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Researchers employ the concept of neighborhood effects to explore the causes of social pathology among the urban poor and minorities in terms of the spatial dynamics caused by segregation, deindustrialization, and government neglect. In its various forms, including the “culture of poverty” (Lewis 1961), “the urban underclass” (Wilson 1987), and “culture of segregation” (Massey and Denton 1993), research on neighborhood effects demonstrates (1) how structural factors and racism explain the formation of poor neighborhoods, and (2) how these neighborhoods become the basis for an urban subculture that further marginalizes the poor. This research makes assumptions about the interrelations of structural factors (e.g., jobs and housing markets) and culture that under closer scrutiny raise more questions than answers. In addition, this research tends to homogenize the “culture” of urban poverty rather than exploring its complexities and constitutive role in producing both popular and dominant cultures.
As Catherine Garner and Stephen Raudenbush (1991) note, the first question that one must ask when looking at neighborhood effects is, “What constitutes a neighborhood?” How does one compare a vibrant “neighborhood” such as Harlem with a marginalized African American community in another city (Newman 1991)? In developing statistical analyses of segregation many researchers, such as Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton (1993), rely mainly on census tract data. Massey and Denton are careful to mention the limitations of analysis based on census tract information. However, in terms of defining the impacts of neighborhood on “culture,” a qualitative approach that takes into account the specific history, politics, and race relations that define neighborhoods is needed. This does not mean, however, that qualitative research alone can provide an accurate understanding of urban culture.
Based on research in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba (primarily during the 1950s and 1960s), Oscar Lewis sought to understand how urban poverty generated a series of social pathologies among the poor, including sexism, fatalism, and an inability to plan for the future. In their well-known 1970 refutation of the application of the culture of poverty theory, Edwin Eames and Judith Goode argued that many of the characteristics Lewis associated with poverty, including matrifocal families and mutual aid, are rational adaptations. The continuing prevalence of poverty, they stated, must be understood in terms of restricted access to and attainment of job skills. Studies that pathologize the poor have received justified criticism for privileging middle-class values, being vague about the overall characteristics of poverty and their interrelations, and viewing matrifocal households as a cause rather than a result of poverty. As Katherine S. Newman (1991) pointed out, matrifocal households also may be seen as part of a larger strategy of maintaining large networks of kinship ties in order to alleviate economic insecurity. Following the lead of Carol Stack’s path-breaking book All Our Kin (1974), Newman emphasized how social actors are not only adapting but also creating notions of family and community that both alter and reproduce traditional middle-class ideals of the nuclear family.
This point about family structure is crucial because William Julius Wilson (1987) attributed many of the characteristics of the culture of the “urban underclass” to the prevalence of female-headed households. These households, according to Wilson, are in turn the result of the lack of job opportunities for African American men. Their high rate of unemployment due to deindustrialization, combined with the departure of the African American middle class from the inner city, has created a subculture of poverty that generates single-parent families with no middle-class role models. Poor African American neighborhoods are now “hermetically sealed” from the middleclass values that can lead to prosperity. This argument, however, must be subject to closer scrutiny that questions the mechanical relationship between economics and culture (again, compare Harlem to a more “isolated” neighborhood). Does the presence of middle-class families, for example, provide positive role models? Indeed, studies have shown that in many cases the middle-class disdain their poorer neighbors. And what about the kinship, work, recreational, educational, and other ties that connect urban neighborhoods? How do we account for the strength of churches in many poor neighborhoods?
In another statistically based analysis, Massey and Denton (1993) argued that segregation has led to a subculture of linguistic isolation (black English), low school achievement, and an overall oppositional stance towards the dominant culture. The authors critiqued Wilson’s work by arguing that segregation, not joblessness, is a stronger causal factor in the creation of an urban underclass. For example, Wilson emphasized that between 1967 and 1987 Chicago lost about 60 percent of its manufacturing jobs. Massey and Denton argued that deindustrialization alone does not explain residential patterns. The authors showed that the spatial aspects of poverty must be understood in terms of the increase, from 1970 to 1980, in African Americans living in geographically concentrated neighborhoods. Massey and Denton’s study is powerful in demonstrating how housing discrimination, poor job opportunities, and the lack of public services has severely affected the urban poor. Like Wilson, they then attempted to show a causal relationship between these factors and the formation of an urban subculture. However, one could argue that the formation of an oppositional culture (a common feature among youth of any class) is a response to a number of factors, including the production of popular cultures. Indeed, many elements of inner-city culture, including music and dance, exist in a complex relationship with dominant cultures.
Research by Wilson, Massey, and Denton is persuasive in exploring the structural factors that lead to joblessness and segregation. For all of these authors, however, the notion of culture is undertheorized. Like Lewis with his “culture of poverty” theory, these authors attempt to articulate a mechanical relationship between economics and poverty that does not do justice to the richness of the urban experience. What is needed is fine-tuned ethnographic research that can better understand the variety of ways in which the urban poor have survived and thrived in U.S. cities.
- Eames, Edwin, and Judith G 1970. On Lewis’ Culture of Poverty Concept. Current Anthropology, 11(4): 479-482.
- Garner, Catherine , and Stephen W. Raudenbush. 1991. Neighborhood Effects on Educational Attainment: A Multilevel Analysis. Sociology of Education 64 (4): 251–262.
- Lewis, Oscar. The Children of Sanchez. New York: Random House.
- Massey, Douglas , and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Urban Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Newman, Katherine 1991. Culture and Structure. City and Society 6 (1): 3–25.
- Stack, Car 1974. All Our Kin. New York: Harper and Row.
- Wilson, William 1980. The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Wilson, William 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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