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Q&A: Social scientist Robert Sampson on how neighborhoods shape our lives

Q&A: Social scientist Robert Sampson on how neighborhoods shape our lives

Posting in Cities

In the internet age, place still matters. Here's why, and what you can do to improve your neighborhood.

While it's well accepted that a person's life is shaped by characteristics such as income level and educational attainment, Robert Sampson argues that the neighborhoods we live in also play a long-term role in our lives. A professor of social sciences at Harvard University, Sampson is also the author of Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect.

I spoke with Sampson about why place matters in the internet age, what an un-mailed letter tells us about neighborhood cohesion and what individuals can do to improve their locales. Below are excerpts from our interview.

You grew up in Utica, New York, and have said your experiences there inspired your work. Talk about that and how you came to research cities.

I grew up in a declining industrial city. There are lots of cities like it that in the 1960s and '70s saw an out-migration and decline of the middle class. This happened particularly in the Rust Belt and Northeast. It also led to the concentration of poverty. This, in turn, was related to a number of social problems, including crime, vacant housing, perceptions of disorder and increasing racial segregation. In the '70s, I also lived in other cities, including Buffalo and New York City. New York was practically bankrupt. There was high crime and disorder. Cities were thought to be dying -- and I found this to be an incredible phenomenon. In graduate school, I became interested in crime and the role it plays in cities. You could argue that the great increase in crime in the 1960s and '70s was one of the biggest changes cities had seen in a long time, just as the decline in crime we're now seeing is a key factor in the rejuvenation of cities. I felt the study of crime had been under-appreciated in terms of understanding cities. I also became enamored with urban sociology and viewing cities as important sites of study.

It all came together with a large-scale study that began around 1992 when I was at the University of Chicago after I'd gotten my Ph.D. This was one of the peak years of homicide in Chicago. We set out to study children and the environments they were growing up in. It was a study of about 6,000 children and their families in various neighborhoods of Chicago. They were followed over about seven years no matter where they moved in the U.S. We did intensive interviews with the children and their families. We also set out to study the neighborhoods in which they lived. I was scientific director of that piece of the project. It entailed a unique methodology of studying the city.

You argue that, even in the internet age, our lives are shaped by where we live. What led you to that conclusion?

There's a notion that because modern technology allows us to be anywhere, it has led to a kind of placelessness. That would mean the local neighborhood is less important. But research shows that places -- particularly as they are embodied in local neighborhoods -- have important properties that are persistent and shape people's lives. The idea behind my book is that neighborhood inequality is important across a wide and surprising variety of phenomenon. I study crime, but also infant mortality, health, social altruism, disorder and learning. Even test scores vary by neighborhood. This suggests there a common denominator.

In my book, I argue there are persistent effects of our neighborhoods on our lives. The persistence is seen in a couple of ways. Neighborhoods tend to retain their relative status in the city. Poor neighborhoods at one point tend to be poor at another point. High status neighborhoods tend to remain high status. Neighborhoods are sticky in their reputations. The other way they're persistent is how they tend to influence children in ways that linger. Kids that grow up in disadvantaged, high-violence neighborhoods suffer consequences in later years even if they move away. There's an enduring effect on children of living in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Your conclusions are based on 10 years of research in Chicago. The work was incredibly detailed -- part of it involved tracking whether a sealed, stamped envelope left on the street was placed in the mail by a passerby. Talk about the different aspects of this study.

One of the innovations of our work was to produce a systematic way of measuring dimensions of neighborhoods and city life. I think of this as a science of the city. We've known for awhile how to systematically measure characteristics of individuals: test scores, diagnoses. We have measures for society in terms of the GNP. We have report cards for schools. The idea was to develop a new metric, which we call eco-metrics. These are metrics that allow us to systematically measure social characteristics across neighborhoods. Typically, researchers looked at characteristics like whether a neighborhood was rich or poor, black or white. We set out to measure social characteristics, like cohesion, networks, trust and fear. We embarked on a set of methods:

  • Systematic social observation: We went into the streets to observe social behavior and physical characteristics of the neighborhoods. We drove slowly down the streets of Chicago in a rented SUV. In the backseat, we had two video cameras aimed at the streets and sidewalks. We filmed everything. We had audio to record sound and two observers keeping logs. Then we coded it. Was there graffiti on the buildings? Were there broken bottles in the streets? Were people fighting? Were children unsupervised? This coding allowed us to test key hypotheses, such as 'Broken Windows,' the famous theory that suggests cues of disorder lead to urban decline.
  • Community surveys: We would go door-to-door and interview people. We asked not only about their own characteristics, but also key questions about the neighborhood. What kinds of social interactions existed there? Did they trust their neighborhood? Did they have an expectation that others in their neighborhood would help them? That allowed us to develop measures of social cohesion. We call this the collective efficacy of neighborhoods in dealing with social problems. Those characteristics help us understand crime, disorder and other aspects of the environment.
  • Lost letter experiment: We addressed the letters to pseudonyms, but real addresses. We took thousands of these letters and systematically dropped them. We'd record the percentage of letters that were returned by each neighborhood. The difference between neighborhoods was much higher than I originally thought. In some neighborhoods, literally 0 percent of the letters were returned. In other neighborhoods, it was more than 75 percent. This taps into what I call 'other-regarding behavior.' We don't get anything out of it, so it's an altruistic behavior. Two of the biggest factors [in whether letters were returned] were concentrated poverty and the density of local organizations. Organizational density predicts high letter-return rates (adjusting for poverty, race, and other 'usual suspects'), while concentrated poverty seems to reduce or inhibit letter mail-backs. In addition, neighborhoods with high collective efficacy and trust among neighbors show higher mail-back behavior.
  • Interviews with community leaders: We interviewed the politicians, legal authorities, educational authorities, business leaders and religious leaders. We got to the organizational underbelly of how cities work. We interviewed more than 2,000 of these leaders and looked at organizations and their networks. It allowed us to look at questions like: Are communities with close contact among leaders better off than communities whose leaders aren't talking to one another? We found communities with leaders who didn't talk to one another or even know each other. Neighborhoods where the connections were dense tended to do better.

What can we do an individual level to improve our neighborhood? Or do we need government for that?

Some problems neighborhoods experience were the result of policies that were not well thought out. For example, there were institutionally based racial segregation and ill-conceived housing policies in many cities. Disinvestment tax policies led to certain neighborhoods not getting their fair share. Fortunately, many cities have taken heed of neighborhoods impacted by policy. But individuals are not powerless. When residents are willing and share expectations, they'll help others in the neighborhood. When there's a level of trust and collective action to improve local conditions, that can have an impact. It's when residents take ownership of the neighborhoods.

There are a variety of mechanisms [for how people can improve their neighborhoods], but one of the biggest relates to community-based organizations and collective efforts to improve local conditions. For example, the evidence suggests that when people work together for a common cause (a blood drive, improvement of a school library or efforts to reduce disorder and clean up the neighborhood), unanticipated social networks are created and trust is improved. Even seemingly mundane activities like a local meeting can generate social efficacy that can have lasting impact -- and everyday interactions are fostered by organizations and even loosely affiliated groups. Improving the capacity for citizens to report neighborhood conditions to city government (building code violations, graffiti, broken street lights) can also improve civic engagement.

What's next for you and this work?

It's been awhile since our last contact with the children I mentioned from the original study. We started a new project locating a subset of the original children. This project ended data collection in March. We followed just over 1,000 of the children. We located them no matter where they live in the world. We're now looking at their lives and able to go back as long as 17 years ago. This will be one of the longest studies that looks at the influence of the environment on kids' lives.

I've also started a new project. I'm director of the Boston Area Research Initiative. It's a new collaboration based out of Harvard that is attempting to do new studies in Boston. It works with city agencies to better connect academic research with leaders such as the police, health commissioner and housing authorities. We're also collecting new forms of data that are made available by the new technologies I talked about earlier. Technology doesn't necessarily take people away from places. It can be used to engage citizens with their city.

Photo: Robert Sampson

Photo: GSG/Creative Juice

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure