How One Sociologist Finds Inspiration for His Research Outside the University Walls


Growing up in Panama City, Mario Luis Small, Quetelet Professor of Social Science in the Department of Sociology, had an early penchant for engineering and math. When he was a teenager he thought that sociology was “boring.” The U.S invasion of Panama occurred on the day he was supposed to take his 10th grade sociology final exam, so the test got cancelled, much to his relief. Upon entering graduate school at Harvard, he realized that he disliked traditional elite academia. While these factors might have added up to an inauspicious start to a career in sociology, they have helped Small pursue a distinctive path and contributed to his innovative body of work.

Influenced by his childhood in Panama and a yearning to step outside of academia’s confines, Small has devoted a portion of his research to illuminating how personal networks shape poor neighborhoods in Chicago, New York, and Boston. Some of his works based on this research include Villa Victoria: The Transformation of Social Capital in a Boston Barrio, Someone To Talk To: How Networks Matter In Practice, and Unanticipated Gains: Origins of Network Inequality in Everyday Life. Small’s love of math and its precise nature led him to refine qualitative methods in the social sciences, as evidenced in his book, Qualitative Literacy: A Guide to Evaluating Ethnographic and Interview Research.

Columbia News sat down with Small, who joined Columbia’s department of sociology last year, to find out about his early life in Panama City, what continues to motivate his research, and why Columbia and New York City is the ideal place for his work and his family.

Briefly tell me about your background growing up in Panama.

I was born and raised in Panama City, and I grew up during the dictatorship of Manuel Noriega. The U.S. invasion happened when I was supposed to take my annual sociology exam at the end of 10th grade. I remember the day of the invasion very vividly. My mother told us that there was no school that day because something had happened. I usually woke up at 5:20 in the morning to get ready for the school bus at 6. The sun hadn’t come out yet, and I looked outside at the heart of downtown Panama City where General Noriega’s headquarters were located. It looked like an enormous sun, red like a sunrise. That’s when I realized it was serious.

But while all this was going on, I did not think I was going to do well on that test, so I was relieved that I didn’t have school that day. I didn’t like sociology like I do today.

Why did you not like sociology?

I was very much into math, electronics, engineering, and physics. I didn’t find sociology that interesting. In Panama, it was not taught the way that we think of sociology here. It was kind of like social studies, and it wasn’t engaging and interesting in a way that I could appreciate. I also did not like that it was very imprecise.  I’ve come a long way from 10th grade, though.

What happened after the invasion?

Eventually things settled down. At some point I started 11th grade and continued my education with the intention of being an engineer, but then I started to gain interest in other subjects, like psychology. I ended up applying to colleges in the United States  and went to school in Northfield, Minnesota, to Carleton College, which gave me a scholarship.

There, I took a couple of electives in sociology, which was more like social theory, and I loved it. I loved studying philosophy, I loved studying social theory.

So, that’s what changed your mind about sociology?

That’s what did it. I had great teachers at Carleton, particularly one, Nader Saiedi, who was Iranian and had escaped the Shah. He was just fascinating.

Did your early perceptions about the inexactness of sociology motivate you to make it more precise?

When a sociologist is interviewing someone, they are doing it for the purpose of discovering something that we don’t know, yet, so they have to get it right. This is especially important, and especially difficult, when they are studying motivation. For example, if they’re trying to do a study of what motivated people to cross the Southern U.S. border with no papers despite enormous difficulty, we have to know whether we are getting the story right. There are policy implications. How do you know that you conducted your interview correctly, and what does it even mean to get it right in that context? Did you discover the true motivation, as well? Motivations are complicated things. Sometimes people are aware of them, sometimes they are not aware of them. Moreover, sometimes your motivation for doing things is only part of the reason for doing things.

We haven’t figured this out yet, but a lot of what I do in my qualitative methodological research is trying to figure this out.

Aside from working on enhancing qualitative methodology, what areas of research do you work on?

Most of my other work is either on social networks or on social inequality. On social networks, I don’t focus much on the formal structure of networks; instead, I study how people form and use their relationships to meet their needs, like the need to talk to others when facing difficulties or to borrow money when short on cash. For example, I am currently writing a paper with a few collaborators on when people decide to confide in, as opposed to avoid, those they are close to when they need someone to talk to.

On social inequality, I study neighborhood poverty and racial inequality. Recently, my collaborators and I have been using large-scale data from Google, Twitter, and other companies to answer questions that were either difficult or impossible to answer when I was in graduate school. For example, we have written a few papers showing that racial segregation affects not only where people live, but also where they go. In major cities, people from different racial groups, on average, tend to not only live, but also travel to different parts of the city on an everyday basis. We are trying to understand why.

What motivates you to work on your research topics?

I went into graduate school to study sociology from a very different perspective from many of my peers, and this fact ended up affecting how I did my work. As I mentioned before, I was influenced by social theorist Nader Saiedi at Carleton College. When I went to graduate school I also wanted to be a social theorist. That is actually not that common in sociology. I had a rude awakening when I got to graduate school at Harvard, and I learned that sociology was a very empirical science. I hated graduate school, and I didn’t like academia. I decided to stay, but only if I could just do exactly what I wanted.

When figuring out my dissertation topic, I had been living in Cambridge, MA, and I was pretty tired of the elitism. I wanted to spend more time in a regular place, and I found this interesting Puerto Rican neighborhood in Boston. Culturally, there are many similarities between Puerto Ricans and Panamanians. So, I thought to myself, “If I do this ethnographic study, I can just hang out in the Puerto Rican neighborhood.” That was one of the most important reasons why I went and did that study. The study became my first book, Villa Victoria.

While I was doing fieldwork in Boston, I stumbled upon some interesting things about childcare centers. I didn’t have any children at the time, but when I was studying in some neighborhoods in Boston, I learned that it was common for parents to expand their networks through their kids’ childcare centers—which now seems completely obvious, but I just didn’t think of it at the time.

It turns out that this happened a lot, but it also turns out that in a lot of other childcare centers, it didn’t happen at all. Nobody knew anybody. What was it about either the people who were going to those centers or the centers themselves that were producing different outcomes? I designed a study to explore that question, and that became my first network study, Unanticipated Gains.

Then, one of the interesting things I found while doing that study is that people seemed to trust their kids with a whole bunch of people, with other parents, that they didn’t know that well. For instance, I found that parents would call the childcare center director and say something like, “Hey, I’m late, and I can’t come in to pick up my daughter before closing. Could you  give my daughter to the head of the parents’ association? I think her name is Lindsay.” People were doing this all the time without even thinking about it. Then I decided to do a different study to see how people trust others. I focus on whom people confided their difficulties to. Many people say that they don’t trust just anyone, but when you follow their behavior they are often far more trusting than either they say to themselves or common sense would suggest. That study became Someone To Talk To.

At every juncture of my research, I thought to do what I found interesting, important, or worth doing, and said to myself, “I’ll see where this takes me.”

What are you working on now?

We’re working with a large team on a project related to poverty. We have a study where we’re using lots of different kinds of data to understand the causes and consequences of racial inequality in access to financial institutions. For example, we have data from Google, and we found that the number of minutes it would take you to walk, drive, or take public transportation to the nearest bank versus the nearest payday lender or some other alternative financial institution is dramatically affected by race. Even if you take into account all the obvious things that could affect the relationship between race and access—the home ownership of the neighborhood, income levels, education levels—it is still the case that, the more African American the neighborhood, the far more likely it is that the nearest payday lender is closer than the nearest bank.

It turns out that we don’t understand why. It’s not obvious. From a purely economic perspective there are a whole bunch of payday lenders who are losing money by not targeting white poor neighborhoods. It doesn’t make sense, so we’re trying to understand why. We’re also trying to understand how people think about these decisions, and we’re trying to understand the consequences of these choices, because there is a lot of evidence of racial differences in indebtedness, and in many pay loans people take out, and in how much people roll over the loan (taking out a payday loan and then taking out another one because one  can’t pay the first one, and doing that multiple times). That’s a lot of what we’re trying to understand. 

We’re getting a lot of this work off the ground now. It’s very much a Columbia project at this point. We’ll see where it takes us…

What brought you to Columbia?

It was a confluence of things. First, Columbia has an extraordinary history in a lot of the things that I’m interested in, particularly networks, methods, and inequality. A second reason is the intellectual culture of the university as a whole was very appealing to me. My impression over the years is that this is a place where people take ideas seriously and where disciplinary boundaries don’t matter that much. People tend to be both ambitious and entrepreneurial about their intellectual work. A third part of it was the city of New York. At Columbia, your intellectual world is really the whole metro area, which is extraordinary. There’s not this collection of social scientists in any other metro area. There are universities that are larger than Columbia that have that in their own space. My intellectual space is not only Columbia, but the greater New York City area universities, like NYU, Princeton, the New School, and so on.

Another part of it had to do with family. I have two young children, a two-year old and a four-year old, and it was important for my wife and me to believe that they were growing up in a place with some diversity. There’s nothing like New York. Now that my four-year old has started to interact with other children, it’s become especially clear that this is something that we needed. For all those reasons, it’s been wonderful to be here. I love the energy. It’s a really good fit.

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