Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

15662 Defining Neighborhoods Through Residents' Perceptions: A Qualitative Approach

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 11:30 AM
Constitution E (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Pilar Horner, PhD, Assistant Professor, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI


Recent research on neighborhoods has attempted to explain how individual outcomes are influenced by the environment. However, almost no research on neighborhood influences has been conducted with Latinos in the United States and with Latin American populations in general, particularly concerning mental health outcomes, resulting in an important gap in knowledge. The purpose of this study was to conduct a qualitative study to obtain rich information about how adult Latinos living in high-poverty/high-drug use neighborhoods in Santiago, Chile, perceive and negotiate their environment.


Eleven mothers and two fathers who live in two comunas (municipalities), from Santiago, Chile, were invited to participate in this study. These individuals also were participating in a larger study of drug use funded by NIDA, the Santiago Longitudinal Study. Interviews lasted 1 ˝ hours to 2 hours each. Participants were asked a series of open-ended questions based on the current neighborhood effects literature including: describe your daily activities, how and when do you monitor your children's play/afterschool care, why are neighborhood main streets more or less safe than side passageways, and how would you improve your neighborhood and why. An inductive analysis that allowed one to discover “patterns, themes, and categories” was utilized (Patton, 2002, p. 453). The interviews were transcribed from written notes and entered into a data coding program, MAXqda for the development of a codebook.


Findings indicate that individuals respond to their environment by employing complex scripts based on the concept of “los delincuentes” or delinquent youths. These individuals are the focal point accounting for neighborhood effects of dangerous activity and access to drugs. In examining how the perception of los delincuentes was understood by residents, three categories emerged: (1) reaction to real danger, (2) understanding of ambiguous danger, and (3) learned powerlessness.


The study findings provide some insights into how residents living in high-poverty/high-drug use neighborhoods in Santiago, Chile, perceive their neighborhood's effects on their lives. Residents defined their neighborhood concerns with a concept of “the other”, in this case delinquent youth, rather than structural or economic limitations. Interestingly, despite the uncertainty and stress created by the presence of delinquent youth, all participants believed that a non-punitive intervention would best meet the needs of their communities. Also, all expressed a desire to improve safe green spaces, rather than increase police presence to improve their neighborhoods. Based on the study findings, in this presentation this project will highlight the need to study neighborhoods across cultural settings and to listen to residents' voices to better inform policies aimed at improving the health and safety of neighborhoods. Practice implications include assessing neighborhood contexts at the resident level in order to (1) understand how neighborhood dynamics are perceived by residents rather than relying on census data, and (2) to reflect those understandings in effective neighborhood improvement policy programming. Recommendations include gearing interventions towards positive youth employment programs, leadership activities, and social support systems for substance users through neighborhood associations. 


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