Nov. 4, 1999
Vol. 19 No. 4

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    Who’s watching the children?

    Sampson studies monitoring practices

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Neighborhoods comprised of people who watch out for their neighbors’ children radiate that concern to adjacent and sometimes less-advantaged neighborhoods, encouraging people in those surrounding neighborhoods to also watch out for one another’s children, new research at the University shows.

    In a comprehensive study of Chicago neighborhoods, Robert Sampson, the Lucy Flower Professor in Sociology, shows for the first time how much a community’s ability to nurture its children is helped or hindered by surrounding neighborhoods. The study also shows that previous research on neighborhoods that focused on poverty and the “underclass” provided a limited understanding of how neighborhoods work.

    “Adults are more likely to invest effort in the local monitoring of children when others around them are doing likewise,” Sampson said. “Parents with young children appear particularly sensitive to the geographic location of neighborhoods and schools in addition to their internal characteristics.”

    Sampson is the lead author of the paper “Beyond Social Capital: Spatial Dynamics of Collective Efficacy for Children,” which was published in the October issue of the American Sociological Review. Jeffrey Morenoff, assistant professor in sociology at the University of Michigan, and Felton Earls, professor in child psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, are Sampson’s co-authors.

    The study was based on interviews with more than 8,500 residents of 343 neighborhood clusters in Chicago. Neighborhood clusters are areas of relatively homogeneous social characteristics and geographies. Residents of these clusters were interviewed as part of a continuing project Sampson and others have undertaken––the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods. Chicago was chosen for the study because it is representative of urban communities nationally.

    The researchers sought to discover how residents of a neighborhood relate to one another in the effort to strengthen their community by looking at how they act in the mutual interests of children.

    People who share expectations and are willing to connect with others create a high level of “collective efficacy for children,” according to Sampson, who builds on research done by the late James Coleman, a renowned University sociologist.

    Researchers asked the study participants if adults and children in their neighborhoods are linked to one another (intergenerational closure), the extent to which adults share information about neighborhood children (reciprocated transaction) and whether neighbors are willing to provide informal social control and mutual support for children. This allowed the researchers to gauge how well members of a neighborhood work together to achieve common goals. The responses then were analyzed to determine patterns based on economic and demographic characteristics within the neighborhood clusters and their spatial location in the city.

    Among their findings are these:

    • Racial segregation has an even more devastating impact on the health of Chicago neighborhoods than previously known. Predominantly black neighborhoods are much more likely to be surrounded by economically disadvantaged neighborhoods than are predominantly white neighborhoods. Whether rich or poor, however, predominantly white neighborhoods are much more likely than predominantly black neighborhoods to reap the radiating benefits of proximity to neighborhoods with a high degree of informal social control.

    • People in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty and high rates of single-parent households have lower shared expectations for neighborhood child control.

    • People in neighborhoods with a high concentration of adults are less likely to supervise the neighborhood youth.

    • Affluent neighborhoods with greater incomes and higher educational levels are more likely to have cross-generational ties.

    • Immigrant communities have lower expectations for shared child control.

    • Neighborhood stability increases the likelihood of collective expectations for child control.

    • Sharing of information and help is much more likely among homeowners, long-term and young residents and those with fewer changes in residency.