Some Thoughts About How I Became an Urbanist

I wrote the following in the spring of 2004 with the intent that it would be part of my introduction to my dissertation. However, it’s a bit none scholarly, but it’s an interesting insight into how I got to where I am today with scholarship.

In November of 2002, I attended the American Society of Criminology’s annual convention at the Palmer House in Chicago. I went there for the purpose of interacting with people who I intended to one day engage in scholarly dialogue with. It seemed to be a natural place for a graduate student to attend and read the pulse of the discipline that I was about to dedicate my life to. Rather than gaining an invigorating shot in the arm from the conference, I instead left the conference with a slight identity crisis and began to question the efficacy of the field.

I arrived at the convention anticipating great discussions, great panels, and seeing the world of criminology as the place where scholars would discuss and engage in scholarly debates regarding the understanding of the social issue of crime. Yet, what I saw was the same thing I often saw in my criminal justice graduate courses at UW-Milwaukee. I saw scholars who seemed inured to the idea that there was ever to be a cure to the problems associated with crime. I saw pessimism, scorn, and ridicule for those of us who wished to find ways for communities to shed itself of what I thought was the largest social problem endemic to America.

What stood out most to me in my experience at that convention was a panel sponsored by the Division of Critical Criminology, of which I was a student member. The first two presentations went well, one of which was presented by then UWM faculty member David Barlow. Then it all went downhill. One of the presenters wrote his presentation on a yellow notebook pad while the others gave their presentations, and what he discussed amounted to a lot of fluff and a rail against the conservative movement within criminology. The other poor presentation was given by a self-made martyr who reveled in his being persecuted by the federal government for using the FOIA to obtain sealed documents from the FBI.

And then there was the meeting of the division after the presentations. There was rampant paranoia that the Bush administration would somehow enact Stalinist purges against academics who were on the left. It was the most utterly useless hour of my life except that it made me realize there were some major problems if I remained within this area of the discipline. I inquired David and Lisa Barlow about what I had witnessed to ensure my imagination was not running rampant – after all, I had only recently walked away from being a strong conservative. David replied to me that the division had some who were always a bit paranoid; it always seemed to attract these scholars.

It was during the train ride back from Chicago that I began thinking a lot about the criminal justice and criminology fields. I had made contact with the UIC faculty while there, but I did not necessarily feel comfortable with them. I went to a bar for lunch with UWM faculty member Rick Lovell who was seriously drunk even before walking in the bar, and he was among those pessimistic people in attendance. I do not believe that all in attendance were of the same state, but what troubled me was that they comprised various levels of the ASC. The passion of scholarship seemed to have been missing among most everyone that I had contact with.

So, it was during that train ride from Chicago that I began pondering the future. Interestingly, I began using the past to formulate a new idea of how I would become a lifetime learner.


While I attended Methodist College in Fayetteville, North Carolina, I was fortunate to have as my adviser Darl Champion. Darl’s views concerning community health were what shaped mine. Prior to attending any of his classes I viewed crime in much the same way that many Americans do in that it could be explained within a dichotomy: you were either willing to abide by the law or you choose to reject the law. Those who reject the law should be banished from society, either for a short time or forever depending upon the severity and frequency of the crime.

Darl was interested in the viability of community policing because he posited that social problems needed more than a “cookie-cutter” approach; social problems required what he commonly referred to as a holistic approach to finding solutions. Police policies generally attended only to symptoms of the real problems of a community. That is, police responded to criminal acts. Rarely did they, or could they, solve the problems which led to crime except to place people into a criminal justice system, thereby accumulating even more problems.

As a former military policeman, I always thought the police could control crime and respond to the problems which led to crimes. I always thought that preventative measures like those taken by MPs could reduce the likelihood of crime. Yet, the more I read about policing the less convinced I was that this was indeed possible. A lack of a true police mandate coupled with the bureaucratic issues that even Weber was concerned with means that the police can never rise above the symptoms of the problems; the problems were far more structural.

That is why Darl’s message of a holistic approach was far more promising to me. The problem for Darl, though, was that he taught at a teaching intensive institution rather than a research one. While he understood and desired research, he was left with such a teaching load and as such he could only pass on his ideas of research methods to his students. Fortunately I listened to him and I have never really looked back since.

I was sure when I began my graduate studies at UW-Milwaukee that I would have the same tutelage that I had at tiny Methodist College. Yet, I was ultimately filled with disappointment not because the work was to be tougher, but because the direction of the curriculum could only lead you to become as pessimistic as the other scholars who resided in the criminal justice department. I was left to ponder whether I could ever live in a world with so little hope. All I heard time and time again was how nothing I did in research would matter. Carl Pope once told me that I may publish many articles and books, but at the end it will mean nothing. I should be more concerned about my retirement than ever solving any of society’s problems. He and Rick Lovell even commented once that I would end up with this same belief eventually.

Carl Pope and Rick Lovell are brilliant scholars who have done a great deal of important work with MPS and the Milwaukee Police Department. They sat on a great deal of data which could potentially help understand many issues regarding school violence. Yet, somehow along the way, they developed a pessimism which radiated daily. There was no hope, no matter if you have the energy and passion to work hard; it would amount to nothing more than a footnote at best in their opinions.

With this knowledge in my mind, I toiled that summer to complete my master’s essay. I used a methodology that I learned from Rick and Carl on how to compare studies of the same phenomenon in a matrix (matrix analysis). I read a plethora of literature concerning eyewitness testimony issues from the 1970s to the present day. I successfully defended the essay but was left with a growing concern that I chose the wrong discipline.

Prior to the summer, I was rejected by UIC because the only scholar who could take on PHD candidates in policing was not interested in picking anyone else up. I told this to my major adviser, Stan Stojkovic, who was dismayed. My credentials should have been strong enough for me to be accepted, and yet I was not, and he told me not only that the excuse they provided seemed odd, but that the program there was full of problems. He suggested that I should try to get into the Urban Studies program for at least a year until I could reapply somewhere else, such as Michigan State.

I did as he suggested and was cautioned by Rick and Carl that the program was problematic at best. “It’ll be a shitty degree, but you make what you can of it,” Carl once commented to me. I soon met with Margo Anderson who was then the program director and I decided to give it a try. Eventually she offered me a three year TA-ship with the history department which I humbly accepted.

My first semester in USP classes was probably my most uncomfortable. I still took one criminal justice graduate class just to “stay in touch” with my roots. The readings were intense and the scholarship was unfamiliar at best to me. On the occasion we came upon a writing or study that I had some familiarity with – such as brief discussion in Robert Self’s seminar on Burgess and Parks – we blew right by it because there was so much more literature to explore, and these studies were merely foundational.

The city became the unit of analysis, which was far different for me. We could zoom into neighborhoods, CBDs, corridors and many other pieces, but we always came back to the city and how these minutiae areas impacted the city. As classes proceeded, we compared cities and the social problems they inherited. And then it struck me while taking Amanda Seligmann’s class in American Urban Problems: cities are the physical manifestation of civilization. What the city shows us are the social values and norms that the denizens have. You can study the physical landscape and the people and where they live and gain a better understanding of how they interact, and how they generate the growth of society. Studying a city provides a wealth of information in understanding the whole of society; civilizations of the past left only remnants of their cities in which we have been left to develop inferences about the people. We are fortunate now because we are witnessing the growth – and sometimes the death – of our cities. We can observe the people who come in and out the city; we can understand why people chose to live in the city; we can understand society and the problems encountered within the city.

The UW-Milwaukee Urban Studies Program focuses upon four main disciplines: geography, sociology, political science, and history. Criminology, interestingly enough, claims it is an interdisciplinary field, yet it sometimes eschews much of the four main disciplines I just mentioned (with the obvious exception of sociology). Time, space and place became the mantra for me in the program. It is time that became more compelling to me to understand.

Criminologists often fail to fully use history as a means to understand their main unit of analysis. They often lament the lack of available evidence to conduct longitudinal studies – which is a problem statistically – and when they do examine crime issues across time it is generally across slices of time rather than continuous data. Rarely does the criminologist examine the troves of literature that urbanists have written; rarely do criminologists bother with case studies of large areas. Criminologists often rely upon statistical evidence rather than the social interaction itself, a strange shift when one considers the origin of the field from sociology. Many criminologists rarely physically touch the phenomenon they have under study.

Social issues are wrapped temporally, and you cannot rely upon statistical evidence as a means to achieve full understanding. Social scientists are often satisfied with using statistical evidence to support their understanding of the social world, yet I have never come across a sound social study which can state that it captures 100% of the variance. Social scientists seem content that their studies capture some portion of the variance, which to be truthful is deceiving. Their studies, which may account for a small take of the social world, can then be used to develop governmental policies which can lead to misleading results. We’ve seen many policies that were influenced by social scientists which have led to unintended results, such as Wilson and Kelling’s broken windows thesis. While the evidence they are examining is interesting, it rarely goes beyond being inchoate.

We cannot predict human behavior at the group level because we have not come to be able to understand it. We have not reached this understanding because scholars have chosen paths which seem logical, yet the social world can be chaotic. How can you predict chaos? And why can we not understand that there is chaos, especially when social animals congregate around these central poles of civilization known as cities?

We have deceived ourselves in believing that we can make sense of the world. In the Old Testament, God mandated that we should seek and understand the world. He never told us we would come to actually understand it. Humans have thus come to examine the world within their own understanding of reality; somehow only the scientific method will lead us to obtain the truth. And yet, this faith in the scientific method has led us astray; we do not always see the actions which lead to the social problems of the city. Social problems are shrouded temporally, cascading into fragments of interactions which cannot be measured accurately within statistical packages.

A social problem is like a small snowball that is placed into action, be it from the action of a creature or a natural phenomenon such as high winds. The snowball begins its wayward journey down the slope of a hill, gravity acting upon the entity forcing it in a downward motion. We know empirically that the snowball, as it accumulates mass, will maintain this downward path, but we know not what other unforeseen events it will encounter on its trek. It will probably accumulate more snow, but it may also accumulate other pieces of material, such as small pebbles, sticks, leaves, and so on. It may encounter small trees which change its direction, or it may encounter a playful creature that pushes the snowball in a new direction. When it completes its journey, the original snowball at the top of the hill will have grown and accumulated a mass different from its original state. Its wayward trek reveals much about what can change its direction; it also reveals that we cannot fully account for how it managed to end up where it did. The final resting place of the snowball, shrouded by time and unforeseen actions, will never be fully understood in its final state. Only by backtracking can we come to a fruitful understanding of how it came to be, and even then we may not fully be able to explain its final state.

It is hard for me to comprehend how we can undertake the understanding of the contemporary world without fully understanding its past. Accordingly, we can never understand a community’s problems without first understanding its creation and how its growth accumulated in its evolution. Each of us as individuals is impacted by the experiences we have had ; the same is true of a community because it is the shell which contains the accumulation of social interactions and social norms. The community can take on a character of its own because its denizens are compelled to interact (or not to interact) within it.

That character which a community subsumes and ultimately manifests can certainly be seen and felt in the empirical world. Yet, the physical story which emerges in the present will be meaningless without the emotion and accumulated experiences which are indeed a part of the growth of any society. Changing values and norms lead to differing behaviors within space; changing values and norms lead to a different community just as they lead to behavioral changes within individuals.

A community is the sum of the experiences and values of its denizens. This understanding has a temporal component as well as a social interactive component. A community waxes and wanes as does the accumulation of the wealth of the denizens. It waxes and wanes also as a result of the way the denizens interact with one another. The quality of a community is expressed by the values which are manifested in the physical world as well as the emotional world. A community thus takes on a social character based upon the social interaction between individuals who reside, shop, drive through, walk, build, and work in that area. A community is the people and the people are the community, to paraphrase a Peelian Principle of policing.

The study of a community is wont of errors if we do not accept that the interaction of its people is primary in the shaping of its destiny. We might be able to use statistical evidence to suggest where crimes will or do occur, but we can not understand how a “hot spot” emerges without some historical context. We might not understand that areas of some community were once considered safe, and yet the current memory of place suggests that the place is filled with dangers. If we rely solely upon statistical evidence to understand areal experiences we expose a fatal flaw of the scientific method: we will never attain the absolute truth of how the place became the way it became; we are left only with inference.


About Scott Canevit

PHD student at UW-Milwaukee in Urban Studies. View all posts by Scott Canevit

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