Your Life Chances Affect Where You Live: A Critique of the ‘Cottage Industry’ of Neighbourhood Effects Research


  • Whilst the arguments in this article are my own, I have benefited from the stimulating comments, criticisms and encouragement of Javier Auyero, Neil Brenner, Peter Marcuse, Ted Schrecker, Allen Scott, Catharina Thörn, Justus Uitermark, Loïc Wacquant and Elvin Wyly. Special thanks are due to David Manley, for inviting me to a 2010 conference on neighbourhood effects in St. Andrews that made me question the cottage industry, and for being such a supportive and insightful comrade. Four anonymous IJURR referees provided outstanding feedback and analytical guidance, for which I am extremely grateful.


This article advances a critique of the ‘neighbourhood effects’ genre in urban studies, by arguing that an acceptance of the ‘where you live affects your life chances’ thesis, however well-intentioned, misses the key structural question of why people live where they do in cities. By examining the structural factors that give rise to differential life chances and the inequalities they produce, and by inverting the neighbourhood effects thesis to: your life chances affect where you live, the problem becomes one of understanding life chances via a theory of capital accumulation and class struggle in cities. Such a theory provides an understanding of the injustices inherent in letting the market (buttressed by the state) be the force that determines the cost of housing and therefore being the major determinant of where people live. The article draws on Marxist urban theory to contend that the residential mobility programs advocated by neighbourhood effects proponents stand on shaky ground, for if it is true that ‘neighbourhood effects’ exceed what would be predicted by poverty alone, moving the poor to a richer place would only eliminate that incremental difference, without addressing the capitalist institutional arrangements that create poverty.