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Multidisciplinary collaborations within IGERT: Trainee co-edits forthcoming new book, Bringing Culture Back In: New Approaches to the Problems of Black Youth


Professor Orlando Patterson and NSF-funded student Ethan Fosse, participants in the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality & Social Policy program at Harvard University, have produced a new edited book (forthcoming from Harvard University Press) that explores the cultural life of black youth from wide-ranging disciplinary perspectives, including contributions from nearly a dozen IGERT participants.

Patterson, the John Cowles Professor of Sociology, and Fosse, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology and doctoral fellow in the Harvard multidisciplinary social science IGERT program, organized the volume as an exploration of both the influence and extraordinary creativity of black youth on popular culture, on one hand, and the role culture in understanding the problems faced by black youth, on the other. The volume is divided into sections focusing on (1) black youth cultural life; (2) neighborhoods and social processes; (3) violence; and (4) social policy solutions. They conclude with an overview of possible directions and solutions for improving the lives of not only the nation’s black youth, but those who suffer from poverty and social problems more broadly.

The book is motivated by the paradoxical observation that while the past half century has witnessed remarkable changes and progress in the circumstances of African-Americans, these successes coexist with many mixed achievements and major failures: The civil rights movement and subsequent policies aimed at socioeconomic reform have resulted in the largest group of middle-class and elite blacks in the world, yet the bottom fifth of the black population are among the poorest in the nation. Blacks have a disproportionate impact on the nation’s culture—both popular and elite—yet continue to face major problems in the educational system and are badly underrepresented in its scientific and high-end technology. Although legalized segregation has long been abolished and anti-exclusionary laws strictly enforced, the great majority of blacks still live in highly segregated communities.

Nowhere is this paradox more acutely exhibited than in the condition of black American youth, especially black male youth. They are, the editors note, at one and the same time trapped in a seemingly intractable socioeconomic crisis, yet are the most vibrant creators of popular culture in the nation and world. With disproportionately high rates of educational dropout, incarceration, unemployment, and violence affecting black youth, their lives are often “impoverished, unhealthy, and short.”

While many studies have addressed these issues, the editors suggest that the structural factors commonly emphasized, while certainly critical, can only partially explain the problem. Moreover, these explanations do not address the perplexing fact that for all their socioeconomic problems, black youth are the producers of a powerful popular culture that permeates, and in areas dominates, the nation’s mainstream popular culture and greatly influences non-black youth.

Patterson and Fosse have recruited authors from a broad array of disciplinary fields—including sociology, economics, education, public policy, and the humanities—to probe these aspects of culture. In addition to the editors and other prominent scholars, contributors to the volume include seven current Ph.D. students and recent alumni of the Harvard IGERT program: Andrew Clarkwest (IGERT grant no. 9870661), Jacqueline Cooke-Rivers, Nathan Fosse, David Hureau, Joshua Mitchell, Van C. Tran, and Queenie Zhu. IGERT faculty participants include Kathryn Edin, Ronald Ferguson, Robert Sampson, and Christopher Winship.

Address Goals

Professor Patterson and IGERT trainee Ethan Fosse have organized an edited volume that takes a multidisciplinary approach to address fundamental socioeconomic problems disproportionately affecting America’s black youth. It charts new ground in exploring the paradoxes and role of culture in understanding the problems faced by black youth, and offers possible directions and solutions for improving the lives of those who suffer from poverty and social problems.

The breadth of contributors assembled to produce this volume has fostered a multidisciplinary dialogue and novel research training experience for Ph.D. students. The project addresses important social problems that should be of concern to all Americans.