Great American City. Chicago and the enduring neighborhood effect

Sampson R. J., 2012, Great American City, Chicago and the enduring neighborhood effect, The University of Chicago Press, 534p. Foreword by William Julius Wilson.

This book was advised to me by Serge Paugam after I presented my research project at the Centre Maurice Halbwachs in April 2018. Robert Sampson is a sociologist from the University of Chicago, and this book gathers the work he has been leading on neighbourhood effects in Chicago over the two decades prior to the publishing date of 2012. In my opinion, the title could do better justice to the content of the book by being read in reverse, as the investigation revolves mainly around the analysis, observation, measurement and understanding of neighbourhood effects, Chicago being the case study from which the data are drawn in order to generalise some results to (American) cities. In one sentence, the ambition of the book is to demonstrate that local communities are still of relevance in XXIst century Chicago (and cities more generally), against recent claims in sociology about the processes of individualisation/disorganisation/globalisation of society. Neighborhood differentiation remains strong and stable because of durable mechanisms of reproduction of spatial inequality which affect urban dwellers on many aspects of social life such as “crime, property, child health, protest, leadership networks, civic engagement, home foreclosures, teen births, altruism, mobility flows, collective efficacy, or immigration, to name a few subjects” (p.6). According to the author himself: “at the broadest level, the present study is an effort to show that neighborhood are not merely settings in which individuals act out the dramas produced by autonomous and preset scripts, or empty vessels determined by ‘bigger’ external forces, but are important determinants of the quantity and quality of human behavior in their own right. It is, in other words, an effort to specify the structural and cultural dimensions of neighborhood effects. […] This book shows that a ‘kinds of people’ or compositional explanation of neighborhood disparities and social processes that turns on individual selection fails to answer the questions” (p.22).

Altogether, it fits my enquiry about urban inequalities by providing empirical material documenting the neighbourhood effects in Chicago, and theoretical explanations as to how and why this process happens in cities in general. The analysis explores the link between the individual, the (spatial) community and the city as a whole in their contemporary trajectories of change. “While important, the ways in which neighborhood networks are themselves tied into the larger social structure of the city in nonspatial ways are not well understood and rarely studied” (p.61). A quality of the book to mention already is the diversity of methods and data deployed to shed light on the complex object that is neighborhood community. Indeed, the author goes from field work (involving observation, walks, interviews, filming, dropping letters) to statistical and network analysis of various sources (newspapers, census data, questionnaires) in order to extract as much information as possible in support for his claims. This is a merit that is well served by the single-authored nature of the discourse, which allows the various elements to fit in a strong narrative. According to Sampson himself, “this book is at once an intellectual history of an idea, the story of a major research project, the tale of an iconic city, a systematic theory of neighborhood effects, an empirical account of community-level variations in a range of social processes, an analysis of competing approaches to social inquiry, and a sustained empirical analysis that was designed to uncover new facts while adjudicating and integrating existing hypotheses” (p.357-8).



The book is structured around five parts of unequal length. The first part exposes the thesis of the book and recalls the history of the concept of neighborhood effect, going back to XIXth century European statisticians and students of society (Guerry, Quetelet, Durkheim, Mayhew, Booth). However, the main sociological influence of the author is the Chicago School of sociology and their work around the notion of social ecology: “the Chicago School proposed that cities were divided into numerous ‘natural areas’, which exhibit distinct physical and cultural characteristics. […] In this way the Chicago School theorists attempted to trace how macrolevel forces worked their way down to the local level in terms of community-level processes of social control and regulation.” (p.35-8). This theoretical paradigm and heritage is taken upon by the author and justified as follow:

What makes the Chicago School framework of the pre-World War II era of continued relevance to the study of neighborhoods is less its emphasis on disorganization (or, later, social capital) and more (a) its general emphasis on places rather than people, (b) its emphasis on neighborhood-level structural differentiation, (c) its notion of what we now call ‘mediation social mechanisms’, (d) its focus on the concentration of multiple and seemingly disparate social phenomena, (e) its emphasis on the importance of dynamic processes of social reproduction over time, and (f) its recognition of larger macrosocial forces” (p.39)

Combined with later literature on the ‘urban growth machine’ and William Julius Wilson’s notion of the ‘concentration effects’, this part draws the historical scene for the main concept of the book, along with some ‘facts’: “first, there is considerable social inequality between neighborhoods, especially in terms of socioeconomic position and racial/ethnic segregation. Second, these factors are connected in that concentrated disadvantage often coincides with the geographic isolation of racial minority and immigrant groups. Third, a number of crime- and health-related problems tend to come bundled together at the neighborhood level and are predicted by neighborhood characteristics such as the concentration of poverty, racial isolation, single-parent families, and to a lesser extent rates of residential and housing instability. Fourth, a number of social indicators at the upper end of what many would consider progress, such as affluence, computer literacy, and elite occupational attainment, are also clustered geographically” (p.46). The rest of the book is devoted to trying to unveil the mechanisms by which these facts come about, using the city of Chicago as an experimental laboratory. “Social mechanisms provide theorerically plausible accounts of how neighborhoods bring about change in a given phenomenon. Mechanisms are by and large a theoretical claim about explanation […] the goal is to develop indicators of the sets of practices, meanings, and actions that reflect hypothesized mechanisms” (p.46-7).


The second part of the book, dealing with ‘principles and method’, presents the analytic approach and overall project which supported the research. A first step is to define what is understood as ‘neighborhood’ in neighborhood effects. “I begin […] by conceptualizing neighborhood in theoretical terms and as a geographic section of a larger community or region (e.g., city) that usually contains residents or institutions and has socially distinctive characteristics. This definition highlights the general characteristic of neighborhoods from ancient cities to the present – they are analytic units with simultaneous social and spatial significance” (p.56-7). This definition differs from the ‘community’ concept by the fact that although neighborhoods have social significance, they do not necessarily involve “shared values and tigh-knit bonds”. In terms of methods, Sampson “argue[s] that we need to treat social context as an important unit of analysis in its own right” (p.59), therefore requiring something which he and S. Raudenbush call ‘ecometrics’, i.e. the development of standard measures of neighborhood level properties, in reference to psychometrics at the individual level. “In this book, I therefore focus on a key aspect of selection – neighborhood location or choice – and treat the neighborhood outcome achieved by the individual as problematic in its own right. This approach allows me to examine the sources and consequences of sorting for the reproduction of social inequality in the lives of individuals, and for the reproduction of the stratified urban landscape” (p.64). Ecometrics are to be used along with other eclectic methods which enable the author to connect with previous contributions to the subject.

The second chapter of this part presents the chronology and organisational making of the Chicago Project, along with the various databases tapped into of produced by the various contributers.


The third part of the book is dedicated to the identification of the community-level indicators and processes which make neighborhood effects persistent in cities. In chapitre 5, the dynamic stability of poverty traps and inequality are looked into. This is done by analysing the individual characteristics which tend to be over-represented together in residents of disadvantaged neighborhood. For example, “the data thus confirm that neighborhoods that are both black and poor, and that are characterized by high unemployement and female-headed families, are ecologically distinct, a characteristic that is not simply the same thing as low economic status” (p.101). In addition to the categories of income, race, employment and household structure, Sampson brings incarceration and crime to expose further the conundrum of neighborhood effects: despite change in the life of individuals (through social as well as geographical mobility), the spatial concentration of disadvantage in a selection of neighborhood remains and so does the overall inequality between neighborhoods in the city.

The second chapter of this part examines the theory of ‘broken windows’ and disorganization. More precisely, the author shows that perceptions of disorder play a strong role in shaping the identity of a place, even when ‘actual’ signs of disorder (broken windows, littered streets) are no more visible. Instead, according to the author, people tend to rely on priors and social representations to take the concentration of visible minorities as a proxy for disorder level: “the human tendency to quickly categorize racial and other groups, our ability to easily observe skin color, and our sensitivity to the opinions of others in the form of reputations or identities that stigmatize areas, makes for a potent combination. […] Racial and immigrant concentration proved more powerful predictors of perceived disorder than did carefully observed disorder” (p.125-37). This in turn forms neigbhorhood stigma which shapes attitudes towards neighborhood perceived as disordered, in terms of decisions regarding residential mobility, as well as political and economic prospects. “Shared perceptions of disorder rather than systematically observed disorder appear to be a mechanism of durable inequality” (p.146). The proposed inhibitor of both disorder and crime (linked together in the dynamics of poverty traps) proposed by Sampson in the following chapter is ‘collective efficacy’.

The concept of collective efficacy draws together two fundamental mechanisms – social cohesion (the ‘collectivity’ part of the concept) and shared expectations for control (the ‘efficacy’ part of the concept)” (p.152-3). Collective efficacy is therefore shown to be favoured by residential stability (building ties takes time, therefore it is higher among home-owners and areas of low turnover) but is hindered by “alienation, exploitation, and dependency wrought by resource deprivation” at the neighborhood level. Statistical analysis of Chicago data is then used to show that “neighborhoods high in collective efficacy consistently had significantly lower rates of violence” (p.157). More generally, collective efficacy as a neighborhood-level ecometric and as a concept turn out to be fundamental to the rest of the book’s analysis.

Chapter 8 focuses next on collective action, by first contrasting it to recent research on individual engagement in social behaviour. “Individuals (the micro level) are the necessary conduit, but individual civic endowments and levels of participation are not a sufficient driver” (p.184). By considering collective mobilization very broadly as events that ‘bring people together’, from blood drives to neighborhood watches and fundraisers, Sampson (and D. McAdams) show that the number of these events has not dropped since the 1970s. However, the spatial distribution of these events is uneven. It statistically relates to the distribution of disadvantage and collective efficacy more strongly than to that of more formal organizations (such as non-profits or churches).

Chapter 9 finally introduces the concept of social altruism to qualify neighborhoods at the collective-level. Social altruism refers to the acts of other-regarding behaviour. One way of estimating it in Chicago was by dropping 3000 stamped letters in the street and counting how many arrived at destination. Overall, one third of them were returned, but large variations between neighorhoods exist. The second hand data of CPR gift was also considered by the author. Sampson concludes that “altruism systematically varies across neighborhoods in ways that conform to theoretical predictions: behavioral altruism is positively related to independent measures of collective efficacy from the PHDCN, negatively related to concentrated disadvantage and moral cynicism, and independently predicts important indicators of later wellbeing” (p.211-2) and that “acts of behavioral altruism are higher in contexts of community trust and shared expectations for public interventions” (p.227), that is in communities with high collective efficacy regardless of their income or racial composition.


The fourth part of the book is the one where all the concepts introduced so far come together. ‘Interlocking structures’ are revealed through a study of spatial association models, residential migrations and political networks. Chapter 10, dealing with ‘spatial logics’, focuses on the proximity effects between neighborhoords. For example, confirming M. Pattilo-McCoy’s ethnographic work, Sampson shows that “the black middle class is economically disadvantaged compared to the white middle class because of its spatial proximity to the ghetto. The PHDCN data show that this extends across the entiry city – even white working-class areas do better than the highest-income black neighborhoods when it comes to the economic status of near neighbors” (p.249). Neighborhoods would tend to have violence and disorder levels which correlate with their neighbors’ level besides their own levels of collective efficacy and altruism, and because of this spatial influence, African American neighborhoods appear additionally disadvantaged, being surrounded by neighborhoods with generally lesser levels of collective efficacy and economic advantage compared to their white counterparts, extending the racial invariance thesis at the community level (p.251). A strong point is also made that neighborhoods of concentrated immigration show lower levels of violence.

Chapter 11 borrows its title to the film ‘Trading Places’. The trade produced by the Moving To Opportunity programme, which is at the core of the chapter, is not as starck as Eddie Murphy’s, but it is a unique social experiment of subsidised residential migration for the families who became eligible to housing vouchers redeemable in low-poverty neighborhoods. Instead of just reworking the MTO data once more to try and show that its results were not mixed or negative, Sampon questions the limitations of the experiment design itself. His points are threefold. First, he argues that the baseline population of the experiment, instead of being representative of poor families, consisted rather in very poor families, predominantly black or Latino and female-headed, living on welfare in inner-city public housing. This demographic was thus harder to bring out of poverty by the sole action of relocation. Second, he argues that “neighborhoods exert long-term effects on individual development” (p.263), and that the previous environments the family lived in could be cause for lower education and health measured after relocation. Third, Sampson suggests that families chose to relocate to neighborhoods which were not necessarily so much better-off in terms of social support and education. Therefore the comparison before/after cannot be taken as a robest test of neighborhood effects. Because of the fractal nature of inequality in Chicago, they tended to choose the poorer areas of low-poverty tracts, close to other participants in the experiment. Instead of moing to opportunity, “poor people moved to inequality” (p.278), or did not move at all. The author concludes, introducing the next chapter, that “selection is a social process that itself is implicated in creating the very structures that then contain individual behavior” (p.286).

Chapter 12 and 13 examine sorting in the residential context, by looking both at movers and stayers. The analysis shows that “stayers do not gain much, for example, and the trajectories remain parallel by race. Movers gain more by contrast, particularly those exiting to the suburbs, but in a way that just shifts the race gap in parallel fashion” (p.295), that perceived disorder is a statistical predictor of moving out of Chicago, especially for black families, along with home ownership and caregiving for all racial groups. Within Chicago, ‘upward mobility’ in the sense of moving to a better-off neighborhood is “rare, and, when it does happen, whites are three times more likely to have experienced it than their minority counterparts […] The most common outcome is to stay in one’s original neighborhood, a crucial ingredient in reproducing the system of place stratification. Moreover, the next most common transition leads movers into neighborhoods of the same subtype” (p.301-5). Finally, social and spatial distances are found to deter pairwise migrations between neighborhoods, leading Sampson to conclude that “neighborhoods choose people rather than the common idea that people choose neighborhoods” (p.327).

Chapter 14 closes the ‘interactional’ part of the book by looking at leadership connections across neighborhoods in Chicago, using social networks analytic tools (connectivity and cohesiveness metrics mostly). “The data tell a simple but powerful story. Namely, the sociodemographic and poverty composition of communities does not determine the kind of leadership configurations […]. Concentrated disadvantage in particular is rather weakly connected to the cohesiveness of leadership and is only modestly predictive of the centrality of a community’s position in meadiating elite ties. Residential stability, median income, and percent black are weakly correlated as well. But […] the cohesiveness and shared expectations of residents is linked to the nature of leadership ties” (p.347).


Following the bulk of information and statistical results provided, a synthesis and update compose the final part of the book. The update of some analyses in 2010 shows more continuity than change despite the the subprime crisis. The main takeaway messages that the author wants to leave us with is that there is and remains a “deep ecological concentration and marked variability by neighborhood across a wide range of how Americans experience life” (p.356), and that this spatial inequality might be a stronger marker of the American society than its individual inequality. This inequality matters because “neighborhood contexts are socially productive” (p.358), and persistent ones. Therefore it seems the way forwards in terms of collective and individual well-being needs to promote collective efficacy and the conditions for its improvement, but also drastic government measures when self-reinforcing processes are too far entrenched in communities (through zoning for example). Immigration is another option, as “inflows of first-generation immigrants reflect a classic example of a diffusion process with spillover effects, including lower crime and economic resurgence of formerly devastated poor neighborhoods” (p.373). In general, “rather than simply move people out of targeted communities, the idea is to renew what is already there while simultaneously investing in communities on the edge of critical need but not yet deemed policy-relevant. […] Properly done, intervening at the community level is not only feasible but more cost effective in the long run than targeting individuals. Predicting individual behavior is notoriously difficult and inefficient, whereas as I have shown that community social structures are highly patterned over time.” (p.420-4).



The contribution of this book to urban sociology and social geography is important, especially in the way R. Sampson does not give up in the face of the multidimensional, multilevel, temporal and complex object that is spatial inequality and neigbhorhood effects. Instead, the author brings together multiple empirical materials, theories and methods to try and manage the fact that ‘things go together’ in and across places. Furthermore, this book shows a very labour-intensive attempt at providing measures and quantified accounts of community-level processes, without sacrificing the qualitative work of interpretation of statistical results and their theoretical framing.

Notwithstanding the great qualities of the book, this ubiquitous focus on statistical associations can sometimes seem limited. Firstly, I suspect that the author (or the editor?) did not want to congest the book with numbers and figures, therefore all statistical results are narrated rather than presented in numerical form. A few tables would have saved a lot of words but also would have enabled the reader to have a go at interpretation by themselves with all the information in hand. Without this information, they can only trust the narrator. Secondly, apart from the spatial models of chapter 12, the models seem to be systematically linear and single-level, despite the use of variables such as income and population (which tend to scale nonlinearly) and despite the common use of multilevel models to assess neighborhood effects in the literature. We do not know why these models were not considered here. Thirdly, despite a lot of attention to not take correlation for causation, it seems that the accumulation of statistical models leads the author to suggest that there must be some causation in the process. As a geographer, I would also add that maps could make a stronger case to the argument if they were rearranged into small multiples and used less coarse categorization.

With respect to my project on urban inqualities, this book has given me precious insights into sociological mechanisms of spatial inequality and neighborhood effects (especially the ones related to perception and representation), as well as an idea of the enormous complexity that urban inequality are made of, especially through their multidimensional and multiscale properties.


Here I share the type of file I use to document my readings and book reviews. It is composed of citations from the book which I considered important while reading.

Other reviews of this book have been published in Urban Studies, the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, an LSE blog and Sociology Lens.