Following in the tradition of the Chicago School which saw the city as an “urban laboratory,” sociologist Robert Sampson explains how the findings from studying Chicago apply to the entire country:
Many cities were considered as a possible launching pad for the study, but Chicago got the nod for its composition of whites, blacks, and Latinos — the three largest groups in the United States — and for the access to the city’s extensive statistics on health, police, and more. “Chicago offered us a picture of American life that we thought was broadly representative,” Sampson said.
According to Sampson, a vast array of social activity is concentrated in place. “We studied crime, health, altruism, cynicism, disorder, collective efficacy, civic engagement, leadership networks — all of which are influenced and shaped by neighborhood effects.”…
Even as the world is increasingly globalized, neighborhood structures remain local and important. “Neighborhoods have legacies,” he said. “Crime and poverty are durable over long periods of time. From the 1960s onwards, cities went through amazing social change — riots, crime — to one of the largest decreases in violence from the late 1990s to the present. Yet communities are persistent in rank ordering. People are moving in and out of neighborhoods, but the perceptions of neighborhoods stay largely the same.”
What’s more, he found, no community in Chicago transitioned from black to white, a pattern he shows is similar to the United States as a whole.
To sum up: place matters.
I’ve thought several times over the years that I would like to see more work about whether Chicago is really representative of America as is often suggested or if other cities are better options. To put it another way, is Chicago studied more often because there is a legacy of studying Chicago well at the University of Chicago and other schools or because Chicago is truly unique? Others have argued that other places are more emblematic of more recent patterns – check out the Los Angeles School for a differing opinion. Chicago might represent Rust Belt cities but what about Sun Belt cities?
When looking at American cities that seem to get most research attention or are covered in “classic works”, having an established research school with an interest in urban sociology seems to matter. Chicago gets a lot of attention as does Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City. This makes sense: these cities have great universities and it is logical that researchers and graduate students would look at some of the surrounding areas and be able to justify this study beyond simply saying it is more convenient or cheaper. In contrast, other major cities don’t seem to get the same level of scrutiny, places like Washington, D.C., Detroit, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and a number of other ascendent Sun Belt cities.
Perhaps my thoughts are too impressionistic and one could try to quantify just how much each city actually does get studied. But even then, there are cities with histories that matter, research legacies that have inertia and are likely to continue for some time. Someday we might have a Houston school or an Atlanta school but that requires resources, effort, and research that is recognized as being relevant and innovative.