“People and Places”: The Value Qualitative Research Has for Studying African-American Families and Urban Neighborhoods


As a sociologist trained at the University of Chicago, I draw upon more than 25 years of qualitative research with low-income, African-American mothers (families) living in inner-city neighborhoods to shed light on neighborhood effects theories. Quantitatively derived neighborhood effects theories argue that living in impoverished neighborhoods with limited economic, social, and institutional resources undermine positive family functioning and child development. Although some families are indeed challenged by living in and raising children in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods, my use of qualitative data collection strategies reveals a picture of resilient families and well-functioning neighborhood areas. Naturalistic neighborhood observations reveal that some inner-city neighborhoods have orderly, well-maintained blocks that support families and their parenting efforts. Participant observations with families identified hidden family processes, including cross-household exchanges and assistance from extended kin that helped mothers stretch their limited resources. Intensive interviews that emphasize mothers’ voices further detailed how extended kin supported mothers’ childrearing efforts, offered companionship, and provided stable housing arrangements. Finally, photo-elicitation interviews revealed the parenting strategies families used to protect their children from local dangers, while providing positive developmental opportunities. Together, these qualitative data collection strategies challenged and elaborated on quantitatively derived neighborhood effects theories to present a more complex, dynamic, and real picture of the lives of low-income, African-American families.

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