Thursday, July 5, 2012

Robert J. Sampson: "The Social Order of the American City: Lessons for Crime and Justice"

Robert Sampson is a sociologist whose research examines the social organization of city life.  He's worked and published in a number of substantive areas, including social movements, civic engagement, and crime.  In criminology he's best know for his work on social disorganization, which looks at the city as a living social system and questions how the different "parts" (e.g., institutions, organizations, formal and informal social groups, and patterns) interact and operate within this system.  Much of his work focuses on the neighborhood level and one of his big arguments is about the power of the collective efficacy of a neighborhood [or other group] in social change.  Collective efficacy refers to a group's ability to realize common concerns and work together to address them (think neighborhoods working together to deal with blight and abandoned homes).

Sampson's research on community life revealed a lack of criminological research on social processes and their relationship with collectivities and collective efficacy. Social processes focus on motivations (values, rationalizations, emotions) and meanings, and how they're expressed by those who actually live in the community. Social processes tell us why people consider themselves members of various groups and what their actions mean to them.  They tell us how collective identity and collective efficacy happen.  This requires qualitative research, which is much less common in criminology.  There are some good ethnographies out there now that touch on violence, police and prison, and they shed some light on these social processes (see Code of the Streets and When a Heart Turns Rock Solid), but it's a very underdeveloped area of research. Yet, it's necessary because understanding social processes will go a long way in understanding the motivations behind crime and finding realistic and effective solutions.

His latest book, "Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect" is considered his magnum opus (for a 2-page review click here).  He's been studying Chicago for years, he knows it inside and out. It should be very insightful for understanding not only the city of Chicago, but in thinking more clearly about the social organization of our own cities, including "the limit of investing in individuals without attempting to change the social and spatial systems within which they are embedded."