Adding to the Neighbourhood Effects Debate: a response to Crawford. By Bo Malmberg (Stockholm University)

In his Oct 17 2014 blogpost,  Joe Crawford argues that neighbourhood effects research is flawed because it focuses on only on how neighbourhood factors influence individuals and not on how individuals shape neighbourhoods. This is a valid point to raise but I am not sure that this argument fully acknowledges how neighbourhood effects studies are related to research on patterns of urban segregation.

“Neighbourhood effects research fails to acknowledge the simple assertion that where there are stratified societies there will be stratified areas of residence”, Crawford argues. I do not think that this is correct. To the contrary, if areas of residence were not stratified no-one would, in my view, consider it worthwhile to engage in a study that looks for effects of residential social context on the life-course of individuals. The existence of residential stratification is, thus, the starting-point of contextual effects studies. Maybe sometimes a taken-for-granted starting point but if some studies do not mention it explicitly it is nonetheless a starting-point.

But what Crawford argues is perhaps that neighbourhood effects research has another implicit assumption, namely that if there are neighbourhood effects then more socially mixed neighbourhoods could be a means to reduce urban inequality. But even if this is what Crawford claims it is not a valid argument against neighbourhood effects studies. The motive for such studies is, instead, to find out if residential stratification not only reflects social stratification, but if it also can contribute to deepen social stratification.

As demonstrated in a recent study by Chetty et al (2014) this very much seems to be the case, at least in the US context. It is possible that Crawford would argue that the Chetty study reflects a liberal world outlook and I would agree. But where I and Crawford might differ is that I find it is of interest to know if segregation can be one driver of social inequality, whereas Crawford from a critical perspective maybe looks at this as a non-issue.

It is understandable that Crawford after a reading of Bourdieu has come to the conclusion that neighbourhood effects studies have little interest. But to base an evaluation of neighbourhood effects studies on Bourdieu is not necessarily a good idea since Bourdieu’s analysis of the role of spatiality in social reproduction is exemplarily weak. “Socially distanced people find nothing more intolerable than physical proximity”. Yes, but this is not exactly news, and it is not an absolute truth. What Bourdieu in general fails to acknowledge that taking up residence in privileged neighbourhoods can be an important means by which privileged groups seeks to ensure the reproduction of an appropriate habitus.   Bourdieu’s analysis of how this reproduction is maintained in schools is ground-breaking but he more or less totally lacks an analysis of the role of neighbourhoods in this process.

Yes, neighbourhood effects research does face important challenges as argued by David Manley in a follow-up to Joe Crawford’s blog. And every research fields has examples of less well-designed studies. There are, however, no strong reason why such challenges cannot be overcome and I would argue that much progress has been made in recent years. Especially important here is the use of longitudinal designs. But also improved measures of residential context that overcomes the problem with using fixed statistical areas (Andersson and Malmberg 2015), and the use of exposure time for identifying neighbourhood effects (another Chetty et al 2015 paper).

Finally, in contrast to Crawford I would argue that a good understanding of how residential context shape the life course of individuals is central concern in urban research precisely because of the dialectic between the subjective and the objective. Neighbourhood contexts constitute objective factors that shape life-course trajectories, which in turn are instrumental processes of neighbourhood change. If the first part of this process is not understood then the second part cannot be understood either.

Bo Malmberg, Dept. of Human Geography, Stockholm University



Andersson, E. K., and B. Malmberg. (2015) “Contextual Effects on Educational Attainment in Individualised, Scalable Neighbourhoods: Differences across gender and social class”, Urban Studies 52 (12):2117-2133.

Chetty, R.; Hendren, N.; Kline, P. and Saez, E. (2014) “Where is the Land of Opportunity?  The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States”, National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working Paper No. 19843.

Chetty, R.; Hendren, N. and Katz, L.F. (2015) “The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighbourhoods on Children: new evidence from the Moving to Opportunity experiment”, National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working Paper No. 21156.


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