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David researches the core social processes that characterize structurally disadvantaged neighborhoods, as well as the processes that underlie the causes of and solutions to crime and other social problems in urban communities. Central to this approach is engaging both academic and public audiences.

View David's curriculum vitae [PDF]

Perceptions of and Responses to Social Problems in Disadvantaged Neighborhoods

The concentration of social ills within neighborhoods has been an enduring area of study within sociology. David pursues his interest in social problems in disadvantaged neighborhoods through two major projects.

David's dissertation investigated the issue of "public traumas," sites of violence experienced as an assault on a coherent community, in a racially and economically segregated South Side Chicago community. Using mixed methodologies, he conducted more than two years of participant observation, repeated open-ended individual and group interviews with more than 50 residents, as well as structured interviews with representatives of corporate and governmental bodies operating in the area. These data are augmented a database of municipal, county and other information including crime data, citizen government service requests, and deed records. In his first paper, David finds that public traumas facilitate the development of a special kind of weak tie that is critical for order maintenance in neighborhoods lacking institutional supports. This finding confronts the accepted position that local institutions are the primary facilitators of social organization and suggests alternative organizing strategies for communities that lack such institutions.

The second and third papers from his dissertation refine these ideas by exploring how community cohesion and discord are generated by a neighborhood's unique criminal opportunities and how conceptions of social "disorder" emerge from religious and class-based resident groups. Such factions argue about which activities are normative and maintain (or violate) local norms by addressing victimization. These materials will be the basis for a new quantitative project analyzing municipal citizen service request data and linking them to reported crime incidents.

David's partnership with sociologist Danielle Wallace of Arizona State University (ASU) extends these issues by investigating the underexplored relationship between social and physical disorder in structurally disadvantaged neighborhoods. For one year they conducted the repeated, longitudinal documentation of 38 Chicago buildings. They used photography to record the front, back and sides of the buildings, as well as systematic social observations (SSOs) to identify more than 20 characteristics of each surrounding block. The pair then trained nearly two-dozen ASU undergraduate and graduated students to code the photographic and SSO data for quantitative analysis. The first paper from the project challenges the typical causal relationship between physical and social disorder by indicating that (1) Contrary to the accepted "spiral of decay" thesis, increases in physical disorder eventually decrease social disorder, and (2) The back of the building is more important than typical face-block building measurements for predicting nearby social disorder. The second paper investigates how to minimize and then quantify bias in systematic social observations (SSO) of disorder through the appropriate modeling of intraclass correlations. It is additionally co-authored by sociologist Eric Hedberg of ASU.

Informal Social Organization and Community Revitalization

Since 2009, David has been collaborating with historian Michael Carriere
of the Milwaukee School of Engineering to explore the rise of intentionally informal -- or "do-it-yourself" -- actions designed to address local problems throughout the United States. Started at the end of the recession, The City Creative: The Rise of Placemaking in Urban America launches from the understanding that the financial crisis and its aftermath intensified and spatially concentrated urban problems at the same time as it reduced many cities' capacities to address them. The study combines archival research, participant observation, interviews, site visits, and documentary photography in 42 cities to track how decentralized and even deinstitutionalized hyperlocal initiatives have arisen to fill the void, particularly in economically and racially segregated communities -- and are now being augmented with formal "placemaking" campaigns designed to produce community by improving the built environment. Leveraging its longitudinal nature, the project additionally tracks how such initiatives grow, and then, often, collapse during the formalization process.

Public Sociology and Visual Methodology

David is actively developing visual methodologies to serve as a foundation for multiple types of qualitative and quantitative evaluation, as well as to augment his teaching. For additional examples of his work, please view the documentary short in the film section of this website, the photography section, as well as features he authored for The Society Pages and Places. In 2014, Japanese publisher Utakatado released Isolated Building Studies, a book detailing David's eponymous series.

Selected features on his work and collaborations can be seen on Citylab, Chicago Public Radio, Salon, the Chicago Tribune, Dwell, the Chicago Reader, and The New York Times. Updates about his documentary film are available at