed by the multi-cultural reality of our society? How can we make the transition that is required that will lead us to the university of the future, in which our department meetings, our tenure processes, and our university-wide intellectual communities are genuinely respectful of racial, ethnic, and gender differences?

The essays in this volume are a valuable contribution to making the university better. One thing that we have learned through a body of multicultural research over the past several decades, is how important it is to get past “perspective blindness.” When majority faculty members or administrators think about race in the university, they generally have only a very limited understanding of the concrete situations that faculty and students of color face. So the concrete specificity of the articles in this volume provides a valuable learning opportunity for the majority members of any university. There is valuable pedagogical work going on in many universities that is designed to make more apparent the hidden biases and practices that are still too common. For example, the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan has developed many tools for highlighting the situations of race and gender that can arise in the classroom that majority faculty members are simply unlikely to see without some help (link). This volume is enormously valuable in this respect as well. Reading the collection helps department chairs, deans, and presidents have a better idea, in concrete terms, of what it means to recognize that faculty of color face an environment that imposes greater burdens and greater stresses, and that these burdens and stresses make their research and teaching agendas all the more difficult to achieve. So the university needs to arrive at concrete strategies for counteracting these negative effects.

(FYI -- some of this post is adapted from my own short contribution to the volume in my comments on Phillip Goff's excellent piece.)

Monday, December 29, 2014

John Levi Martin on theory

I've found the work of John Levi Martin to be particularly original when it comes to rethinking some of the basis assumptions of sociological theory. (Here are a few earlier posts on his work; link, link. John also provided a guest post here.) So I was pleased to receive a copy of his most recent book, Thinking Through Theory. The book takes a fresh look at the role of "theory" in the intellectual work that sociologists do, and it provides valuable guidance to Ph.D. students in sociology as they begin crafting their own intellectual tools. Here is how he introduces his topic:
This book is about the improvement of sociological theory. The focus here is on good thinking. I'm not saying that no one thinks well in our discipline, but we often can do better. Unfortunately, few theorists are explicitly concerned with the issues of how to avoid thinking in circles, how to know when we are contradicting ourselves, how to avoid thinking tautologies are meaningful. (vii)
JLM's central idea about the role of theory is what he calls "theory-work": attempts to "improve the precision, clarity, and coherence of our ideas" (10). Sometimes this means working hard to establish whether two sociological ideas are compatible. More generally, JLM recommends the hard work of teasing out the logical implications of the hypotheses and concepts that we use in attempting to make sense of the social world we encounter. (He calls this work "orthological", or "right-thinking".)

JLM doesn't give this example, but it would appear that Mancur Olson's discovery of the undermining logic of free riding within collective action is an example of what he means by good theory work. In The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups) Olson worked out the implications of the two framing ideas -- self-interested decision-making and the fact of shared interests within a group:
  1. People act in their own best interests.
  2. People have shared interests.
  3. Therefore people act out of regard for their shared interests.
Olson demonstrated that the typical circumstances of groups with shared interests lead us from premise 1 to the negation of conclusion 3. Here Olson does exactly as JLM recommends; he works out the logic of collective action through careful analysis of the premises and the situation.

I like JLM's approach to the logic of theorizing in the social realm, but I find that I occasionally take issue with specific claims he makes. For example, in a brief discussion of Diane Vaughan's treatment of the Challenger space shuttle disaster in The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA, he thinks that reference to "institutional culture" is tautological when used to explain behavior within a specific organization. "Institutional culture is itself nothing other than the pattern of social action that takes place in the institutional setting" (35; cf. 45). But a culture is more than an ensemble of behaviors. It is the embodied mental equipment that leads individuals within the institution to act as they do, and it is the microfoundations of training and socialization through which these individuals come to possess that mental equipment. These are organized processes and cognitive realities at both the individual and the ensemble levels, and it is reasonable to attribute a stable reality to them. Different organizations have substantially different cultures and norms, and it is perfectly justified to be realists in referring these cultures and norms as causal factors. This is not a tautology. Frank Dobbin does a good job of articulating this notion in Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age (link).

I'm also unconvinced by the categorical position JLM takes on "actors". "There are no collective-level actors" (38). JLM correctly observes that organizations have internal structure, and that the sub-units of the organization contribute to the "decision" the organization makes. But he is insistent that decisions and actions are always conducted by individuals. I agree that there are always microfoundations for an organization's actions at the level of various individuals within the organization (link, link) -- just as there are microfoundations at the level of the neuron for the calculations that the individual considers. But neither set of microfoundations resolves the question of where the level of agency lies. And it seems to me that there are clear cases where an organization functions normally according to its own procedures and arrives at a decision, and it is appropriate to attribute the agency to the organization rather than the individual who signed the last document. Awarding tenure within a university is a good example. Decisions are made at a range of levels, subject to locally enforced procedures and criteria, and tenure is recommended. The fact that the provost is the final stop in the process doesn't mean that the action belongs to her alone.

These are not inconsequential quibbles. Rather, they contribute to a recommendation to JLM, to be more receptive to an appropriately developed realism when it comes to mid-level social structures and actors. JLM is right in saying that realists need to be substantially more rigorous in theorizing the entities and forces that they purport to identify at the meso (supra-individual) level (100). He is appropriately critical of some aspects of critical realism. But that doesn't mean that realism is illusory. Hard work is need to show how an organizational culture wields causal power, how a fiscal agency "decides" an interest rate policy, or how regulatory agencies are systematically subverted. And in my view, we need some new theoretical tools to allow us to arrive at a solid actor-centered social realist answer to these kinds of questions. But the questions themselves are legitimate and important.

This is a bold book. At bottom it is a call for rethinking almost all of the theoretical concepts that we use in the social sciences -- norm, institution, rationality, actor. JLM wants sociology to question its premises and look differently at the domain of the social world. I agree with him that this rethinking is needed. There are quite a few disparate voices attempting to do just that -- Fligstein and McAdam, for example, and Crozier and Friedberg before them (link, link), in their innovative efforts at joining actors and structures. Thinking Through Theory is a worthy contribution to this effort.

(Here is one of my own earlier efforts to confront the topic of theory in sociology; link. As noted in the post, Gabriel Abend has also done excellent work in clarifying the several uses of "theory" in sociology; link.)

Friday, December 26, 2014

Underinvesting in the public good

There are quite a few investments in social programs that would have spectacular return on investment, but that in fact remain unfunded or underfunded. I am thinking here of things like broadened preschool programs, enhanced dropout prevention programs, regional economic development efforts, and prison re-entry programs. Why are these spectacular opportunities so dramatically under-exploited in the United States and other nations?

One line of answer derives from a public choice perspective: the gains that follow from the investment represent public goods, and public goods are typically under-provided. But that doesn't really answer the question, because it is governments that are underinvesting, not uncoordinated groups of independent agents. And governments are supposed to make investments to promote the public good.

Another plausible answer is that the citizens who are primarily served by most of the examples provided above are poor and disenfranchised; so the fact that they would benefit from the program doesn’t motivate the politically powerful to adopt the policy.

There is also a powerful influence of political ideology at work here. Conservative ideas about what a good society looks like, how social change occurs, and the role of government all militate against substantial public investment in programs and activities like those mentioned above. These conservative political beliefs are undergirded by a white-hot activism against taxes that makes it all but impossible to gain support in legislative bodies for programs like these -- no matter what the return on investment is.

Failure to achieve these kinds of social gains through public investment might seem like a very basic element of injustice within our society. But it also looks like strong evidence of system failure: the political and economic system fail to bring about as much public good as is possible in the circumstances. The polity is stuck somewhere on the low shoulders of the climb towards maximum public benefit for minimum overall investment. It is analogous to the situation in private economic space where there are substantial obstacles to the flow of investment, leaving substantial possible sources of gain untapped. It is s situation of massive collective inefficiency, quite the contrary of Adam Smith's view of the happy outcomes of the hidden hand and the market mechanism.

This last point brings us back to the public goods aspect of the problem. A legislature that designs a policy or program aimed at capturing the gains mentioned here may succeed in its goal and yet find that the gains accrue to someone else -- the public at large or another political party. The gains are separated from the investment, leaving the investment entity with no rational incentive to make the investment after all.

Some policy leaders have recognized this systemic problem and have turned to an innovative possible solution, social impact bonds (link). Here is how the Center for American Progress explains this idea.

A social impact bond, or SIB, is an innovative financial tool that enables government agencies to pay for programs that deliver results. In a SIB agreement, the government sets a specific, measurable outcome that it wants achieved in a population and promises to pay an external organization—sometimes called an intermediary—if and only if the organization accomplishes the outcome. SIBs are one example of what the Obama administration calls “Pay for Success” financing. (link)

Essentially the idea is to try to find a way of privatizing the public gains in question, so that private investors have an incentive to bring them about.

This is an interesting idea, but it doesn't really solve the fundamental problem: society's inability to make rational investment in its own wellbeing. It seems more like a way of shifting risks of program success or failure from the state agency to the private entity. Here is a McKinsey discussion of the concept (link), and here is a more skeptical piece in the Economist (link).

Monday, December 15, 2014

George and Bennett on case study methodology

Establishing causal relationships within the fabric of the social world is more challenging than in the biological or physical-chemical domains. The reasons for this difficulty are familiar — the high degree of contextuality and contingency that is characteristic of social change, the non-deterministic character of social causation, and the fact that most social outcomes are the result of unforeseen conjunctions of independent influences, to name several.

Alexander George and Andrew Bennett argue for the value of a case-study method of social research in Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences. The idea here is that social researchers can learn about the causation of particular events and sequences by examining them in detail and in comparison with carefully selected alternative examples.

Here is how they describe the case-study method:
The method and logic of structured, focused comparison is simple and straightforward. The method is “structured” in that the researcher writes general questions that reflect the research objective and that these questions are asked of each case under study to guide and standardize data collection, thereby making systematic comparison and cumulation of the findings of the cases possible. The method is “focused” in that it deals only with certain aspects of the historical cases examined. The requirements for structure and focus apply equally to individual cases since they may later be joined by additional cases. (67)
George and Bennett believe that the techniques and heuristics of the case study approach permit the researcher to arrive at rigorous and differentiated hypotheses about underlying social processes. In particular, they believe that the method of process-tracing has substantial power in social research, permitting the researcher to move from the details of a particular historical case to more general hypotheses about causal mechanisms and processes in other contexts as well (6). They discourage research strategies based on the covering-law model, in which researchers would seek out high-level generalizations about social events and outcomes: “highly general and abstract theories … are too general to make sharp theoretical predictions or to guide policy” (7). But they also note the limits of policy relevance of “independent, stable causal mechanisms” (7), because social mechanisms interact in context-dependent ways that are difficult or impossible to anticipate. It is therefore difficult to design policy interventions based on knowledge of a few relevant and operative mechanisms within the domain of behavior the policy is expected to govern, since the workings of the mechanisms in concrete circumstances are difficult to project.

Fundamentally they align with the causal mechanisms approach to social explanation. Here is how they define a causal mechanism:
We define causal mechanisms as ultimately unobservable physical, social, or psychological processes through which agents with causal capacities operate, but only in specific contexts or conditions, to transfer energy, information, or matter to other entities. In so doing, the causal agent changes the affected entity’s characteristics, capacities, or propensities in ways that press until subsequent causal mechanisms act upon it. (137)
And they believe that the case-study method is a suite of methodological approaches that permit identification and exploration of underlying causal mechanisms.
The case study approach – the detailed examination of an aspect of a historical episode to develop or test historical explanations that may be generalizable to other events – has come in and out of favor over the past five decades as researchers have explored the possibilities of statistical methods … and formal models. (5)
The case study method is designed to identify causal connections within a domain of social phenomena.
Scientific realists who have emphasized that explanation requires not merely correlational data, but also knowledge of intervening causal mechanisms, have not yet had much to say on methods for generating such knowledge. The method of process-tracing is relevant for generating and analyzing data on the causal mechanisms, or processes, events, actions, expectations, and other intervening variables, that link putative causes to observed effects. (214)
How is that to be accomplished? The most important tool that George and Bennett describe is the method of process tracing. "The process-tracing method attempts to identify the intervening causal process--the causal chain and causal mechanism--between an independent variable (or variables) and the outcome of the dependent variable" (206). Process tracing requires the researcher to examine linkages within the details of the case they are studying, and then to assess specific hypotheses about how these links might be causally mediated. 

Suppose we are interested in a period of violent mobilization VM in the countryside at time t, and we observe a marked upswing of religious participation RP in the villages where we have observations. We might hypothesize that the surge of religious participation contributed causally to the political mobilization that ensued. But a process-tracing methodology requires that we we consider as full a range of alternative possibilities as we can: that both religious and political activism were the joint effect of some other social process; that religious participation was caused by political mobilization rather than caused that mobilization; that the two processes were just contingent and unrelated simultaneous developments. What can we discover within the facts of the case that would allow us to disentangle these various causal possibilities? If RP was the cause of VM, there should be traces of the influence that VM exerted within the historical record -- priests who show up in the interrogation cells, organizational linkages that are uncovered through archival documents, and the like. This is the work of process tracing in the particular case. And I agree with George and Bennett that there is often ample empirical evidence available in the historical record to permit this kind of discovery.

Finally, George and Bennett believe that process-tracing can occur at a variety of levels:
The simplest variety of process-tracing takes the form of a detailed narrative or story presented in the form of a chronicle that purports to throw light on how an event came about.... A substantially different variety of process-tracing converts a historical narrative into an analytical causal explanation couched in explicit theoretical forms.... In another variety of process-tracing, the investigator constructs a general explanation rather than a detailed tracing of a causal process. (210-211)
One of the strengths of the book is an appendix presenting a very good collection of research studies that illustrate the case study methodology that they explore. There are examples from American politics, comparative politics, and international relations. These examples are very helpful because they give substance to the methodological ideas presented in the main body of the book.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Historicizing social action

Khmer rouge soldier

It is self evident that people are influenced by the historical circumstances in which they are raised and live. People are historicized as actors. The hard question is, how deep does that influence go?

When we consider the mental features that are invoked within the process of interpreting and acting within the world, there is certainly a range of capacities and functions at work, and there are some important differences of level that exist among these. Some of these features are more superficial than others. Take beliefs. If a person is raised in a culture in a cold climate he or she will have more beliefs having to do with snow than counterparts at the equator. A person raised in a highly racialized society will have different beliefs about other people than one raised in a more racially tolerant society. Likewise the norms of interpersonal behavior differ across settings; here too it appears that this mental feature is a fairly superficial one. Beliefs and norms seem particularly close to the surface when it comes to the features of the actor that respond to social and cultural context. Are there historical effects that go deeper into the actor — effects that show up as differences in basic ways of thinking and acting?

Values may be a little deeper, given that they have to do with the goals that people have in their actions and plans. One person sets a high value on the wellbeing of his or her family; another is primarily interested in material and financial success for himself or herself. Expectations and habits seem even deeper in the sense that they are only semi-conscious; they are features of the social cognition mechanism that generally work at a level that is invisible to the individual.

And what about character? We might think of a person’s character as the most enduring features of action and reaction; character has to do with the most fundamental aspects of the personality when it comes to making life choices. One person displays loyalty; another displays a commitment to the idea of fairness; and a third shows a basic lack of trust of others. These are differences in character. This seems like the most basic or fundamental of the mental attributes that influence interpretation and action. But like other features of practical cognition considered here, this attribute too seems historically malleable.

If this informal hierarchy of the furniture of the actor seems at all plausible, then we have essentially postulated an onion-like ordering of features of practical cognition (the thought processes and heuristics through which an individual processes his/her current situation and the actions that may seem appropriate). Here is a diagram that captures this rough hierarchy:

 Screenshot 2014 12 06 15 27 35

And the problem of historicized mentality comes down to this: how far down the onion does the effect of cultural and social context extend?

There is an analogy to this question in Chomsky’s linguistics. The superficial part of grammar is the specific set of rules that apply to one’s local language — French, Swahili, or Cajun. This feature of linguistic performance is plainly context-dependent. But Chomsky maintained that this superficial plasticity exists on top of a universal underlying grammar capacity that every human being possesses from birth. The universal grammar — essentially the capacity to learn and execute the rules of the language one hears around oneself as a child — is a constant and is not affected by context.

If we were Chomskian about action and behavior, we might take the view that there is a constant human nature at the center of the onion, which allows for the formation of the more superficial kinds of differences in action that we acquire through experience of particular times and places. And we might attempt to reconstruct this fundamental set of capacities by trying to answer the question, “What capacities must a human being have in order to acquire character, habits, expectations, values, norms, and beliefs?”.

Presumably this is a legitimate question, since there are non-human organisms that lack the ability to form some of these features. But what that implies to me is that it is possible to push the inquiry below the level of the features of human action that we have identified to this point, and that at some point we should expect to arrive at a situation of neurocognitive invariance.

But here is the crucial point: it appears to me that all the capacities identified on the diagram are themselves socially and culturally malleable. Historical circumstances certainly affect the beliefs and norms that an adult has within those circumstances; but they also affect the habits and character of the individual as well. And this means that human mentality is deeply historicized. Very fundamental features of the ways that we understand and react to the world are shaped by the cultures, institutions, and extended historical experiences that we undergo as children and adults. And this is true of the features of character that we bring to life’s decisions as much as the beliefs and values we have acquired through earlier experiences.

The image of the Khmer Rouge cadre above poses quite a number of relevant questions, and most pressing is this one: How was this generation of Cambodian young people shaped such that they were amenable to the murderous emotions, compliance, and actions illustrated in the photo?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

New tools for college success


Today is the second White House College Opportunity Day of Action in Washington DC. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have spearheaded this effort to increase the participation levels of disadvantaged students in post-secondary education. Several hundred presidents of universities around the country have come together in Washington to share best practices in encouraging college participation and college success for all Americans, including low income and educationally disadvantaged young people. The disparity in college attendance rates between the top and bottom quartiles of family income is shocking, even when we control for SAT/ACT performance. (Various estimates were offered today, including an estimate of more than 75% attendance in the top quartile versus less than 10% for the bottom quartile.)

Central themes for the day include several important ideas: using big data sets of disaggregated information on student performance to refine curriculum and pedagogy, using new technologies in support of more effective teaching and learning, and controlling the cost of higher education. Participants have emphasized a crucial point: economically and socially disadvantaged students are not provided the support and advising in their early years that are necessary to help them feel that college is a feasible path for them. And the challenge of learning about the college application process and the financial aid process is a high hurdle for disadvantaged first-generation students and families. Measuring academic success and improving successful completion are critical issues facing every university. And finding ways of changing the attitudes of disadvantaged students and families towards the feasibility of college is urgently needed.

There is some very facile talk about the connection between the last two topics -- technology and cost. Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity, was particularly outspoken on this topic. But it is important to remember that a quality education costs money to support, it requires committed faculty members who develop meaningful relations with their students, it requires effective support services, and we are right to be suspicious of claims to dramatically reduce those costs. Learning is more complex than simply being exposed to great online graphically rich course materials and video lectures. Of course we should be searching for innovations that work to improve learning and control costs, and many examples were presented today. But hoping for a magic pill, whether Udacity, Khan Academy, or Coursera, that leads to great college-level learning and costs almost nothing is chimerical. The idea of a $10,000 bachelor's degree is such a chimera, beloved in some state houses but unattainable at an acceptable level of quality of outcome for the graduates.

More promising is the strategy of using realtime student learning data to finetune and focus the learning process to achieve greater success outcomes for students. Can a calculus teacher or an entry-level chemistry professor use realtime data during the semester to identify individual students and topics that require greater attention? Can entry-level courses in psychology, statistics, or biology be redesigned using this kind of data to improve the flow of topics and pedagogy to address sticking points? Can this kind of data provide some guides to designing better uses of new technologies in the university learning process?

There are some good examples of these kinds of uses of big data within universities. Here are some examples supporting student advising (link) and student success (link). And here is a review of recent thinking on the use of big data in several sectors including universities (link). We might call this "student success 2.0," and every university is well advised to find ways of using these tools to improve retention and student success.

A particularly difficult challenge for universities is how to handle incoming students who are under-prepared for college-level math courses. It would be fantastic if there were proven bridge programs that succeed in bringing students from where they are when they leave high school to where they need to be in order to succeed in STEM fields in college. Are there good examples of such programs that effectively use new technology, great teachers, and big data to support real student progress?

One thing is clear: there is no magic bullet that ensures that the student with a weak grasp of algebra is instantly ready for Calculus I. But are there cutting-edge examples of bridge curricula that take students barely at a ninth-grade level of math skills to an ability to perform adequately in an entry-level college math course? Are there examples in use that make good use of technology and realtime data to customize the educational experience to support this degree of academic progress?

The challenge of increasing college attendance and completion for disadvantaged students is one of the most important social issues we face. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put the point this morning, the disaffection of disadvantaged young people in our country is at a crisis level. We must find ways of providing real pathways towards good jobs and middle class lives for the least advantaged young people in our society, and improving college access and improving attendance and completion are crucial steps towards that end.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Shaping of inner-city African-American experience

It is recognized by ethnographers that place and history mean a great deal in the everyday experience that people have in their neighborhoods — villages, industrial towns, universities. The ways that we perceive the world and the patterns of action and reaction that we bring to it are profoundly shaped by the histories and practices of the communities in which we live. Current-day social reality is a path-dependent consequence of our pasts.

Elijah Anderson provides a striking exploration of this basic insight in Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City, his 1999 ethnographic reflection on inner-city Philadelphia. Anderson wants to understand the content of the "code of the street" -- the values around which young inner-city men and women orient their actions and aspirations. And, in the urban world of the late 1990s in America, a lot of that code circles around violence and aggression. Anderson wants to know how inner-city youth think about violence, and he wants to understand why impoverished urban neighborhoods have become so much more violent than their counterparts were when W.E.B. Dubois studied them early in the twentieth century.
Here I take up more directly the theme of interpersonal violence, particularly between and among inner-city youths. While youth violence has become a problem of national scope, involving young people of various classes and races, in this book I am concerned with why it is that so many inner-city young people are inclined to commit aggression and violence toward one another. (preface)
Here is a strong description of the underculture of violence that Anderson identifies on Germantown Avenue:
The inclination to violence springs from the circumstances of life among the ghetto poor—the lack of jobs that pay a living wage, limited basic public services (police response in emergencies, building maintenance, trash pickup, lighting, and other services that middle-class neighborhoods take for granted), the stigma of race, the fallout from rampant drug use and drug trafficking, and the resulting alienation and absence of hope for the future. (kl 430)
Consistent with the basis ethnographic insight mentioned above, Anderson wants to understand two things: what is the "code of the street"; what are those norms of behavior and masculinity that come together in inner-city Philadelphia (or Detroit, Miami, or Chicago)? And second, what were the historical and social circumstances that shaped the emergence of this set of norms?

Here is Anderson's preliminary answer to the first question:
At the heart of this code is a set of prescriptions and proscriptions, or informal rules, of behavior organized around a desperate search for respect that governs public social relations, especially violence, among so many residents, particularly young men and women. Possession of respect -- and the credible threat of vengeance -- is highly valued for shielding the ordinary person from the interpersonal violence of the street. (kl 74)
The answer to the second question is more complex. A part of Anderson's answer has to do with widespread alienation among urban young people from the legitimacy of basic social institutions, including the criminal justice system. But the more general historical cause that he explores is the history of racial discrimination and impoverishment that American cities have almost always witnessed. Racism and almost insurmountable segregation have created a thoroughly disaffected underclass in American cities.

Anderson's framing of his topic is very similar to the perspective argued above about situated knowledge. Here Anderson highlights the links that exist between social cognition, conceptual frames, and behavior:
How do the people of the setting perceive their situation? What assumptions do they bring to their decision making? What behavioral patterns result from these actions? What are the social implications and consequences of these behaviors? (kl 106)
A particularly powerful part of the book is Anderson's extensive use of individual stories -- decent people, crack addicts, young mothers, working poor, and others. The long story of John Turner, the final chapter in the book, is particularly powerful. These stories serve to document Anderson's key lines of interpretation -- the meaning of the street code, the way the violence of the street is experienced and accommodated, the ways that these men and women think about the world they inhabit. This use of detailed personal stories from field notes means that the reader has at least a degree of independence from Anderson's narrative, since there is always the possibility of interpreting these vignettes differently from Anderson.

Here Anderson quotes an older man at the funeral of a young man from the neighborhood:
I knew the boy well. I always warned him about these drugs, but he couldn’t resist. He knew. I told him I’d come to his funeral. And this is what I’m doing. It is a shame. But you know, it is the system. It is the system. No jobs. No education. And the drugs are all about. You realize what amount of drugs come in here [the neighborhood]. That’s not us. It is them. The white people. They bring the drugs in here. They don’t want us to have nothing. But this is what they give us. All this death and destruction. I know a boy did shoot him, but it was really the system. The system. (kl 2276)
It is striking to compare the ethnography that Anderson constructs with that presented by Al Young in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances. The topics of violence, the drug trade, and a culture of fundamental disaffection are distinctly not the focus of Young's research or his central findings. In conversation Young takes the view that these themes are over-emphasized in media presentations of urban problems, and often sensationalized. Instead, Young seeks to uncover the thought processes through which the young men he studies think about work and life aspiration. And yet the housing projects of Chicago are not very different from the lower reaches of Germantown Avenue. Are these ethnographers contradictory, or are they simply separate threads in the complex social and personal realities of inner-city American cities?

(Readers will note that there are many points of convergence between Anderson's cultural sociology in this book and the intricate drama of the streets expressed in The Wire. Here is a nice piece by John Skrentny on culture and race that address some of the same issues; link.)