Frank Furstenberg et al.

Managing to make it: Urban families and adolescent success

Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. 1999.

Our objective has been to examine ways in which developmental processes are constrained by neighborhood settings ... (Brooks-Gunn et al. 1993; Jencks and Mayer 1990; .... Wilson 1991). ... Much of this work has accepted the idea that parents and children produce characteristic responses to constraints and opportunities present in their immediate environments in ways that create distinctive local cultures. ... Merton's reformulation of Durkheim's theory of anomie. Merton (1968) was produced by a disjuncture between culturally defined goals and the means available for realizing those goals ... (pp. 11-12)

this is the sophisticated version of the "culture of poverty" argument. It is also cousin to Bourdieu on habitus (though Furstenberg does not mention him anywhere in the book). It is on the other hand specifically linked to W.J. Wilson's work (2009)

... we are hard-put to make a strong case for causal connections in the cross-sectional study. We take pains to not to adopt the language of causality, even as we recognize that falling into this practice is almost unavoidable when exploring "neighborhood effects" and "the part played by family management" on "life-course development." We will often remind the readers that our findings rarely establish likely causal directions. (p. 20)

nice, but ... why would one want to read the book if it did not suggest causality? And, by the time one reads the summary of the findings (for example see below, p. 120, and passim) this caution is easy to forget.

... parents may be doing more than they indicated in the interviews ... From the result of the prior ethnographic study of family management in neighborhoods very similar to those studied here, we had expected that the semistructured questions in the survey would elicit from more parents a detailed description of their preventive management strategtists. Two factors are probably responsible for this scarcity ... (pp. 89-90)

another methodological caveat, this one on interviews. It is actually quite a sophisticated discussion of conversational and textual effects on the referential language produced in various forms of "talking to the informants." The question this keeps open for an anthropologist is whether, given all this, one can produce any kind of valid correlations between answers to questions removed from the conversations in which they were embedded. Furstenberg, like the sociologists and psychologists he quotes, clearly answers the question in the positive and proceeds on this basis leading to summary statements like:

... parents and their children differ far more within particular neighborhoods than they do between areas. It seems that, strictly from their place of residence, we cannot learn much about the success and failure of the urban youth in our sample. ... Family interaction process and management strategies in this study distinguish adolescents at-risk from successful youth, who are defined as academically competent and socially involved. Such influences include nurturant family interaction, guided self-direction, effective discipline, and family strategies ranging from the placement of children in developmental activities to involvement in community social affairs and responsibilities. (pp. 120-121)

Three influence patterns emerged from the analysis, as shown in a set of heuristic models based on statistically significant influences. (p.125)

How can this not be read as a causal statement? And indeed a better causal statement than the alternative? This is still a more cautious statement than the simple versions of "culture of poverty" though it ends in the same place: some families are to blame for what they do not do. Of course, Furstenberg would defend himself against the charge that he "blames" parents, but the policy implication of the statement are clear: identify parents who produce failure and help them through well-constructed programs (thus Harlem Children Zone)

for a not so funny account of the transformation of statistical research finding into local policy, check this cartoon


Tue May 26 09:17:20 2009