Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect

Image of Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect
Release Date: 
February 12, 2012
University of Chicago Press
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“Singular in its breadth of perspectives . . .”

Is place irrelevant in the 21st century? Is geography dead? Do considerations of spatial logic have no role in informing social interactions? Are physical and social context irrelevant?

Affirmative answers to these questions lead to and reinforce the individual orientation of business—think one-to-one marketing—and social sciences, which emphasize the individual rather than the community, the aggregate, the context. Robert Sampson would disagree.

In Great American City he makes the case for the primacy of place, its enduringly powerful impact, and the conclusion that communities are at a critical stage, because your quality of life is decided by where you live.

Overtly rejecting “the increasing reductionist thrust of much of modern social science that starts and ends with individuals,” Dr. Sampson uses his research to differs explicitly from contemporary social science investigation and inquiry.

Dr. Sampson acknowledges that the project in Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods that he has led for the last two decades “serves as the flashpoint for an ongoing debate in the social sciences over the proper unit of analysis—‘micro’ individual or ‘macro’ (emergent properties) such as neighborhoods or nations) and level of causal explanation.”

While some effusively enthusiastic techno-futurists assert that distance is dead, geography no longer matters, and the world is flat, which proclamations collectively lead to the placelessness of life, such an assessment is superficial rather than substantive, facile rather than fact-based, and more naïve than nuanced.

Professor Sampson proclaims that the key to understanding the interplay between globalization and the predominant influence of the local, in even the largest of metros, “is to recognize that the stratification of people and resources across urban areas remains entrenched and evolves in new ways as globalization proceeds.”

Initially, teaching at the University of Chicago and more recently as a member of the Harvard faculty, Dr. Sampson employs the vitality, diversity, of Chicago as a social landscape laboratory in persuasively, eloquently, rigorously making the case that the 21st American city “remained place-based in much of its character,” through advancing and applying manifestation of his contention that “social science needs revised conceptual approaches and methodologies to chart this reality.”

The author combines a balanced, diverse, comprehensive portfolio of research initiatives to pursue his investigations: interviews, surveys, data mining of census statistics, detailed and nuanced review of the literature, field experiments involving mailing back lost letters. He and his colleagues interviewed 2,800 key leaders in 1995 and followed up with a thousand interviews in 2002, as well as longitudinal study of 6,500 families, tracking their movements over seven years.

Especially important are his own personal place experiences: walking the streets, observing and interacting with people and reflecting on the marvelous collage of sensations and impressions—all of which form the experience of place.

The author asserts that neighborhoods are “important determinants of the quantity and quality of human behavior.” In approaching this exhaustive exploration, he pursues a study that is about “almost everything social about the city.” In so doing, he directly challenges the established traditional academic research approach, following from the convention “that the division of labor in the academy is one of specialization. The common approach is to divide problems by disciplines. . . .

“I reject this approach by giving priority to the spatial nature and larger social ordering of the phenomenon themselves rather than a prior commitment to the hypothesis of a single discipline or theory. Although in some sense radical, I seek an opportunity to draw together in one analytic framework, the diversity of the contemporary city. This move requires me to transgress the narrow confines of disciplinary fields and economic variables, and embrace instead a more holistic and systemic approach that gives priority to general social mechanisms and processes. . . .

“The goal of a ‘neighborhood-based’ rather than ‘variable-based approach’ is to understand the configuration of social dynamics and causal processes—the ‘everything’ of the city.”

“The main storyline to be explored is enduring neighborhood inequality and the community-level manifestations of social change that persist and may be accelerating.”

In developing his thesis, Dr. Sampson argues “that a durable spatial logic organizes or mediates much of social life . . . we react to neighborhood difference, and these reactions constitute social mechanisms and practices that in turn shape perceptions, relationships, and behaviors that reverberate both within and beyond traditional neighborhood borders, and which taken together further define the social structure of the city.”

In pursuing understanding the “everything” of the city, Dr. Sampson questions, “What are the social pathways by which neighborhood effects are transmitted to the contemporary city?”

Acknowledging that this and related contextual inquiries “are big questions,” he asserts that by their very framing, “at the very least they undercut the common wisdom of placelessness and the death of distance by painting an initial picture of city life as a multidimensional mosaic.”

The author readily—and most impressively—succeeds in realizing his goal, “to paint the big picture of a broad class of ‘neighborhood effects’ through his pursuit of “a systematic examination of their continuing, (if not increasing) significance of place in the global, iconic American city.”

Consistent with the complexity and diversity of its subject, could Chicago ever be truly comprehended through a simple and narrow lens? Only an independent, even iconoclast approach, combining creativity and persistence, could tell the stunningly impressive story of The Great American City.

Dr. Sampson appropriately employs a style that matches his subject. Singular in its breadth of perspectives, diversity of research resources, and duration extending over two decades, this study promises to be regarded as a leading landmark of place research.