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A South Los Angeles Neighborhood Study

The publication of W.E.B. Du Bois’ (1899) The Philadelphia Negro signaled the beginning of modern-day neighborhood studies. Since then, theorists have explored a variety of structural and cultural aspects of neighborhood life. William Foote Whyte’s (1943) Street Corner Society navigates street gangs to understand the social organization of Cornerville. Carol Stack'’s (1974) All Our Kin chronicles the extensive social networks and adaptive strategies of African Americans in The Flats. Mary Pattillo-McCoy’'s (1999) Black Picket Fences studies the lives of black middle-class residents in Chicago’'s South Side. Whether the scholar disputes the organization of social structures, the social networks of poor, nontraditional families, or the myth of black middle-class mobility, each study provides a unique perspective that informs, and often dispels, common conceptions of poor neighborhoods.

For his dissertation, Randy conducted an ethnographic study of African American and Latino teenagers living and learning in a low-income neighborhood. The project drew from the rich sociological tradition of neighborhood studies. He examined cultural heterogeneity vis-à-vis the sources and influences of neighborhood social and cultural capital. In other words, when teenagers are not in school, where, with whom, and for what purpose do they spend their time, and how do the experiences influence education outcomes? The study illustrates the manifold pathways to and away from postsecondary education that teenagers encounter as a result of growing up in a low-income neighborhood. Using a surplus perspective, it emphasizes the diverse forms of capital teenagers possess, limited forms of capital the educational system values, and the cultural mismatch that occurs as a result. 

Randy continues to use the findings from the study to guide future directions for research.

Social Media and Qualitative Research

As few as ten years ago, conducting a qualitative research study such as an ethnography--although certainly not simple--was relatively straightforward; a researcher negotiated access and then went to the place of study, e.g. a park, business, or classroom, and conducted participant observation. Consider each of those settings today: At a park, parents check Facebook while their children play on the swing set. Nearby, at the skate park, teenagers film their complicated skate tricks and upload them to YouTube where friends comment. At the office of a boutique start-up, Twitter is the core marketing strategy and the primary way representatives communicate with customers. Similarly, employees spend a considerable amount of time checking and replying to user reviews of their business on Yelp. And, in a classroom, a ninth-grade teacher incorporates Tumblr into classroom assignments about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. At the same time, a student in the corner looks engaged; however, he is really using his iPhone to chat with his girlfriend. Each of these examples highlights the diverse ways in which social media augments how individuals understand and interact in their environments. Each example also unsettles traditional approaches to qualitative inquiry and requires researchers to reassess their relationship to the field as well as physical and digital data.

Randy's current book project serves as an introduction to the emerging role of social media in relation to qualitative research. Fifty years ago, social scientists such as Oscar Lewis (1961) praised the tape recorder as a tool for a new generation of realism in research; since then, the rate of technological advancement and user adoption has increased exponentially. The implications for qualitative research are vast. The purpose of this book is to illustrate those implications as they extend to every step of the research process, from planning to presentation.

Pathways to College and Career: Understanding the Role of Peers

Pathways to college and career, particularly for students in low-income neighborhoods, have received increasing attention among education stakeholders. Projected shortfalls of college graduates and educated workers have caused policymakers and funders to seek innovative reforms to improve college access and readiness. Former president Obama, for example, convened several meetings with university presidents and nonprofit and business leaders in order to draw attention to the issue and explore potential solutions. Educational outcomes illustrate the disparities among students. Black and Latino males, in particular, experience higher than average dropout rates and lower graduation and college-going rates. In New York City, the graduation rates for Black (28%) and Latino (28%) males with college-accepted diplomas are significantly lower than White (57%) males. When discussing reasons for uneven pathways, researchers and reformers often cite unequal access to quality schools, teachers, and college counselors. Such foci draw attention to significant areas of need; however, they underemphasize the importance of contextual factors such as the neighborhoods in which students live and the people with whom they associate.


Drawing on previous neighborhood research, Randy's newest project explores peers as resource brokers. The researcher asks how peer relationships and the exchange of resources—information, influence, social credentials, and reinforcement—across school, neighborhood, and digital contexts influence pathways to and away from college and career. Consider, for instance, a group of college-going friends. Resources may involve the exchange of information about the college application process. Or, for a college-going teenager living in gang territory, a resource among neighborhood peers may involve safety while walking to and from school. As sociologist Marcel Mauss notes in The Gift, the giving of a gift also includes reciprocal obligations. For the college-going peers, reciprocity may involve trust and supportiveness. For the neighborhood peers, reciprocity may include pressure to join a gang. In such an instance, the exchange of resources may undermine the teenager's college aspirations.  

Randy has concluded data collection and is analyzing the data and writing the results. The goal is to better understand the contextual forces that influence college-going among first-generation teenagers and, as a result, improve the design of college access reforms.