Assessing Change and Development Within Neighborhoods

The scientific community is just beginning to develop tools to describe and assess relevant factors that influence the quality of life within neighborhoods. Researchers often rely on demographic data, census data, and property values as measures of social context, but these data provide few insights into contextual variations or the emergence of social strategies to cope with adversity within disadvantaged neighborhoods, especially over short time periods. Ethnographic research suggests that census tracts are not neighborhoods in any sociological sense, yet often census data provide the only empirical measure of neighborhood units in studies that seek to study communities over time. Measures that can assess the direction and rate of economic or social change within communities are particularly important in determining interim outcomes of community development programs as well as of programs designed to enhance successful outcomes for youth.

Despite the intensity of interest in neighborhood influences, this field of study is in its infancy. Quantitative research has not yet demonstrated a convincing association or established the causal pathways between social setting characteristics and adolescent development. Researchers are exploring alternative pathways to determine what measures should be employed in assessing the quality of "connectedness" between adolescents and the social and economic networks imbedded in their social settings.

The workshop participants noted that several key issues require attention to improve the measurement of the levels and quality of social networks:



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--> Assessing Change and Development Within Neighborhoods The scientific community is just beginning to develop tools to describe and assess relevant factors that influence the quality of life within neighborhoods. Researchers often rely on demographic data, census data, and property values as measures of social context, but these data provide few insights into contextual variations or the emergence of social strategies to cope with adversity within disadvantaged neighborhoods, especially over short time periods. Ethnographic research suggests that census tracts are not neighborhoods in any sociological sense, yet often census data provide the only empirical measure of neighborhood units in studies that seek to study communities over time. Measures that can assess the direction and rate of economic or social change within communities are particularly important in determining interim outcomes of community development programs as well as of programs designed to enhance successful outcomes for youth. Despite the intensity of interest in neighborhood influences, this field of study is in its infancy. Quantitative research has not yet demonstrated a convincing association or established the causal pathways between social setting characteristics and adolescent development. Researchers are exploring alternative pathways to determine what measures should be employed in assessing the quality of "connectedness" between adolescents and the social and economic networks imbedded in their social settings. The workshop participants noted that several key issues require attention to improve the measurement of the levels and quality of social networks:

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--> establishment of relevant community boundaries to facilitate longitudinal studies, creation of reliable and valid measures of the availability of and access to community services, selection of adequate community samples to obtain valid measures of resident experiences, factoring in the importance of timing in assessing patterns of deterioration and growth in urban environments, examining the pathways by which ethnicity and racial heritage influence social settings, and assessing unclear processes that connect physical and social environments within communities. In developing these measures, participants noted that research on social context needs to consider more than physical factors in neighborhood settings. The types and levels of social interactions within a community involve dynamic and interpersonal elements that may reflect components such as the quality of services and institutions, levels of trust and security, homogeneity and density of friendship networks, flow of information and resources, coherence of values and perceptions among community residents, and opportunities for power and influence. Researchers are now examining how to identify and capture the critical dimensions of these factors and to explain how they interact to make neighborhoods a ''good'' or "bad" place in which to raise children. Researchers are also increasingly interested in identifying measures that can capture the social and economic diversity within neighborhoods. Educational and employment opportunities, in particular, are not randomly distributed and may depend on friendship networks, access to transportation, and issues of safety and security as well as more traditional variables such as the strength of the school faculty and curriculum and job skills. All poor neighborhoods are not the same, participants observed. Economically deprived communities with high levels of social organization can provide consistent messages to their youth regarding the importance of becoming a successful, productive adult. In contrast, communities that share demographic and economic characteristics but experience low levels of trust, security, and shared values can send ambiguous or mixed messages to youth that reduce their chances for academic success and productive employment. The participants cautioned that levels of social organization are themselves influenced by macrostructural forces that shape communities, such as industrial restructuring, shifts in employment opportunities, patterns of racial segregation, and changes in inflation rates and health-care costs. These factors provide the backdrop against which communities, families, and adolescents seek to enhance their strengths and reduce their risks, especially during periods of transition and change.

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--> The Significance of Boundaries in Community Measures One theoretical construct that the workshop participants addressed was the need for ways to define consistent boundaries in the neighborhoods and social environments of today's youth. Social science research in a variety of fields (including youth development, child care, violence prevention, family management, and use of human services) has indicated that existing units that define community boundaries for statistical purposes (census tract data, zip code, or block group), although commonly used in research on social settings, may not demonstrate the dimensions of neighborhoods that have meaning for their residents. These predetermined boundaries can differ from resident-perceived boundaries in many neighborhoods. In communities characterized by high rates of social disorganization and social problems, including youth crime, drug trafficking, child maltreatment, unemployment, and vacant and transient housing, residents are more likely to disagree about what boundaries constitute the "neighborhood." Consistent and meaningful boundaries are crucial to the development of studies that rely on quantitative and qualitative measures of change or stability in order to demonstrate neighborhood-level influences on human development. For these reasons, researchers within the social sciences are exploring how to improve theories, methods, and research instruments that can provide insights about the identification of spatial boundaries that reflect shared values, common experiences, and the convergence of residential standards (both environmental and social). The Effects of Multiple Social Settings on Youth Development An additional methodological challenge in assessing the impact of social settings is the fact that adolescents move among multiple contexts that are often defined by roles, functions, and expectations that differ from those of adults. Youth today are highly mobile—they may reside in one neighborhood, attend school in another, socialize with peers in a third, and be employed in a fourth. The interactive effects of these different contextual settings have not been analyzed, although the workshop participants observed that the social interactions and normative standards that shape each environment may influence youth development. One mediating factor that requires further analysis in this area is the degree of consistency in role expectations attached to adolescents across diverse contexts and cultures. The concept of "good fit," in which the individual characteristics of youth satisfy the expectations of their social context (Lerner and Lerner, 1983), is based on an assumption that the multiple environments of youth encour-

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--> age similar expectations for positive development. When role expectations diverge, youth may experience a broader range of messages regarding expected behavior and face more difficulty in perceiving or adhering to normative directions. Ethnographers have noted that mixed messages and role conflicts are commonly associated with school/family environments in the lives of African American youth, particularly those who must bear adult burdens of child care or full-time jobs to support their families. Within the workshop discussion, participants observed that such conflicts can also surface in home/workplace environments, as youth realize that they must compete with older relatives for limited employment opportunities. The Importance of Multiple Data Sources In assessing measures of community change, the participants observed that multiple data sources are necessary to provide insight into the heterogeneity and interactive dimensions of social settings. Survey and interview data, which are commonly used to obtain residents' observations about their communities, need to be accompanied by research materials that have external validity, either through observational reports or administrative data and records. Together, ethnographic and quantitative studies can provide a richer and more detailed research strategy than that which can be obtained by a single methodological approach. The participants also urged that researchers give attention to the range of variation or consistency within community expectations, norms, aspirations, and sanctions (especially in areas such as child care roles, adult supervision, care of elderly or other dependent relatives, family support, and availability of economic opportunities) in judging the overall quality of a social environment. Sampling and Timing in Measures of Community Change The dynamic and interactive nature of social settings requires caution in developing appropriate measurement instruments, the participants noted. It is important to know whose perspective counts—especially among youth—in constructing valid residential samples. For example, in assessing the impact of community development efforts, the design and timing of survey studies, interviews, and evaluations can be critical in determining whether a selected intervention has reached the appropriate stage of implementation. The participants noted that individual and group samples need to be constructed that illustrate the range of variation within and between communities, especially in assessing the impact of short-and long-term socioeconomic changes, the quality of services and strength of institutions, the forms and degree of involvement of community members, and the extent of social alienation of individuals, groups, and neighborhoods.

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--> Implications for Research Design Many insights regarding the impact of social settings on youth development have been derived from ethnographic studies that describe the quality of life, the level of trust among neighbors, and other factors that foster or discourage the creation of cohesive social units. Qualitative research has been helpful in generating new hypotheses and conceptual models that can describe the processes of change that accompany neighborhood growth or deterioration. But the predictive capacities of these models are limited and few opportunities exist to study interactive social patterns within and between communities over time. The workshop participants noted that a new generation of neighborhood studies is under way, based on integrated, multidisciplinary, life-span models of neighborhood effects. Yet research opportunities are needed to integrate longitudinal surveys and ethnographic data collection to provide multiple sources for data analysis and to enhance descriptions and comparisons of multidimensional, life-course trajectories for youth in disadvantaged environments. As this research moves forward, greater effort will be needed to: (a) integrate quantitative and qualitative studies, (b) develop research instruments and theoretical models that can identify and measure specific aspects of social interactions within and between neighborhoods, and (c) support longitudinal studies that can analyze multiple social factors in community settings over time. Such instruments and models would allow the research community to gain insights into the health or deterioration of selected communities, examine the impact of specific social settings (such as schools, detention centers, sports teams, and so forth) on peer and adult relationships, and explore their influence on youth development.