Since the nineteen eighties a great deal of research has been performed into neighbourhood effects and how they influence people's socio-economic situation. At the same time policy on deprived districts based on neighbourhood effects has had little, or sometimes even an unfavourable, effect. This is apparent in the PhD research by Agata Troost entitled: The diverse pathways of social inequality transmission in the neighbourhood. A question may be raised whether there is any point to research into neighbourhood effects. The conclusion of Agata's research was that although the research certainly generates valuable knowledge, that knowledge is often interpreted in a much too simplistic way.

A lack of data

As Agata explains, "In research neighbourhoods are often viewed only as a certain spatial context, while the focus should be on their significance as places chosen by people which change and which residents may experience in different ways." For her the subject was a logical choice. "I was already part of a larger project which involved us all researching the effect on people of the local context, region, or town. What I noticed at the time is that very little research has yet been done in the Netherlands which takes account of the selection bias in relation to the social context. Often this is down to a lack of data. I've been looking at neglected factors in previous research relating to the socio-spatial transmission of inequality in neighbourhoods. Neighbourhood effects can be felt for long periods of time. However, research only relates to a certain period and then the same neighbourhood is reassessed only ten years later. What I've done is incorporate microdata over a longer period of time. This means administrative data from Statistics Netherlands (CBS) on, for example, income or education. You then see what the effects are on educational performance of the length of time that people live in a certain neighbourhood, or of living there throughout certain phases of their lives. This gives you a much more complete picture."

"Often, neighbourhood research is used primarily as an excuse for a certain policy"

Perception versus administrative data

Although policy in the Netherlands is primarily aimed at poor neighbourhoods, Agata's research shows that, above all, the presence of prosperous neighbours makes the difference when it comes to education. More of a difference than poverty in the neighbourhood inhibiting performance. In Agata's opinion another frequently neglected issue in research is perception. "For the last part of my research I not only used data from previous research and from the CBS, but also surveys in which people were asked about the perception of their neighbourhood. In order to compare the questions in the survey with the CBS data I used a walking distance of 10 minutes. The questions in the survey varied from what percentage of your neighbours find it difficult to make ends meet, to questions about vandalism. The answers could then be compared with CBS data to establish how many people are really poor and what kind of migration background they have. An interesting finding was that if you have less confidence in public institutions, such as the government and the media, you are more likely to overestimate the percentage of neighbours with foreign origins and their low level of income."

"You don't make a poor neighbourhood more prosperous by building more expensive homes if you then move the poor residents on and fail to tackle the underlying problems."

Strengthening the cohesion between research and policy

It was only when writing her introduction and conclusion that Agata clearly saw how the results fitted into the broader context of policy versus research. "Often, neighbourhood research is used primarily as an excuse for a certain policy." So regularly, based on a simplification of the generally more complex actual outcome. You don't make a poor neighbourhood more prosperous by building more expensive homes if you then move the poor residents on and fail to tackle the underlying problems. It's then better to focus on strengthening the social cohesion and increasing the mix of less and more prosperous residents without having to demolish social housing. “Personally I believe that the cohesion between research and policy in the Netherlands can definitely be improved. In terms of my own contribution, I hope that I manage to communicate my conclusions about specific social contacts to a wider audience."

Published: June 2023

More information

Agata Troost will be receiving her doctorate on 19 June with dissertation entitled 'The diverse pathways of social inequality transmission in the neighbourhood'
The dissertation can be downloaded via the DOI link.