Sugrue and Venkatesh on Robert J. Sampson’s “Great American City”

Though published only a few months ago, it’s already clear that Robert J. Sampson’s Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect will rank among the most important works of urban ...

Though published only a few months ago, it’s already clear that Robert J. Sampson’s Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect will rank among the most important works of urban studies in a generation. It’s the culmination of an extraordinary research project on Chicago’s neighborhoods and also a major theoretical statement about how to understand local life in a decidedly global age. Sampson is a sociologist, but his book speaks to readers throughout the social sciences and engages debates in urban history, city planning, public policy, and public health. In other words, Great American City is the kind of publication that deserves the best critical treatment that we can offer, and we are delighted to offer reviews by two leading urban scholars—the historian Tom Sugrue and the sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh—here.


Jump to remarks:
Thomas J. Sugrue, Sudhir Venkatesh

Thomas J. Sugrue


In the beginning was Chicago. No place has been more influential for American sociology as a discipline than the “Second City.” Yes, W. E. B. Du Bois conducted pathbreaking research for his 1899 The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, even if the book was mostly ignored for decades afterward. Robert and Helen Lynd made Muncie, Indiana famous as Middletown, the embodiment of the “normal.” And W. Lloyd Warner descended upon Newburyport, Massachusetts to develop a typology of status in America. Many great sociologists have worked in New York, but the whole of the library of books on that city was never as great as the sum of the parts. A Los Angeles School of cultural studies scholars and geographers has attempted to elevate that metropolis to centrality, but it is more methodologically fragmented, like southern California itself. Chicago, by contrast, was to urban sociology what Edinburgh was to economics or Vienna was to psychology. Over the last one hundred years, from the eponymous Chicago School to the still-extraordinary study of black urban life by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton to the controversial work of William Julius Wilson to the meticulous ethnographies of Mary Pattillo, Sudhir Venkatesh, and Elijah Anderson, Chicago is arguably the center of American sociology.

Chicago—like all American cities—has been shaped by forces well beyond its borders: the restructuring of European agriculture and industrial capitalism that made it a magnet for immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries); the brutality and impoverishment of the Jim Crow South that propelled black migrants to its streets beginning in World War I; the investment decisions in New York that turned the city into a major business center; the federal policies that turned Chicago and so many cities like it into bastions of racial and socioeconomic segregation; and the corporate search for cheap labor, low taxes, and lax regulation that devastated the “City of Broad Shoulders.” But what is striking about Chicago’s urban sociologists is how, for the most part, they look inward. The unit of analysis for Chicago since the turn of the century, a few books excepted, has been the city limits and, even more precisely, the city’s communities or neighborhoods.

Sampson is not content to wallow in the particularities of place, but rather to ask questions that are far bigger than Chicago and to challenge some of the most influential currents in the social sciences today.

Robert Sampson’s Great American City might be the most ambitious of the Chicago studies to date, but Sampson, like his predecessors, thinks locally rather than globally. “Fascination with globalization has tended to deflect attention from the persistence of local variation, concentration, and the spatial logic of inequality.” Sampson’s use of Chicago as a case study allows him to find patterns that would be obscured had he viewed the city from a more stratospheric level. Like the very best local studies, Sampson is not content to wallow in the particularities of place, but rather to ask questions that are far bigger than Chicago and, in the process, to challenge some of the most influential currents in the social sciences today.

Great American City did not start as a project to rethink urbanism or challenge some the canons of contemporary social science. What Sampson calls the Chicago Project (shorthand for the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods) began in the early 1980s, with a narrower set of questions about crime and its determinants. Although the study of crime, deviance, and disorder had long attracted some of the most influential scholars in the social and human sciences, from Erving Goffman to Michel Foucault, by the time that Sampson joined the field in the early 1980s, criminology was an increasingly marginal field. But its trajectory reflected in microcosm some of the major currents in mid-range social science theory, shifting from broadly cultural explanations in the 1960s (in dialogue with “culture of poverty” theories) to increasingly biological understandings of human behavior that examined the allegedly genetic origins of crime, intelligence, and poverty. Swimming against the tide, Sampson set out to resuscitate ecological or environmental theories of behavior, with special attention to community-level influences on individual development.

That emphasis on environment—and his choice of case study—inexorably led Sampson back to the Chicago School of sociology, and, in particular, to its emphasis on human ecology. In the last few decades, the Chicago School has fallen to the grim fate of canonicity: everyone acknowledges the importance of the work of Robert E. Park, Ernest W. Burgess, and Louis Wirth and their legion of students, but hardly anyone reads it anymore. Urban geographers briskly dismiss the Chicago school as a totem of modernity. And more recently, the Chicago School has come under siege by a counter-canonical tendency, the more diffuse but internationally ascendant Los Angeles School, which makes claims for the Southern Californian metropolis every bit as grandiose as the Chicago School did (though, befitting its emphasis on postmodernity, is shorn of the early-twentieth-century universalizing rhetoric that pervades Park, Burgess, and Wirth).

Sampson openly acknowledges his indebtedness to the Chicago School. In the process he offers an elegant intellectual history of the field, a welcome antidote to what Herbert Gans has called “sociological amnesia.”1 But Sampson is not simply presenting a buffed and honed reprise of Park’s and Burgess’s classic, The City: Suggestions for Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment, or other canonical Chicago studies. The Chicago School’s vision of urbanism was, at core, teleological. The city, in its view, was a mechanism for group advancement and mobility, inscribed on a map of the city through concentric circles, expanding outward through a process of “invasion” and “succession,” marking class advancement and ethnic assimilation. Sampson eschews the Chicago School’s faith in progress, and rejects its distinctively modernist, sectoral conception of urban space. Instead he offers a twenty-first-century vision of urbanism that sees the city in terms of networks, clusters, and flows shaped by neighborhoods that interact and influence each other through proximity, but also through migration, and the interaction of institutions.

Sampson is fundamentally interested in interconnection and interaction. He focuses on the mechanisms that determine individual behavior and social structure, by exploring the micro and macro connections that shape society.

Sampson’s guiding principle, and one that he shares with his Chicago School predecessors, is this: “Relentlessly focus first and foremost on social context.” Ethnographies and historical studies excepted, “context” has become nearly taboo in the social sciences today. If humanities-oriented scholars, like historians, value complexity (to say that a scholarly book or article “complicates” existing theories is high praise in their circles), the mainstream of economists, political scientists, and a growing number of sociologists treat context as “noise.” They value parsimony, namely the systematic effacement of context in service of elegant formulas that control variables. It is a common critique of historians, cultural anthropologists, and some of the “softer” human sciences that they simply pile on anecdotes with the hopeful expectation that something meaningful will emerge from the penumbras and emanations of the mass of facts they have gathered.

Sampson brings unusual rigor to the study of context, without falling back on the unsatisfactory commonplace observation that “it’s complicated.” He is fundamentally interested in interconnection and interaction. He focuses on the mechanisms that determine individual behavior and social structure, by exploring the micro and macro connections that shape society rather than resorting to simple, sometimes ingenious models that are often so reductive that they “prove” the obvious or reduce human behavior to the point of one-dimensional absurdity. Sampson is allergic both to simple formal models and to the fetishization of methodology that shapes much social scientific scholarship, even as his book displays a methodological virtuosity and technical rigor.

No fashion in the social sciences comes under Sampson’s systematic critique more than methodological individualism. Sampson offers one of the most robust defenses of sociology as a discipline, forcefully arguing for the necessity of keeping the social in the social sciences. Here, he swims against a powerful tide. Since the 1980s, the social sciences have taken an individualistic turn, embodied in theories of rational choice that pervaded first economics and then political science, and that, in another guise, have shaped cultural studies  emphasizing individual level agency and resistance. Methodological individualism still reigns, even as rational choice is now fading in fashion, supplanted by biological determinism in the guise of neuroeconomics (we might call it “irrational choice” theory) and a revivified interest in the biological basis of behavior (sociobiology version 2.0). At times, Sampson nods too respectfully to genetic determinists, but ultimately he resists them, for he is at core a structuralist and environmentalist, who at every moment explores the ways that place shapes and constrains individual choice. Even when he brings his analysis to the individual level, he emphasizes the embeddedness of the individual in society: his vocabulary is one of the social-interactional; the social-psychological; the organizational; and the socio-cultural.  Ultimately, his is an account of “social mechanisms and processes that are supraindividual in nature.”

In his biting 2005 critique of the “flight from reality in the human sciences,” Ian Shapiro has warned of “method-driven, as opposed to problem-driven research” that is insulated from “untoward encounters with evidence.”2 Great American City is a methodologically sophisticated book that relies on a vast evidentiary base that led to all sorts of untoward encounters. Sampson’s team of researchers surveyed thousands of Chicagoans (sometimes dealing with obstacles to access like wealthy North Side residents who were inaccessible to researchers until a team of well-dressed, middle aged white women “bribed or flattered” doormen to get access to their buildings). Sampson oversaw graduate student camera crews that traveled through the city’s streets, documenting pedestrian density, litter, and abandonment (gathering material that will provide future historians and documentarians a rich visual archive of a 1990s-era urban landscape). They combed through Chicago newspapers, coding forty years worth of articles to gather data on collective action. They mined data on mobility patterns, poverty and unemployment, crime rates, immigration, and leadership networks, and geocoded them to discover spatial patterns that would otherwise be invisible. And in an ingenious test of social cohesion, they dropped stamped, addressed envelopes on the sidewalks of various Chicago neighborhoods and recorded how many were picked up and mailed. All of that said, Sampson’s encounters could be a little more untoward. It may be churlish to ask more of a massive, methodologically-plural book like Great American City, but it would have been richer for some on-the-ground, thick descriptions of Chicagoans and their neighborhoods, and better still with some ethnography woven in.

Sampson’s emphasis on the primacy of the social and the necessity of contextualization leads him to make some striking formulations. “Neighborhoods,” he writes, “are both chosen and allocated.” The most influential social scientific frameworks for understanding neighborhood change—and those with the greatest popular appeal as well—emphasize residence as a matter of individual choice. Sampson could push his argument about neighborhood allocation even further, for it challenges the still-influential 1956 Tiebout hypothesis, which claims utility-maximizing individuals choose their residences based on their assessment of the type and quality and cost (in the form of taxes) of goods and services available to them in a particular municipality. Sampson’s argument that “spatially inscribed social differences” constrain choice and structure markets also suggests a way to move beyond the limitations of Thomas Schelling’s tipping-point theory that neighborhood racial change is the consequence of the sum of individual decisions. Sampson does not deny individual choice, but instead embeds it in the social.

Great American City also emphasizes the weight of the past in shaping the present, namely how long-term patterns in poverty, racial segregation, and the direction of change are durable. Or as he argues in a sentence that could stand in for the whole book: “Disadvantage has strong inertial tendencies at the ecological level.” Surprisingly, Sampson does not engage the work of Charles Tilly, or scholars of American political development and institutional constraints like Theda Skocpol and Steven Skowronek, or historical economists who have developed the suggestive, if too-deterministic, model of “path dependency,” but he shares their emphasis on inertia and durability. But Sampson’s approach has a limitation: he makes it hard to imagine the causal mechanisms of change over time.

At the core of Sampson’s book is a concept that’s been hotly debated in the social sciences recently: “neighborhood effects.” Sampson offers an important intervention here. He shows that neighborhoods are not just territorial units: they are shaped by a mix of perception and an expression of their functions. These perceptions  do not necessarily correspond to the lived experience of their residents. For instance, views of local crime and safety are not neatly aligned with crime rates. Sampson’s emphasis on perception is one of the most generative ideas in the book: it sets the table for all sorts of future research projects, many of which could be quite different (historical, ethnographic, cultural) than Great American City.

Three other findings that undermine conventional wisdom stand out in Sampson’s book. First, the concentration of new immigrants lowers crime in urban neighborhoods, with a ripple effect in surrounding neighborhoods with small immigrant populations. Crime rates fall in both homogenous white, already low-crime neighborhoods and in nearby, segregated, higher-crime African American neighborhoods. Second—a myth buster that rips at the heart of recent work on social capital and religion—“the density of churches is negatively related to collective efficacy and one of its core indicators—trust.” By contrast, neighborhoods with a large concentration of secular non-profit organizations are more likely to organize collective action to improve neighborhood life. Third, despite aggregate shifts in the racial composition of metropolitan areas, both segregation and concentrated poverty have remained remarkably durable by place. Most poor neighborhoods in 1970 remained poor thirty years later. And even more remarkably, despite a slow but steady decline in aggregate measures of residential segregation by race, not a single neighborhood in Chicago transitioned from being predominantly black to predominantly white between 1960 and 2000. (To clinch the point that Chicago is not exceptional, Sampson reports that only ten census tracts out of 65,000 nationally went from being 60 percent or more black to 60 percent or more white). His point, with each of these cases: place matters and its effects are deep-rooted.

For all of its attention to context, there is something major missing in Sampson’s book, something that is also missing from the classic work of the Chicago School: politics and public policy. Many of the book’s key concepts—collective efficacy, civil society, and the good community are inherently political. They are shaped and constrained by political institutions, legislation, and jurisprudence. Consider a few examples. Chicago has a thinning but still important political machine. Many cities have at-large councils and weak local political institutions. But in Chicago, the distribution of patronage, in the form of jobs and public services, is structured territorially. Many cities elect their city councils at large; some, like Chicago, elect by wards, geographic units that define neighborhood boundaries and identities; other cities have a hybrid system. The fact that local power in Chicago remains, at least to some extent, neighborhood-based has direct implications for collective efficacy. The uneven spatial distribution of public goods has implications for each aspect of Sampson’s analysis, including collective efficacy, perceptions of disorder and community reputation, not to mention rates of poverty, labor market participation, and crime.

But for all of his interest in place, Sampson is uninterested in place-making, namely, the process by which boundaries are drawn, challenged, reinforced or undermined.

Understanding the role of boundaries is central to a spatial social science. Boundaries shape identities (who is in? and who is out?); they can maintain or reinforce racial categories (one is a “black” neighborhood; the other a “white” one); they shape perceptions of place (a single street can demarcate neighborhood); they shape the allocation of resources (consider for example the question of school attendance zones, where seemingly arbitrary lines can separate a high-performing and a troubled school). In American cities, boundaries have been fundamentally constitutive of racial identities and socioeconomic status. But for all of his interest in place, Sampson is uninterested in place-making, namely, the process by which boundaries are drawn, challenged, reinforced or undermined. To be sure, not all boundaries are the same. Some are of significance to a subset of a neighborhood’s residents (the boundaries of a Catholic parish or an Orthodox Jewish eruv); some affect real estate values (the area around the former Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago was renamed West Lincoln Park, to rebrand the neighborhood); some affect the nature of informal markets (what gang controls a corner or a block).

The most important boundaries are those constructed by law—within cities, special-services districts or zoned districts, and even more importantly, the boundaries between municipalities or school districts or utility districts. These hard boundaries determine property taxes, the nature and quality of public services, and political power. For most of modern American history, municipal boundaries have corresponded closely with racial and ethnic divisions, and today, even more so with socioeconomic divisions. Sampson says virtually nothing about boundaries—either soft or hard. But it is easy to envision a powerful extension of his ecological framework to take into account the ways that politically-constructed boundaries have a profound effect on every issue that Great American City analyses, from crime to leadership networks to spatial inequalities. Version 2.0 of Great American City must put public policies that divide neighborhood and municipality at the foreground.

We must also return to Sampson’s global/neighborhood dichotomy. This is the other aspect of context that needs elaboration. As Chicago has become a more global city, many of the most important decisions that affect neighborhoods and their residents are beyond the control of ward leaders and aldermen. Ward politics is less important in an era when Chicago’s most influential political actors—downtown developers, investors, and financiers—have closer ties to New York, Washington, and London than they do to Pilsen, the South Shore, or Marquette Park.  The durable inequalities that Sampson describes in Chicago cannot be understood primarily as the legacy of neighborhood effects, but as the interaction between the local, the regional, the national, and the international. Sampson’s provocative discussion of immigration and crime offers one way to get at these issues: immigrant neighborhoods affect those in proximity, but they too are affected by institutions, networks, and interactions that transcend the local. Likewise, the flows of capital (from national predatory lenders to global derivatives markets) have specific space-based effects on Chicago neighborhoods that are the consequence of the particularities of the locality, but also by what Chicago has in common with the other spaces that have been ravaged by the foreclosure crisis, whether California’s Central Valley, suburban Las Vegas, or North Philadelphia.

In the end, Great American City makes wonderfully clear the power of researching locally, of paying attention to context in a way that is impossible on a larger canvas, and of considering the persistence of local structures in shaping everyday life, opportunities, and experiences. It is simply impossible to write about cities in the same way after reading this book. But one can only hope that Sampson, or someone else with just as much ambition, writes a sequel called the Great American Metropolis, with Chicago side-by-side with Naperville and Evanston and Schaumburg, so that the wider region comes into view. Sampson has established just how much place matters, but not at what scale.


Jump to remarks:
Thomas J. SugrueSudhir Venkatesh


Sudhir Venkatesh


To understand what Great American City, by Robert J. Sampson, argues, it is necessary to first understand what the book means. The capstone work of Sampson’s illustrious career is nothing short of a paean to twentieth-century sociology. The promise of the human-ecology vision that gave rise to American sociology finds its apotheosis in Sampson’s workmanlike inquiry. Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess 1925 treatise on the city qua natural organism (The City: Suggestions for Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment) finds its fullest expression in Sampson’s work. His own master trope, “ecometrics,” is a homily to his forefather’s efforts to make evolutionary biology the fundament for societal analysis.3

As a full realization of this vision, Great American City reveals both the strengths and limits of a perspective that sees social systems as biotic systems. Its argument that much of social life—politics, economic outcomes, residential mobility, civic action—can be anchored in “neighborhoods” captures neatly a core orienting principle of sociology: namely, that all social experience is rooted in local situations that shape possibilities for thought and action. But with its belief in the universal basis of neighborhood-based experiences, the very same belief ends up showcasing the kind of imperialism of American thought, framed as pragmatic, evidence-based science, in which others are presumed to live as we do. One wonders whether the category of neighborhood can carry this kind of grand theoretical promise—or should.

Though not historically novel, the ambitious reach of Sampson’s work is noteworthy. Grand analytic campaigns grew own out of fashion after the embrace of postmodern thought, the spread of feminism, and other critical turns in western social science. Sociology’s return to claims of scientific authority in the last decade, then, is partly a revanchist attempt to reclaim a lost hubris. To elaborate, after the Second World War, the sociological dramatis personae were primarily men trying to outduel one another. Some, like Talcott Parsons, pulled “grand theory” out of their holster while their counterparts, like Daniel Bell or C. Wright Mills, used the timeworn motif of the essay. Both were cast aside by inspired technicians like Paul Lazersfeld and Harrison White—the fathers of focus-group research and network analysis, respectively. There were other lesser-known aspirants—e.g., organizational empiricists such as James G. March and Arthur Stinchcombe, “instutionalists” like Walter W. (Woody) Powell and Paul Dimaggio. But they all had a similar skin in the game: no less than promoting the superlative lens for gazing at homo socialis.

It is worth mentioning that Parsons, Mills, and their contemporaries were refuting the very kind of sociobiology that Sampson is attempting to revive and recast. In fact, by the 1950s, only a few social scientists kept the ecology perspective alive; and they did so by looking at very specific issues, like criminal behavior, the social structure of an urban community, or patterns of residential mobility. The “big” questions were left to others—those who propelled forward one or another variant of structuralist or functionalist perspective.

After the 1960s, with urban riots engulfing US cities and black Americans rewriting the social contract, the public turned to the writings of a small band of brothers in the discipline who were fascinated with marginalia. So-called criminologists, including Irving Spergel, Lloyd Ohlin, Albert Reiss, and Malcolm Klein, impressed those in and out of the academy with their willingness to tackle pressing social problems. These scholars developed innovative policy interventions and isolated the necessary ingredients for maintaining order in the face of societal threats. They believed strongly in local action—in the power of “neighborhoods” to improve people by hosting the right mix of social services, programs, community organizations, and so on. But they tended to mingle with cops, psychologists, and social workers, so their reception in the academy was lukewarm. Indeed, over time, criminology became a separate field and professional association. To put it bluntly, criminology became the Rodney Dangerfield of sociology: scholars worked on the most intractable social issues—gang recruitment, youth violence, police corruption—but they were never viewed in the pantheon with minds like Robert K. Merton, James S. Coleman, and William Julius Wilson.

Sampson has become a colorful voice in a debate that embraces a wide-ranging field of social scientists, namely, “How can we experience community in the face of global economic forces and information technologies?”

For the past two decades, Sampson has worked indefatigably against this current. Almost single-handedly, he restored the study of deviance and crime to core intellectual concerns. Though trained as a sociologist, Sampson’s most notable scholarly work has been on the impact of crime in urban communities. He is not only a cultlike hero to the thousands of criminologists who toil out of view but many ethnographers, myself included, are indebted to him for moving the study of crime into the mainstream of the discipline. At a relatively young age, Sampson has deservedly received nearly every honor in the field, including membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

He has become a colorful voice in a debate that embraces a wide-ranging field of social scientists, namely, “How can we experience community in the face of global economic forces and information technologies?” Great American City is his attempt to answer this question. Framed as a challenge to Saskia Sassen, Manuel Castells and other theorists of globalization, the book argues that “neighborhood” still matters.  (The fact that Sassen and Castells do too weakens Sampson’s claims of originality, but he’s not alone in misrepresenting globalization theorists in this way.) Universally so, because, despite global forces, we continue to experience social structure in bounded geographic spaces. With great aplomb, Sampson shows that neighborhoods, sui generis, are irreducible to politics, race, or economic constraints. They have lives of their own, quite apart from those who live in them, and they can exert a force that is both difficult to counter or even perceive.

By the end of the book, Sampson is so enraptured by the power of the local that he writes, awkwardly, “neighborhoods choose people rather than the common idea that people choose neighborhoods.” And therein lies the rub. This unexpected statement, appearing as the book moves toward its analytic climax, is a hard image to hold. If it were simply a convenient metaphor, we could leave it aside. But the anthropomorphosis is actually the central contradiction of the book and, I would argue, of the human ecology perspective in general. Sure, neighborhoods matter, but why endow them with humanlike qualities over against the people residing there?


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Some readers may already be familiar with Sampson’s article (co-authored with Stephen W. Raudenbush and Felton Earls) in Science, in which he offered his clearest articulation of the importance of neighborhoods. Based on one of the datasets that informs Great American City, Sampson et al. argued that “collective efficacy”—a measurable level of cohesion and trust among neighbors—predicts crime rates far better than, say, poverty or physical blight.4 That finding challenged nearly three decades of conventional wisdom that tied poverty and physical disorder to heightened crime. No longer could we simply clean up the streets to get rid of the criminal element. We needed to promote, well, neighborliness.

But, Great American City goes far beyond such targeted claims. Sampson explains a wide range of urban phenomenon with his arsenal of ginormous datasets, megapowerful formal models, and the simple premise that neighborhoods shape our behavior. Drawing on surveys, coded newspaper archives, systematic videotaping of physical neglect, and sundry secondary data, Sampson confidently addresses: community-level variations in civic engagement, neighborhood change, residential moves/neighborhood migration, leadership networks, elites, and urban inequality.

In truth, I welcome his chutzpah. Indeed, it is invigorating. But I also share a particular view of sociology that is not necessarily a common one. Namely, I find that the false modesty of much sociology, in which authors restrain themselves from (and castigate others for) extending even an inch beyond what their data shows, bores. Unlike in his journal article, in this book Sampson directly addresses the field’s central questions—What is the twentyfirst-century city? How is inequality experienced in modern society? How are we connected to one another?— and never shirks from answering them with data and personal reflection.

In part, Sampson can remark on these big-ticket items because the inquiry begins with a sobering bird’s eye view:

“Imagine a world where distance has died, where globalization and high-tech wonders have rendered place irrelevant, where the Internet, Blackberries, and planes are the coin of a global realm, not local difference. From the North End of Boston to the North Beach of San Francisco, imagine cities where neighborhood difference is an anachronism, a victim of ‘placelessness’….

… Cities as a whole are thought by many to be interchangeable; if we can be anywhere, then nowhere in particular stands out….

… The implication many public intellectuals and scholarly pundits alike have taken away is that places—especially as instantiated in neighborhoods and community—are dead, impotent, declining, chaotic, irrelevant, or some combination thereof.”

From this passage, Sampson methodically presents his case that neighborhoods are alive and kicking. The book is comprised of digestible, bite-size questions—though the answers are, at times, belabored paddles through esoteric technical waters: Do variations in neighbors’ perceptions of one disorder explain crime and the experience of poverty? [Answer: Yes, see results of the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN) study.] Do organizations also matter for crime and quality of life? (Yes, see coding of all Chicago Tribune stories over a forty-year period.) Can we figure out more generally why some neighborhoods have the capacity for efficacious collective action? (Yes, see above.) Are neighborhoods linked at all to one another, and do ties matter for quality of life? (Yes, yes …)

With so many peer-reviewed publications in his cache, it would be a waste of my time to ascertain whether each question can rightfully be illuminated by the voluminous data at hand. Not only would this go well beyond my skill set, but it would play into the most common and stifling parlor game in sociology: namely, if you study one group, one neighborhood, or anything else in small numbers, you are inherently less valuable than the “Big N” crowd working with large samples. (Though there is a bit of such one-upmanship in the book, Sampson is too smart to make this a cornerstone of his argument).

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I walked away from Sampson’s book less enamored of data size, and more attuned to the limits of the modernist sociology project. Sampson becomes a data point, à la Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolution, for us to see the overall intellectual-historical evolution of the discipline. One might say that Great American City completes Kuhn’s second phase of revolutionary progress, namely, when normal science peaks and the potential for revolutionary science emerges.

Sampson is such a vocal proponent of the ecological perspective that, as the pages turn, it becomes a straightjacket. By the middle of the book, his stated goal is to create a twenty-first-century version by amplifying and extending the basic tenet that human species and biological species can be modeled similarly. To his credit, he brings a technocratic, scientific flair to the journalistic insights that drove the early purveyors of ecological thought. But, the motive is clear: he wants to rescue ecology from its many critics over the past century—those who say it is ahistorical, that it ignores ideology, that it ignores culture and the symbolic realm altogether.

Consider his notion of “neighborhood social reproduction.” The term “social reproduction” has its roots in a strand of Marxist feminism, whereby scholars sought to recognize labors occurring outside of the workplace. But Sampson is referring to a fusion of social and biological thought, namely, to a future that is “encoded in the past through a kind of ‘social DNA’—a set of interacting individuals making choices embedded in a set of interdependent contexts that in sequence produce new forms of interlocking neighborhood processes.” Importantly, this concept is built on a negation; namely, Sampson wants to avoid the use of alternate metaphors, such as “social architecture,” that imply a “preprogrammed design.” In other words, his evidence for the durable continuities of urban neighborhoods—their constituent forms of leadership, rates of collective efficacy, economic standing—leads him to conclude that individual will, ideology, interest, etc. is limited.

I thus reject the common idea that technology, dispersed social networks, state policy, and the accoutrements of (post)modernity explain away neighborhood inequality and a focus on spatial forms of social organization and community.…

… Neighborhoods are not merely the settings in which individuals enact autonomous decisions or follow preset scripts.

In this view, our cities cannot be the consequence of politicking or social engineering because neighborhoods outlast us. Thus, he must conclude that neighborhood has an ontological primacy: “neighborhood contexts are socially productive—important determinants of the quantity and quality of human behavior in their own right.”

It is worth mentioning the striking parallels to the early writings of human ecologists, nearly a century ago. One of Park’s and Burgess’ colleagues, Vivian Palmer, wrote that politics is a “sport” and not serious enough to influence the growth and development of cities.5 Park and Burgess themselves deplored centralized government bodies—city councils, federal associations, etc. By eliminating the State from their own work, and by failing to motivate their students to incorporate it in empirical investigations, they neatly blocked off politics from the nascent discipline. Thus, for these ecologists, cities were comprised of “natural areas” that were best understood as plantlike entities whose order arose from a biotic competition for resources. Local communities were likely to have the same ethnic makeup, levels of “disorganization,” and patterns of communication because individuals (plants) came into a neighborhood (garden) and followed local customs and norms for associating with one another.

Though illuminating for its time, Park’s and Burgess’ writings now seem quaint, especially compared to the raw power of Sampson’s techniques. Nevertheless, Sampson wants to restore the legacy of the Chicago School of sociology and the belief in the “significance of place in a global and iconic American city.”

If the half-dozen urban research projects around the globe replicating the Chicago Project are evidence, he may win.

* * *


But one can fairly ask, at what price do we gain this achievement?

As a theory of how neighborhoods affect behavior, the book provides a tenacious and thorough defense. And I, for one, am grateful, not only because I believe in the (relative) autonomy of neighborhoods but also because Sampson finally clears up much of the confusion as to the role of neighborhoods as social aggregations.

As a primer for understanding the modern city, however, the steadfast adherence to “neighborhood” gives the book a dated tone. Is it possible that a 552-page book on the Lady by the Lake can be published without a single voice of a Chicagoan mucking about? If so, how do we differentiate sociology from, say, physics or biology? Yes, Sampson is without peer in explaining how certain behaviors are distributed differentially by race, class, levels of collective action, etc. But it’s a big step from distributional attributions to claims regarding “the significance of place” in the lives of actual people.

The challenge of scientific sociology is that it can’t be both objective and value-neutral without a cost. The price it pays for analytic mastery is to foster a folksy imperialism where we are all supposed to agree that a Mayor as your neighbor is better than a street thug.

Consider for example that, in his framework, one is hard pressed to distinguish between a neighborhood with high collective efficacy because the Mayor is a resident versus one with high block club attendance versus one with a Mafia-like gang keeping crime down. I could imagine that residents in each would answer that they “trust” others to help out in a crisis. But I for one would want to know who exactly are the “others” doing God’s work of keeping streets safe for kids.

Stated another way, the challenge of scientific sociology is that it can’t be both objective and value-neutral without a cost. The price it pays for analytic mastery is to foster a folksy imperialism where we are all supposed to agree that a Mayor as your neighbor is better than a street thug. As long as we all laugh at the fool who actually prefers the gang, this style of inquiry can continue to dominate the discipline. But, when we want to question the self-evidentiality that lurks beneath this reasoning, then new questions will surface. We will want sociology to tell us how to live, how we make decisions, why we interact as we do, and whether the fool and the gang may know something the rest of us don’t. Neighborhoods will still matter, but they won’t displace people and their projects.

At some level, the notion that “neighborhoods choose” begins to feel strange because, well, neighborhoods don’t have aspirations, feelings, desires, political enemies, and so on. Sampson is not naïve enough to claim that neighborhoods are people too. But his statement reveals the limits of the ecological perspective.

In fact, it highlights the asymptote for any scientific theory that does not have a theory of the social actor. Any sociologist influenced by scientific protocols knows that gathering aggregate-level data is by itself only a partial achievement. One must eventually make inferences about real people acting in concrete situations. The challenge for Sampson is moving from a mathematical proof of the existence and value of neighborhoods to a truly social theory of human behavior. Since the theoretical apparatus he constructs does not include a correlate theory of action, and discounts some theories like “scripts” because they portray action as too “pre-programmed,” he ends up in an awkward situation of having to grant collective social constructions (like “neighborhood”) intentionality (“choose”). He might have benefited by drawing more forcefully on Clifford Geertz (the actor as meaning maker), Harold Garfinkel and Aaron Cicourel (the actor as driving by practical reasoning), Stuart Hall (the actor as resisting hegemony), or Pierre Bourdieu (the actor as driving by the disposition of practice). “Neighborhoods choose” might be modified to “neighborhoods permit particular styles of action and sociality.”

Sampson also casts aside too quickly the work of theorists and historians, like Saskia Sassen, Neil Smith, and Janet Abu-Lughod, who sought to re-frame local action via the kind of global political structures that can create outcomes behind people’s backs. Yes, Sampson is correct to argue that we have grown so enamored with technological connectivity that we often fail to look up and around to see what’s happening. But I don’t know many theorists who would argue that “place” is irrelevant as a result. Urbanists such as Neil Brenner, David Harvey, and Michael Smith are quite sensitive to local action, though they might argue for a more historically-attentive, ethnographic approach than one rooted in demographic analysis.

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Increasingly, sociology is finding itself in facing a dilemma. The need for objective research that can isolate cause and effect is alluring and often highly rewarding. But, after all, we are human because we escape the fondest caricatures that both scientist and poet thrust upon us. Hence, the chase: do we continue striving for value-neutral apprehension and definitive assessment, or do we make our critiques provisional, suggestive, and imminent.

The irony is that an often-invoked origin myth of sociology says the founders didn’t care for such a choice. They pursued the research question, chose their analytic weapons as necessary, and weren’t concerned if they were viewed as journalistic or scientific, objective or reformist. I’m not certain there is much evidence to support this claim, but it is a powerful animating parable. It is one that is not lost on Sampson himself. Despite his mastery of science, both at the beginning and end of Great American City, he gently weaves together personal meditations on his nearly two decades as a Chicagoan. As he walks about the city’s many neighborhoods, from ghetto to Gold Coast to slum and back, Sampson’s love of the city is as loud as his love of statistical significance.

Though I recognized the Chicago portrayed in his book, I must admit that my fifteen years gave me a somewhat different view. Perhaps there are many Chicagos that one can fall in love with. I personally prefer the Sandburg version: “Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness, / Bareheaded, / Shoveling, / Wrecking, / Planning, / Building, breaking, rebuilding, … / Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth.” But this one is hard to measure, quantify, and replicate, I’ll admit.

Jump to remarks:
Thomas J. SugrueSudhir Venkatesh icon

  1. Herbert J. Gans, “Sociological Amnesia: The Noncumulation of Normal Social Science,” Sociological Forum 7, no. 4 (1992): pp. 701–10.
  2. Ian Shapiro, The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences (Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 54–5.
  3. Sudhir Venkatesh, “Chicago’s Pragmatic Planners: American Sociology and the Myth of Community,” Social Science History 25, no. 2 (2001): pp. 275–317.
  4. Robert J. Sampson, Stephen W. Raudenbush, and Felton Earls, “Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy,” Science 277 (1997): pp. 918–24.
  5. Stephan Barksy, ‘‘The Fragmentation and Consolidation of Local Communities in Chicago’’ (PhD diss. proposal, Department of Sociology, University of Chicago, Nov 1960), Morris Janowitz Papers, Special Collections, Regenstein Library.