1. A different perspective on social isolation

In 1987, William J. Wilson centered his argument about the consequences of deindustrialization and poverty concentration on the idea of social isolation. Wilson (2012[1987]) believed that the concentration of poverty in cities had created a population of low-income African Americans who lacked social connections, particularly to mainstream Americans. As a result, they miss out on information about job opportunities and role models for their young. The relationship betweenisolation and connectedness took on a broader perspective, wherein the core isolation and generalized distrust among people in poor neighborhoods was theorized to undermine both upward mobility and current wellbeing (e.g., Smith 2006).

Wilson’s perspective, and that of the many researchers that followed, centered on the relationship between macro-level economic changes and micro-level connections among individuals, the two mediated primarily by concentration of poverty (Jargowsky 1997). I suggest that these perspectives paid insufficient attention to the fact that people are embedded in meso-level organizational contexts that structure their wellbeing and prospects for mobility in substantial ways. I argue that adopting an organizational perspective alters our understanding of urban conditions among residents of poor neighborhoods.

The discussion below is based on several papers and a book published in recent years. I include references to those publications for a fuller discussion and a lot of the evidence in support of the ideas below.

2. Defining an organizational perspective

An organizational perspective on neighborhood poverty suggests that “the fewer the resources to which people have access, the more their circumstances will depend on the organizations in which they participate, the systems in which these organizations operate, and the institutions governing the behavior of both” (Allard and Small 2013:6). To clarify terms, I excerpt much of the discussion below from the introduction to a recent volume I co-edited with Scott Allard, Reconsidering the Urban Disadvantaged: The Role of Systems, Institutions, and Organizations (Small and Allard 2013).

I define organizations as “formally recognized sets of people and practices whose activities are oriented toward an overarching purpose; examples include schools, welfare agencies, employment centers, bodegas, supermarkets, half-way houses, churches, food pantries, and childcare centers. Organizations typically operate in buildings, file tax forms, receive coding regulations, employ people, and sell or provide goods to patrons or clients. They may be for- or not-for-profit and privately or publicly funded” (Allard and Small 2013:9).

I define “systems as the sets of individuals, organizations, and networks of relations that structure major aspects of urban life; examples include the criminal justice system, the education system, and the health care system. Systems are macro-level entities. They are typically governed by multiple sets of institutional rules and norms that affect the behavior of both the individuals and the organizations within them” (Allard and Small 2013:9).

I define “institutions as either formal rules or informal norms governing the behavior of individuals and organizations; examples include the rules governing parole release, the rules surrounding the receipt of housing support, the norms shaping what clients ask of and expect from a service provider, and the norms affecting how immigrants share resources with members of their ethnic groups…. Since institutions are rules and norms, they may be situated in groups, organizations, or systems. When they take the form of rules, they are often written in law books, manuals, job descriptions, and regulatory codes; when they take the form of norms, they are manifested in informal practices, observed decorum, understood responsibilities, and shared expectations” (Allard and Small: 2013:9-10).

3. An institutional perspective should encourage us to think of isolation differently

Conceiving of the lives of residents of poor urban neighborhoods as organizationally embedded generates a different understanding of social isolation. To stimulate our discussion, I make three observations.

First, high organizational capacity undermines social isolation. High organizational capacity refers to a high density of routine organizations, such as churches, childcare centers, barbershops, neighborhood restaurants, schools, bodegas, and others. Several studies have documented the fact that local organizations contribute strongly to the creation and maintenance of social networks (Duneier 1992, Small 2009).

Two images of the socially isolated have been fixtures of much of the sociological discussion of the consequences of neighborhood poverty. One relates to the idea that people living in high-poverty connections will likely have few connections to middle class or mainstream Americans, simply because the former do not live in the vicinity of the latter, and proximity is presumed necessary for connectedness. The contrast to the high poverty neighborhood in this image is the neighborhoods such as the large South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, where African American middle class teachers and professionals lived alongside the urban poor. The other image relates to the idea that the outmigration of middle class people has resulted in poor neighborhoods that are substantially depopulated, where people are isolated in the larger sense of disconnectedness. Their total network size is expected to be smaller.

High organizational capacity certainly undermines isolation in the second sense. However, it also undermines it in the first. Stable local organizations are staffed by teachers, pharmacists, doctors, bankers, and others with a professional background and, often, a connection to non-neighborhood professional networks.

Second, in a context of high organizational capacity, social isolation does not necessarily result in disconnectedness. Many residents who frequent local grocery stores, pharmacies, and childcare centers fail to make stable social relationships with either other patrons or professionals. However, there is growing
evidence that local organizations have the capacity to function as brokers for the urban poor, connecting individuals to the resources contained in other organizations (Delgado 1999; McRoberts 2003; Small 2006, 2009). These resources include information, services, in-kind transfers, and other resources useful to wellbeing and upward mobility.

A study of childcare centers in NYC found that, through the centers, families were connected to hospitals, churches, museums, schools, HIV/AIDS clinics, ethnic organizations, domestic abuse agencies, and many others, within and outside low-income neighborhoods that provided access to resources of high value (Small 2006, 2009). For example, many of the high quality elementary schools in the city provided scholarships that poor parents often did not know about. One of the centers studies informed parents, brought representatives of the schools to the center, coached parents on preparing for entrance exams, and negotiated waved exam fees with the school. Delgado (1999) has found similar resource brokering in barbershops, beauty salons, botanicals, and bathhouses. McRoberts (2003) and Ammerman (2005) have found it in churches.

From this perspective, the truly isolated person is an organizational isolate. As I have argued elsewhere, “An organizational perspective…both changes and deepens our understanding of isolation. The most disadvantaged person today may well be the organizational isolate, the one disconnected from childcare centers, religious organizations, political clubs, schools, gyms, neighborhood associations, community centers, and hobby clubs. This person is effectively unplugged not merely from the most reliable way to form and sustain ties in a time-sensitive society but also from the organizational apparatus through which grants, information, consumer goods, discounts, political access, and many other resources are transferred. It is not merely the absence of friends but the absence of contexts in which friends continue to be made; not merely the lack of a tie to the bureaucracy but the lack of access to the numerous resources reserved to the organizational sphere, to the mechanisms by which the goods in that sphere can make up for the goods that friends are unable to provide. In a society increasingly structured around formal organizations, the organizational isolate is the person increasingly guaranteed to be left out” (Small 2009: 196-97).

Third, low organizational capacity is not ubiquitous across poor neighborhoods. Although much of the literature has described poor neighborhoods as inherently scare in local organizations likely to broker social and organizational ties, a lot of this ethnographic and quantitative work has been based on research in Chicago. However, high poverty neighborhoods in Chicago are not characteristic of those in most American cities. Consider the following tables, published in Small and Feldman (2012). They depict the organizational capacity of poor neighborhoods in Chicago, in all cities, in large cities, and in Rustbelt cities.

Small Table 1

Small Table 2

In effect, poor neighborhoods in most American cities have higher organizational capacity than those in Chicago (with capacity measured as number of establishments per 100,000 persons). Furthermore, whereas in Chicago poor neighborhoods have lower capacity than non-poor; in most cities, the opposite is true.

Wilson’s theorizing of neighborhood poverty as a condition of both low organizational capacity and social isolation has been based on poor neighborhoods that are atypical in American society. A broader perspective can yield a different understanding of the conditions of the poor and of the role of contemporary bureaucratic structures in their operation.


Allard, Scott and Mario L. Small. 2013. “Reconsidering the Urban Disadvantaged: The Role of Systems, Institutions, and Organizations.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 647(1):6-20.

Ammerman, Nancy Tatom. 2005. Pillars of Faith: American Congregations and Their Partners. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Delgado, Melvin. 1999. Social Work Practice in Nontraditional Urban Settings. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Duneier, Mitchell. 1992. Slim’s Table: Race, Respectability, and Masculinity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jargwosky, Paul. 1997. Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios, and the American City. New York: Russell Sage.

McRoberts, Omar. 2003. Streets of Glory: Church and Community in a Black Urban Neighborhood. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Small, Mario L. 2006. “Neighborhood Institutions as Resource Brokers: Childcare Centers, Inter- organizational Ties, and Resource Access among the Poor.” Social Problems. 53:274–292.

Small, Mario L. 2009. Unanticipated Gains: Origins of Network Inequality in Everyday Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Small, Mario L. and Scott Allard, eds. 2013. Reconsidering the Urban Disadvantaged: The Role of Systems, Institutions, and Organizations. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences.

Small, Mario L. and Jessica Feldman 2012. “Ethnographic Evidence, Heterogeneity, and Neighbourhood Effects after Moving to Opportunity.” in M. van Ham, D. Manley, N. Bailey, L. Simpson & D. Maclennan(eds). Neighbourhood Effects Research: New Perspectives. Springer: Dordrecht.

Smith, Sandra. 2007. Lone Pursuit: Distrust and Defensive Individualism among the Black Poor. New York: Russell Sage.

Wilson, William J. 2012[1987]. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.