Sunday, September 4, 2011

Dissing Las Vegas: Can Sociology's Cast System of Cities Ever Change?

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, LAS VEGAS, NV – The Annual American Sociological Association conference was held in Las Vegas several weeks ago, and more than 5,000 Sociologists descended upon Caesar’s Palace.  This gathering represented a change in venue because of a pending labor dispute in Chicago, the originally planned location.

But the conference’s theme Social Conflict: Multiple Dimensions and Arenas took on an entirely different meaning than what was intended when complaints about the location among some attendees made their way into the mainstream media. Perhaps the most read and commented upon is Columnist J. Patrick Coolican’s recent Las Vegas Sun article: To the sociologists: If you don’t like Vegas, don’t come backWhat  gave Coolican’s opinion the most 'street cred' was a Youtube video of well-known Urban Sociologist Sharon Zukin, entitled I Hate Las Vegas -- a video that quite possibly was taken out of context.

At the same time, the Sociology blogosphere – in particular Scatter Plot, one of Sociology's most viewed and respected blogs – has put forth a far more positive and thoughtful depiction of the Vegas conference. Indeed, Las Vegas offered up a multitude of interesting, productive, and relevant sociological experiences. In addition, Sociologists out there should not forget the secondary, or for some the primary, purpose for attending these annual conferences: connecting with old friends and colleagues, and networking with new ones. All of this happened in Vegas just like in any previous venues, and will most probably happen again in future venues on the horizon.

The more positive sentiments expressed in the blogosphere aside, as an urban sociologist myself, I think it’s important to reflect upon how we as collective conveyers of sociology implicitly – and perhaps unintentionally at times --  communicate an institutionalized cast system of American cities; one captured quite directly by Coolican’s column. For example, everybody always wants to attend the annual meeting in Chicago or San Francisco or New York City (among other cities at the top of the system).  However, every year this meeting has been held in Atlanta, there is a collective, albeit silent, ‘groan’; and many of the more well-known scholars don’t show up.  Like Vegas, Atlanta is at the bottom of the system, and air temperatures in August are very hot. At the same time, equivalent air temperatures could be present in Chicago or New York City during this time of year as well. (Although bring a sweater to SF, because the temperature will always be far lower).

But the air temperature is not what’s driving this system. Instead preconceived, archaic, and ill-informed perceptions are at work here.  Ironically, such perceptions are in some ways connected to the established hierarchy that exists within the sociology discipline favoring the more prestigious universities – each located in some of the more favored annual conference venues (e.g. University of Chicago, Berkeley, and Columbia, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania etc.) --- over the rest of us.

Yet, the fact of the matter is that our cities elsewhere could very well be more representative of ‘the urban experience’ in its most modern and evolved form. These places are not only the under-explored urban laboratories of today, but perhaps the ones that have changed most radically over the last three decades as well. Such changes happened in the more favored cities far earlier, although they took on a different form. Thus, it is possible that a fixation on late 19th and early 20th century urban structures has compromised our sociological imagination in a way that the originators of the Chicago School would (hopefully) frown on. Perhaps only a few American cities can boast a newly installed life-sized sandbox like Vegas (recently reported in Business Week).  But now even Chicago has pervasive urban sprawl and a clogged up highway infrastructure.

Deirdre Oakley is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University and the Editor of Social Shutter. You can contact her at

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