Sociology Class Studies Geneva – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Sociology Class Studies Geneva

This spring, Professor of Sociology Jack Harris turned a classroom of HWS students into full-fledged sociologists. For his senior seminar (Sociology 465: Research Practicum), three groups of students collaborated with faculty members and community partners to produce reports on the Geneva Housing Authority, the Downtown Development Initiative and the First Ward Engagement.

“The intention of the course is to have graduating sociology and anthropology-sociology majors practice their interpretative, methodological and analytic skills in a real world context. They become real consultants to local and regional not-for-profit agencies,” said Harris.

“Each team works with a client to define a problem and the scope of work, and then executes the study, submits a final report, and makes a presentation. Clients over the years have found the student’s work to be extremely helpful and valuable, regularly sharing the results with executive committees and boards. The student-consultants often provide a service that the organization needs but simply cannot afford.” 

In the Downtown Development Initiative project, research focused on ways to attract HWS students to Geneva’s downtown and found that students would be enticed by more food options and dance clubs. The research also revealed that students felt safe going downtown. 

Another project centered its research on the Geneva Housing Authority (GHA), which runs the Family Self-Sufficiency Program, a local program providing service and subsidized housing for low-income families. The students researching this program discovered that participation was low due to the lack of awareness among eligible families. 

“We are reviewing the information provided and will be taking some of their recommendations under consideration, especially in regard to program marketing,” said Bob Doeblin of GHA.

Madelaine Hunt ’09, who worked on the First Ward Engagement project with Elisha Law-Simmonds ’09, said that they “literally started with nothing.”

“The project that was assigned to us,” Hunt said, “was seeking an answer to the classic sociological question: What is the role and influence of the institution in everyday life? We studied the role of neighborhood relations, informal and formal, and how they affected one’s political activism at the local level in city government and at the national level.”

Through rigorous library research, they discovered more neighborly interaction in the northern (transient) section and less neighborly interaction in the southerly (homeowner) section. The cause was attributed to smaller properties in the northern section which inadvertently forces neighbors to interact more. 

They were able to discern that “even though there was more neighborly interaction in the northern section, they were not as happy living there, whereas in the southern section there was not a lot of neighborly interaction and they were happy to live there.”

Jackie Augustine ’99, City Counselor, said in regards to the First Ward Engagement strategy that she “discussed the findings at a recent Ward meeting and residents seemed interested in pursuing some of the engagement strategies.” 

“It is also something that will be considered in the context of our College Neighbors standing committee that meets monthly,” Augustine said, “to be sure that student and non-student residents are brought into the planning. The study itself dovetails with the recently completed Neighborhood Improvement Strategy that I hope Council will adopt shortly. The first piece of that strategy is implementing neighborhood-specific capacity-building activities.”

Hunt said she has learned that “sociologic research is personal and public, and people are interested in learning about themselves.” Hunt hopes that research like this will help people think more critically about where to move their family.

Harris concludes that through projects like this, “students find out that they have significant sociological skills that are very useful in a broad array of work settings, and that they have become, through their studies and consulting experience, practicing sociologists.”

Katie Flowers, associate director of service learning and community engagement, said “these projects are truly a win-win situation. The students gain real experience helping their community and the community in turn saves real money on something that they can utilize.”