Stephen Klineberg, Rice professor of sociology and founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, has spent most of his career studying the city of Houston, and it all happened by complete chance. In 1982, he and his students conducted what was supposed to be a one-time survey to measure the social costs of Houston’s spectacular growth and to assess area residents’ concerns about what kind of city Houston was building with its abundance of affluence.
Two months after the first survey was completed, the 80-year oil boom went bust. “Suddenly, the world changed,” Klineberg said. “And it became clear that we needed to do the survey again the following year, and then to keep doing it every year in order to track the ongoing transformations; Houston has turned out to be one of the most interesting and consequential cities in America.” Now beginning its 37th year, the Kinder Houston Area Survey has been measuring the continuities and changes in the attitudes, beliefs and experiences of successive representative samples of Harris County residents. The findings make it clear that Houston is a harbinger of many of the trends that are changing urban areas across the country.
“We were only going to do the survey once, but as it turns out, Houston today is where all of America is going to be in about 25 years,” he said. Klineberg uses objective social science to clarify for the citizens of Houston: What’s going on here? Why is this happening? Why here? Why now? What do these changes portend? And what are the positives and negatives that are inherent in a transformation as profound and consequential as this one is?
The survey has helped Houston use metrics free of agenda to build a clearer understanding of the need for new ways of thinking. “The chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership told me several years ago that these surveys have put the business community 10 years ahead of where they would otherwise have been in their understanding of how and why Houston is changing,” Klineberg said. “They have helped to identify and stimulate the pro-growth strategies that can position Houston for prosperity in the 21st century. These strategies are different from the ones that worked so well for the city when its location near the East Texas oil fields was the basis for its success.”
The source of wealth in the future will have less to do with natural resources, and more to do with human resources. “We now understand more clearly the critical importance of education and of quality of life improvements,” Klineberg said. “If Houston is going to make it in the years ahead, it will need to become an urban destination of choice, a place that can attract the best and the brightest people in America, working at the cutting-edge of knowledge, who are freer than ever before to choose where they would like to live.”
The Kinder Houston Area Survey reveals where Houston has been and how it has changed, but it also alludes to where it’s going. For example, one of the striking trends in Houston is the confluence of age and ethnicity: it’s not until you reach people in Harris County who are 63 and older that the majority of folks are still Anglos. At each younger age group, the percentage of Anglos plummets and the percentage of African-Americans, Asians and Latinos surges. “One of the things we can say for sure is that this is a done deal,” Klineberg said. “No force in the world is going to stop Houston or Texas or America from becoming more African-American, more Asian, more Latino and less Anglo as the 21st century unfolds. The country is in the midst of a profound transition, from having been an amalgam of European nationalities into becoming a microcosm of the world. Nowhere is this transformation more clearly seen than in Houston.”
While the surveys and census data reveal that our world is becoming more multiethnic, it doesn’t show how we are going to manage that transition or how well we will address these issues. “In the new America, where education has become so critical, 70 percent of everyone in Harris County who is under age 20 is African-American or Hispanic — the two groups most likely to be in overcrowded, underfunded, inner city, segregated schools,” he said. “Can we ensure that these kids will be prepared to succeed in today’s global, knowledge-based economy? How we answer that question will determine who we will be as the century unfolds.”
Sociology is the most “universal” of the social sciences. Economics studies the distribution of money; political science addresses the distribution of power; psychology focuses on what is going on inside the head of the individual; anthropology looks at cultures, meanings, and patterns of behavior. “Sociology explores the interactions among all of these different dimensions of social life and is best positioned to ask the broader questions, especially relevant in today’s world: How and why are societies changing so profoundly?” he said. “What are the challenges and opportunities we face as we seek to position Houston and Texas and the United States for success in the very different world of the 21st century?”
Klineberg considers sociology a calling more than a career. “It’s an exhilarating field,” he said. “Academia in general is an amazing profession, where your work is never finished. When have you read enough? When have you talked to enough students? When have you written enough reports and books and articles? On the other hand, it’s work that comes directly out of what fascinates you the most. There’s no other field outside of academia that provides as much opportunity for you to shape your life from within.”
He urges students to refrain from selecting a major until the second semester of their sophomore year of college, because high schools cover only a small part of human knowledge, as seen especially in students’ limited exposure to the social sciences. “The essence of the social sciences is to ask the questions of the humanities and to use the methods of the sciences to answer those questions,” Klineberg said. “You have to test your theories about the social world, human nature and individual differences against carefully collected objective data if you want to separate fact from fiction and to get closer to the real truths about the evolution of human societies.”