In Mitchell Duneier’s insightful five year journey through the streets of 6th Ave in the heart of Greenwich Village, Sidewalk takes a deep look into how this congested urban area operates from the perspective of the street vendors. In capturing a real-time look into the informal economy that is vending, the author analyzed how local habitants made their living while noting their backgrounds that brought them there in the first place. From magazine and book vendors all the way to the normal day to day interactions with the people, the book illuminated the struggles and circumstances regarding this prevalent lifestyle.
In attempting to make an honest living, many sidewalk inhabitants face financial hardships and strong personal misfortunes that have been explained through multiple sociological perspectives. Through anecdotal examples and personal interviews, the reader truly gets a deeper understanding of the social forces that are in play from a narrative perspective. The following sample sociology research paper will guide you through the book and which arguments tied into social theories.
Class and Race Relations Depictions in Sidewalk
Among the major sociological topics presented, class and race relations, social cohesion and the economic aspects of street vending are thoroughly investigated. As most of the examples included impoverished blacks working and constantly interacting with whites, the issue of race relations is the most pressing. At first glance, the biographical reasons of how and why the people ended up working on the streets delves straight into both the cultural and institutional influence on race relations. Moreover, the internal attitudes and blacks portrayed the initially deceptive characterizations of working in the streets. Another relevant sociological topic was the basis for which individuals chose to partake in street vending and how it fit into broader context of division of labor and social cohesion. As Duneier’s examples thoroughly examined the relationships among the street vendors, it is fair to analyze the 6th Ave community as a social unit and not just mutually exclusive variables. Finally, as the work being done on a daily basis provided a means for sufficiency, the topic of the informal economy and how it compared and contrasted to the traditional capitalist one was very important. In addressing the above listed social issues, the social theorists W.E.B. Du Bois, Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx, given their collective works and contributions to sociology, all contributed heavily in connecting the experiences of Duneier to classic social theories.
WEB Du Bois’ Views on Racism and Black Rights
In discussing racial issues within any context, the work of Harvard PhD Graduate W.E.B. Du Bois is extremely influential. Despite basing much of his study on his own personal experiences of race relations in the United States, Du Bois contributed heavily to the general state of racial interaction and blacks’ rights. His core area of study revolved around the color line (among blacks and whites), which was a status symbol of how blacks were perceived in society (Edles, 326). While the historical context during Du Bois’ lifetime may not be the same as Duneier’s book, the emphasis of race relations is still persistent today. Another critical aspect of Du Bois’ work is the emphasis on race and class. While being different, these two classifications are not mutually exclusive; instead, they are closely intertwined in terms of how they affect social perception of blacks (Edles, 399).
Du Bois believed that blacks are ultimately labeled as being second-class citizens merely because of their skin color. Moreover, the need for group solidarity among African-Americans and the collectivist dimensions of both blacks and whites is also a major aspect of his work. This essentially means that social problems stemmed from the fundamental misconception that blacks and whites are entirely different and unrelated sub-groups in different levels of the hierarchy. Finally, in relating to Karl Marx, the concept of alienation and estrangement from social groups is also a core concept present in both Du Bois’ work and the themes of Sidewalk (Edles, 348). Read another research paper from Ultius on black rights in America.
Racial Issues in Sidewalk
In coherence with Du Bois, Duneier’s work did emphasize that race did play a significant role while conducting his study. While being an educated middle-class scholar, Duneier remarked early on in his book that despite broad and significant differences among him and the street vendors, “none of these differences seemed to be as significant as that of race” (Duneier, 20). Racial differences were a major aspect of the author’s interaction with the street vendors it directly influenced his behavior. For instance, in interviewing and spending time with Hakim, a book vendor, the author reported feeling alienated himself because the content of the books was African-America and labeled as being only “black books” (Duneier, 20).
Interestingly enough, the author’s perceived alienation from the book vendors and their customers was not in a direct form; instead, it was much more subtle to the point where he felt both out of place and uneasy (Duneier, 20). Indeed, this suggests that racial tensions, albeit indirect, are still very real and active because of perceived cultural differences. This also reflects Du Bois’ notions that these perceptions and attitudes are socially constructed. Thus, a clear connection between the author’s intrusive anxiety into an area dominated by blacks and Du Bois’ teachings on there being a color line certainly do exist, even today.
The author’s interviews with blacks who are buying the books also reflect Du Bois’ concepts of cultural solidarity and negative perceptions. For instance, in Hakim’s initial apprehensiveness on letting Duneier investigate his lifestyle, the book vendor lamented that “African-Americans are at a point where we have to be suspicious of people who want to tell stories about us” (Duneier, 23). Clearly, fear of misguided judgment and racial tension was present within early stages of interaction. While the author initially assumed that the vendor was poverty stricken and came from a broken home, he was surprised to hear that the vendor actually attended college and could not finish due to financial hardship after his junior year (Duneier, 24). This example epitomizes the notion that not all street vendors are merely there by a lack of choice. Instead, this was merely a socially constructed attitude that resulted from assumptions made by society as a whole.
Jerome, a 22 year old who regularly purchased books from Hakim, also remarked that these black books were useful not only because they taught African-American accomplishments, but because going into a white-run bookstore was not a good experience because he felt alienated from the workers (Duneier, 33). This reflects notions of cultural solidarity in that blacks adopt habits and behaviors because of the perceived color line and possible consequences of being out of that comfort zone. Surely, the book vendor and the relationship he had with his patrons was a way to both benefit and engage at-risk youths to read and to make a living. This exemplified solidarity among the black community and challenged the pre-existing attitudes that Duneier had about street vending. Clearly, getting past the color line was a way for the author to better understand black society, despite the increase of racial issues among Americans.
Sidewalk and Race Relations
Perhaps the most direct connection between Du Bois’ social theory of race relations Duneier’s experience were the negative experiences faced by the blacks. For instance, to the author’s surprise, Hakim not only had college experience but he also previously worked in a corporate environment. Along with the author’s shock to hear that Hakim had a rolodex, this highly illuminated the negative perceptions even the educated author had regarding the backgrounds of the street vendors (Duneier, 23). Conversely, this related to Du Bois’ bullet list of prejudicial attitudes and unconscious racism toward blacks in his work, The Philadelphia Negro. Duneier’s reactions, which reflected his pre-existing notions, reiterated the negative assumptions of color prejudice: blacks are generally seen lower than whites in terms of race and class, especially when they hold jobs outside of the realm of acceptable occupations (Edles, 342). Moreover, during a taped conversation, Marvin, a vendor, remarked that “people don’t understand what we’re about…they already think negative about us” (Duneier, 54). This directly supports Du Bois’ notion that blacks are perceived as being a lesser race. Essentially, Marvin felt that judgment was passed on him before he was even given an opportunity to present himself. Thus, while racial tensions within the historical context of Du Bois (segregation and lynching) may not be applicable in terms of severity to today, the negative attitudes and feelings of alienation do nonetheless exist and influence interactions and attitudes of both blacks and whites.
Durkheim and Class Struggles
In terms of division of labor and social cohesion, the work of Durkheim correlated very well with the experiences of sidewalk workers. Firstly, in a world where there is so much diversity such as labor, beliefs, religious affiliation, geographical location, livelihood…etc, Durkheim spent a great deal of time developing his theory on social cohesion, or how it all works together. In focusing on the collective aspect of society and how it holds influence, he placed emphasis on social facts, or “conditions and circumstances external to the individual that, nevertheless, determine the individual’s course of action” (Edles, 99). These social facts include the broader institutional influences such as our family, job and other factors that guide behavior. Moreover, despite interacting with people we do not know on a daily basis (such as a city), social solidarity contributes to cohesion because it acts as a “moral and institutional force.” (Edles, 99-102). Durkheim explained solidarity as a form of social control as it contributed to moral order in a diversified world (Edles, 110).
One such consequence of not belonging to this social order is a state of anomie, which “refers to this lack of moral regulation” that social cohesion relies on (Edles, 112). Essentially, Durkheim heavily argued that as society is diversified in terms of division of labor and other factors, social cohesion and solidarity act as a moral anchor to control human behavior on an institutional, not a personal level. Failure to do so resulted in deviant and unconventional behavior.
Indeed, the negative observations of Duneier’s sidewalk experience did stem from problems derived from a lack of social cohesion and solidarity. The drug use, criminal behavior and lack of family relations among the blacks on the sidewalk surely coincided with a plethora of social facts that Durkheim would find destructive to social cohesion and moral control. For instance, (i) 40% of black males between the ages of 18-24 are either in prison, parole, or probation, (ii) most of the magazine vendors Duneier interviewed spent time in jail during the 1980’s, (iii) many reported leaving home and living on the street due to family problems (Duneier, 44-50). Since institutions like family, school and people around are largely out of the control of the individual, it is reasonable to attribute the social problems of sidewalk vendors to factors out of the control of the individual. In abandoning the traditional life of a home, job and family, the individual gets lost in the consequences of not being part of the institution that delivers social cohesion and moral order.
Moral Forces and Race Relations
In relation, the absence of moral forces such as control and restrain through social cohesion were evident among the blacks who sold magazines. Among drug users like Marvin, a magazine vendor, leading a life of picking trash and selling it to strangers was the only option he saw fit as a formal occupation and lifestyle would not be suitable for his personal habits (Duneier, 51). Instead, he was forced to rely on both public assistance and a life of crime to get by. This also resulted in the “f*** it” mentality that many vendors carried, which had a few characteristics according to Duneier: (i) it affected most aspects of life (ii) the person becomes apathetic to basic behavior (iii) extreme shame and embarrassment towards their own lifestyle choices, (iv) freedom from giving up past responsibilities (Duneier, 61). Essentially, the vendors came to terms with their situation and gave up all hope at a normal lifestyle. This is strongly analogous to Durkheim’s notion of anomie. Just as the vendors gave up on traditional lives and adopted “f*** it” mentalities of hopelessness, they simultaneously lost their grasp of traditional society and resorted to a life without conventional moral order that would have been present if social cohesion (in the traditional sense) was present.
The original solidarity through cohesion in which the “individual becomes cognizant of his dependence upon society; from it come the forces of which keep him in check and restrain him” are no longer present for the vendors because they have abandoned it (Edles, 110). Thus, Duneier’s observations of magazine vendors resorting to drugs and no housing is not only a release from solidarity and social cohesion from traditional society, but also a symptom (anomie) clearly described by Durkheim. In not being included in the solidarity of conventional society, the benefits of social cohesion (moral restrain) are merely not present.
This is not to say, however, that all social cohesion and solidarity was lost; instead, the vendors merely adopted a new social solidarity and cohesion among each other. Abandoning the traditional course of life forced these magazine vendors to adapt and acquire new lives that fit their mentalities and behaviors. For instance, since the city life provided resources such as vending space, foot traffic and trash to sell, these vendors could find social cohesion within a different infrastructure (Duneier, 63). While this is not the traditional one of having an apartment and a regular job, it is one nonetheless in which a unique moral code did also exist. For example, Duneier remarked that when it came to social support, “friendships on the street were crucial in crystallizing the importance of a life devoted to some moral ideals” (Duneier, 74). This suggests that Durkheim’s model of social cohesion and solidarity is not only accurate in terms of the consequences of losing one lifestyle, but also acquiring a different one. Clearly, Durkheim’s basis for understanding social cohesion among varied people does apply even in various contexts.
Karl Marx and Socioeconomic Factors
Finally, Duneier’s analysis of the informal economy offers some support from the work of Karl Marx. While Marx’s work primarily focused on the “social injustice inherent to capitalism,” the economic structure that the sidewalk economy entailed had striking similarities (Edles, 17). One major concept that Marx’s work relied on is the importance of money and material belongings with respect to social status. In a society where everyone’s actions are rationally defined by self-interest, “money is not simply something that we earn, spend, or save-rather, it does things, it makes us who and what we are” (Edles, 42). That is, occupation and income are a major form of social judgment on which we rely on when meeting other people. It is not merely a job, but a distinct element of existence that everyone carries. Not only that, but Marx also focused on labor being a form of alienation in which “the process of production and the results of our labor confront us as a dominating power” (Edles, 41). This puts pressure on the working class in an industrial economy to meet their needs while not having any control over the production process. Within the Communist Manifesto, Marx’s most widely recognized work, he focused on social change resulting from the workers rising up. This would result in a dramatic change as traditional corporations begin to lose power over the workers who were exploited as expendable units.
While the relevance of Marx’s theory to the informal sidewalk economy on Greenwich Village is a bit obscure and abstract, certain elements are still nonetheless present. For instance, it is important to recognize that while the magazine or book vendor life may seem chaotic and unstable, it does still represent a working economic infrastructure. For instance, there is an integrated workflow of economic activity and bartering that takes place. Placeholders hold the prime locations for profit while table watchers assist in the continuation of business when one leaves (Duneier, 86). Movers assist others in moving tables and refer to people as ‘clients’ in the traditional business sense. Even the bartering aspect over goods draws traditional consumers that do business with these vendors on a much more laid back environment. Ultimately, this suggests that the sidewalk economy is more than just typical homeless behavior; instead, it is a shift away from traditional capitalism as Marx described.
Indeed, the street vendor is analogous to a disgruntled worker who is tired of being oppressed by the company that only used him for profit. In fact, the street vendor lifestyle presents a natural shift to an informal economy as there is a decline in manufacturing jobs. Thus, the street economy is a much more attractive alternative (Duneier, 39). The vendor acts similar to an entrepreneur in the sense that he engages in legal activity when he is no longer under the oppression or duress of a corporation. Duneier remarked that “the vendor is not subject to supervision, is not engaged in routine, repetitive tasks, and is completely self-directed in his work” (Duneier, 68). When presented in this context, the vendor lifestyle is no longer merely an impoverished lifestyle, but a drastic shift away from the oppression of production as described by Marx in his manifesto. Furthermore, the emphasis on money as social status is also present. Just by being on the street and selling goods, the vendors are questioned for where they got their goods and if they are stolen. This epitomizes how much value society places on money as a key indicator of social status. This concept has also been supported by Marx because occupation and income define how society perceives individuals.
Marx’s theory also applies to other short examples throughout the book. For instance, in communicating with a 22 year old, Jerome, who is stuck working a job in which he makes minimum wage, he is both treated as an expendable unit and has little hope for upward mobility in terms of class and income. As Duneier noted, if Jerome were to take GED classes to complete his high school education, it would affect his relationship with his boss in terms of a shifting schedule and other costs for school (Duneier, 39). Since Jerome’s best interest is not in the best interest of the boss he works for, he has little hope to move forward simply because he relies on the job. This clearly epitomizes the inherent social injustice of capitalism (especially for young adults struggling to find work) because while Jerome relies on the job for income, the company does not rely on him since he is a just a wage-earner, and not in control of the company. According to Marx, he is clearly alienated by a dominating power in which he has little control. Lastly, the fact that about 40% of at-risk youth’s like Jerome partake in the informal economy also illuminates the shift away from traditional capitalism, albeit not in the direct sense that Marx mentioned through social upheaval (Duneier, 37). Therefore, while the relationship of the sidewalk economy to Marx’s theory is not exactly clear cut, aspects such as a shift away from the formal capitalist economy and the social injustice by companies is still present.
Conclusion and Discussion
As we have seen, despite a different historical context, racial tensions and issues were clearly important throughout Duneier’s book. The social construction of race influenced the interactions of both the vendors and the researcher himself. Negative assumptions of blacks that were argued for by Du Bois were evident as the author come to understand how the sidewalk economy worked. Overall, this racial approach deserves recognition in understanding how this aspect of society works because while segregation does not exist, socially constructed attitudes towards judging others are still entirely present. From the perspective of Durkheim’s work, the overwhelming influence of ‘social facts’ like family, occupation and location were directly related to the sidewalk lifestyle. Consequences of lacking social cohesion/solidarity and going into a life of poverty on the street adequately epitomized the influence of society on the person. Especially, the lack of moral restraint and feelings of anomie were directly correlated to the vendors who had lost touch with traditional society. This approach was the most applicable because it placed the individual in the context of his environment and rightfully predicted the negative outcomes of resorting to a life without traditional social order. Finally, Marx’s approach in understanding the sidewalk economy was beneficial because it approached the oppression injustice from an economic aspect, which is directly related to the sidewalk economy.
This changes how we think about sidewalk because the individuals are not just a collection of homeless people trying to survive. They are a social unit that shares some characteristics of the traditional one that they had abandoned in the first place. It also places serious emphasis on the power of social institutions and how they can dictate the birth, path and final outcome of someone born in similar circumstances. However, more empirical data regarding the exact circumstances of the sidewalk economy would be beneficial for further study. This would require taking a scientific approach rather than merely an anecdotal one. More specifically, finding out lifespan, yearly income and eventual outcomes of the people interviewed would be helpful in determining if the results were isolated incidents or characteristic traits of the lifestyle. If, in fact, we found that the causes and outcomes of this lifestyle were more dynamic in terms of how it happens, it would impact which social theory is more applicable in fighting the root cause.
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