As both John Flint and Keith Kintrea can testify, there was a period of my life (MPhil over a decade ago) when I thought that ‘neighbourhood effects research’ was the most exciting prospect in the entire field of urban studies. My own research involved interviewing people who had moved from social housing into the private sector through the Glasgow Rent Deposit Scheme, and showed that the move had multiple (if modest) advantages for tenants. But then, of course it would. To my mind, the benefits of ‘social mix’ and ‘mixed tenure’ communities, and the need to pursue this as a clear policy agenda, were beyond question. Opposition was simply inconceivable. Then I happened upon the work of Pierre Bourdieu and, for me, the neighbourhood effects bubble burst.
There have, of course, been other critics of the discipline. Tom Slater (1), for example, in his critique of what he refers to as ‘the cottage industry of neighbourhood effects research’, highlights the fact that it represents a falsely depoliticised vision of urban inequality. The obsession with trying to prove the existence of these effects, empirically, using regression models and quantitative analyses, focuses only on the symptoms thus (conveniently) diverting attention from the root causes of urban marginality.
Maybe I’m being too sociologically focused (or boringly Bourdieusian), but it seems that neighbourhood effects research has two fundamental ‘issues’ which I find rather difficult to ignore:
- The concept of ‘neighbourhood processes’ is almost always constructed in traditional ‘neighbourhood effects literature’ as a linear model (cause and effect i.e. where you live affects your life chances). However, by examining the relationship between the tenants’ dispositions; gender, ethnicity, position in social space etc. (or, if you prefer, Bourdieu’s notion of habitus) and the wider neighbourhood (field) we see not a linear process but an entirely dialectical one. People make the world that makes them. It’s a two way process with the interaction of both ‘habitus’ and ‘field’. Seeing the process as a dialectical one is particularly useful as it dissolves the false antinomies that litter the academic world (i.e. structure/agency, objective/subjective, cause/effect etc.) Surely, then, a much better position from which to understand the relationship between residents and their residential areas. The difficulty for neighbourhood effects research is that it therefore requires a subjective view (the internalisation of the external world) which regression analysis almost never includes.
- Neighbourhood effects research fails to acknowledge the simple assertion that where there are stratified societies there will be stratified areas of residence. The notion that housing is a form of ‘sociodicy’ has been almost completely overlooked. It is widely acknowledged that, in many societies, housing (along with residential area) is a principle source of status. Housing can also function as a powerful and enduring form of negative sociodicy. (The stigmatised residents degrade the neighbourhood that degrades them – a purely negative dialectical process). This asks serious questions about the policy assumptions around notions of ‘neighbourhood mix’. As Bourdieu points out in Weight of the World;
“If the habitat shapes the habitus, the habitus also shapes the habitat, through the more or less adequate social usages that it tends to make of it. This certainly throws doubt on the belief that bringing together in the same physical space agents who are far apart in social space might, in itself, bring them closer socially: in fact socially distanced people find nothing more intolerable than physical proximity” (2)
I was somewhat surprised, therefore, that neighbourhood effects research was alive and well (if not thriving), with an entire stream all of its own at the (otherwise brilliant) ENHR conference in Edinburgh 2014.
For me the two issues above are of fundamental importance. I no longer accept that you can understand neighbourhoods by focusing only on one dimension of a complex process rather than examining the relationship between two (subjective and objective rather than taking either/or as the object of study). Housing Studies is important, which makes it expedient that our methods and theories are as robust as possible. I’m not renouncing the need to understand neighbourhood processes but I am questioning the methodological and theoretical models we employ. Critical engagement is one way of ‘honing’ our arguments and sharpening our thinking. If you wish to contribute to this debate, please feel free. The rules are simple; all contributions (emailed to Kim McKee) must be less than 750 words.
Joe Crawford, PhD Researcher, University of Stirling
- Slater. T. (2013) ‘Capitalist urbanisation affects your life chances: exorcising the ghosts of ‘neighbourhood effects” in D. Manley, M. Van Ham, N. Bailey and L. Simpson, & D. Maclennan (eds) Neighbourhood Effects or Neighbourhood Based Problems? A Policy Context (Springer Press) pp113-132
- Bourdieu, P (1999) Weigh of the World. Social Suffering in Contemporary Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.