brokerage in poor neighborhoods

In recent years, urban sociologists have been finding that poor people use their neighborhood organizations—churches, recreation centers, community building organizations, childcare centers, even barbershops—to acquire information, goods, and services from organizations outside the neighborhood to a much greater extent than anyone had previously recognized. For example, in a survey I conducted of NYC childcare centers, I found that, over the previous year, 27% of centers had formally referred a parent to receive free or reduced treatment for depression or other mental health issues from a health organization. In fact, through an ethnographic project, I found that parents in childcare centers acquired many resources (school and job information, free substance abuse counseling, free HIV/AIDS testing and treatment, housing support, low cost legal representation, free tickets to cultural events, cheap yoga classes, and others) from a wide array of organizations (hospitals, museums, social service agencies, department stores, community organizations, movie theaters, and many others). Nancy Ammerman and Omar McRoberts, studying churches, have found similar resource-rich connections; Melvin Delgado has found them among everything from beauty shops to bathhouses.

For many people, the ability to use, say, a childcare center to acquire such goods is trivial, since they can use their social networks (or their money) to get what they want. For the very poor or socially isolated, it can be critical. For example, a poor mother whose child is in a New York City Head Start might obtain free inoculations for her family through a non-profit tied to her center. Or she might gain free admission to many of the most expensive museums in NYC (Guggenheim, Children’s Museum, Whitney) through the center’s enrollment in the Cool Culture program.

I have been thinking about these issues for a book I’m writing on brokerage. Like David Obsfeldt and Steve Borgatti, I find the meat of the issue to be in the *process*, not the structure—in figuring out why organizations would broker these connections, and how, precisely, individuals “gain access” to these goods. In my case, of course, the broker is an organization, and the parties being connected are a person and another organization. As a result, there is a type of duality that undermines what it normally means to be “the third that benefits.” I have my ideas, but I’m curious about others’: What theoretical traditions would have something to say about this question?

Written by mariosmall

June 10, 2008 at 10:38 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Mario has discovered an important pattern in the role that organizations play in communities. He also has something to say about the ‘value’ of these organizations to the individuals in these communities. I think that several authors in the social capital literature have alluded to the bridging roles of organizational memberships (Putnam) and certainly we are aware of the importance of ‘third places’ in cities. Marwell’s study of New York neighborhood associations looks at this bridging function as well. I also remember Bob Wuthnow talking about this in his impressive book, Loose Connections (1998). He had particularly useful insights into the roles that nonprofits play in the contemporary community. From all these authors we learn that organizations are crucial in the ongoing process of helping to integrate residents into larger systems. There are, of course, alternative viewpoints. These bridging organizations also can perform important social control functions for the ‘powers that be.’ This is, of course, not a new argument and something which cannot be ignored.

    In sum, I think we should applaud Mario’s research and the direction it is taking. While the debate has raged for years, there are many true believers who feel that nonprofits are different (e.g., the legions who attend ARNOVA meetings and the thousands of folks who teach nonprofit management courses). The problem is that we really aren’t sure how they are different. Much of the current work is focused on the unique managerial problems facing nonprofits. But the research outlined here is more focused on the roles that organizations play in the larger society, a theme that Stinchcombe has addressed and which Perrow has been harping on for years (that’s a compliment). How to conceptualize organizations this way – be they nonprofits, businesses, or government agencies – is the challenge. Organizational theory is so focused, well, on organiizations. There are ways of talking about their roles, e.g., as bridges or third party governments, but we lack a theoretical framework to think usefully about them. I applaud any effort in this direction.


    Joe Galaskiewicz

    June 11, 2008 at 8:08 am

  2. Mario, I know this may seem strange, but maybe there’s a little bit of garbage can (e.g. Cohen, March and Olson ’72) process at work here. Community organizations act as places where “random” streams of people arrive and meet. Because these orgs attract many kinds of clients (“buyers”), they also attract many kinds of service providers (“Sellers”), who try to contact the clients show up. It’s the “bulletin board” model of services – the non-profit has one or two core competencies, but they also act as a platform for advertising other services. In some cases, it’s formal (like the childcare case above), but in other cases it is informal. I also bet that non-profit staff act as gatekeepers as well, who help align potential clients and providers.This may especially important for low income folks, or marginalized populations.


    Fabio Rojas

    June 11, 2008 at 5:47 pm

  3. It may also be that the “brokers” are drawn into brokerage by the “buyers,” perhaps to a greater degree than by the “sellers.” That is, if I take my child to a day care center, I will likely chat with some of the other parents and the care provider when I drop off or pick up my child. Common themes among our small talk may emerge, e.g. “I don’t know how I’m going to afford immunizations this year…” One parent or another may have had experience with another organization that provides low-cost immunizations and may mention it. If I am not present, likely the care provider would be (she’s there all the time), and may relay this new information the next time I see her.

    Perhaps eventually, clients may look upon the care provider as some kind of local expert on family-oriented service programs, and may direct their questions to her, e.g. “how can I get help with my electric bill?” Hearing the same question over and over, and wanting to live up to the social expectation of her being an expert, the care provider may seek out the information, and pass it on to the clients.


    Patrick Pikus

    June 17, 2008 at 2:46 pm

  4. […] child care centers have more ties to other organizations than for-profit centers do.  Here is Mario’s post on this […]


  5. Hi!fkaf! dfdyp xtmki



    December 28, 2008 at 1:34 pm

  6. […] are just trying to survive. As is true with both choral societies and day care centers (Mario’s focus), building contexts of cooperative, frequent interaction and interorganizational networks with […]


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