By Faith Zamblé For our last "Hello Professor" segment of the year, I had the chance to sit down with Dr. Peter St. Jean, one of North Park's newest sociology professors; we talked about everything from peace to Chicago, and most importantly, how the two can fit together.
Faith Zamblé: First question: where are you from?
Peter St. Jean: Well, I was born in the Caribbean island of Dominica (which is not to be mistaken for the Dominican Republic). Dominica is between Martinique and Guadeloupe. So that’s where I was born. I have lived in St. Thomas Virgin Islands, I’ve lived in New Jersey, New York, Japan, Canada… I came to Chicago.
FZ: Can you give a description or definition of ethnography? It's a term that comes up often in criminology conversations, but I don’t think everyone knows what that is.
PSJ: Ethnography is the study of everyday life as it happens, with as accurate a description as possible that convinces the reader that the writer really was there and what the writer saw, and is able to make sense of what I saw and extrapolate what is seen in the space to something outside of the space. So basically, in a nutshell, it’s a study of everyday life.
FZ: Why Study every day life?
PSJ: Because every day life happens. Life happens in an everyday format and if we are not trained to study how life happens, I think we're going to miss very fundamental things. We will study life as numbers and statistics.
FZ: ..and theories...
PSJ: and theories, and we'll never forget that there are processes and sometimes we go to study something now, and then we forget about it becuase we think now is the representation for all time. But if we study life as it happens we'll notice that it's a cycle. The same way seasons change so do behaviors, thoughts, and patterns.
FZ: How does ethnography relate to the Peace Project that you’re working on?
PSJ: Ethnography is just one methodological approach because I’m a multi-methods researcher—I use [both] quantitative and qualitative methods. I do maps, I do film, and so on. In terms of the “peace project,” as you’ve termed it, I believe that we have not been able to solve the problem of violence because we are asking the wrong question. In the movie we’re doing, ChiPeace, I start it off by saying, “You may know a great deal about why there is violence in Chicago, but do you know why there isn’t any more?” It’s a crazy question because everybody seems to tell us there could never be more violence. So, when I was studying pockets of crime in Bronzeville, I was fascinated as to why there were so many opportunities for violence that didn’t come to term. It’s like beating batter for a pancake and getting eggs over easy; it doesn’t make sense. Ethnography puts us into the process and gives us words and actions that can bring people to the place as life happens to explain the phenomenon. Part of why we have so much violence is because we have so much intelligence about violence. We’ve just turned it into entertainment and big money. If we were able to produce enough knowledge on how peacefulness happens, we’ll be able to produce more intelligence, produce it more in music, and commodify it—because we are in a capitalistic society—in a way that will direct people to understand how black men do peace. That’s how these two things connect and I think if we learn more, we can put into the universe more possibilities for it to happen.
FZ: What do you think about peace existing in our current political sphere with all the crazy things that are happening? How do we encourage people to seek peacefulness in the midst of folks who are trying to appeal to less peaceful instincts?
PSJ: I think the threat to peacefulness is ubiquitous and may be everlasting. Whatever book you read, there’s been not just conflict, but violence. However, there’s always a possibility for more peacefulness than what exists at this time. In the context of all of the chaos that’s going on in this political environment, it’s important for us to know that those things can be separated. Just because someone is preaching violence and intolerance doesn’t mean that has to bring violence and intolerance.
FZ: Last question: what are your favorite things about Chicago?
PSJ: One of the things that I like about Chicago is that it has the good, the bad, and the ugly in tight focus. But, you can get it from the ugly to the good, and the good to even better. I love Chicago because it can debunk almost every myth. Just the spontaneity and vastness of possibility of the city. For me as a social scientist, there’s no better laboratory.