At a time when cases involving gerrymandering and redistricting are waiting to be heard by the Supreme Court, Robert Vargas, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Sociology and Director of the Violence, Law, and Politics Lab at the University of Chicago, warns that it isn’t enough to consider these types of issues from a top down perspective.
“So much is focused on parties and partisanship,” he says of the current furor surrounding gerrymandering. “I am trying to show the importance of redistricting beyond partisanship. Boundaries are representative of the distribution of power.” His 2016 book, Wounded City: Violent Turf Wars in a Chicago Barrio, shows how competition between political parties, and between police and gangs, spatially reorganizes access to government resources and reconfigures the geography of violence.
Vargas’ work examines how redistricting at levels as small as city blocks can have outsize effects on the propensity for neighborhood violence and the effectiveness of access to protection and policing. He is speaking on this research as part of a symposium at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Saturday, February 17, in Austin, Texas.
Vargas did not anticipate his own interest in neighborhood violence. Born into a Mexican-American immigrant family, and the first generation to attend college, he was struck that he and his brother “were able to do very well, while some of my cousins who lived in very different parts of the city didn’t do as well, or were even incarcerated or dropped out of school.”
As a graduate student at Northwestern University, he intended to study the educational trajectories of young people in Little Village, on the west side of the city, in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. Instead, he discovered a new research question. “I got to see firsthand how much the geography of violence in the neighborhood was impacting virtually all aspects of their lives, from where they would go to eat, what time they would spend with their friends, how they would get from place to place; and seeing how much the threat of violence affected their lives made me want to understand the roots of violence.”
Vargas says, at first, it was difficult to relate to the young people who informed his work but that slowly changed. “I was spending three or four days a week there while I was in class, and when class wasn’t in session, I was there every day. And just by being there, you build rapport and friendships. Those relationships are still ongoing.”
The time he invested in Little Village led to the sort of deep expertise that has made his work not only rigorous but also accessible. “People make all sorts of assumptions about political processes, especially in Chicago which has a particularly bad reputation,” he notes. Vargas’ own commitment to and passion for the city has allowed him to see beyond standard narratives. “A lot of research in medical sociology and urban criminology focuses on poor people, or at most their environments, instead of the institutions that govern their everyday lives. There is so much social science work on how to change people’s behavior or their environments, but much less on how to reconfigure institutions to serve them better.” While he thinks there is a place for generalizable theories, he believes the micro processes of politics are fundamental. “I think what I’ve been building is a more organic, ground up understanding about how government matters for people’s lives.”
Vargas has had to balance his academic pursuits with a role as a sought after intellectual in policy debates. “I think by letting the data speak for itself, the more effective I’ve been in building relationships with different policy makers. There are people working within city government who see the problems, who have the same passions and intentions as the people standing outside picketing.” He adds, “The broad spectrum of people that the findings resonate with is incredible.”
Vargas hopes his presentation will encourage those in the audience, which will include journalists and city officials, to look more critically at urban issues as well as spark interest in issues related to urban violence and resource provision in a new generation of graduate students.
The AAAS session, “Implications of Evidence About Drug Use Hot Spots, Gerrymandering, and Gang Violence,” includes researchers and faculty from the University of Texas-Austin, Temple University, and the University at Albany-State University of New York. For more information on the panel and the meeting, visit https://aaas.confex.com/aaas/2018/meetingapp.cgi/Session/17574.