Historical Background

Identifying Neighborhoods as Contexts for Mental Health and Risk Behavior

In the last 60 years of social science research, a confluence of investigators from disparate fields, including sociology (e.g., Jencks & Mayer, 1990; Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997; Shaw & McKay, 1942; Wilson, 1987) and psychology (Bronfenbrenner, 1977, 1986; Brooks-Gunn et al., 1997a, 1997b; Leventhal & Brooks-Gunn, 2000), has argued for and presented evidence of neighborhood context effects on children and youth.

Sociologists spearheaded investigations of neighborhood contexts as driving forces behind troubling social trends. Shaw and McKay (1942) proposed a social disorganization theory to explain neighborhood-level concentrations of crime. By mapping delinquency rates by neighborhood, they found support for their theory that economic hardship, high residential instability, and racial-ethnic heterogeneity contribute to high neighborhood crime because they undermine community social ties and community-based controls. Wilson (1987) focused attention on neighborhood-level poverty and on concern with the social isolation that accompanies concentrated poverty in urban neighborhoods. Cut off from adequate resources, opportunities, and role models, residents in such neighborhoods are drawn to antisocial and risk behaviors. Based on these and other theories, Jencks and Mayer (1990) identified five emerging theories or models of how neighborhood context influences individual behavior, namely via contagion (e.g., negative peer influence), collective socialization (e.g., role models, monitoring), institutional resources (e.g., quality and quantity of community services), competition (e.g., vying for scarce resources), and relative deprivation (e.g., residents comparing their own situation to that of their neighbors). Theoretical perspectives on neighborhood context effects are continuing to develop, such as that of collective efficacy (Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997), an extension of the idea of collective socialization, which will be discussed below.

The search for neighborhood context explanations for individual mental health and behaviors continues, particularly among researchers concerned with children and youth. As will be demonstrated in the following sections, evidence of neighborhood influences on children and youth is mounting and providing impetus for innovative interventions designed to improve the life conditions and hence outcomes of children and youth.

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