Neighborhood and Community Effects on Individual Behavior and Social Functioning

By Jenson, Jeffrey M. | Social Work Research, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Neighborhood and Community Effects on Individual Behavior and Social Functioning


Jenson, Jeffrey M., Social Work Research


Since social work first began as a profession some 100 years ago, the influence of neighborhood and community conditions on individual behavior and social functioning has been a major concern of our profession. For example, pioneers such as Jane Addams argued that improving neighborhood conditions and enhancing economic opportunities were among the most promising strategies for ameliorating family conflict and child and adolescent behavior problems (Addams, 1912). Social scientists from other disciplines, most notably sociology, concurred with social work's emphasis on understanding, preventing, and treating neighborhood and community conditions that lead to poor social functioning. To illustrate, an early study by criminologists Shaw and McKay (1942) recognized the importance of neighborhood and community influences on juvenile delinquency in Chicago. The authors' careful mapping of delinquency rates in the city's neighborhoods during the 1930s identified neighborhood and community characteristics that fostered delinquent conduct. In subsequent years theorists such as Hirschi (1969) and Sampson (1993) advanced the idea that neighborhood and community context was essential to understanding and preventing antisocial behavior in young people. Studies by these and other investigators planted the seed for recent research aimed at understanding the effects of neighborhood and community conditions on individual and social behaviors.

STUDYING NEIGHBORHOODS AND COMMUNITIES

In the past 15 years, research identifying neighborhood and community influences on child, adolescent, and adult outcomes has increased significantly. The renewed interest in neighborhoods and communities has resulted in at least two research directions. First, the interaction between individual--and community-level variables in the onset and persistence of behaviors such as substance abuse, crime, and violence has been examined with increasing frequency. This interest is illustrated by recent studies aimed at disentangling neighborhood effects from well-documented individual and family influences on antisocial conduct. For example, Elliott and colleagues (2006) examined how some children and adolescents raised in adverse neighborhoods in Chicago and Denver have overcome negative community influences and become successful in the face of considerable risk. Their study, supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Network on Successful Adolescent Development (2007), has shed new light on neighborhood and community factors associated with resilience among high-risk youths. Similarly, a longitudinal study led by Earls and colleagues (Obeidallah, Brennan, Brooks-Gunn, & Earls, 2004) at Harvard University has used self-report interviews with 6,000 youths and their caregivers and a neighborhood survey of nearly 9,000 residents to examine the onset of violent conduct among young people in 80 Chicago neighborhoods. The study, the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, has produced a number of findings regarding racial and ethnic variations in violence (Sampson, Morenoff, & Raudenbush, 2005), the effects of exposure to firearms on violence (Bingenheimer, Brennan, & Earls, 2005), and the onset of violent behavior among girls (Obeidallah, Brennan, Brooks-Gunn, & Earls, 2004). The availability of individual--and community-level data in this study has allowed investigators to pose and answer complex questions that are normally impossible to address in studies using only individual-level data.

A second emphasis in studying neighborhood and community influences on individual and social functioning is illustrated by the increasing number of investigations aimed at understanding and ameliorating poverty and economic disadvantage (for example, Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, & Aber, 1997; Coulton, 2005). Particularly encouraging in the study of community and poverty is the recent attention paid to developing and testing poverty prevention approaches. …

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