Article: Urban ethnography’s “saloon problem” and its challenge to public sociology

This was my first article which presaged my interest in bars. And, given that the Anti-Saloon League was founded there, it presaged my interest in Oberlin, Ohio.

“This essay assesses the legacy of urban ethnography’s (UE) early engagement with the “saloon problem.” Early sociologists (1880–1915) intervened in the national debate on alcohol on the basis of their long–term, in–depth understanding of the urban poor. Ethnographers highlighted the role of the saloon as a haven for maintaining social ties while socializing immigrants to American norms. Instead of prohibition or temperance, sociologists advocated replacing the saloon’s positive functions with more democratic institutions, especially an egalitarian domestic sphere. This position was shared by both academic and settlement house sociologists whose saloon investigations offer a coherent sociological research paradigm that antedates the Chicago School. The activism of early sociologists exemplifies the characteristics of Michael Burawoy’s recent call for public sociology. Yet the early sociologists failed to redeem the saloon amongst Progressives, who increasingly rallied around the National Anti–Saloon League and constitutional Prohibition. By only investigating alcohol in its public manifestations, sociologists failed to challenge the way the social problem was framed and may even have contributed to the stigmatization of the saloon. This voyeuristic opportunism has plagued the American tradition of urban ethnography, the ineffective legacy of which poses a challenge to a contemporary revival of public sociology.”

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