What is it that Bugs me about Neighbourhood Effects Research? By David Manley (University of Bristol)

There are many answers to that question. I could, for instance point to the lack of appreciation for the temporal scale – the theory that has been laid out for the neighbourhood to impact the individual relies on a far longer temporal scale than the time frame most analysts (if not all) allow for the analysis. Or, I could have lamented the lack of thinking about causal pathways: open any health related journal and I guarantee you’ll find a paper analysing the relationship between public open space and improved health outcomes (quite how the mere presence of local open space is sufficient is never disclosed in these papers. My grandmother lived very near a number of parks but she rarely, if ever, ventured into them). Or, I could have pointed to near silence in the literature that recognises that where people are located in residential space owes a lot to the spatial expression of inequalities and class struggles so that the urban differences between places are not accidental outcomes (but others blogging here are far better placed to talk about that than I am!). No, when I was asked to respond to Joe’s blog on neighbourhood effects I thought long and hard about Bourdieu and what his work could mean for the field. Then I thought harder and longer about the dominance of the disciplines represented in the near 20,000 papers reporting neighbourhood effects. My gaze landed on the econometricians and I wondered how they would engage with the ideas of the philosopher: whilst I may be doing a disservice to some econometricians, many within the field are likely not to be listening. So, the thing that keeps me awake at night and where I think we (by we in this instance I mean people interested in neighbourhood effects) need a step change is to wrestle the term and analyses back from the economists and econometricians.

What is wrong with the econometricians you ask? I’ll tell you: in the world of the econometricians complex modelling approaches can be used to overcome some pretty serious problems. What’s wrong with that, after all, that’s what all quantitative modellers are doing isn’t it? Well, no: for instance ‘things’ that we have not been able to measure (this could be personality, how risky an individual is willing to be in their financial behaviour to name two) can be ignored through the use of complex modelling techniques (the ‘fixed effect’ approaches). The econometricians are happy with these models because they allow them (they believe) the chance to estimate values to attached to neighbourhoods that are ‘unbiased’ and not altered by those inconvenient things that we do not know or cannot measure.  The problem is, in reaching those ‘unbiased’ estimations a lot of other important information that we do know and that is important has been thrown out: for instance, in their simplified representation of reality (for that is all a model really is) other variables have also been discarded because the model cannot cope with information that does not change. In short the baby is thrown out with the bath water and variables such as ethnicity and gender, to name two, are omitted from the model and any effect that these variables may have (and there is reason to suggest that they may be important!) is lumped together as ‘error’ with those other ‘things’ we don’t know. So far, so mechanical. But this blog is about more than just the specification of the variables in a model. Because, the same assumptions that apply to the econometrician’s variables also apply to their neighbourhoods!

Reading through the literature (and I am a part of this literature so I must shoulder some of the guilt) the most important component of the investigation – the neighbourhood to which we are ascribing these effects – is the part that receives the least attention. Indeed, in many cases the neighbourhood is used as a non-spatial entity. We (and this time I am using the ‘we’ for geographers!) should be the front of this literature using our considerable spatial arsenal to explain, examine, critique and explore how space matters. Neighbourhoods (whatever they may be – that is another blog to be written at another time) are fundamentally about the organisation of individuals into spatial entities. They may be spatially contiguous – that is next to each other like residential neighbourhoods – they may be disjointed – like work, leisure or cultural neighbourhoods – or they may not exist in a physical sense but all are important. The neighbourhood must be the most important part of any study trying to determine if there are linkages between places and individual outcomes. And of course, neighbourhood is a highly contested and debated object at an atomistic level neighbourhood has a unique meaning to each individual in the data. Yet, it is also the piece of information that received the least attention in much of the literature: neighbourhood is frequently used to mean purely the residential context and is derived from standard administrative units created to satisfy the delivery of state statistical data. They have no meaning for the activity space of individuals, of the spaces through which people travel or interact, and have no meaning for the spaces in which people inhabit. Moreover, the kind of neighbourhood that you would use for, say, trying to understand peer group effects on children are very different to those that you would employ for understanding   Similarly, the things that we measure in the neighbourhoods are equally important. Much of the neighbourhood effects work uses the percentage of X, or Y and then attempts to make an assertion that the more (less) of X or Y the worse (better) things will be for individuals.

So, until we engage spatially then we are going to continue to look for effects without getting a handle on where they may (or may not) exist. In doing so we may not find the needle in the haystack, but at least we’d be looking in the right place!

David Manley, University of Bristol (@david_j_manley)

Unpacking the Concept of Home By Jennifer Hoolachan (University of Stirling)

Home’ and ‘place’ have been the subjects of a wealth of research within the disciplines of sociology, psychology, geography and youth studies in the past twenty years (e.g. Mallett, 2004; Manzo, 2005; Blunt and Dowling, 2006; Hopkins, 2010). Despite this, in 2004, Easthope argued that researchers working within the area of housing studies have paid little attention to these subjects. Since then, place and home have slowly appeared in housing research (Neumark, 2013; Jacobs and Malpas, 2013; Buffel at al., 2014) and the current emphasis on wellbeing and its connection to home and housing, by both the UK and Scottish Governments, demonstrates that home is currently of political significance (Randall, 2012; Commission on Housing and Wellbeing, 2013).

Attempting to define ‘home’, however, is the subject of much debate. Many agree that home differs from a house in that the latter is a physical structure, or commodity, whereas the former is a subjectively experienced construct (Manzo, 2003). Yet some have argued that more work is needed to explore how physical features contribute to how a home or place is experienced (Smaldone, Harris and Sanyal, 2005) thoriginal_HomeSweetHomeDETAILus demonstrating that it is not straightforward to separate the physical from the social.

Despite the contested meanings of ‘home’, there is a feeling (certainly in Scotland) that policy has neglected to account for the more qualitative aspects of home, preferring instead to prioritise the quantity, availability and economic value of housing. I do not only mean quality in relation to the physical conditions of a house (although of course these are of paramount importance) but the quality of people’s lived experiences that takes place within the shell of a house and its surrounding geographical areas. As such experiences are subjective, the challenge for policymakers and researchers is to grapple with how policy can account for these subjectivities in order to use them to improve individual and collective wellbeing.

This issue was the focus of a series of seminars I recently attended titled ‘Home not Housing’ funded by the Scottish Universities Insight Institute. Based on the ideas of knowledge co-production, this seminar series brought together individuals from a variety of housing backgrounds to discuss what home and wellbeing meant to them. The aim was to identify common themes amongst the hugely diverse views and experiences offered by the group and to use these emergent themes to feed into the development of wellbeing indicators and wider policy. Whilst some felt uneasy about what they saw as an attempt to quantify subjective experiences, many found it difficult to envision an alternative means of informing policy and indeed felt that this was the most effective way to proceed.

Interestingly, only one week later I found myself engaged in a similar discussion at a WithScotland event about qualitative methods in child protection research. Although everyone at this event was a strong supporter of qualitative research, there appeared to be an uncertainty about how this type of data can be effectively and meaningfully incorporated into policy. This reflects a wider belief that Governments have historically regarded quantitative research as more robust and important for feeding into policy and implementing change. Therefore, debates concerning the inclusion of ‘home’ in policy constitute part of this wider discussion given qualitative methods are usually the most appropriate means of examining topics on a subjective level.

In addition to an agenda for wellbeing, there has been a shift in Scotland towards the prioritising of policy outcomes. This suggests a political willingness to examine the impact of policies in relation to people’s lived experiences, rather than simply on tangible, largely numeric outputs. In other words, there is scope to explore not only how a policy influences the supply, availability or economic value of housing, but also how it impacts on people’s subjective experiences of home. It remains to be seen how committed the Scottish Government will be to incorporate the concept of ‘home’ into policy without slipping into the more familiar territory of housing. The challenge is not only to maintain this more holistic focus but to figure out how to draw upon qualitative research in a way that does not transform the rich detail of people’s lived experiences into quantifiable categories that lose their overall meaning. Events such as the ‘Home not Housing’ seminars are leading the way in these types of discussions.

As long as the Scottish Government’s willingness, to include subjective experiences in policy, is aimed at improving wellbeing for everyone, and is not simply a tokenistic, political exercise, then these types of debate are welcome. Discussions around ‘home’ were also taken forward by a group of early-career researchers at a recent symposium organised by myself at the University of Stirling. The details of these discussions are available on the Housing Studies Association website.

Jennifer Hoolachan, PhD Researcher, University of Stirling (@Jen_2603)


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Buffel, T., De Donder, L., Phillipson, C., De Witte, N., Dury, S. and Verte, D., (2014) Place Attachment among Older Adults Living in Four Communities in Flanders, Belgium, Housing Studies. Vol. 29 (6), pp. 800 – 822.

Commission for Housing and Wellbeing, (2013) Scoping Paper [online]. Available at http://www.housingandwellbeing.org/sites/default/files/downloads/SCOPING_PAPER_CHWB_1.pdf [Accessed 27 May 2014].

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Hopkins, P.E., (2010) Young People, Place and Identity. Oxon: Routledge.

Jacobs, K. and Malpas, J., (2013) Material Objects, Identity and the Home: Towards a Relational Housing Research Agenda, Housing, Theory and Society. Vol. 30(3), pp. 281 – 292.

Mallett, S., (2004) Understanding Home: A Critical Review of the Literature, Sociological Review. Vol. 52 (1), pp. 62 – 89.

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Manzo, L.C., (2005) For Better or Worse: Exploring Multiple Dimensions of Place Meaning, Journal of Environmental Psychology. Vol. 25, pp. 67 – 86.

Neumark, D., (2013) Drawn to Beauty: The Practice of House-Beautification as Homemaking amongst the Forcible Displaced, Housing, Theory and Society. Vol. 30 (3), pp. 237 – 261.

Randall, C., (2012) Measuring National Well-being, Where We Live, 2012 [online]. Available at http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171766_270690.pdf [Accessed 27 May 2014].

Smaldone, D., Harris, C. and Sanyal, N., (2005) An Exploration of Place as a Process: The Case of Jackson Hole, WY, Journal of Environmental Psychology. Vol. 25, pp. 397 – 414.