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Raymond T. Smith

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Urban Family Life and Poverty Project

The University of Chicago has long been known as a center of urban studies; classic works such as The Gold Coast and The Slum, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, The Yankee City Series, Deep South, Black Metropolis, and many others originated in the Division of the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago.

After the 1960s research on urban poverty moved elsewhere, to Michigan, Wisconsin and the East Coast. In the early 1980s a few people at the University of Chicago decided to try to capture some of the considerable funds that were being devoted to the study of this topic, and through the National Opinion Research Center (an independent survey organization based at the University of Chicago) they put together a proposal to obtain a large government grant for an on-going study of urban poverty. The attempt was unsuccessful, but early in 1985 Professor William Julius Wilson, a sociologist who had already written on what he saw as the growing importance of a class division among African Americans, reshaped the proposal incorporating some of his own ideas. He was successful in interesting the Ford Foundation, The Children’s Bureau, and several other agencies, in funding this revised version of the project.

The various "hypotheses" that Wilson incorporated in the project were largely inspired by opposition to the growing conservatism of the Reagan administration and its active adoption of ideas derived from conservative writers such as Charles Murray.

Murray’s book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (Basic Books, 1984) made a strong case for the idea that the problems of inner city blacks, such as massive unemployment, teen-age pregnancy, female-headed households, crime and general disorganization (one could easily throw in drugs, AIDS and other afflictions), were all produced by the demoralization of the working class by a badly designed welfare system that destroyed the incentive to work and encouraged immorality.

The arguments go back to discussions of poverty in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, but they had been deployed to great effect in late twentieth century America.

Interestingly enough Wilson did not disagree with Murray on the supposed "facts" of massive social disorganization evidenced by teen-age pregnancy, female-headed households, crime and so forth, but he had a different explanation for their appearance.

For Wilson the disappearance of jobs suitable for the unskilled and relatively uneducated as the economy changed from heavy industry to services, combined with the movement out of the cities of upwardly mobile blacks, resulted in the creation of a reservoir of unskilled, uneducated people trapped in the inner cities. According to Wilson these unfortunates—The Truly Disadvantaged as he called them in the title of his 1987 book—were cut off from what, in the United States, is called "the mainstream," and therefore were deprived of role models on which they could base "normal" behaviour.

This "ghetto underclass" as it was increasingly called, was to be the target of the research. The proposed study was expanded, largely at the insistence of some of the granting agencies, to include four "ethnic" groups in Chicago—blacks, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and "whites." Questions about the problematic nature of these categories were brushed aside by Professor Wilson.

Having been associated with the earlier NORC initiative, I was invited to participate in this project, and eventually agreed but only after making clear my disagreement with most of the "hypotheses" incorporated in the proposal, and attempting to make clear what I understood the purpose to be of the "ethnographic" part of the study. I did not succeed in that attempt so far as several of my colleagues and some of the research assistants were concerned, though a small group within the project did crystallize around a very different conception of how to proceed.

The first draft of the proposal was circulated during the summer of 1985 and I discussed it at some length with Professor Wilson, as well as sending some comments to him. However, he assured me that whatever the proposal said, it would be possible to modify it later, and that the ethnographic part of the study could wait until I got back to Chicago in April of 1986, and I am sure he was quite sincere about that. I spent the period from about August 1985 to late March 1986 in Jamaica setting up a new Consortium Graduate School in the Social Sciences.

The significance of these events lies not in the personal relationships between sociologists and anthropologists, but in the way that the relationship between survey research and ethnography was conceived. During my absence the proposal was modified in various ways, and some of my suggestions were incorporated, but in such a way that they were subsumed in a very different conception of the research process. Let me explain.

The study, as set out in the February 1986 revised version of Poverty and Family Structure in the Inner City: A Research Proposal, by William Julius Wilson, was to have four main parts. First and foremost, and as it turned out by far the most expensive, was a stratified, random, multi-stage probability sample survey of 2,000 households selected from the low-income areas of Chicago, with the most impoverished areas being over-sampled to increase the pool of "underclass individuals and families." The idea was to get 800 black households, 400 Mexican American, 400 Puerto Rican and 400 white.

It is not necessary to go into the details of the selection criteria for respondents, the way in which a screening survey was carried out, the problems of getting interviewers, and completing the survey, and so on and so forth. The important thing is that the survey was based on a questionnaire that sought to record an array of "facts" about respondents, ranging from demographic data, through data on economic activity, welfare activity, education and what were designated "social/cultural questions." It included questions designed to elicit such information as do young inner city girls experience lowered self esteem if they do not become pregnant, and is there a "male virility cult" among young inner city males. Some of these aims were abandoned before the questionnaire reached its final form.

Quite elaborate "event analysis" was anticipated, based on detailed information about the sequence and timing of events in the respondent’s life. But the guiding conception was that it is possible to construct a picture of social reality out of the facts concerning individuals, and that the analysis of these survey data would establish relationships among variables. It was explicitly stated that "The multi-method approach of our research design (survey interviews, life-history narratives, focus-group discussions, and participant observation research) provide a unique way of dealing with the problem of validity" [p. 39], and the proposal goes on to explain that the more that different methods produce similar results then the greater the confidence in the validity of the results.

As indicated the array of different "methods" was originally planned to include much more than a generalized "ethnography." The original plan was to carry out the sample survey, and then to choose a series of 15 groups containing ten persons each for "focus group studies." That part of the plan was never put into effect, partly because the survey was delayed for so long that choosing participants on the basis of experience from the survey was impracticable, and partly because it was eventually realized that there are so many problems in focus group research that it was unlikely that there would be the staff to carry them through. But once again the purpose of this method of investigation was to take issues raised in the survey, explore them further, and try to decide if there were "group specific norms, values, and perceptions of opportunity." In spite of a suggestion here that the research was moving toward the examination of social, rather than individual, factors, it is clear that the dominant intention was to get at "views" held by individuals in order to derive from them the above-mentioned norms and values.

According to the proposal, life-histories were to be collected from a group of sixty individuals selected from the larger sample survey. The idea was to discuss each individual’s experience and family background in detail, exploring further the areas covered in the survey interview, with the intention of learning more about "the interaction of work experience and/or welfare experience with individual norms and values, the structure of opportunity, and the pressures and vicissitudes of daily life" [p. 46]. The discussion of this phase of the research was very much oriented by the hypotheses to be explored in the survey, so that the life histories were expected to reveal "just how the process of engagement with the mainstream social and economic world is facilitated or hindered by daily experiences"[p. 46].

Finally, the participant observation research was to be carried out for six months by seven graduate students, each in a different low income census tract, and its purpose was to explore in "leisurely conversation" the relation between welfare receipt and issues raised in the other phases of the project—joblessness, "the male marriageable pool," community norms and values and so forth. "They will talk to people on street corners, make contacts in churches, recreational facilities, community clinics, etc." [p. 47].


Implementation of the plan

This brief outline of the intentions of the original proposal will have to suffice, even though I could write much more about the assumptions embedded in that document. One thing you can say, fairly confidently, is that the various parts of the research programme as stated were reasonably consistent, and in theory it could have been smoothly implemented as set out there. The problem was, or came to be, that not all the faculty and graduate students involved in the project shared the same assumptions, and this is usually where the problems arise.

Work on the project actually began in the Autumn of 1985 while I was in Jamaica. I had argued strongly for not starting the ethnographic part of the project until I got back, and not agreeing on the design of the survey questionnaire until the ethnography was well under way. In fact by October of 1985 the survey design process was well under way, a team of graduate students had been recruited, mainly from the Department of Sociology, to act as general purpose research assistants for work on the survey research, as well as functioning as "ethnographers," and they were participating in a seminar on research methods in sociology. This was an interesting development because it reflected the idea that all the different parts of the research design were integrated around a common task of collecting facts about individuals. Almost all the research assistants were trained in what one might call positivistic sociology, and by that I mean that they thought in terms of an objective world that could be comprehended by the observation of "facts," and whether that observation was made in the form of standardized questions administered by a questionnaire, or in the form of "observations" made in a particular locale, be it a neighborhood or a soup kitchen or a hang-out of some kind, was unimportant. These were just different ways of collecting information that would cumulatively provide a more complete picture of a self-evident reality. Furthermore, that self-evident reality could be grasped by aggregating the characteristics, preferences and choices of individuals, so that the task of data collection was conceived to be the recording of these various dimensions of individuals. Two other aspects of this general orientation were also evident. It was generally assumed that the behaviour of social actors is to be understood in terms of a basic model of "rational choice" as it has been called (I call it Benthamite utility theory); that is, people will generally behave to maximize their own gain and minimize loss, unless that behaviour is modified in some way by "cultural" factors. That is, "culture" is a way of accounting for apparently irrational behaviour, or non-rational behaviour that has become habitual through "adaptation" to particular situations. Thus, one of the hypotheses developed by Wilson was that the social isolation of "ghetto" dwellers produced by the movement out of the "ghetto" by upwardly mobile, or "middle class" blacks, had resulted in a lack of role models and a consequent failure of individual job seekers to be able to behave in ways appropriate to the goal of upward mobility. Although he has strenuously denied that he is positing a "culture of poverty" derived from the ideas of Oscar Lewis, there is a striking resemblance between his writings and some aspects of Oscar Lewis's work.

When I got back to Chicago in the spring of 1986 and started to attend the meetings devoted to the discussion of the design of the survey instrument--which were still going on--I immediately became embroiled in arguments about the assumptions underlying the formulation of the survey questions, and indeed underlying the design of the survey itself. The first question concerned the self-evidence of the categories, and particularly of such categories as black, Mexican, Puerto Rican, white, ghetto, underclass, and so forth. It is true that these are the categories widely used in official statistical reporting in the United States, but we had no idea of the extent to which they are, or are not, the categories of social differentiation used by the people we were supposed to be studying, or whether they were the most meaningful categories for the study of urban poverty. These are certainly the categories used in public and social science discourse about poverty, disorder, and the like, and this research project was conceived and formulated in the context of political discussions that had been going forward since at least the publication of the Moynihan Report. There were powerful interests, including those of political organizers of these supposed "groups" or "communities," that were hungry for information packaged in the particular envelopes, but quite frankly it has seemed exceedingly odd from the very beginning to be studying "poverty" in Chicago as if it had no intrinsic connection with the affluence and ostentation of other parts of the metropolitan area. I was also concerned about the comparability and meaningfulness of such categories as "black" as opposed to "Mexican" and "Puerto Rican." Similar differences arose over the question of collecting information on "households" which were consistently conflated with "families," even though we know that household boundaries are not easily delineated. However, these were things that could be argued about and the final questionnaire attempted to deal with some of these uncertainties. For example, it was asked not only whether the respondent considered him or herself to be Mexican or Puerto Rican, but also whether he or she considered him or herself to be black, white, Indian or Other. Also some attempt was made to overcome the limitation of the "household" fixation by asking not merely who lived there, but also for all the people who stayed there at all even for one or two nights a week, and for the names of people living elsewhere who had significant relationships with one or more people already listed. Of course, asking such questions is one thing, but getting answers that can delineate the permeability of household boundaries is another. There are some definite limits to the usefulness of surveys using standardized questions asked by interviewers with their own assumptions about what is relevant or not.

But there were other, and more important disagreements, that resulted in a shift in the focus of the ethnographic aspects of the research and the formulation of a separate, much less financially ambitious, survey.

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