Neighbourhood Effects and Beyond: Explaining the Paradoxes of Inequality in the Changing American Metropolis

Blog by Robert J Sampson

8 Oct 2018, 12:08 p.m.
Robert J Sampson



Cities intrigued me growing up, in part because the one I called home—Utica, New York—was changing dramatically.  A small industrial city in the upstate region of New York, Utica was hemorrhaging population and manufacturing, as were larger and well-known industrial cities like Detroit.  Today, abandoned buildings and empty spaces mark areas near downtown and in my old neighborhood haunts, but immigration from Bosnia has stabilized the population.  Is an urban renaissance possible in a city given up for dead? 

This question is part of a larger, ongoing debate.  Indeed, scholars and pundits alike are conflicted over changes to the 21st century metropolis, not just in the U.S. but internationally.  Some see gloom and doom, while others proclaim far-reaching progress.  Changes to the urban scene in America, among them immigration, rising income segregation, mass incarceration, and the suburbanization of poverty, have also produced political polarization.  We see many of these tendencies globally as well.  Whatever side one takes, the social transformation of the metropolis has been notable.  Yet while many things are improving and others worsening, classic urban problems of concentrated poverty and racial segregation endure. How much has really changed?  The theoretical stakes in explaining these paradoxes are large, and the winner of clashing policy prescriptions will influence the shape of approaches to urban inequality for years to come.  

Based on the 2018 Urban Studies lecture, I take on these issues and aim to advance a unifying framework on persistence and change in urban inequality, highlighting a theory of neighbourhood effects and what I define as the higher-order structure of the contemporary metropolis.  I emphasize contemporary American research, which I know best, focusing on neighbourhood effects and racial inequality at multiple levels of urban social organisation.  Although my research is also based largely on American cities, I believe the implications are wide-ranging in nature.

My core argument in the paper is that neighbourhood structures are a persistent feature of urban systems that exert causal effects on a wide variety of everyday life, that neighbourhoods mediate and are mediated by both macro structures (e.g. political, economic, legal) and micro processes (e.g. perception and choice), and that without effective policy intervention, neighbourhoods will perpetuate structural inequality. Intersecting these structures in the cities I feature is what Gunnar Myrdal famously referred to some seventy years ago as the American Dilemma: racism.

I pay special attention to the role of crime and criminalization in my account, both in terms of explaining urban inequality and in evaluating contemporary policy responses.  I argue that a focus on violence and criminal justice is fitting because 2018 is the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report on racial violence in American cities and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr, the preeminent voice against the racial inequalities that characterise(d) urban America and that were a focal point of the civil unrest.

I apply this analytic framework to examine three basic themes: (1) neighbourhood effects as important drivers and mediators of urban transformation, especially the role of collective efficacy and community organizations in producing the great American crime decline; (2) racial disparities across the life course in compounded deprivation, intergenerational mobility, and what I call “poisoned development” arising from environmental toxins like lead; and (3) how everyday spatial mobility beyond the local neighbourhood produce overlooked forms of social isolation and higher-order segregation—although residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods travel far and wide, their relative isolation in the larger metropolis persists.

I conclude with a challenge to the dominant policy perspectives seeking to overcome persistent inequalities.  The Kerner Commission’s emphasis on person versus place-based policies turns out to be prescient, with current debates replaying familiar themes but in a new landscape.  I ask in particular: does American integrationist policy stigmatise blacks?  The aim of the paper is ultimately to advance the theoretical and policy foundations on which this question, along with urban inequality generally, are debated.


Read the paper on Urban Studies - Online First here



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