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)


Debating the Issue – Neighbourhood Effects By Joe Crawford, University of Stirling

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.