Criminologists have long studied links between socioeconomic conditions and crime rates. The work has led to the long-held belief that a neighborhood’s well-being is directly related to its levels of poverty, inequality, education, and racial isolation. But since no neighborhood is an island unto itself, many sociologists argue that’s far from the full picture.
A new study led by Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson builds on that by developing a new concept exploring how cross-neighborhood, urban mobility mixed with an area’s socioeconomic conditions can offer fresh insights into a neighborhood’s well-being — meaning its safety, security, and health.
The analysis, published in the American Sociological Review, looked at the everyday movement patterns of almost 400,000 people — traveling to work, shopping, or visiting friends — to examine how the regular routines of people from similarly disadvantaged areas can impact rates of violent crime, such as homicides, in neighborhoods.
The findings show that a neighborhood’s welfare depends not only on its own socioeconomic conditions but also on those of places its residents visit and those of individuals who come to visit it, underscoring the belief that even distant neighborhoods are inherently connected and should be studied as such.
“People don’t just live in their neighborhoods,” said Sampson, the Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences and senior author of the paper. “We’re trying to get researchers but also policymakers to think beyond just the characteristics of one neighborhood in isolation, which has driven a lot of research, including my own.”
Central to the paper is a concept the researchers put forward of neighborhoods that are at a “triple disadvantage.”
Currently neighborhoods are considered to be socioeconomically disadvantaged if they score high on one of three traits: concentrated poverty, unemployment, and residents receiving public assistance.
Study researchers gathered data on what they call mobility-based disadvantage using geo-coded flows of movement from hundreds of millions of tweets by nearly 400,000 Twitter users. The idea is that if a neighborhood is poor and its residents either visit mostly poor neighborhoods or disproportionately receive visits from other poor neighborhoods, that neighborhood is doubly disadvantaged. If both are true then researchers view that area as triply disadvantaged.
To come up with a neighborhood’s total disadvantage score, they calculated weighted averages of a residential disadvantage (the traditional method for measuring disadvantage) with its mobility-based disadvantage.
The researchers believe the potential implications of triple disadvantage are broad and could potentially affect a wide range of issues, including community capacity, gentrification, disease transmission rates, and racial inequality. For the study, however, they looked mainly at how it related to homicide rates.