Community Organization And The Life Course Research Paper

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Communities and, more specifically, neighborhoods are one of several central social settings that affect human development. Approaches to neighborhood theory and measurement are first reviewed, followed by a discussion of neighborhood effects on children and adolescents and on adults and the elderly. The paper concludes by highlighting new directions for research, policy, and practice.

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1. The Ecology Of Human Development

A fundamental proposition of developmental science is that social contexts affect human development. Most theories on social contexts seek to identify which attributes of a single context are developmentally positive or negative. Most theories emphasize the composition and structure of a setting. While this approach is useful, it is limited in that it says little about the processes that have a more direct impact on individual development. For theories to be maximally predictive and generalizable, they must also address processes. This is especially important because some effective or ineffective processes may be more common in settings with certain compositional or structural characteristics. Ultimately, attention must also be paid to the ways in which multiple contexts jointly affect development during particular life periods and over the life course as a whole. The approach advocated here is therefore in line with recent advances in ecological, life-span, and life-course frameworks (for a review, see Settersten 1999). These frameworks emphasize the multiple proximal and distal settings in which development takes place, the connections be-tween these settings, the proximal and distal processes that occur within them, and how these settings and processes change over time.

2. Theoretical Models Of Neighborhood Effects

Neighborhood effects on physical, psychological, and social outcomes may be tied to the composition and structure of neighborhoods, the social processes that occur within them, or specific combinations of com-position, structure, and process.

Several theoretical models have guided most inquiry in this area, namely contagion models, models of social disorganization, models of collective socialization, competition models, models of relative deprivation, and institutional models (see also Furstenberg and Hughes 1997, Mayer and Jencks 1989). These and other models need not be contradictory; indeed, they may be complementary.

‘Contagion’ or ‘epidemic’ models suggest that those exposed to neighbors who engage in negative behaviors will themselves be more likely to engage in similar behaviors (e.g., Crane 1991). In these models, the assumption is that neighborhoods of low socio-economic status (SES) are characterized by more problematic behaviors. Presumably, this also extends to attitudes, beliefs, and values. The focus of these models has almost exclusively been on the contagion of negative phenomena, not positive phenomena.

Models of ‘social disorganization’ suggest that neighborhoods with high levels of social problems become disorganized, which in turn results in deviant behavior at the individual level (e.g., Skogan 1990). Recent work on ‘collective efficacy’ has advanced these models (e.g., Sampson et al. 1997). Social organization is bound explicitly to collective efficacy, which depends on neighbors trusting each other, sharing values, jointly monitoring and supervising youth, and intervening on behalf of the common good. As such, these also become models of ‘collective socialization’ in that the entire community takes responsibility for socializing its residents.

Models of ‘relative deprivation’ or ‘social comparison’ are models in which the presence of advantaged neighbors, in particular, becomes problematic for those who have less because individuals evaluate their own standing relative to that of others. For example, if children and families view themselves to be at a disadvantage, they may not be motivated to achieve and they may labeled negatively by their peers (Furstenberg and Hughes 1997). These models may also emphasize ‘competition’ or ‘cultural conflict,’ in that neighbors or peers are viewed as competing for limited resources.

Finally, ‘institutional’ models suggest that it is not the kind of neighbors that matters most, but instead the resources, services, and/organizations available in a neighborhood (e.g., McLaughlin et al. 1994). Proponents of these models generally assume that higher SES neighborhoods have greater and higher quality organizations, services, and resources than lower SES neighborhoods, and that these are ultimately very beneficial for human development.

There are also models that downplay and even dismiss the likelihood of neighborhood effects al-together. These models, common in economics and anchored in theories of rational choice, assume that people do not base their decisions on what their neighbors value or how their neighbors behave. Instead, people base their decisions on their personal interests and circumstances. As long as individuals are able to find others who hold positive standards, they will be able to form positive lives. From this stand-point, the relative concentration of positive values and behaviors in a neighborhood is not as important as their mere presence.

3. Conceptualizing Neighborhoods

How neighborhoods are approached in research, policy, or practice will depend on how they are conceptualized. Neighborhoods may be conceived as sites, networks, cultures, or perceptions (Burton et al. 1997, Gephart 1997). The most common approach is to consider neighborhoods as sites and focus on their social and physical makeup. In these cases, the neighborhood unit is most often a set of block groups, zip codes, or census tracts; and data are drawn from a variety of largely official sources (e.g., census, crime reports, vital health statistics, social service agencies, school records). Recently, Sampson and Raudenbush (1999) also found innovative techniques for gathering systematic first-hand data via ‘windshield’ surveys.

When neighborhoods are approached as networks, the focus is on intimate ties, social relationships, and patterns of interaction. When neighborhoods are approached as cultures, the focus is on the behaviors, outlooks, rituals, and languages that characterize a neighborhood. Of course, neighborhoods can also be understood as perceptions and through the subjective experiences of neighborhoods as sites, networks, and cultures. Regardless of how neighborhoods are conceptualized, individual-level data are most often gathered through survey and interview methods and then aggregated. Indicators may be objective or subjective, quantitative or qualitative, static or temporal. There are strengths and limitations associated with each conceptualization of neighborhood, and the relevant unit to study and data to gather will depend on the outcomes or processes of interest.

4. Measures Of Neighborhood Composition, Structure, And Process

Most studies of neighborhood effects have relied on single indicators or built composite measures of neighborhood composition. These have largely been based on secondary public sources, especially the census. Most research has focused on factors related to SES (e.g., percentage of families in poverty, median family income, percentage of male joblessness, median educational attainment of adults, percentage of adults in professional or managerial positions). It has also been common to emphasize racial composition (especially percentage of Black) and intersections be-tween racial composition and indicators of SES. A few characteristics have also been used to index neighborhood commitment and stability (e.g., percentage of families in same dwelling for 5 years, percentage of residents who own their homes).

Other researchers have built more informative measures of neighborhood structure and even process. These are most often based on individual-level survey data that are then aggregated. These studies have turned attention to dynamics around social cohesion, social control, social support, and disorganization, and to the availability of various types of resources, adult participation in local organizations, and stability in and satisfaction with the neighborhood. The most advanced research has attempted to link neighbor-hood composition, structure and process. For ex-ample, Wilson (1996) emphasizes the larger economic conditions that result in joblessness; the flight of middle-class families to the suburbs that reduces re-sources and investments from local and state governments; and the declining marital stability of families that results in a shortage of positive male role models. These and other factors produce a local ethos that undermines social consensus and social control and produces social isolation. Similarly, Brooks-Gunn et al. (1993) suggest that the percentage of local adults who work in managerial and professional occupations affects the development of youngsters in positive ways because these adults are more likely to promote conventional attitudes and behaviors.

5. Neighborhood Effects On Children And Adolescents

Most scholarship has focused on the impact of neighborhood environments on the social outcomes of children and adolescents. Early childhood and late adolescence seem especially important periods in that they involve significant shifts in both family and school settings and individuals in these two periods differ in the degree to which they are susceptible to influences outside of the family (Brooks-Gunn et al. 1993). Neighborhood influences on development early in life also seem particularly important in that positive or negative effects may cumulate over time, generating further advantage or disadvantage over the life course.

Despite significant interest in neighborhood effects on the development of young people, research has not shown consistent or sizable effects (for overviews, see Gephart 1997, Mayer and Jencks 1989). (This may also relate to measurement problems, some of which will be highlighted in the conclusion of this research paper.) In childhood, neighborhoods have been shown to affect cognitive functioning, behavioral problems, child mal-treatment rates, low birth weight rates, and infant death rates. In adolescence and early adulthood, neighborhoods have been shown to affect delinquency, drug use, school achievement and dropout, teen childbearing, health status, joblessness, poverty, self-efficacy, personal commitment to conventional attitudes and behaviors, and having conventional or delinquent friends.

Most literature is focused on negative outcomes (and on how to prevent negative outcomes) rather than on positive outcomes (and on how to foster positive outcomes). It is also focused on adolescence. Little attention has been paid to neighborhood effects on the development of adults outside of their early 20s. The exception to this trend relates to the other end of the life course: old age.

6. Neighborhood Effects On Adults And The Elderly

In the field of gerontology, there has been longstanding interest in the fit between older people and their environments. Where the subject matter of this research paper is concerned, this fit relates to how residential environments might be designed or redesigned to better accommodate the physical, psychological, social, and economic changes that often accompany aging. It also relates to the challenges of relocation in later life, as significant numbers of older individuals move to nursing homes, government-subsidized apartments, or other residential settings. Indeed, many institutions for older people are explicitly aimed at achieving a sense of ‘community’ by design. These and other factors may lead to age segregation (rather than age integration) in residential and other environments, a phenomenon that has garnered attention in recent literature on aging (see Uhlenberg and Riley 2000).

Even those who age ‘in place’ have seen their neighborhoods through significant change, and often for the worse. Along these lines, there is also a tradition of research on crime and the elderly, both in terms of fear of crime (e.g., Ferraro and LaGrange 1992) and actual victimization (e.g., McCabe and Gregory 1998). The personal circumstances of many older people also constrain their residential options and their ability to move (especially health, marital and financial statuses). Recent scholarship on aging has also emphasized the differing needs and circumstances of rural and urban elders (e.g., Coward and Krout 1998) and the important roles that neighbors and satisfaction with neighborhood play in determining well-being (Phillipson et al. 1999). Indeed, older people may be more likely to feel the absence of community and more likely to benefit from community life (Lucksinger 1994).

Relative to scholarship on childhood and adolescence, scholarship on neighborhood effects on older adults is significantly less advanced. While important research has been conducted on both ends of life, there is little research on the many decades between. Scholarship on adult development and aging should evaluate whether the models developed on childhood and adolescence can be extended to early adulthood, midlife, and later life, and how existing models must be reconsidered or examined anew to better under-stand development during these three periods.

7. New Directions For Research, Policy, And Practice

A significant problem in demonstrating neighborhood effects relates to important unobserved biases in empirical estimates, particularly those due to selection. Residents in specific neighborhoods differ in important ways before they arrive in those neighbor-hoods, yet those who choose to live in (or leave) particular neighborhoods are also likely similar in important ways. Depending on these dynamics, neighborhood effects may be overestimated or underestimated. Effects might also be small because the degree of variation naturally found in a neighborhood is small. But because most research has been conducted at the level of census tracts, the degree of variation may instead be too great, making it equally difficult to ascertain neighborhood effects.

This point also draws attention to the fact that neighborhood phenomena must be understood in dynamic rather than static ways. Changes in neighbor-hoods, changes in individuals, and the connections between them must be mapped simultaneously. How-ever, temporal multilevel models pose significant challenges for theory and research (for a discussion of these challenges, see Settersten 1999). Where neighborhoods are concerned, longitudinal frameworks are particularly challenging because the geographic mobility of individuals and families dramatically in-creases the number of neighborhoods that must be managed as a sample is tracked over time.

Research on neighborhood effects must also begin to consider both short-and long-term effects and the forms of these effects. It is important to explore the possibility of non-linear effects, including threshold models (i.e., points after which neighborhoods may become especially relevant or irrelevant to individual development). It is also important to examine connections between neighborhoods and individuals that are not only top-down, but also bottom-up or reciprocal in nature.

Neighborhoods must also be considered in combination with other contexts, and family and school settings are especially likely to moderate neighbor-hood effects. Because social contexts are complexly interwoven, scholarship must specify how various contexts are interrelated and how these interrelation-ships impact development during different periods of life. Scholarship on this topic must, therefore, produce a more differentiated view of how neighborhoods affect human development. It must address how specific aspects (or specific combinations) of neighbor-hood composition, structure and process might be tied to specific kinds of developmental outcomes (whether physical, psychological, or social). And it must address whether specific subsets of residents (e.g., by age, race, gender, social class, or their intersections) are more or less affected by neighborhood factors, whether they are affected in different ways, and why.

Local policies and initiatives aimed at building the social capital of communities ultimately improve the welfare and development of neighborhood residents. These should include efforts to foster or better economic security, housing, safety, schools and other institutions, services, social interaction and support, community service and leadership, or a sense of belonging and pride (Brown and Richman 1997). However, intensive community organizing is required for most community-based initiatives and must reflect a broad array of strategies to mobilize residents and to teach them how to plan and take action. State and federal policies also affect the welfare and development of neighborhood residents, especially via policies related to employment and its correlates (e.g., training, health insurance, transportation, childcare), public safety, drugs, and education (Lehman and Smeeding 1997). Together, policies and initiatives at each of these levels shape the experience of everyday life and the options, flexibility, and control that individuals have as they grow up and older.


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