Abstract: "I Would Say It's Alive": Understanding the Social Construction of Place, Identity, and Neighborhood Effects through the Lived Experience of Urban Young Adults (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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"I Would Say It's Alive": Understanding the Social Construction of Place, Identity, and Neighborhood Effects through the Lived Experience of Urban Young Adults

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Kalen Flynn, PhD, MSW, MSSP, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL
Brenda Mathias, MSSA, PhD Student, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Background/Purpose: A growing body of literature provides evidence that neighborhood matters, especially in relation to adolescent development. Exposure to crime, blight, and poverty has been shown to negatively impact key aspects of development including identity formation, physical health, mental, and emotional well-being. As a unit of analysis, “neighborhood” is a challenging concept to define and is often measured using census restricted units, which fails to consider the socio-spatial processes that also give rise to place. This study develops an increasingly nuanced and fluid understanding of neighborhood and explores the questions: (1) How do urban adolescents define, navigate, and engage their surrounding environment?; and, (2) How do urban neighborhoods interact with youth residents thus impacting identity formation?

Methods: This study utilized a multiple-case design and a unique combination of qualitative GIS methodologies to explore how urban adolescents define, navigate, and engage their surrounding environment. Twelve young adults ages 16 through 21 were recruited from several urban youth centers. The sample consisted of six males and six females, all who identified as either African-American or Latinx. In sum, 85 sedentary and walking interviews were conducted in the participants’ neighborhoods and over 100 hours of field observation over the course of one year; each case was interviewed 7-8 times. Braun & Clark’s (2006) method of thematic analysis was used to analyze all qualitative data. GPS data were also collected and analyzed to develop a “real-time” understanding of the spaces across which youth were navigating.

Results: The findings from this work suggest that how youth perceive and move throughout space is a complex process, stemming from the interaction of structural and social systems; and highlight the value of understanding varying resident experiences when considering definitions of neighborhood. Through urban youth narratives and walking interviews, we find that place is tied to development, particularly as it relates to the construction of identity through social ties and relationships. The GPS data show that the definition of neighborhood is fluid and complex, particularly when compared to traditional census tract measures. Additionally, the process through which individuals create meaning out of place is not static. Rather, there are mutual exchanges between the resident and their surrounding systems, across many different dimensions of place.

Conclusions and Implications: The social ties and attachment associated with neighborhood, are important aspects of youth development. Our findings suggest that place should be considered and defined with increased nuance, bounded not by arbitrary census designations, but rather resident knowledge and perspective. This study fills a gap in the literature by integrating youth voice into our understanding of how to measure and define neighborhood. The implications of this work suggest that place-centered interventions and policies should remain at the forefront of policy agendas, committing investment in resource deprived urban spaces. Moreover, given the fluid boundaries of neighborhood (social and concrete), service providers should work closely with local residents to ensure they are being fully responsive to the needs of their target population and successfully creating access to services within complex social and physical spaces.