A Neighborhood-Centered Approach to Developmental Contexts: An Application to Three Risk Behaviors in Adolescence and Young Adulthood

Tara Warner, Bowling Green State University


Bridging macrosociological life course, place stratification, and social disorganization theories, this study advances a “neighborhood-centered” approach to study one of the developmental contexts of adolescent and young adult behavior. This approach extends neighborhood effects research and addresses limitations of existing life course and neighborhoods scholarship by explicitly highlighting the social structural forces—as embodied in the patterning of a finite set of neighborhood types—that anchor trajectories of risk behaviors in adolescence. Using four waves of nationally representative data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), latent class analysis, and growth curve modeling, I first identify distinct neighborhood types patterned by the intersection of three key components of structural inequality: race/ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and geography. Second, I examine how trajectories of delinquency, sexual activity, and marijuana use during adolescence and into young adulthood differ across neighborhood types, and the extent to which neighborhoods shape these behaviors directly and indirectly (through theorized individual, family, and peer mediators). Results from the latent class analysis both demonstrate the complex ways in which indicators of stratification intersect to shape specific neighborhood contexts, and provide the foundation for a multidimensional classification of these contexts. Results from a series of three-level growth curve models illustrate significant variation in trajectories across neighborhood types—variation heretofore unobserved in neighborhoods research, and largely unexplained by individual, family, and peer mediators. A neighborhood-centered approach reorients scholarly thinking about neighborhoods as developmental contexts, devoting explicit attention to the stratifying forces bringing about distinct neighborhood types that anchor and shape trajectories of risk behavior in adolescence and young adulthood.