Academic journal article Family Relations

Women's Danger Management Strategies in an Inner-City Housing Project*

Academic journal article Family Relations

Women's Danger Management Strategies in an Inner-City Housing Project*

Article excerpt

The danger management strategies of low-income African American women who live in a public housing community characterized by chronic violence are examined. Based on qualitative interviews with 18 single mothers, we explored the violent community dangers with which women contend, the nature of this violence, the strategies used to deal with community violence, and their benefits and costs to family and community life. Findings show that multiple types of violence characterized life in the community and that this violence has specific physical locations, a particular set of actors, and a temporal rhythm. Women's responses to violence were nonconfrontational and family focused in nature. These efforts were effective in keeping women and their children safe, but did not reduce the prevalence of violence.

Key Words: African American, coping strategies, family, public housing, violence, women.

(Family Relations, 2004, 53, 138-147)

Scholarly discussions of impoverished African American inner-city communities document the chronic violence that characterizes these settings. Gang warfare, drug wars, physical assaults, and other forms of interpersonal violence are a part of daily life (Popkin, Gwiasda, Olson, Rosenbaum, & Buron, 2000; Puntenney, 1997). Neighborhood effects models (e.g., resource, collective socialization, epidemic) derived from demographic data have addressed how particular economic (joblessness), compositional (concentration of impoverished residents), and organizational (breakdown of informal social controls) features of inner-city communities contribute to crime and violence (Sampson, 2001b; Skogan, 1990; Wilson, 1987). Further, proponents of neighborhood effects models argue that families living in such communities are impaired in their ability to create stable domestic lives (Jencks & Mayer, 1990; Wilson). These models have contributed to our understanding of chronic community violence because they highlight the contextual underpinnings of ongoing violence, shifting away from individualistic explanations. They also suggest the consequences of community context for family life and identify the processes by which families are destabilized.

We argue that these models are limited in a fundamental way: Community-level neighborhood effects models are overly deterministic in their imputation of family instability. They tell us nothing about the personal strategies that families use to buffer themselves from the real challenges of community violence (Jarrett, 1994, 1997).

Several recent qualitative studies concentrate on the personal experiences of poor African American families, specifically women, and describe how they respond to chronic community violence (Popkin et al., 2000; Puntenney, 1997; Wolfer, 2000). These studies focused on public housing projects where crime and violence are intensified in dense and isolated settings, and they revealed that women use multiple coping strategies to deal with community violence. Nonconfrontational and family focused in nature, key strategies allow women to maintain viable family lives in the midst of ongoing violence. Although these studies explored an understudied area (Wolfer) and identified how women's strategies facilitate viable family life, they have critical limitations. They did not specifically consider the implications of their micro-level findings for larger community-level explanatory frameworks. Moreover, given the limited number of recent qualitative studies, it is unclear how common the described coping strategies are.

Our purpose was to examine how a group of poor African American women living in a public housing project manage the chronic violence that pervades their community. We addressed a critical gap in the field: that between community-level and micro-level explanatory frameworks. Insights gleaned were used to examine neighborhood effects models critically and to contribute to the growing body of qualitative studies of adult coping in response to ongoing violence. …

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