Doctoral Dissertation Research: Social Service Organizations and Community Dynamics in Neighborhoods with High Levels of Illegal Activity

Project: Research project

Project Details


This doctoral dissertation research project will investigate the role of social service organizations within the broader dynamics of neighborhoods that have experienced high levels of illegal activity, especially the sale and distribution of illegal drugs. Whereas previous research on illicit activities in urban neighborhoods often have been framed by the larger literature on the global drug trade and the 'War on Drugs' approach to policing, this project adopts an approach that strives to understand the full range of individual and organizational interactions and relationships in a community. The theoretical foundations of this project seek to describe and understand the complex social networks of support, reciprocity, power, and violence that include the drug trade and a broad range of related activities. That work has explored how individuals engage in informal economic activities as well as how they function as community members in other ways. The research project supported by this award will focus on the ways in which social service organizations function to offer programming that works to quell the drug economy, often through a range of job readiness programs that explicitly transition people from informal and illicit work to formal employment. Working in a neighborhood in south Philadelphia that has had high drug-related crime levels, the doctoral student will conduct interviews with employees and volunteers associated with these organizations in order to develop a deeper understanding of the external pressures on the illegal economy that are situated immediately in the neighborhood. Interviews will include questions about the programming, mission, goals, and measures of success as well as the experiences of organizations in the community, the ways programs are received by target populations, and perceptions of the drug trade and its role in the community. Information gathered through these interviews will be integrated with information previously gathered through ethnographic research and oral histories in order to develop more comprehensive, multi-dimensional knowledge about the complex interactions of social service organizations and others interacting in the study site and similar communities.

This project will provide a range of new theoretical perspectives. It will contribute to the growing body of scholarship that illustrates the connections linking economy, community, and identity across scales. It will help refine perspectives that consider the decision-making strategies of drug economy participants at the level of household and community relationships by assessing how they make meaningful decisions about themselves, their families, their communities, and their cities. It also will provide new insights regarding how social service programs are interpreted and used by those engaged in illicit activities and those with whom they interact. Project results will assist community organizations in addressing drug-related issues in their neighborhoods, thereby contributing new information and insights that may improve their outreach and educational efforts. As a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement award, this award also will provide support to enable a promising student to establish a strong independent research career.

Effective start/end date9/15/132/28/15


  • National Science Foundation: $9,623.00


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