Gerald D. Suttles, Pioneering Scholar and Urban Sociologist 1932–2017

May 19, 2017 (last updated on November 21, 2019)

Announcements| Faculty| Sociology

Gerald D. Suttles, professor emeritus in the Department of Sociology and the Committee on Geographic Studies, died Thursday, May 11, 2017 at IU Health Bloomington Hospice House with his wife of nearly 47 years, Kirsten A. Grønbjerg, MA’70, PhD’74 (Sociology), and close friends at his side. Widely recognized as a pioneer of the study of disadvantaged neighborhoods, gangs, and ethnic conflict, Suttles helped shape the discipline of urban sociology and mentored a new generation of scholars in the field.

In 1963, Suttles did something relatively radical for a young sociology graduate student. While pursuing his PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign he moved to the rough-and-tumble Addams neighborhood on Chicago’s west side (now part of the Tri-Taylor area) not because the rent was affordable, but because he wanted to study it. Five years later, he published a definitive work on the rules of conduct of the residents, who were a mix of races and ethnicities, of migrants and of native-born. What he reveals in The Social Order of the Slum: Ethnicity and Territory in the Inner City (UChicago Press, 1968), is a highly neighborhood-specific code for behavior that trumped the accepted moral standards of broader society. In order to effectively understand this code, he had to integrate into a neighborhood where he was regarded as an outsider. By the end of his three-year stay, he was a local fixture—adopted by an Italian family and talking his way out of a proposed marriage. In 1970, as an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, he was awarded the University of Chicago Press’s Laing Prize for The Social Order of the Slum—an honor bestowed upon the book, authored by a faculty member, that brings the most distinction to the Press. 

Subsequent books of note include The Social Construction of Communities (The University of Chicago Press, 1972) and Poverty and Social Change (The University of Chicago Press, 1978, co-authored with Grønbjerg and David P. Street). In 1990, he published The Man-Made City: The Land-Use Confidence Game in Chicago (The University of Chicago Press), which shined a critical light on the poor design of Chicago’s public and private projects and received extensive media coverage for its harsh assessment of the driving forces behind the city’s urban planning. In 2011, Suttles published Front Page Economics (The University of Chicago Press, 2011), in which he analyzed press coverage of the economic crashes of 1929 and 1987 to understand how the media normalizes crises.

Longtime colleague Robert Sampson, now at Harvard, emphasizes the staying power of Suttles’s work, like the concept of the defended neighborhood, which has remained central to urban community studies. 

Gerry Suttles was a master analyst of the city who surpassed the high expectations set by the legacy of the Chicago School of urban sociology. The Social Order of the Slum is a classic case in point, a brilliant examination of ethnicity and territoriality in the Chicago of the 1960s. Cities may have changed since then, but his insights endure.

Suttles taught at the University of Chicago first as an Associate Professor from 1967 until 1971 and then left to teach at SUNY Stony Brook. He spent the bulk of his career at the University of Chicago after returning in 1976. Always popular, the courses he taught included “Deviance and Social Control,” “Urban Community,” “Poverty and Social Welfare,” “Landscape as Text,” and “Chicago as a Social System.” He also taught “Field Methods,” during which he trained students in ethnographic research. This course culminated in an informal seminar that met in his home over several quarters. Suttles mentored a very large number of graduate students and worked with them to conduct ethnographic research in a variety of community settings. He chaired or co-chaired more than 35 PhD committees.

Former student David Grazian, Associate Professor of Sociology at The University of Pennsylvania, recounts the profound impact Suttles had on those he mentored. 

Among his closest graduate students, Gerry was also an enormously generous teacher, hosting classes at his home and joining student-led reading groups in their apartments. With his devious wit and charmed ability to turn a colorful phrase, to his students he was the living embodiment of the Chicago School tradition of urban sociology. With a twinkle in his eye, he interwove the lessons of early 20th century social theory and research with his own ethnographic tale, drawing on a lifetime of memories. 

Throughout his career, he served on the editorial boards of numerous journals, was a member of many professional academic associations, was invited to speak at universities across the US, and served on the visiting committees for multiple departments of sociology. In 1993, the American Sociological Association (ASA) honored Suttles with the Robert and Helen Lynd Award for Lifetime Achievement in the area of community and urban sociology. His research was funded through the Russell Sage Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Spencer Foundation.

Suttles’s influence on colleagues was also substantial—Edward Laumann, the George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, describes his intellectual judgement as “incisive and astute on all topics sociological and anthropological.” He goes on to say, “I certainly benefited from many discussions with him—his paper with Street on exchange relations in poverty-stricken communities written in the late 60s and reprinted in The Logic of Social Hierarchies (Markham Pub. Co, 1970) has been a lodestar for my thinking on network exchange ever since.”

Before embarking upon his academic journey, Suttles served in the Korean War (US Navy AD-3) from 1951 to 1955. He then attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where he received his bachelor’s degree. As an undergraduate, he spent holiday breaks at California Correctional Institution (often referred to as “Tehachapi State”) studying prison argot.

In retirement, Suttles served as an adjunct professor of sociology at Indiana University, spending the last twenty years of his life working with students. He also devoted quite a bit of time to gardening, and, along with his wife, shared a love of their former home Chicago, as well as of Denmark, nature, music, ballet, and delicious nosh. 

Suttles is survived by his beloved wife, Kirsten A. Grønbjerg, two stepsisters, Shirley Swann and Bernice Clark (Kenneth Rector); two stepnieces, Kim King (Mason) and Jeannia Barnett (Tim); and many devoted friends across the globe, who treasured his intellect, generosity, loyalty, and kindness. Memorial celebrations are being planned for Bloomington, Chicago, and Denmark. On the University of Chicago campus, a memorial will be held November 10, 2017 from 3–6 pm in Bond Chapel. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in honor of Gerald D. Suttles to the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, specifying support of doctoral ethnographic research.