How deep-rooted origin stories led to cutting edge research at ISR

July 12, 2023

Contact: Jon Meerdink ([email protected])

ANN ARBOR — Lydia Wileden walked two unique paths on her way to the Institute for Social Research.

The first centered on her research. Her work to date has focused on measuring neighborhood perceptions and reputations, tracking how they change and how those changes affect the people who live there. It was that work that first brought her to ISR, landing her in a role with the Population Studies Center. 

The second runs a bit deeper, dating back to when her mother worked on the National Survey of  Black Americans more than 30 years ago. As fate would have it, ISR brought their research careers closer together than they could ever have planned.

“My mom actually worked in the same research bay that I worked in while I did my PSC traineeship,” said Wileden. “It was fun to realize we shared an office space about 30 years apart.”

But regardless of her origin story — or stories, as the case may be — Wileden’s work on neighborhood quality and demographics at ISR thrived. With support from PSC, Wileden was able to build out her dissertation with a focus on how neighborhoods can affect residents differently.

“There is a lot of research that suggests that the conditions of neighborhoods have an effect on individual outcomes. Racial composition has an effect on where people choose to live, the level of poverty has an effect on educational attainment, and other sorts of long-term status attainment,” she said. “And my dissertation was arguing that while objective conditions probably do have an impact, what people think about a place may have even more of an impact.”

Wileden was able to demonstrate that often people judge places down to the neighborhood level not by objective measures, but how they perceive them subjectively. That same approach has carried into Wileden’s current work as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Chicago’s Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, work that still draws on her experience at ISR.

Her work also benefits from support from ISR’s Next Generation Initiative, including the PSC Alumni Graduate Support Fund. Using that funding, Wileden was able to survey about 1,500 people from Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., exploring their neighborhood perceptions and reputations. She still uses data collected from that survey in her work today. 

“It’s not that common that graduate students get to field their own survey and collect data. The funding allowed me to pay incentives for survey respondents and work closely with Qualtrics to develop an interactive map tool that I used in my survey,” said Wileden. “It was a more technically sophisticated survey, and the funding helped support that work.”

That combination of factors — an opportunity to do cutting edge research, a family connection, and funding — has springboarded Wileden into her current role, one that still draws on her deep connection to the University of Michigan and ISR.

“The further away from Michigan one moves, the more you come to appreciate what an incredible resource ISR is and how rare it is,” she said. “I feel really lucky to have done my graduate studies there while extending my family’s relationship with ISR.”