How One Sociologist Finds Inspiration for His Research Outside the University

Mario Luis Small talks about growing up in Panama and how his perspective has contributed to his path-breaking research.

Caroline Harting
August 17, 2022

Influenced by his childhood in Panama and a discomfort with traditional elite academia, sociologist Mario Luis Small has devoted much of his research to illuminating how personal networks shape poor neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago, and New York. His early love of mathematics and the precision it offers has led him to pursue a distinctive path in sociology one that refines qualitative methods in the social sciences.

Columbia News sat down with Small, who joined Columbia as the Quetelet Professor of Social Science, last year to discuss what motivates his research and why he's happy to be here in New York City and Columbia.

Tell us about your childhood and your embrace of sociology.

I was born and raised in Panama City, during the dictatorship of Manuel Noriega. The U.S. invasion happened the day I was scheduled to take my 10th grade sociology final exam. I remember that day vividly. It was early in the morning, I was getting ready for school, and my mother said there would be no school today. I confess that I was relieved not to have that final. I didn’t like sociology the way I do today. I was more into math, electronics, engineering, and physics. Sociology was too imprecise for my 10th grade self.

That changed when I went to school in Northfield, Minnesota, to Carleton College, on a scholarship. There, I took a couple of electives in sociology and I loved it. I loved studying philosophy, I loved studying social theory. I had great teachers at Carleton, particularly one, Nader Saiedi, who was Iranian and had escaped the Shah. He was just fascinating.

Did your early perceptions about the inexactness of sociology motivate you to make it more precise?

When a sociologist is interviewing someone, they are doing it to discover something that we don’t know, yet, so they have to get it right. This is especially important, and especially difficult, when they are studying motivation.

For example, if we’re trying to do a study of what motivated people to cross the Southern U.S. border with no papers despite enormous difficulty, we have to know whether we are getting the story right. There are policy implications. How do you know that you conducted your interview correctly, and what does it even mean to get it right in that context? What’s the true motivation? Motivations are complicated. Sometimes people are aware of them, sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they are only part of the reason for doing things.

A lot of what I do in my qualitative methodological research is trying to figure this out.

What other areas of research do you work on?

Most of my other work is either on social networks or on social inequality. On social networks, I don’t focus much on the formal structure of them; instead, I study how people form and use their relationships to meet their needs, like the need to talk to others when facing difficulties or to borrow money when short on cash. I am currently writing a paper with a few collaborators on when people decide to confide in, as opposed to avoid, those they are close to.  

On social inequality, I study neighborhood poverty and racial inequity. Recently, my collaborators and I have been using large-scale data from Google, Twitter, and other companies to answer questions that were either difficult or impossible to answer when I was in graduate school. We have written a few papers showing that racial segregation affects where people live and travel to for work or social needs. In major cities, people from different racial groups, on average, tend to not only live, but also travel to specific parts of the city on an everyday basis. We are trying to understand why.

What motivates you to work on your research topics?

When I went to graduate school I wanted to be a social theorist. That is actually not that common in sociology. I had a rude awakening when I got to Harvard, and I learned that sociology was an empirical science. I hated graduate school, and I didn’t like academia. I decided to stay, but only if I could just do exactly what I wanted.

When figuring out my dissertation topic, I was pretty tired of the elitism. I wanted to spend more time in a regular place, and I found this interesting Puerto Rican neighborhood in Boston. Culturally, there are many similarities between Puerto Ricans and Panamanians. So, I thought to myself, “If I do this ethnographic study, I can just hang out in the Puerto Rican neighborhood.” That was one of the most important reasons why I went and did that study. The study became my first book,Villa Victoria: The Transformation of Social Capital in a Boston Barrio.

While I was doing my fieldwork, I stumbled on some interesting things about childcare centers. I didn’t have any children at the time, but I learned that it was common for parents to expand their networks through their kids’ childcare centers, which now, as a parent, seems completely obvious, but I just didn’t think of it at the time.

It turns out that this network expansion happened a lot, but it also turns out that in other childcare centers, it didn’t happen at all. Nobody knew anybody. What was it about either the people who were going to those centers or the centers themselves that were producing different outcomes? I designed a study to explore that question, and that became my first network study, Unanticipated GainsOrigins of Network Inequality in Everyday Life.

One of the interesting things I found while doing that study is that people seemed to trust their kids with a whole bunch of people, including parents they didn’t know that well. For instance, I found that parents would call the childcare center director and say something like, “Hey, I’m late, and I can’t come in to pick up my daughter before closing. Could you give my daughter to the head of the parents’ association? I think her name is Lindsay.” People were doing this all the time without even thinking about it.

Many people say that they don’t trust just anyone, but when you follow their behavior they are often far more trusting than either they admit to themselves or common sense would suggest. That study became Someone to Talk to: How Networks Matter in Practice.

At every juncture of my research, I studied what I found interesting, important, or worth doing, and said to myself, “I’ll see where this takes me.”

What are you working on now?

I’m working with a large team on a project related to poverty. We have a study where we’re using different kinds of data to understand the causes and consequences of racial inequality in access to financial institutions. For example, using data from Google, we found that the number of minutes it takes to walk or drive to the nearest bank versus the nearest payday lender or some other alternative financial institution is dramatically affected by race. Even if you take into account all the obvious things that could affect the relationship between race and access—home ownership of the neighborhood, income and education levels—it is still the case that, the more African American the neighborhood, the far more likely it is that the nearest payday lender is closer than the nearest bank.

We don’t understand why this is. It’s not obvious. From a purely economic perspective there are a whole bunch of payday lenders who are losing money by not targeting white poor neighborhoods. It doesn’t make sense, so we’re trying to understand why. We’re also trying to understand how people think about these decisions and the consequences of these choices because there is a lot of evidence of racial differences in indebtedness, and in many pay loans people take out, and in how often people roll over the loan.

It’s very much a Columbia project at this point. We’ll see where it takes us…

What brought you to Columbia?

It was a confluence of things. First, Columbia has an extraordinary history in much of what interests me, particularly networks, methods, and inequality. A second reason is the intellectual culture of the university as a whole. My impression over the years is that this is a place where people take ideas seriously and where disciplinary boundaries don’t matter that much. People tend to be both ambitious and entrepreneurial about their intellectual work. A third part of it was the City of New York. At Columbia, your intellectual world is really the whole metro area, which is extraordinary. There’s not this collection of social scientists in any other metro area. My intellectual space is not only Columbia, but the greater New York City area universities, like NYU, Princeton, the New School, and so on.

Another part of it had to do with family. I have two young children, a 2-year old and a 4-year old, and it was important for my wife and me to believe that they were growing up in a place with some diversity. There’s nothing like New York. Now that my 4-year old has started to interact with other children, it’s become especially clear that this is something that we needed.

For all those reasons, it’s been wonderful to be here. I love the energy. It’s a really good fit.