The Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods has its origins in the MacArthur Foundation's longstanding interest in the causes and prevention of antisocial behavior. Earlier surveys identified the need for comprehensive, longitudinal research — studies that would unravel the developmental pathways that lead to conduct disorders, juvenile delinquency, adult crime, substance abuse, and violence.
The Project had two goals: to identify and address the causes of some of the nation's gravest social problems, and to learn more about what goes right as children grow up in urban America. Ultimately, the project aimed to help point the way to a better coordinated, more effective approach to human development; help policy planners design new strategies for prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation; and improve the quality of life in American communities and the life prospects of our cities' most disadvantaged residents.
The project was unique in size and scope, combining two approaches into a single, comprehensive design. The first was an intensive study of Chicago's neighborhoods — their social, economic, organizational, political, and cultural structures, and the dynamic changes they experienced over a span of eight years. The second was a series of coordinated longitudinal studies of children, adolescents, and young adults, looking at the changing circumstances of their lives and the personal characteristics that may lead them toward or away from a variety of antisocial behaviors. To carry out its research, the Project developed innovative tools and scientific methods that are already being used by scientists and policymakers across the nation.
The studies integrated experts from many disciplines, including psychiatry, developmental and clinical psychology, sociology, criminology, public health and medicine, education, human behavior, and statistics. Among the topics they have explored are these:
Communities. Why do some communities experience high rates of antisocial behavior while other, apparently similar communities are relatively safe? This was the first study to look comprehensively at how community factors — including social, economic, organizational, political, and cultural structures, informal and formal social controls, and social cohesion — influence individual development and social behavior.
School. Some children have achievement problems early in school. Others have behavior or truancy problems. Some exhibit both kinds of problems, and others neither. Why do these differences exist? What are their causes and effects?
Peers. Delinquent youths tend to associate with delinquent peers and usually act in groups. Does this association lead to delinquency, or is it simply "like finding like?" Many of these youths have been excluded by their more conventional peers. Could we, by helping to prevent this early rejection, change their later associations? Are peer influences equally important for girls and boys, or are their developmental pathways different?
Families. Poor parenting practices are strongly associated with substance abuse and delinquency. But are they the cause of such behavior? If so, then social programs in parenting skills could make a difference. But what if there are underlying factors, such as temperamental characteristics or social isolation, that cause problems in both parents and children? How can we identify and address these factors?
Individual differences. What health-related, cognitive, intellectual, and emotional factors in children promote positive social development? What factors put them at risk of developing antisocial behaviors? The researchers explored a wide range of variables — from prenatal drug exposure, lead poisoning, and nutrition to adolescent growth patterns, temperament, and self-image — to learn who is most at risk.
Also included in the project were a study of children's exposure to violence and its consequences, and a study of the impact of child care on early childhood development.
Progress and Plans
With the fieldwork completed, the team then engaged in analyzing the extremely rich and complex data, producing the major research reports, and communicating its findings to policymakers, practitioners, and the broader scientific community.
Some important findings have emerged. For example, the data suggested that the most important influence on a neighborhood's level of crime and violence — more important than factors such as race and poverty — is what the researchers called "collective efficacy" — that is, a willingness among residents to get involved with one another and to act for the benefit of neighbors and their children. Yet even a neighborhood with high collective efficacy is at risk for higher rates of crime and violence if it is located near others with negative environments; conversely, a neighborhood with low collective efficacy can be "protected" by proximity to more favorable environments.
The researchers used the data to examine questions related to delinquency, crime, and violence in adolescence, the development of cognitive skills and emotional regulation in early childhood, and a range of other issues. Importantly, they have made the Project's data publicly available, and scientists and policymakers across the nation are now putting them to use. The research is likely to have implications for many fields, from education, housing policy, and welfare reform to law enforcement and immigration.