James Short helped shape sociology with early study of Chicago street gangs

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Pioneering sociologist James Short was studying Chicago street gangs during the Eisenhower Administration. | Provided photo

Back during the Eisenhower Administration, James Short was studying Chicago street gangs.

And though Mr. Short’s Youth Studies Project wrapped up nearly 60 years ago, other sociologists say it remains relevant today.

He found that gang members “want to be respected and be tough,” said Lorine A. Hughes, a sociologist at the University of Colorado Denver. “They’re not thinking about broader punishments. They really want to be respected on the street.”

He sought information from potential “juvenile delinquents” themselves, rather than rely on data from police and the courts.

James Short looks up his entry on Juvenile Delinquency in an early 1960s edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica while enjoying breakfast at Rico’s Public House, January 8, 2017 in Pullman, Washington.| J. Michael Short photo

James Short looks up his entry on Juvenile Delinquency in an early 1960s edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica while enjoying breakfast at Rico’s Public House, January 8, 2017 in Pullman, Washington.| J. Michael Short photo

“Jim’s research from the YSP was among the first to stress that gangs were first and foremost groups, not a collection of individuals with particular pathologies or misfit kids,” Andrew V. Papachristos, a sociologist at Northwestern University, wrote for Chicago Magazine.

An Illinois native and University of Chicago-trained professor, he died in May at 93 at his home in Pullman, Washington. “I think his heart just stopped,” said his son Michael.

Mr. Short worked from 1951 to 1997 in the sociology department at Washington State University, where Wilson Hall — completed in 1917 — was re-dedicated in 2009 in his honor as Wilson-Short Hall, his son said. He remained on as a professor emeritus.

Washington State University renamed a hall in honor of sociologist James Short. | Provided photo

Washington State University renamed a hall in honor of sociologist James Short. | Provided photo

During a leave of absence from WSU, he worked from 1959 to 1962 in Chicago directing research on the YSP, a collaboration between the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago and the sociology department at the University of Chicago, Hughes said.

“He and his colleagues worked for three years with numerous gangs and surveyed dozens of gang members, trying to learn whether boys with monikers like Smack Daddy, Duke, and Commando were so very different from their counterparts in wealthier parts of the city,” said WSU spokeswoman Joanna Steward.

It was “One of the most comprehensive gang studies ever conducted,” Hughes said. “At least 20 gangs, white and black; looking at values, friendships, relationships.” The project produced over 15,000 pages of text.

“He and his fellow researchers spent hundreds of hours talking and interacting with juvenilesin order to learn firsthand about the life of the gang members,” said Arthur J. Lurigio, a professor of psychology and criminology at Loyola University Chicago. “His methodology and findings are still relevant today.”

“Perpetually curious and busy,” Lurigio said, recentlyMr. Short “published in the Annual Review of Criminology. I believe at the time he was 91.”

Mr. Short also founded WSU’s Social and Economic Sciences Research Center, one of the first telephone survey centers for demographic research, his son said. And he wrote more than 75 papers and 24 books or studies.

He was born in the same farmhouse as his mother in Pleasant Plains in Sangamon County, Illinois. His father was a local schoolmaster.

There he learned about racial divisions and prejudice.

“It was common knowledge, boasted by some, that no black person had ever spent a night in our little town,” he wrote in a biography. “I do not know whether this was true, but I remember vividly the only night in my memory when it was not true. A touring quartet of women from a small black church in the southern United States visited our church. Following their performance, fearful for the women’s safety, deacons from the church, including my father, spent the night guarding their small trailer against would-be intruders.”

Mr. Short enrolled at Shurtleff College in Alton, Illinois. In 1942 he signed up for a military training program at Ohio’s Denison University that would make him a Marine. At Denison, he took his first sociology courses.

Later, he served in occupied Japan.

Returning to Denison, he fell in love at first sight with Kelma Hegberg, who would become his wife in 1947.

Mr. Short went on to the University of Chicago, where he earned a master’s and doctorate in sociology, Hughes said.

In recent years, he served on the Social Science Research Council Task Force on Hurricane Katrina and Rebuilding the Gulf Coast.

He was appointed to President Johnson’s Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence in 1968, when, Mr. Short said, “The country was undergoing tremendous social changes, seemingly moving from one crisis to another, and I had a front row seat.”

But, he wrote last year, “The times we now live in are equally fraught. We should not shirk from our responsibilities, either as scholars or citizens, for active participation in them.”

His wife died in 2011. In addition to his son he is survived by his daughter Susan Short Castleberry, brothers Ed and George, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His son said his family plans to host a memorial reception in the fall at the WSU campus.

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