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American Sociological Review  ASR

June 2009; 74 (3)

On the Run: Wanted Men in a Philadelphia Ghetto

Alice Goffman

Abstract: Although recent increases in imprisonment are concentrated in poor Black communities, we know little about how daily life within these neighborhoods is affected. Almost all ethnographic work in poor minority neighborhoods was written before the expansion of the criminal justice system, and the bulk of research on “mass imprisonment” relies on survey data, field experiments, or interviews, conceptualizing its impact in terms of current or former felons and their families. Drawing on six years of fieldwork in Philadelphia, this article shifts the focus from imprisonment and criminal records to the increase in policing and supervision in poor Black neighborhoods, and what this has meant for a growing status group of wanted people. For many young men, avoiding jail has become a daily preoccupation: they have warrants out for minor infractions, like failing to pay court fees or breaking curfew, and will be detained if they are identified. Such threat of imprisonment transforms social relations by undermining already tenuous attachments to family, work, and community. But young men also rely on their precarious legal standing to explain failures that would have occurred anyway, while girlfriends and neighbors exploit their wanted status as an instrument of social control. I discuss the implications of my ethnographic observations relative to prior treatments of the poor and policing, and with regard to broader sociological questions about punishment and surveillance in the modern era.




A Pragmatist Theory of Social Mechanisms

Neil Gross

Abstract: Some sociologists have recently argued that a major aim of sociological inquiry is to identify the mechanisms by which cause and effect relationships in the social world come about. This article argues that existing accounts of social mechanisms are problematic because they rest on either inadequately developed or questionable understandings of social action. Building on an insight increasingly common among sociological theorists—that action should be conceptualized in terms of social practices—I mobilize ideas from the tradition of classical American pragmatism to develop a more adequate theory of mechanisms. I identify three kinds of analytical problems the theory is especially well poised to address and then lay out an agenda for future research.




Model Uncertainty in Sociological Research: An Application to Religion and Economic Growth

Cristobal Young

Abstract: Model uncertainty is pervasive in quantitative research. Classical statistical theory assumes that only one (true) model is applied to a sample of data. In practice, however, researchers do not know which exact model specification is best. Modern computing power allows researchers to estimate a huge number of plausible models, yet only a few of these estimates are published. The result is a severe asymmetry of information between analyst and reader. The applied modeling process produces a much wider range of estimates than is suggested by the usual standard errors or confidence intervals. I demonstrate this using the work of Barro and McCleary on religion and economic growth. Small, sensible changes in their model specification produce large changes in the results: the results are inconsistent across time, and the instrumental variables strategy suffers from a weak instrument set. Also, the observed relationship between religiosity and economic growth does not hold in the West; it is largely a feature of Asian and African countries and of countries whose data is poor quality. In short, empirical findings should be evaluated not just by their significance but also by their robustness to model specification. I conclude with suggestions for incorporating model uncertainty into practice and improving the transparency of social science research.




Welfare Reform

Sanford F. Schram

Joe Soss

Richard C. Fording

Linda Houser

Abstract: Welfare sanctions are financial penalties applied to individuals who fail to comply with welfare program rules. Their widespread use reflects a turn toward disciplinary approaches to poverty management. In this article, we investigate how implicit racial biases and discrediting social markers interact to shape officials' decisions to impose sanctions. We present experimental evidence based on hypothetical vignettes that case managers are more likely to recommend sanctions for Latina and black clients—but not white clients—when discrediting markers are present. We triangulate these findings with analyses of state administrative data. Our results for Latinas are mixed, but we find consistent evidence that the probability of a sanction rises significantly when a discrediting marker (i.e., a prior sanction for noncompliance) is attached to a black rather than a white welfare client. Overall, our study clarifies how racial minorities, especially African Americans, are more likely to be punished for deviant behavior in the new world of disciplinary welfare provision.




Deciding to Discipline: Race, Choice, and Punishment at the Frontlines of Explaining Mexican-Immigrant Welfare Behaviors: The Importance of Employment-Related Cultural Repertoires

Jennifer Van Hook

Frank D. Bean

Abstract: Social scientists generally seek to explain welfare-related behaviors in terms of economic, social structural, or culture of poverty theories. Such explanations, however, do not account for nativity differences in public assistance receipt among immigrants of Mexican origin. This article draws on the sociology of migration and culture literatures to develop a materialist-based cultural repertoire account and attendant hypotheses to explain the welfare behaviors of Mexican immigrants. We argue that such immigrants arrive and work in the United States under circumstances that foster employment-based cultural repertoires that, compared with natives and other immigrant groups, encourage less welfare participation (in part because such repertoires lead to faster welfare exits) and more postwelfare employment. This is particularly true in states with relatively more generous welfare policies. Using individual-level data predating the Welfare Reform Act, from multiple panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) merged with state-level information on welfare benefit levels, we examine immigrant-group differences in welfare receipt, retention, and transition to employment across locales with varying levels of welfare benefits. Findings are largely consistent with our cultural repertoire account: Mexican immigrants tend to utilize welfare not primarily to avoid work, cope with disadvantage, or perpetuate a culture of dependency, but rather to minimize the effects of employment discontinuities. Such findings carry important theoretical and policy implications-implications we outline in our conclusion.




Violence, Older Peers, and the Socialization of Adolescent Boys in Disadvantaged Neighborhoods

David J. Harding

Abstract: Most theoretical perspectives on neighborhood effects on youth assume that neighborhood context serves as a source of socialization. The exact sources and processes underlying adolescent socialization in disadvantaged neighborhoods, however, are largely unspecified and unelaborated. This article proposes that cross-cohort socialization by older neighborhood peers is one source of socialization for adolescent boys. Data from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey suggest that adolescents in disadvantaged neighborhoods are more likely to spend time with older individuals. I analyze qualitative interview data from 60 adolescent boys in three neighborhoods in Boston to understand the causes and consequences of these interactions and relationships. Some of the strategies these adolescents employ to cope with violence in disadvantaged neighborhoods promote interaction with older peers, particularly those who are most disadvantaged. Furthermore, such interactions can expose adolescents to local, unconventional, or alternative cultural models.




Family and Religious Characteristics' Influence on Delinquency Trajectories from Adolescence to Young Adulthood

Richard J. Petts

Abstract: This study takes a life-course approach to examine whether family and religious characteristics influence individual-level delinquency trajectories from early adolescence through young adulthood. Based on data from the NLSY79, results suggest that residing with two parents deters youths from becoming delinquent and that supportive parenting practices reduce their likelihood of becoming involved in delinquent behavior early in adolescence. There is also evidence that family and religion interact to predict delinquency trajectories. Religion enhances the effect of parental affection in deterring delinquent behavior and mitigates the increased risk of high levels of delinquent behavior among youths in single-parent families. Moreover, the findings indicate that delinquency trajectories are not immutable; family transitions are associated with increases in delinquency, but religious participation throughout adolescence and marriage are associated with declines in delinquent behavior. Overall, results suggest that family and religious characteristics continually influence the extent to which youths commit delinquent acts.




A Natural Experiment on Residential Change and Recidivism: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

David S. Kirk

Abstract: Ex-prisoners tend to be geographically concentrated in a relatively small number of neighborhoods within the most resource deprived sections of metropolitan areas. Furthermore, many prisoners return “home” to the same criminogenic environment with the same criminal opportunities and criminal peers that proved so detrimental prior to incarceration. Yet estimating the causal impact of place of residence on the likelihood of recidivism is complicated by the issue of selection bias. In this study, I use a natural experiment as a means of addressing the selection issue and examine whether the migration of ex-prisoners away from their former place of residence will lead to lower levels of recidivism. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Louisiana Gulf Coast, damaging many of the neighborhoods where ex-prisoners typically reside. The residential destruction resulting from Hurricane Katrina is an exogenous source of variation that influences where a parolee will reside upon release from prison. Findings reveal that moving away from former geographic areas substantially lowers a parolee's likelihood of re-incarceration.