Exposure to Community Violence and Social Capital: African American Students in the Critical Transition to High School

By Patton, Desmond U.; Johnson, David W. | Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Exposure to Community Violence and Social Capital: African American Students in the Critical Transition to High School


Patton, Desmond U., Johnson, David W., Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy


INTRODUCTION

Previous research has linked exposure to community violence with a range of negative outcomes for minority youth in poor, urban communities (Bell and Jenkins 1993; U.S. Office of the Surgeon General 2001; Bowen and Bowen 1999). The definition of "exposure to community violence" varies, however, depending on the specific researcher's discipline and research agenda (Woolley and Patton 2009). This study defines exposure to community violence as youth experiencing, witnessing, or hearing about violent events that took place in their neighborhood or school. Previous research on the effects of exposure to community violence has largely focused on measuring the direct negative effects of individuals' exposure to community violence on individuals' psychosocial functioning (e.g., effects of witnessing, hearing about, or participating in violence on aggression, cognitive performance, etc.). A robust empirical literature attests to the harm associated with the direct effects of such exposure on adolescents across a range of social domains, including schools (Mazza and Overstreet 2000). However, much less attention has been given to examining possible indirect effects of exposure to community violence.

Hypothesized indirect effects of exposure to community violence include harm to the social mechanisms mediating the relationship between exposure to community violence and developmental outcomes, such as prosocial functioning and adequate or high academic performance. Previous research suggests that substantial unexplained variability in coping strategies exists among adolescents who have been exposed to community violence (Ozer 2005). To date, however, research has not identified or sufficiently described the specific social mechanisms that may help explain variability in coping response and attendant variation in the distribution of negative effects on academic performance associated with exposure to community violence. The research reported here specifically examines how exposure to community violence affects low- income, minority students' access to social resources within the context of urban public high schools. It is hypothesized that students' organizational ties - the relationships that connect them to institutional actors such as teachers and school counselors - function as an "action-formation mechanism" (Hedström and Swedberg 1998) mediating the potential impact of a particular constellation of circumstances, beliefs, and opportunities for action (e.g., exposure to community violence) upon outcomes of interest (in this instance, primarily academic engagement and achievement).

This article discusses the implications of social capital theory, which argues that social resources are embedded in networks of social relationships, for research on the effects of exposure to community violence among poor, minority, urban adolescents. Employing an extended case method approach (Burawoy et al. 1991; Burawoy 1998), this article utilizes longitudinal qualitative data on a group of low- income, minority high school students in the Chicago Public Schools to identify and describe both direct and indirect pathways by which exposure to community violence negatively affects vulnerable adolescents' access to institutional resources through its impact on students' opportunities to form and maintain strong relationships to teachers in the high school context.

EXPOSURE TO COMMUNITY VIOLENCE

Community violence is a social phenomenon that adversely impacts youth from poverty-stricken neighborhoods (Morenoff et al. 2001; Massey 2001). Specifically, adolescents, males, members of nondominant race/ethnicity groups, and low-income individuals have a higher probability of being exposed to violence (BeU and Jenkins 1993; U.S. Office of the Surgeon General 2001; Bowen and Bowen 1999). Most research on community violence examines actual rates of violence in neighborhoods, focusing primarily on the structural causes for higher rates of crime and disorder. …

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