looking out: Looking Out: Peers, Support and Success in a Poor Neighborhood


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Matthew Desmond (Co-chair), Michèle Lamont (Co-chair), Mary Waters



Adolescence is a critical period in the life course, characterized by intense physical, socioemotional, and neurological development. It is also marked by vulnerability: long-term trajectories are often set in motion, and teenaged decisions can delimit future opportunities for mobility and success. This is especially true for low-income youth, who are typically less integrated into supportive institutions, and more exposed to state surveillance and punishment. A great deal of sociological research has considered various protective factors for “at-risk” young people, including the family, schools, and other neighborhood institutions. However, the peer group, the most significant social context for teenagers, is often maligned. Peer influence is seen as a “contagion,” spreading social ills like an “epidemic” through ties. In my book, based on my dissertation research and forthcoming withPrinceton University Press, I show the support embedded in networks of poor adolescents. Following a group of teenaged girls over the course of four years, I reveal how the girls tried to compensate for various burdens of poverty, including those often overlooked by researchers. Young women helped each other cope, thrive, aspire, and achieve. Close friendships met needs that adults could not, or would not, meet. I reveal the power of peer support—both day-to-day and in moments of crisis—but also its limitations in the face of structural disadvantage.


To learn about social dynamics between young women—often underrepresented in poverty research, which focuses typically on young men or on mothers—I spent time with adolescent girls away from adult supervision. They were all from low-income homes, and residents of a neighborhood with a poverty rate of 47%, against a citywide average of 15%. I hung out with the girls after school, on weekends and holidays, and during breaks. I joined everyday social activities, going with them to sports practices and games, movies, the mall, and to visit friends working shifts at fast-food restaurants and coffee shops. We passed long, humid summer evenings shooting variations on pool at the local youth center, and lounging around the picnic tables at the back of the housing projects until the small hours. We spent New England winter nights bundled up in kitchens and bedrooms, eating from paper plates and sharing gossip. We filled afternoons huddled around a computer on a scuffed sofa, or wandering the streets. We went to house parties, birthday celebrations, cookouts, and graduations. I joined the girls at a homecoming game, prom, and two Thanksgivings. For one year of the fieldwork, I lived in an apartment in their neighborhood. I also used the girls’ favorite social networking sites to connect with roughly sixty teens and gather over 3,000 screenshots of digital behavior.


The dissertation has three parts. It opens with an introductory chapter that introduces the fieldsite; reviews the current research on low-income young people, peer influence and social mobility; and outlines my methods.

Part one of the dissertation has four empirical chapters that showcase the peer support flowing between young women. First, I examine being broke, showing why the girls wanted money, how they got it, and how they made do when there was none to be had. I show how, in meeting material needs, the girls also gave each another dignity and inclusion. I then consider how the girls managed boredom, which researchers have found can lead to petty crime for time-passing thrills. I highlight the girls’ use of social media to generate moments of emotional intensity, and to manipulate the temporal horizons of fun to maximize available diversions. I also consider the limits and drawbacks of these “time management” practices. Chapter four turns to the emotional challenges the girls faced at home, at school, in the neighborhood, and in their community. It shows how they handled insult and instability, shielding each other from the risks that stigma can pose. Chapter five maps the hazards of young womanhood, tracing the fine line the girls walked between intimacy and risk, and considers why peer support was less effective in this realm than others.         

The second part of the dissertation reveals how the girls responded when their friendships were threatened. Chapter six looks at trauma, including neighborhood violence, which, though rare, was sometimes fatal. This both challenged the girls as individuals and strained their social network. I show how girls used social media to disseminate, comprehend, and cope with crises, and reassert the integrity of their bonds. I also show how their digital rituals and other scripts for grieving diverged from institutional expectations. Chapter seven shows “peer effects” in action, noting how the girls protected their relationships when some began experimenting with drugs and alcohol. In contrast to the behavioral homophily that researchers typically find in adolescent peer groups, the girls used an interactional pragmatism to deal with their differences, while also setting limits on “deviance.”

Finally, part three follows the girls as they achieved their long-term goals of graduating high school and starting college. It shows what happened when—in addition to the financial, logistical, and cultural obstacles that researchers find await low-income, first-generation college students—the girls lost the peer support on which they had long relied. In the conclusion, I discuss the limits of peer support, and its interaction with other types of assistance. I offer theoretical and methodological reflections on social media, and generate policy suggestions drawn from the fieldwork.

The dissertation pays special attention to the ways that girls used social media to meet one another's needs. Historically, ethnographies of poor neighborhoods have explored how residents survive social and economic isolation. But the young women in this book belonged to the most connected generation in history. For the girls, phones were non-negotiable, even at the cost of clothes or subway fare. They started interacting as soon as they woke each day, often broadcasting a “good morning” tweet or Snapchat. Through the day, they sent texts; they Tweeted; they sent Snapchats; they posted on Facebook and on Instagram; they logged onto ask.fm. Their communication imperative made no concessions for meals, movies, or school, where cell phones lay cabled into outlets like IVs. At night, in dark rooms in small hours, white screens shone inches from faces as fingers swiped to refresh apps one last time before bed. The girls were quick and skilled communicators, always involved in several, ongoing conversations over multiple media. They knew how to be physically together while attentively distant. Urban ethnographies have long looked at street corner society, but social media has fundamentally altered how young people interact. Adolescence has changed, and this project shows how cell phones and social media animate young people’s daily life and practices of peer support.