2017 Lynd Award: Neighborhood & the City

Robert Sampson

Robert J Sampson
Harvard University
CUSS Newsletter, Spring 2017, Vol. 30, No 2.

Community and urban sociologists have long addressed questions of fundamental concern to the discipline. This centrality continues. Whether racial segregation, the suburbanization of poverty, durable neighborhood inequality, gentrification, the great crime decline, or the globalizaion of cities, the research of CUSS members probes questions relevant to the discipline at large and the general public. I am thus grateful to be honored with the Lynd Award for lifetime achievement and be part of a community of scholars committed to the rigorous study of communities, both past and present.

Recent award recipients have started with biographical accounts of their intellectual roots and career paths to studying communities and urban sociology. I found these fascinating and will follow suit for a bit, but I am reluctant to go into much depth because I have written such an account elsewhere (“Communities and Crime Revisited: Intellectual Trajectory of a Chicago-School Education.” The Origins of American Criminology: Advances in Criminological Theory, Volume 16, 2011). The one thing that might be worth noting about my early years, however, is that com-pared to the other ac-counts I have read, my intellectual path to urban scholarship lacks a coherent narrative. is true that cities intrigued me growing up, especially because the one I called home—Utica, NY—changed dramatically be-fore my eyes, losing population and manufacturing as did many larger industrial cities. Today, abandoned buildings and empty spaces mark large swaths of my old neighborhood haunts. But to be honest, I had no plan to understand this transformation. My undergraduate
career was chaotic and spread across three institutions, and I did not apply to graduate school with the intent to study cities or even sociology.

I came at communities indirectly through the study of crime in graduate
school, a decision that was haphazard at best. I considered only two places at the last minute, in completely different areas, and without due diligence. I was miserable trying to make do with a series of stultifying “real” jobs that paid poorly. So I gambled that even though graduate school would make me yet poorer, at least it would not be boring. Luckily, I was right and stumbled into what lifecourse scholars would call a turning point in the form of an electric and transformative graduate school experience at Albany, including a vibrant intellectual life and a dissertation committee that included the late Travis Hirschi and Peter Blau. Both were eminent scholars who imparted a lasting influence in their respective fields and in my mind—especially an appreciation for social control theory from Hirschi and structuralism from Blau. Graduate school also exposed me to the great tradition in criminology of studying communities, social (dis) organization, and crime, along with the classical Chicago School of urban sociology. I combined these various elements into what we now label neighborhood-effects scholarship, writing a dissertation on the neighborhood structural determinants of criminality and the contextual nature of victim-offender interaction.

I published both city and neighborhood-level research in the 1980s and early 1990s, along with a series of articles and a book on crime in the life course, but my interest in communities accelerated after I joined the sociology faculty at the University of Chicago in 1991. The place was a hotbed of urban scholarship and research on social organization, including Doug Massey, William Julius Wilson, James Coleman, Gerry Suttles, and Terry Clark (all past CUSS award winners), as well as Andrew Abbott, Marta Tienda, and Ed Laumann. It was an exciting time and I was fortunate to mentor a number of students there who worked on neighborhood projects and went on to do great research in the urban area, including Chris Browning, Dave Kirk, and Jeff Morenoff to name a few.
A few years after I arrived at Chicago, another turning point emerged in the form of the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN), which I helped design while on the faculty. The PHDCN eventually became a multi-level study of over 6,000 children (across seven age cohorts) and 300 neighborhoods. Carrying out such a complex project was an ordeal and not one I would recommend for the faint of heart. It was nonetheless an experience that I would not trade for anything. The main reason is that after over a decade of toiling with neighborhood research and the social organization of crime in cities, I was fortunate to help design original data collection and directly measure in new ways many of the theoretical concepts I considered crucial but that had been neglected or simply inferred in prior work. We constructed a community survey, systematic social observation of city streets, and a key informant network survey that was carried out in 1995 and then again around 2002. This contextually based design was carefully integrated with the longitudinal cohort study. The bulk of PHDCN data is publically archived and has been used by hundreds of scholars around the world. The extensive library of publications and insights that continue to be mined from the data has been especially rewarding.
For my own part, the consistency of neighborhood differentiation from ancient cities to contemporary Chicago was a powerful signal, suggesting the general and enduring process of neighborhood effects, and hence its theoretical centrality for the study of urban stratification and multiple aspects of wellbeing. I continued to pursue this general idea after moving to Harvard in 2003, where I nurtured my research in new directions while honing my arguments that culminated in Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect (2012).  I was exposed to another great group of graduate students, including Pat Sharkey, Ann Owens, Corina Graif, and others who worked on various neighborhood effects papers and aspects of the Chicago project. My main goal in the book was to explore the deep structure of neighborhood stratification that persisted in Chicago across time and multiple units of social ecology. I examined neighborhood-level associations, contextual effects on individuals, and inter-neighborhood migration and information flows. My argument was that concentrated inequality cuts across multiple scales of influence and time, and from the individual level of analysis to the structural organization of the city. Equally important, I strove to provide a theoretical account of the structural and cultural dimensions of neighborhood effects while also attending to the perceptions and choices of individuals. Some of the concepts I examined include collective efficacy, ecometrics, the looking-glass neighborhood, and neighborhood networks that generate the higher-order social structure of the city. I am grateful for the research of other scholars in analyzing, critiquing, and extending these ideas.

Since the publication of Great American City, I have started new projects in multiple cities but I have continued my interest in neighborhood effects and the higher-order structure of the city. In a study with Harvard Ph.D. student Jackie Hwang (now at Stanford) published in the 2014 ASR, we developed a conceptual framework on racial inequality and gentrification, introducing a method of systematic social observation using Google Street View to detect visible cues of neighborhood change. We argued that a durable racial hierarchy governs residential selection and, in turn, gentrifying neighborhoods. Integrating a number of different data sources with the Google measures, we showed that the recent pace of gentrification in Chicago was negatively associated with the concentration of blacks and Hispanics in neighborhoods that either showed signs of gentrification or were adjacent and still disinvested in earlier years. Racial composition had a threshold effect, however, only attenuating gentrification when the share of blacks in a neighborhood was greater than 40 percent. Consistent with the theory of neighborhood stigma laid out in Great American City, we also found that collective perceptions of disorder, which are higher in poor minority neighborhoods, deter gentrification, while observed disorder does not. These results help explain the reproduction of neighborhood racial inequality amid urban transformation.


Moving beyond Chicago, in 2012 I became the founding director of the Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI) in an attempt to spur research in greater Boston. I was surprised when I arrived at Harvard by how much scholars there had neglected their own backyard, which it turns out is full of rich data and theoretical opportunities. Among other efforts of BARI, we applied ecometric methodology developed in Chicago to new sources of data emerging not only in Boston but also in cities around the world. In a 2015 paper in Sociological Methodology with Dan O’Brien and Chris Winship, for example, we laid out our framework for integrating so-called “big data” with ecometrics. Extending this method, Dan and I showed in another paper that future disorder and crime emerge not from public cues of “broken windows” but from private disorder within the community. Our larger message was that large-scale data from administrative records, when properly measured and interpreted, represent a growing resource for studying neighborhood change.


In another project with Mario Small and post docs at Harvard, I have been examining the argument developed in the last part of Great American City on neighborhood networks and the interlocking structures of the contemporary metropolis. In a current working paper, for example, we develop a test of neighborhood isolation that improves on static measures derived from commonly used census reports by leveraging fine -grained dynamic data on the everyday movement of residents in America’s 50 largest cities. We develop techniques to measure mobility using over 650 million geocoded Twitter messages retrieved from almost 400,000 users over eighteen months. Although we find surprisingly high consistency across neighborhoods of different race and income composition in the average travel distance and number of neighborhoods visited in the metropolitan region, we uncover notable differences in the composition of the neighborhoods visited. Residents of primarily black and Hispanic neighborhoods—whether poor or not—are far less exposed to either nonpoor or white middle class neighborhoods than residents of primarily white neighborhoods. These large racial differences are notable given recent declines in segregation and the increasing diversity of American cities, and raise the important prospects that isolation and segregation travel well beyond people’s neighborhoods of residence.


None of this is to imply that I abandoned Chicago as a site of urban study. In 2012-2103, I returned for data collection while simultaneously committing to the comparative study of a city with a very different urban form—Los Angeles. In particular, with Rob Mare at UCLA, I directed a follow-up of four of the original PHDCN cohorts (birth, 9, 12, and 15), interviewing over 1,000 respondents from the last wave of the study in 2002, following individuals no matter where they moved in the U.S. We also conducted an original follow-up of over 1,000 respondents from the second wave of the Los Angeles Survey of Families and Communities (LAFANS).


One set of studies from these follow-ups has examined economic mobility at both the individual and neighborhood levels in Chicago and Los Angeles. For example, in an issue of the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences on spatial inequality (2017), Rob Mare, Harvard graduate student Jared Schachner, and I analyzed the trajectories of six hundred Angelenos from 2000 to 2013 along with neighborhood trajectories, assessing the degree to which contextual changes in neighborhood income arise from neighborhood-level mobility or individual residential mobility. We reported deep and persistent inequality among both neighborhoods and individuals. In a paper for the Federal Reserve in 2016, I also showed that in important respects inequality in neighborhood mobility is greater in Los Angeles than Chicago, especially at the top of the income distribution.


Additionally, with Harvard Ph.D. student Kristin Perkins and Rob Mare, I analyzed changes in middle-income neighborhoods (ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 2015), and in another paper that year Kristin and I examined acute, compounded, and persistent deprivation in a representative sample of our Chicago adolescents transitioning to young adulthood (Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences). One of our goals in the RSF paper was to explore compounded deprivation, the extent to which study participants are simultaneously exposed to individual and contextual forms of deprivation—including material deprivation (poverty) and socialorganizational deprivation (for example, low collective efficacy)—through multiple phases of the life course from adolescence up to age thirty-two. The results demonstrate the crosscutting adversities that were intensified by the Great Recession and the strong connection of race to persistent and compounded deprivation in the transition to adulthood.


Finally, in recent years I have turned more intently to the physical environment, with a focus on lead toxicity as an overlooked pathway through which racial inequality literally gets into the body. In the DuBois Review: Social Science Research on Race (2016), Harvard Ph.D. student Alix Winter and I began by assessing the racial ecology of lead exposure as a form of environmental inequity, one with both historical and contemporary significance. Drawing on comprehensive data from over one million blood tests administered to Chicago children from 1995- 2013 and matched to over 2300 geographic block groups, we assessed an array of structural explanations for observed racial disparities, including socioeconomic status, type and age of housing, proximity to freeways and smelting plants, and systematic observations of housing decay and neighborhood disorder. Our theoretical framework and results pointed to lead toxicity as an environmental pathway through which racial segregation has contributed to the legacy of black disadvantage in the United States. In papers published in the American Journal of Public Health and Criminology in 2017 and 2018, Alix and I took a further step by capitalizing on the follow-up of more than 200 infants from the birth cohort of PHDCN matched to their blood lead levels from around age 3. Using multiple strategies we found a link between early childhood lead exposure and both adolescent health and delinquency. The results underscore lead exposure as a trigger for poisoned development in the early life course. With Chris Muller (now at Berkeley) and Alix Winter, a forthcoming article in the Annual Review of Sociology summarizes the contemporary evidence and presents a conceptual model of environmental inequality over the life course to guide an agenda for future research. We argue that lead exposure is an important subject for sociological analysis because it is socially stratified and has important social consequences, which in turn depend in part on children’s social environments. The paper concludes with a call for deeper exchange between urban sociology, environmental sociology, and public health, and for more collaboration between scholars and local communities in the pursuit of independent science for the common good. As I write, the current administration is radically denuding the EPA, making environmental inequality an even more pressing concern, one I hope CUSS members will take up with further scholarship and social action.


My fascination with the spatial foundations of inequality and the neighborhood context of social life has been a constant across my entire career even though I have pursued other lines of inquiry. I am grateful to have stumbled into such a vibrant area of intellectual engagement, and I look forward most of all to the contributions of the next generation of CUSS scholars.


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