Studying Community Engagement

Department of Sociology

sociology research

In spring 2018, students in the Department of Sociology’s applied research course engaged in advanced undergraduate community-based participatory research on gentrification and development in Knoxville. Louise Seamster, a postdoctoral teaching associate, designed the course to draw connections between theoretical material, case studies, and local issues to get students out into Knoxville to understand questions such as how race and class shape communities and conflicts surrounding development and what their role is in the cities they live in – not only as researchers, but also residents.

“Universities have an often-deserved reputation for extracting knowledge of many kinds from an area without offering information or other forms of reciprocity in return,” Seamster said. “We should model responsible, reciprocal, and relevant research for our students and remind them of the real human stakes of the things we study. We all live somewhere.”

Students learned about historical and present urban practices that result in racial inequality and displacement and read about alternative ideas for cities, including collective housing models like community land trusts. Students looked at sites of urban renewal in Knoxville and studied the city’s zoning code. They conducted primary research on a topic of their choice by interviewing key players in the city’s development, attending meetings, and speaking with residents.

“I designed the class to be woven into the broader university and city and multiple levels, providing a sense of how these ideas fit into a network of places and people approaching development questions from various perspectives,” Seamster said.

Community experts visited class as guest speakers and shared theoretical frameworks they developed to understand dynamics of racial displacement in Knoxville and beyond to try and build a more just and equitable city. These included applying a human rights framework to zoning, assessing whether a given project increases or decreases community control, and thinking critically about who is allowed to “improve” somebody else’s neighborhood.

“Several students commented afterward that by the end of the class, they were thinking much more deeply about Knoxville, but also their own hometown,” Seamster said. “They were seeing the city differently – not just as residents, but as urban sociologists.”

Each group of students presented their research findings outside the classroom. Four groups presented at the sociology’s department colloquium series and three other groups presented at a three-part community zoning forum series that addressed historic and current issues of displacement and development in Knoxville. Overall, the series, which took place at Mt. Calvary Church, helped build relationships with significant community groups and organizations, which will result in expanded opportunities for undergraduate engagement.

“The UT Department of Sociology has a long commitment to social justice and several faculty and students engage in community-oriented work,” said Meghan Conley, director of community partnerships in the department. “Dr. Seamster’s course was particularly impactful in terms of community outreach and engagement because it was a true collaboration with community members. At every point, Dr. Seamster’s class emphasized the value and spirit of community-engaged scholarship.”