Disparity, Disorder, and Diversity

Robert Sampson has just published Disparity and diversity in the contemporary city: social (dis)order revisited in the British Journal of Sociology (BJS). It comes out of the annual BJS lecture that Sampson had the honor to give last fall. This paper focuses on both objective and subjective disorder, in particular highlighting the importance of subjective disorder for understanding the impact of disparity.

In his paper Sampson is basically taking on the Broken Windows approach to disorder, that visible and quite real signs of disorder encourage people to engage in criminal and other deviant acts. In one sense, Sampson wants to bring Durkheim back into the picture, that anomie – or a spirit or sense of disorder – is also vital to sociology.

As he says, “My general thesis is that perceptions of disorder constitute a fundamental dimension of social inequality at the neighborhood level and perhaps beyond… I argue that the grounds on which perceptions of disorder are formed are contextually shaped by social conditions that go well beyond the usual suspects of observed disorder and poverty, a process that in turn molds reputations, reinforces stigma and influences the future trajectory of an area (6).”

Sampson brings an intriguing mix of photoethnography, historical and theoretical analysis, and quantitative data from Chicago. His main thrust is to say that “because the link between cues of disorder and perception is socially mediated, it is malleable and thus subject to change.” He wants to get away from a mono-causal view of disorder to an understanding of disorder as something more complex and interactive, as these two contrasting figures from his paper show.



Sampson is interested in what might drive that malleability between disorder and perception and highlights the role of social diversity. Here he uses his data to show that diversity and immigration are important in re-energizing cities and in reducing crime. “I found that increasing diversity and immigration have their greatest influence in what were formally racially segregated areas and historically the areas of greatest exclusion by the State (25).” Here’s one figure on linguistic diversity and violence that highlights some of his paper’s data:


He ends with a call for sociologists to focus on how diversity can lead to social order, not just disorder, once again coming back to Durkheim and his collective representations and social solidarity. Sampson writes, “if heterogeneity ultimately serves to reduce disparities in the city through the blurring of boundaries and the slow dissolving of categorical distinctions that to date have been so pervasive, perhaps theorists of urban disorder can help lead the way through efforts such as the present to elucidate what is in fact the social order of the increasingly diverse city, along with the irreducibly social bases of shared perceptions of disorder in the first place (27).”

The Sampson article is great, because there are a range of responses from well-respected sociologists in the BJS itself, as well as this video, A Brief History of Disorder, where editor Richard Wright engages Rob Sampson and Richard Sennett in a discussion about disorder, diversity and the social mediation of perception.

Paul Gilroy provides the first response, illuminating, literary and critical. Here’s one line that sums up much of his view: “How that graffiti became part of the change of signification that connotes decline, racial abjection and disorder is a story that cannot be divorced from the history of post-Black Power forms of cultural and political resistance, from migration stories and transnational interculture which changed the value and meaning of the South Bronx (36).”

Other responses include Per-Olof Wikstrom’s Questions of perception and reality and Diane Davis’ Taking place and space seriously. There are still more responses available in full text from BJS.

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