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Sociology | Department News


Sociologist Studies Neighborhoods and Health

By Charles Spencer

Michael Bader

(Photo: Jeff Watts)

Michael Bader went to Rice University to become an architect. The sociologist in AU’s College of Arts and Sciences didn’t end up designing buildings, but architecture taught him “that space matters.”

And, says Bader, his study of architecture fueled his curiosity about “how society shapes space—the visceral way in which space influences how we move around the world.”

As a member of AU’s Center on Health, Risk, and Society, an interdisciplinary community of scholars formed by Sociology Department chair Kim Blankenship, Bader and others examine the social dimensions of health and health-related risks. The center’s goals include studying the roots in social inequality of those risks and finding structural ways to address them.

Growing up in Derwood, Maryland, in suburban Washington, D.C., and attending Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring and Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Bader also heard something from teachers that primed his interest in sociology.

“I had a couple teachers [at Eastern] and again in high school who emphasized the sharp disparities between Southeast Washington, D.C., and Derwood. We lived 20 miles from each other and our lives were completely different and our chances were completely different. That had a big influence,” he says.

Today, two questions are central to Bader’s research, “How do neighborhoods come to have the people who live there? And looking at demographic changes within neighborhoods, how do patterns in one neighborhood influence, or how are they are influenced by, the whole metropolitan area?”

Those neighborhoods changes, he says, create patterns of racial and economic segregation in metropolitan areas, which in turn, influence health.

Vital Measurements

To provide good measures of neighborhoods, Bader uses statistical methods to help map the characteristics of neighborhoods. He then maps those to social outcomes.

“The statistical techniques I use are called multilevel models. We think individuals are nested within neighborhoods or schools, or schools and neighborhoods and states, and the way the models are written if you change one element it changes the interpretations of the other elements.

“Thinking in different dimensions [while studying architecture] helped me think through the influence of changes in different levels for statistical models.”

In other research Bader has looked at the relationship of local racial segregation and low birth weights in Michigan cities, and how different races perceive a city’s neighborhoods and what they know about those neighborhoods.

His research on nutrition has examined disparities in the food environment of New York City public schools, in which he concluded that small grocery stores prevalent in low-income urban areas should be included in studies of food environments near schools. He has also looked at how neighborhood conditions affect access to food outlets.

Google Street View Project

Transportation and labor costs, however, are a very costly factor in conducting research in neighborhoods where researchers are typically sent out onto the street to observe a neighborhood’s physical characteristics. Those characteristics include things like walkability and physical disorder—burned out houses, abandoned cars, trash—factors that have profound effects on the life and health of inhabitants.

So Bader and a group at Columbia University are “building an interface using Google Street View. We still have to pay labor costs but cut out all transportation costs, he says.” A recent grant from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development has funded his Google Street View project with a $247,888 grant.