Thursday, July 7, 2011

Success Determined by Where you Live?

Recently, I watched an episode of the TV show “Numbers” that caused me to engage my understanding of sociological theory.  This show features two main characters, an FBI agent and his mathematician brother, who collaborate in solving crime.   In this particular episode, there was a computer researcher who had been murdered and the bothers were trying to figure out why and who did it.  By the conclusion of the show, you find out the computer researcher had been developing a program, which would determine a person’s future success based upon their neighborhood of origin.  This program was being marketed to government agencies for determination of which neighborhoods would receive funding and which would not.  The antagonist’s motive for murder was to remove obstacles that would limit neighborhoods from equal access to resources.  The basis of the computer program, implied that certain individuals are more worthy to receive resources based upon their neighborhood of origin, which stems from a belief that poor neighbors are filled with less capable people.  It is interesting that the show did not conclude with a revelation that the antagonist motives portrayed the missing link for these communities… equal access and opportunity. 

A framing paper published by the Urban Institute entitled “Understanding How Place Matters for Kids” touched upon these above mentioned concepts. “Children growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods, with extreme levels of racial and economic segregation and inadequate public services—police, schools, sanitation, grocery stores—are at risk for a range of negative outcomes, including poor physical and mental health, cognitive delays, risky sexual behavior, and delinquency” (Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn 2000; Leventhal, Dupéré and Brooks-Gunn 2009; Sampson, Morenoff, and Gannon-Rowley 2002; Sampson et al. 2007).  There is minimal policy that addresses the relationship between place and youth development, which has spurred the Urban Institute to begin its research on neighborhood-level factors as it interacts with youth development.  This research premise is interesting, because it does not engage individuals within their smallest social institution of family or at an individual level.   Instead this research seeks to investigate the connection between successes and the larger social environment of community. 

This approaches reflects social disorganization theory, which identifies the characteristics of communities with high crime rates and draws on social control theory, basically stating the absence of particular “factors are said to reduce the ability or willingness of community residents to exercise effective social control, that is, to exercise direct control, provide young people with a stake in conformity, and socialize young people so that they condemn delinquency and develop self-control” (  The foundation of community organizing is to help community members find a stake in their community through relationships and empowerment.  Social disorganization theory indicates that residents in these “at risk” neighborhoods are less likely to have ties to their neighbors and to care about their community.  Community members must be invested in their communities, because without investment, community members become increasingly transient and detached.  Like the Urban Institute, this causes me to ask, “How has this detachment effected youth within communities?” 

I often find myself engaging older members of my own community on their options as to why the community “is not like it used to be.”  When I probe, the biggest difference often is that neighbors do not interact with one another like they did in the past. This most directly has impacted youth, because there is less supervision of their activity in the community.  In essence, when neighbors become detached, they feel less of a responsibility to help neighbors and offer the consistent supervision and accountability that youth need.  In the past, neighbors often felt free to supervise and reprimand the community’s youth, because they felt a level of intimacy with the community’s parental figures.  Given the lack of intimacy in neighborhoods, parents are more likely to reject this additional support.  This begs to question who is helping youth socially develop and find investment in their physical community and future.  As community organizing suggests, community members must be empowered to invest in their communities and change the things that cause cycles of negative behaviors.  The same is true for youth!

What do you think about social disorganization theory? Do you see it as a cause of negative youth development? What are some solutions you feel passionate about?

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