UC Berkeley Sociology Professor Martín Sánchez-Jankowski has devoted his career to studying the very thing he once tried to escape—poverty.

Born to indigenous and mestizo migrant laborers in Sonoro, Mexico, Sánchez-Jankowski moved to Michigan with his family when he was a child.

“Obviously when you live in (poverty), you want to get out of it,” he said, but added that he knew his background would inform his professional and scholarly direction in the future.

Sánchez-Jankowski is the author of the recent UC Press title Cracks in the Pavement: Social Change and Resilience in Poor Neighborhoods, about urban poverty in Los Angeles and New York.

The book was recently named the 2008 recipient of the C. Wright Mills Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP), an honor presented annually to a book that “demonstrates dedication to a search for a sophisticated understanding of the individual and society.”

Sánchez-Jankowski spent extended periods of time living in the neighborhoods he studied over the course of nearly a decade.

UC Press Executive Editor Naomi Schneider said the book “gives a whole different portrait” of urban neighborhoods by looking at community institutions that work, like barbershops and beauty salons, as opposed to examining what makes urban neighborhoods dysfunctional.

“(It’s) a corrective to the way we see urban ghettos,” she explained.

Cracks in the Pavement is one of a dozen UC Press books that have won the prestigious C. Wright Mills Award. UC Press has been honored with the award seven times in the past 10 years, and 12 times overall since the award was instated in 1964.

The 2007 recipient was UC Press title Brewing Justice, by Daniel Jaffee, which analyzes the fair trade industry through the lens of Mexican coffee farmers.

The award is named after sociologist C. Wright Mills, a social and political activist known for revolutionizing American sociology during the 1950s.

Schneider, who has sponsored eight winning titles, attributes the continual recognition to the progressive nature of the UC Press sociology list.

“(Winning books) often look at the disenfranchised and they try to give voice to people who are ignored in our society,” she said.

While Sánchez-Jankowski says he was influenced by the namesake of his recent award, particularly by Mills’ book The Sociological Imagination, he said he felt a stronger connection to political scientist Harold Lasswell.

When Sánchez-Jankowski was in graduate school, Lasswell took him out to lunch and asked him about his plans for the future. He encouraged Sanchez-Jankowski to plan out his research following his dissertation, so that when the burgeoning sociologist grew old, he would be able to sit down and write a book about all that he had learned.

Sánchez-Jankowski is still following that plan, currently studying rural poverty in the same way he studied urban poverty—by living among those who experience it. He will be spending the next several years hopping back and forth between Fijian indigenous communities and Native American reservations in Arizona and South Dakota.

While he said it was too soon to draw any conclusions from his ongoing research, he observed that “in the process of trying to help people get out of poverty, we destroy their understanding of who they are and being traditional.”

Like the work of C. Wright Mills, Sánchez-Jankowski’s research is influential in both the academic and public realms. For example, a book he wrote about gangs is used by both prosecutors and defense attorneys.

“I always intended (my research) to be a help for people,” Sánchez-Jankowski said. “(Sociologists’) job was always to enlighten the world with what’s going on inside it.”