Movin’ on Up? From the Projects to the Suburbs

Photo by Danny Fowler via
Photo by Danny Fowler via

The causes and effects of concentrated black poverty in urban neighborhoods came to the forefront of the internet over the past couple weeks, with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait engaging in a back-and-forth about the subject and the explanations and remedies proposed by President Barack Obama and Congressman Paul Ryan.

Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, has a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data to contribute to the debate. For the past decade, she has been studying the effects of the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program, which provides vouchers for low-income families to move to integrated neighborhoods with lower poverty rates. To meet these criteria, many families have had to move out of Baltimore and into the suburbs, and they are given counseling to help them access resources and navigate their new environments.

The counseling is a critical piece of the program, says DeLuca. “Being poor doesn’t just mean you didn’t have enough resources and you had barriers to opportunity – but the benefits of those opportunities are relatively unknown.”

So far nearly 2,000 families have moved to the suburbs, and approximately two-thirds have stayed there. In conducting in-depth interviews with 110 families involved in the program, DeLuca and her colleague Jennifer Darrah of the University of Hawaii find “profound differences in the way many of the parents in the BMP thought about where they live now, where they want to live in the future, and where they never want to move again.”

Should this program become the new paradigm for fighting urban poverty in the 21st century?  While the results among people who have moved to the suburbs provide reason for cautious optimism, DeLuca notes that an important question arises: “What do we do about everyone else?”

In an era of ever-tightening budgets, how should public policy balance investments in poor neighborhoods with helping people move out of them?  It’s a tough question and important debate to which social scientists are well positioned to contribute.



Development and Climate Change

Photo by Nicolas Raymond via
Photo by Nicolas Raymond via

Is economic development compatible with environmental sustainability? Are “green jobs” the way of the future? Those questions are at the center of sociologist Andrew Jorgenson‘s research on the economic activity and carbon emissions of 106 countries.

Analyzing data from 1970 to 2009, Jorgenson calculated a ratio of carbon emissions to life expectancy at birth, and then compared it with each country’s gross domestic product. The results are not encouraging. Jorgenson found that in all regions of the world except for Africa, development is linked with an increase in carbon emissions. Africa may be the exception that proves the rule. Jorgenson noted that, since 1995, African nations have experienced much more carbon-intensive development in exchange for increasing life expectancies of their populations.

Achieving the three-legged stool of economic growth, reduced harm to the environment, and improved human health will not be easy, and Jorgenson is skeptical that technological advancements alone are likely to accomplish the task. “We need to start seriously thinking differently about solutions to these sustainability challenges and recognizing that hoping for technology and engineering solutions … is probably not the way to go,” Jorgenson said.

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Almost Human

Photo by Jason Toff via
Photo by Jason Toff via

You don’t have to carry your pet around with you in a purse for the special animal in your life to be like another member of the family. For those of us with pets, it is easy to forget that your furry friend is actually animal, rather than human.

Given our deep attachments to our pets, University of Warwick sociologist Nickie Charles encourages fellow social scientists investigating kinship and community to seriously consider humans’ relationships with their pets. Drawing on 249 qualitative responses regarding pets, she writes, “People turn to animals for companionship and intimacy; pets provide the ontological security which is no longer forthcoming from relations with humans, which are fragile, fluid and contingent.”

Beyond the role that pets play in the lives of their owners, examining these human-animal relationships may lead to a deeper understanding of the ways humans form relationships with one another.

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Spirituality? There’s an app for that

Photo by Leonid Mamchenkov via
Photo by Leonid Mamchenkov via

University of Connecticut sociologist Bradley Wright has developed SoulPulse, an app that asks research participants twice a day about their activities, thoughts, and feelings.

Wright, working with pastor and author John Ortberg, hopes to enroll 10,000 people in the study over the next three years, to gain a better understanding of how people – believers and atheists and everything in between – define spirituality for themselves.

“Everyone – well, almost everyone – is spiritual or religious.  Now, we have an app to find out, what do they mean when they say that,” Wright said in an interview with the Washington Post.

This study implicitly draws from the late Robert Bellah’s argument that liberal Protestantism has declined even as it’s been successfully incorporated into mainstream spiritual and secular values and discussions. The individual experiences of spirituality reported by the SoulPulse app combined with the appearance of liberal Protestant doctrine across many belief systems makes for an intriguing sociological link between the public and the private in 21st century American spirituality.


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Liberal Protestantism and the Paradox of Success

Photo by Melissa Roy via
Photo by Melissa Roy via

Liberal Protestantism is a victim of its own success, according to the late Robert Bellah, a sociologist who specialized in religion. In a process that he calls “Protestantization,” liberal Protestant values have influenced secular humanism to the point that they are indistinguishable.

This apparent victory is also a defeat, suggested Bellah. He argued that such widespread success simultaneously diminishes liberal Protestantism’s distinctiveness, at the same time that it dwindles the congregation size of churches. He observed,

There is more than a little evidence that most Americans, for example, would assent to unmarked liberal Protestant beliefs more often than to unmarked orthodox alternatives, and that this would be true not only for most mainline Protestants but also for most Catholics and even most Evangelicals.

Angry White Men and Aggrieved Entitlement

From Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his controversial raids on and detentions of immigrants to Rush Limbaugh and his rhetoric about “feminazis,” some white men, those sociologist Michael Kimmel terms “angry white men,” are resisting perceived challenges against their masculinity and historical experiences of privilege.

In his new book Angry White Men, Kimmel has interviewed white men across the country to gauge their feelings about their socioeconomic status in a sluggish and globalizing economy as well as the legal and social advances made by women, people of color, GLBT individuals, and others. Kimmel has coined the term “aggrieved entitlement” to describe these men’s defensiveness and aggravation that both “their” country and sense of self are being taken away from them. Kimmel writes in the Huffington Post,

Raised to believe that this was ‘their’ country, simply by being born white and male, they were entitled to a good job by which they could support a family as sole breadwinners, and to deference at home from adoring wives and obedient children…Theirs is a fight to restore, to reclaim more than just what they feel entitled to socially or economically – it’s also to restore their sense of manhood, to reclaim that sense of dominance and power to which they also feel entitled.

Walking the Big Apple

Photo by Jeffrey Turner via
Photo by Jefferey Turner via

Reminiscent of The Proclaimers’ 1988 hit about walking 500 miles, William Helmreich, a sociologist at the City College of New York, has been taking it to the streets for the past four years. During that time he has walked all 120,000 city blocks across New York City’s five boroughs, and he is sharing the knowledge gained from his observations, experiences, and conversations in a new book called The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City.

His work illustrates the utility of ethnographic research as a means of public sociology. In addition to observing the social world around him, Helmreich engaged people he encountered on questions ranging from the best parks in the area to their opinions on social issues such as immigration and gentrification

Both the diversity of the terrain and the outspoken character of the people he encountered likely contributed to the depth of Helmreich’s research. A New Yorker, he says, “is gruff, fancies himself to be knowledgeable, and cannot resist a challenge of answering, on the spot, in a wisecracking type of way, a spontaneous question.”

Neighborhoods and Social Cohesion

Photo by JC i Núria via
Photo by JC i Núria via

Cul-de-sacs, long the scourge of urban planners and often imagined as markers of suburbia, social isolation, and, well, bowling alone, may actually increase social cohesion among neighbors. That is the conclusion that Thomas Hochschild, a sociologist at Valdosta State University, draws from his research on 110 homes in demographically comparable Connecticut communities.

He conducted interviews with sets of homes around bulb cul-de-sacs, dead end cul-de-sacs, and through streets and found that people living around bulb cul-de-sacs are more likely to know their neighbors, spend time with them, and borrow or lend food or tools to them, even when controlling for such variables as income, number of children in a household, and the length of time that a family had lived there.

It may be that the features of cul-de-sacs which so aggravate civil engineers – the decreased walkability and the lack of efficient traffic circulation through neighborhoods – are just what promote neighborliness among the people living there. It’s just easier for people to gather outdoors or let their children play outside without cars whizzing past.

Hochschild suggests that, if designed with urban planning considerations in mind, cul-de-sacs will be a critical part of improving the livability of communities. “I’m concerned about the breakdown of community and of society… I wouldn’t claim that cul-de-sacs are a panacea, a cure-all for community problems we’re facing. However, I think that it’s a piece of the puzzle.”

“Daddy’s Home”…Full-time

Photo by Lena Wood via
Photo by Lena Wood via

A new study from the Pew Research Center shows that more dads than ever are staying home full-time with their children. In families consisting of married couples with children where one spouse worked at least 35 hours per week, roughly 3.5% of those households include a stay-at-home dad.

This study, led by University of Illinois sociologist Karen Z. Kramer, attaches solid data to perceived changes in family gender roles over the past few decades. Today, roughly one-third of families consist of a stay-at-home mother, down from one-half during the 1970s, and families where both mom and dad work at least 35 hours a week has increased from 46.1% to 63.2% during that time.

This study provides many openings for further research, such as changes (or lack thereof) in gender equity in the workplace and the home. For example, families with stay-at-home dads earned about $11,000 less than those with stay-at-home moms. How much of this difference is attributable to the gender pay gap? Or do breadwinning mothers differ from breadwinning fathers in areas such as educational attainment and job prestige?

With this study as a point of departure, social scientists interested in such areas as gender, the family, and the life course, as well as many others, will have plenty of material to work with.


Strong and Stable: Personal and Civic Lives

Does loneliness leave us less civically inclined? Photo by Jacques Nyemb via
Does loneliness leave us less civically inclined? Photo by Jacques Nyemb via

Election year or not, questions about voting behavior are rarely lacking among political pundits. Face it, they need stuff to talk about. Who will turn out in next year’s mid-term elections? How will the “Obama coalition” break in 2016? Social scientists are also posing questions. For example, why don’t people vote after the death of a spouse?

A study of 5.86 million Californians before and after the 2009-2010 statewide elections showed that “11 percent of people who would have voted if their spouse were alive failed to make it to the polls even a year and a half after the death.” The research found that immediately after the death of a spouse, people were less likely to vote, and while widows and widowers slowly return to the polls over time, they did not vote as often as they did before.

One possible explanation draws upon a central theme of sociology—the interplay of personal and public life. This study suggests that a personal tragedy leads to a withdrawal from public life. As Emma Green writes in The Atlantic, “If that’s at least somewhat true, that public life seems less important when private life collapses, then it’s also worth looking at the inverse: Do strong relationships and stable private lives make people better citizens?”

The important insights on social life that may come out of extensions of this research into wider elections, different geographic areas, socioeconomic effects, and longer-term studies, may well give the pundits and commentators something to talk about until 2016.