Perceiving Neighborhoods: Exploring the Effects of Subjective Evaluations on the Process of Social Organization

Download data and study materials from OSF

Principal investigators:

Melanie Penny

Harvard University

William Julius Wilson

Harvard University



Sample size: 627

Field period: 08/02/2006- 08/09/2006


Traditional literature on the subject of social organization argues that it is the condition of being organized—namely the existence of neighborhood friendship bonds, informal organizations, and a willingness to police local juveniles—that produces positive community outcomes. These theories strongly assert that neighborhood characteristics (i.e. socioeconomic status, ethnic heterogeneity, and residential mobility) matter, only insomuch as they determine the organizational state that a community is able to achieve. However if neighborhood attributes are significant determinants of the level of social organization achieved by the community, theorists fail to specify why communities with ostensibly identical social characteristics may nonetheless realize divergent levels of social organization—and eventually outcomes.
In attempting to answer this question, we will argue that scholars must consider the factors that influence residents’ willingness to engage within their community, instead of narrowly focusing on neighborhood traits believed to impact their ability to become organized.


The hypotheses for this research are as follows: 1) Individuals’ perceptions of neighborhood quality significantly help determine their willingness to engage in various forms of social organization, and; 2) These perceptions of neighborhood quality themselves are significantly influenced by the community-level value judgments supplied by others

Experimental Manipulations

This study will utilize a 4 (quote content) x 3 (objective condition) between-subjects experimental design. By varying the content of the comments directed towards the community depicted, we will be able to identify what effect external subjective evaluations have on appraisals of objective neighborhood conditions. Each condition will feature three quotes that are positive, negative, mention the presence of minority residents, or are completely neutral. In the “minority presence” condition, two of the three quotes will be evaluatively neutral while the third quote will indicate the presence of African-American residents. The variation in quote content throughout these conditions will allow us to test both of the sources that we argue may affect residents’ perceptions and subsequent willingness to participate—popular normative judgments (both positive and negative), and subjective evaluations of neighborhood attributes.
The objective neighborhood condition will be manipulated by providing three different sets of community-level statistics


Perceptions of neighborhood quality.