American Sociological Association

Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect

Robert J. Sampson (co-recipient)

Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect

Two broad perspectives dominate contemporary thinking among social scientists and the public at large about the role of neighborhoods and many other social contexts. One begins and ends with the individual (or “choice”) as the unit of analysis and explanation: individuals make autonomous decisions, so that neighborhoods—and, by implication, much of the social world—are seen as an outgrowth of an individual process of selection. Distinct methods flow from this assumption, with priority given to individual-level measurement, individual outcomes, and experiments that attempt to contrive individual choices.

The other perspective takes a top-down view. Whether because of globalization or the technological revolution in communication technologies, large-scale processes are argued to have flattened boundaries of all sorts and rendered a new “placeless” world. One commonly hears that because we can be anywhere, the particulars of our somewhere are of no consequence. Other factors that have been alleged to neuter local contexts include the economy, politics, and the state. With new metaphors for old arguments, individuals and places alike are viewed cynically—atomized and left bereft of community. Like the individual selection perspective, little room is left for neighborhood effects, but for a different reason: top-down processes are an all-encompassing force that overwhelms both individuals and neighborhoods.

In Great American City, Robert J. Sampson proposes a brilliant and novel alternative to these two perspectives, offering a unified framework on neighborhood effects, the larger social organization of urban life, and social causality. He does so by melding ideas across intellectual traditions, empirical domains, and units of analysis. Contrary to much received wisdom, the evidence presented in this book demands attention to the deep ecological concentration and marked inequality by neighborhood across a wide range of American experiences.

To demonstrate the powerfully enduring impact of place, Sampson presents the fruits of more than a decade’s research in Chicago combined with his own unique personal observations about life in the city, from Cabrini Green to Trump Tower and Millennium Park to the former Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side. The centerpiece of the book that anchors these observations is the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, an original longitudinal study of children, families, and neighborhoods. In addition to original interviews with over 10,000 children and their caretakers from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, Sampson’s project conducted independent community surveys, systematic social observations of public places, a network panel study of community leaders, and “lost letter” field experiments.

Based on this far-reaching and large-scale data collection that extended to 2010, Sampson finds that spatial inequality is surprisingly enduring, and that neighborhoods influence a wide variety of social phenomena, including crime, disorder (“broken windows”), health, civic engagement, collective efficacy, home foreclosures, teen births, and altruism.  Neighborhoods are also connected through migration flows and leadership networks to form a persistent higher-order structure of the city. Even national crises do not halt the impact of place, Sampson finds, as he analyzes the consequences of the Great Recession and its aftermath, integrating macrosocial change with neighborhood-level effects.  Synthesizing local and general mechanisms, the book presents a path-breaking paradigm with broad implications for how cities work.

Following in the influential tradition of the Chicago School of urban studies but updated for the twenty-first century, Great American City is at once a landmark research project, a commanding argument for a new contextual theory of social life, and the story of an iconic city.