Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson on his new book, Great American City.

Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam mapped the traumatic decline in social capital across America. Commentators from Bill Bishop in The Big Sort to Charles Murray in Coming Apart have detailed the growing economic, political, and cultural forces that divide our communities.

For a long time we've heard that globalization has weakened the bonds of community. In his book

But Robert J. Sampson's important new book, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, challenges prevailing notions of community decline. Sampson, an urban sociologist who is the Henry Ford II Professor of Social Sciences at Harvard University, argues that our communities continue to matter a great deal and that our lives are powerfully shaped by where we live. William Julius Wilson lauds the book as "one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated empirical studies ever conducted by a social scientist."

Sampson recently took some time to chat about the ideas that underpin his theory.

Your book has lots of empirical detail and is theoretically driven, but tell me what's the most telling sign that place still matters in a globalized world?

Perhaps the most visible sign is the significant role of place in the many recent protests around the globe against economic inequality. From Zuccotti Park near Wall Street to “occupy” movements in cities everywhere, protestors have occupied specific locales that take on symbolic meaning. Such events capture a more general and enduring process highlighted in the book—I show that collective public claims and civic engagement in Chicago are highly concentrated by community over a thirty-year period. While there is much speculation that the Internet has changed social participation and social movements, my data and recent history reveal that face-to-face gatherings in distinct public spaces are still what generate passion, a reminder that the global is lived locally.  

Chicago is hailed as a great comeback city. Business and the arts are flourishing and it has seen extensive investment and renewal and gentrification, yet in one startling graph, you show the striking persistence of poverty across its neighborhoods from 1960 to 2000. Earlier anthropologists and sociologists like Oscar Lewis would have pointed to a so-called "culture of poverty." You disagree with that. Explain.

“Culture of poverty” advocates typically attribute the persistence of poverty to self-defeating norms among the poor. Structural forces take a back seat. I view culture and structure as inextricably linked, with structure in the driver’s seat. So while culture matters—here Lewis was right—the question is how and why.

My data show that the poor are quite conventional morally. It is also a myth that the work ethic is weak among the poor, witness the long hours put in among first-generation immigrants in concentrated immigrant communities.

Despite commitment to mainstream values and striving to get ahead, the stigmatization heaped on poor neighborhoods and the grinding poverty of its residents are corrosive, leading to what I call “moral cynicism” and alienation from key institutions, setting up a cycle of decline. Those with the means move out, leading to further cynicism and an intensified “poverty trap” in the neighborhoods left behind.

Trust and altruism toward strangers—such as giving CPR to heart attack victims or mailing an anonymous lost letter on the street—are undermined by levels of concentrated poverty and segregation laid down as far back as 1960. Initial conditions thus matter, setting in motion a reinforcing mechanism.  

Despite political change and urban social transformation toward the end of the 20th century and gentrification in the early 21st century, neighborhoods remained remarkably stable in their relative economic standing—whether at the bottom or the top. Overall, then, while cultural norms shaped by poverty may linger or take on explanatory relevance, they cannot be thought about independent of structural change and socioeconomic resources.

A good deal of the book and a great deal of your own work focuses on urban crime. In another startling graph, you show the "spatial persistence" of the rate of incarceration in Chicago neighborhoods. What causes such localized persistence of incarceration and crime?

Much interest has been focused of late on the national phenomenon of "mass incarceration." Yet mass incarceration has a local concentration too, what we can think of as "punishment’s place." Like the geographically concentrated nature of crime, a small proportion of communities bear the disproportionate brunt of U.S. crime policy’s experiment with mass incarceration. For example, large swaths of the Chicago, especially in the southwest and northwest, are relatively untouched by the imprisonment boom no matter which time period we examine, with almost no one sent to prison in some areas. By contrast, there is a dense and spatially contiguous cluster of areas in the near west and south central areas of Chicago that have rates of incarceration many times higher that cannot be explained away by crime differences. In fact the incarceration rate in the top African-American community is over 40 times higher than the highest incarceration rate in the white community. This is a staggering differential even for community-level comparisons —a difference of kind, not degree.

The rate of male unemployment predicts crime and incarceration in predominantly black communities much more strongly than in white communities. Incarceration is part of the cycle of "poverty traps" that find their most intense manifestation in segregated and racially isolated communities. There is a reciprocal feedback - imprisonment removes males from their families and the wider community, a form of disruption, while at the same time unemployed males drive the incarceration "input," thus reinforcing a vicious cycle of disadvantage.  Counterintuitively, then, incarceration does not just reduce crime through the incapacitation of criminals, at the same time it appears to indirectly increase future crime through a neighborhood feedback effect

The past year has seen the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement. You write of disorder as a dynamic force. Tell us a little about the role and workings of disorder in neighborhoods and cities?

Disorder can be both a manifestation of civic life and a trigger of community decline. The challenge is to probe why the same elements of disorder are considered a problem in some contexts and not others. The types of disorder in public places that typically bother people are not large-scale protests, which are rare, but everyday things like graffiti, harassment, drinking in public and broken windows.  It is not the “disorder” itself that matters, but how it is perceived.

The late Peter Drucker used to say that voluntary organizations and non-profits would increasingly drive the knowledge economy. Your focus on non-profits has helped to provide the social, civic and economic organizing glue of neighborhoods and cities. Lots of urbanists and Cities readers work in non-profits, I'm sure they'd like to hear more about this.

We live in an increasingly organizational society, and this reality plays out in neighborhoods as well. The density of nonprofit organizations leads to enhanced collective efficacy (for example neighbors watching out for others), collective civic engagement, and cohesion among community leaders. What’s important is not so much the existence of any specific type of organization but the overall organizational infrastructure of a community. Sometimes a disproportionate reliance on any one type of organization, such as the church, can be a problem. Surprisingly, for example, mistrust and cynicism in Chicago communities are highest in the well-churched communities. Although a fount of the civil rights movement, the church alone is clearly not enough to overcome the needs of African American communities, or any community for that matter. Communities with a diversity and density of many types of organizations seem to do better, creating collective spillover or “knock on” effects.  

Nonprofit organizations can make a significant difference in how vulnerable neighborhoods face burdens such as foreclosures due to the recent recession. Community-based organizations are an important ingredient in building up the collective efficacy of communities to meet everyday challenges. While national policies are obviously crucial, nonprofits serve as a kind of social buffer that can make the difference between which neighborhoods tip into a spiral of decline and which turn themselves around. I call this process the "organizational imperative."

Top image: ercwttmn/Flickr

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