Dartmouth Conference Explores ‘Interacting Across Difference’

Ethnographers and sociologists look at racial, social barriers as U.S. demographics shift.

The Boston neighborhoods where Assistant Professor of Sociology Emily Walton is conducting ethnographic research are quite diverse if you look at the demographic data, but what she sees when she walks along the streets is a story of people living in separate worlds, side by side.

“There’s enormous income inequality. On one side of the street you have housing projects, but then the area is gentrifying so quickly that across the street you have a luxury condo building where each unit sells for $2 million,” says Walton. “So the kinds of services the people in the condos want—the Whole Foods, high-end retail stores, dog parks—don’t serve the needs of the folks living in the subsidized housing across the street.”

The question of how people in an increasingly diverse society can live together cohesively and equitably is the focus of “Interacting Across Difference—Building Community Amid Demographic Change,” a conference organized by Walton and Assistant Professor of Sociology Kimberly Rogers.

The two-day gathering, on Sept. 22 and 23, brings together noted American scholars from two fields that seldom exchange ideas—urban and community studies and social psychology—to present and discuss their research as it relates to interaction across racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic differences.

“The one thing that we have in common is we’re tremendously interested in problems of social inequality and how they affect our interactions,” Rogers says.

John Campbell, the Class of 1925 Professor of Sociology and department chair, says the questions this conference will confront have a great urgency for the United States and the world today.

“This is certainly an appropriate and necessary time for more empirically informed discussion across social science disciplines about issues of difference, diversity, and inequality,” Campbell says. “After all, polarization along economic, racial, ethnic, gender, and geographic lines has deepened a lot recently, with enormous political ramifications, not only for the United States but the many countries in the world.  Professors Walton and Rogers’ conference tackles these issues head on.”

Yale sociology professor Elijah Anderson, whose landmark urban ethnography work examines the meaning of being black and poor in inner-city America, will deliver the keynote address from 4 to 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 22, in Rockefeller 003. Anderson’s address—sponsored by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy—is free and open to the public. Following the address, Anderson will be signing his most recent book, The Cosmopolitan Canopy, which examines the potential for transformative interactions between people of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds in everyday public settings.

While at Dartmouth, Anderson will also lead a teaching seminar titled “Building an Inclusive Classroom,” sponsored by the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, and attend a community dinner with students, staff, and faculty affiliated with South House. He will also join a lunchtime conversation with College staff and community members titled “Black Space/White Space,” sponsored by the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity. See the conference schedule for more information.

Social psychologists and ethnographers are interested in the idea, as expressed by Anderson, of “finding common space where people from different social and ethnic backgrounds can interact in a way that deemphasizes inequality of status, power, and prestige,” says Rogers. Historically these two branches of sociology have studied social stratification and hierarchies in different ways, the former through theoretical examination of small-group dynamics using controlled experimentation, and the latter through long-term study of both specific communities and examination of broad demographic trends across neighborhoods over time.

“This is an exciting challenge for us,” says Rogers, a social psychologist. “We’re working to broaden established theories beyond the lab and into open community settings, to ask, ‘What does it really look like on the ground for the people who are experiencing the problems of inequality in their everyday interactions?’ ”

Walton, an urban and community scholar, is also excited about beginning this interdisciplinary conversation.  

“These different perspectives will be very valuable to each other,” Walton says. “But because we literally speak very different languages, because we go to different sessions at conferences, because we don’t often read each other’s work, the folks who are coming to the conference are in for some interesting interactions across difference.”

“Interacting Across Difference” is sponsored by the Department of Sociology, the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, the offices of the president, provost, dean of faculty, and dean of the College, South House, the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, and the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning.