II. Explanations for the Neighborhood–Crime Link: Theory and Research
The notion that neighborhoods may have an influence, or at least something to do with, crime is not an innovative or even a new idea. It dates back to the early 19th century, when two Belgians, Guerry and Quetelet, found patterns of arrest in France to be distributed nonrandomly (Bierne, 1993). Guerry and Quetelet were also some of the first pioneers to discover an empirical link between regional crime rates and structural factors such as poverty rates and education levels. They observed that these relationships were persistent over periods of time. Although Guerry and Quetelet made one of the first empirical links between regional crime rates and social conditions, they did not offer a detailed theoretical explanation for their findings. This led to following two questions: (1) Why are crime rates higher in some places than others? and (2) what are the mechanisms that explain such patterns?
A. Social Disorganization Theory
One of the classic theories that attempt to make sense of the nonrandom, systematic pattern of crime in regions and cities originates not in Belgium but rather in Chicago and was generated by Shaw and McKay (1942) during the early 20th century when Chicago was experiencing tremendous growth. During its incorporation between the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, the city’s population grew from a few thousand to more than 2 million. This growth was attributable to both the creation of large industries and the arrival of immigrants from European countries (Palen, 1981). With this growth came disorder and crime.
Relying on several existing ideas from social ecology, Shaw and McKay’s (1942) classic formulation of social disorganization theory was created to explain crime in places, specifically Chicago neighborhoods. As opposed to being a theory of individual involvement in crime and delinquency, their theory attempts to explain what makes a neighborhood crime prone. Through mapping juvenile delinquency data on the residential locations of youth referred to juvenile court, Shaw and McKay made several observations regarding neighborhoods and the distribution of crime in Chicago. First, they found a systematic trend in the distribution of delinquency in Chicago; that is, delinquency rates were the highest in lower-class neighborhoods, which were adjacent to areas with industry that had many damned buildings. These lower-class neighborhoods consisted of large percentages of families receiving public assistance and low percentages of families owning homes. These same areas had some of the highest rates of physical decay, infant mortality, prostitution, drug addiction, alcoholism, and tuberculosis. Second, over many decades, Shaw and McKay observed that these neighborhoods continued to sustain high amounts of delinquency and high crime rates, while their racial and ethnic compositions changed substantially. Although a correlation existed between delinquency rates of neighborhoods and concentrations of foreign-born and African American heads of households, Shaw and McKay did not conclude that African Americans or immigrants were any more likely than whites to engage in crime. In fact, they came to the following conclusion:
In the face of these facts it is difficult to sustain the contention that, by themselves, the factors of race, nativity, and nationality are vitally related to the problem of juvenile delinquency. It seems necessary to conclude, rather, that the significantly higher rates of delinquency found among the children of Negroes, the foreign born and more recent immigrants are closely related to existing differences in their respective pattern of geographical distribution within the city. (p. 145)
This suggests that the neighborhood conditions triumphed over individual differences as factors that explain why people commit crime.
In their formulation of social disorganization theory, Shaw and McKay (1942) relied heavily on Park and Burgess’s (1925) theory of human ecology to understand why delinquency and crime patterns surfaced as they did in Chicago. Park and Burgess described Chicago as consisting of various concentric zones (Zones 1–5), whereby each zone gradually invaded and dominated its nearest zones, with an overall growth outward. Zone 1 is the central business district and the innermost layer of the city. Zone 2, also referred to as the zone in transition, is considered the oldest segment of the city that has experienced the most invasion, dominance, and succession. This zone was observed to be not only the poorest area of Chicago but also the least desirable area to live. Shaw and McKay found some of the highest rates of delinquency and crime, as well as several other social ills mentioned earlier, in this particular zone. Zone 3, the working-class zone, consists of humble homes and rentals largely occupied by people who escaped the poverty-stricken conditions of zone 2 (i.e., the zone in transition). Zones 4 and 5 consist of nicer housing and suburbs, respectively.
Shaw and McKay (1942) interpreted their observations to be a consequence of socially disorganized areas that undermine the control of social disorder and crime. They argued that socially disorganized areas are not able to realize the common values of their residents or reach decisions on how to handle community problems, largely because of a lack of communication and shared values. They identified three indirect indicators of social disorganization: (1) residential instability, (2) poverty, and (3) ethnic–racial heterogeneity, which they argued are highly correlated; that is, areas with higher concentrations of one also have higher rates of the others. First, neighborhoods that have high residential instability have high population turnover whereby individuals move in and out rapidly. Such instability leads to little investment in the community by residents in that they do not care about the neighborhood’s appearance or betterment. Also, such high turnover fails to provide residents time to get to know one another, resulting in a decreased sense of neighborliness and failure to recognize their neighbors’ children. When out of sight of their primary caregivers, children in such neighborhoods are likely to be under minimal control. Second, although we think of diversity as a good thing these days, ethnic– racial heterogeneity was not seen in Chicago as something good, at least as far as crime was concerned. Racial and ethnic heterogeneity suggests that a neighborhood is populated with diverse races, languages, and cultures, thus creating barriers that isolate groups from one another, which puts limitations on meaningful interactions that could promote shared community values and goals. In socially disorganized neighborhoods, different racial and ethnic groups were known for isolating themselves and having minimal interactions with one another and, as such, lines of communication decreased and disorganization was thought to have increased. Finally, poverty-stricken neighborhoods have insufficient resources, which makes it almost impossible for them to deal with community problems.
A major limitation of Shaw and McKay’s (1942) research is that it fell short of permitting them to draw conclusions about how social disorganization related to crime, because they were able to measure social disorganization only by using proxies. Their measures of this concept were limited to the indirect structural aspects of neighborhoods (e.g., poverty and residential instability). Only in theory were they able to state that social disorganization was the force behind the relationships between structural aspects of neighborhoods and crime. Acknowledging this shortcoming, Sampson and Groves (1989) stated that “while past researchers have examined Shaw and McKay’s predictions concerning community change and extra-local influences on delinquency, no one has directly tested their theory of social disorganization” (p. 175).
Starting roughly in the 1970s, social disorganization experienced a revival, both theoretically and empirically, from criminologists and sociologists alike who desired to further explain the pieces of the puzzle that were left undone by Shaw and McKay’s (1942) work (see Bursik, 1988; Bursik & Grasmick, 1993; Duncan & Raudenbush, 2001; Jencks & Mayer, 1990; Kornhauser, 1978; Sampson & Groves, 1989; Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997; Sampson, Morenoff, & Raudenbush, 2005). Researchers have since filled many gaps by actually measuring and assessing the impact of social disorganization. They have done this by using more advanced research methods and collecting more appropriate data to thoroughly test the propositions from social disorganization theory that were not originally tested.
Sampson and Groves (1989) were among the first to acknowledge that Shaw and McKay (1942) did not sufficiently articulate the differences among social disorganization, its causes, and its consequences. Sampson and Groves defined social disorganization as the inability of a neighborhood to achieve common goals of its residents and maintain effective social controls. They developed and tested a model of social disorganization that proposed several hypotheses, one of which consisted of indirect effects of neighborhood structural characteristics on crime. They proposed that structural characteristics (e.g., residential instability, poverty, family disruption, and ethnic–racial heterogeneity) lead to neighborhood social disorganization, which in turn predicts crime. They identified three indicators of social disorganization: (1) weak local friendship networks, (2) low organizational participation, and (3) unsupervised teenage groups. This was an improvement from early social disorganization studies, because social disorganization was closer to being measured and its effects on crime were closer to being estimated. Sampson and Groves used self-report crime and victimization data from individuals residing within neighborhoods, overcoming the problems inherent in Shaw and McKay’s use of official crime data. Using data from the British Crime Survey on 238 neighborhoods in England and Wales, they found support for social disorganization theory: Crime rates were higher in neighborhoods where friendship ties were weak, organizational participation was low, and teen groups were unsupervised. Furthermore, their social disorganization variables largely mediated the effects of structural characteristics on crime. This study was replicated a decade later, and the results were highly consistent with those found in the original study (Lowencamp, Cullen, & Pratt, 2003).
B. Collective Efficacy Theory
In what is probably the most advanced statement to date in the social disorganization tradition of explaining the link between neighborhoods and crime, Sampson and colleagues (1997) put forth a model that has come to be known as collective efficacy theory. In this formulation, they developed a concept that they termed collective efficacy and argued that it can explain not only the link between structural conditions of neighborhoods and crime rates but also the general well-being of a neighborhood.
Collective efficacy, Sampson and colleagues (1997) argued, is more than just social ties, personal ties, or social networks within neighborhoods. Although networks are important, they must be activated before they are meaningful in assisting with neighborhood problems. Thus, according to Sampson (2006), “Social networks foster the conditions under which collective efficacy may flourish, but they are not sufficient for the exercise of control” (p. 39) So then, what is collective efficacy, and how can levels of it be measured across neighborhoods?
Collective efficacy is defined as social cohesion among neighbors combined with their willingness to intervene on behalf of the common good of the neighborhood. Although this does depend on a working trust among neighbors and social interactions, according to Sampson (2006), it is not a requirement that neighbors befriend one another or that they be friends with local police officers. Sampson and colleagues (1997) developed a measure of this concept that taps into social cohesion, informal social control, and trust among neighbors. The social cohesion and trust component of the measure taps into community relationships and was captured by several survey questions that were asked of residents of various Chicago neighborhoods selected for participation in the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN), known as one of the most ambitious and costly criminological studies on neighborhoods in the history of social science. For example, residents were asked if they agreed to the following statements: “People around here can be trusted”; “This is a close-knit neighborhood”; “People around here are willing to help their neighbors”; and “People in this neighborhood share the same values.” The other component of collective efficacy, which captures shared expectations regarding neighborhood social control, was measured using five survey questions asked of residents that included how likely it was that their neighbor could be counted on if children were skipping school and hanging out on a street corner, children were spray-painting graffiti on the side of a building, children were showing disrespect to an adult, a fight broke out in front of their house, and the fire station closest to their home was threatened with budget cuts. These measures of social cohesion/trust and informal social control were so highly correlated that they were summed to form one measure of collective efficacy and then aggregated up to the neighborhood level to reflect the level of collective efficacy for each Chicago neighborhood.
In their theory of collective efficacy, Sampson and colleagues (1997) suggested that the structural conditions of neighborhoods (e.g., poverty, residential instability) do not directly explain crime and that the mediating mechanism is collective efficacy. They argued that a central objective of a neighborhood is the neighborhood residents’ desire to live in safe, crime-free environments where informal social control is practiced to maintain order. For this to occur, groups of neighborhood residents must regulate their members by developing clear rules and collective goals for the neighborhood. Residents must develop relationships and trust among one another. Sampson et al. argued that when a neighborhood’s residents have a high degree of trust among one another, social cohesion, and practice informal social controls, then both social disorder and crime will be less likely to occur.
Sampson et al. (1997) tested their theory of collective efficacy by analyzing data on 343 Chicago neighborhoods and thousands of residents. These data were collected as part of the PHDCN. They were able to estimate the effects of neighborhood-level structural characteristics (concentrated disadvantage, residential stability, and immigrant concentration) and social processes (i.e., collective efficacy) simultaneously on multiple measures of violence while considering individual characteristics of neighborhood residents (e.g., race, age, mobility, socioeconomic status). To date, this has been one of the most methodologically sophisticated studies on neighborhoods and crime. This research offers several important observations. First, structural characteristics explained a large amount of variability in collective efficacy across Chicago neighborhoods. Second, collective efficacy was found to have an important effect on violence, regardless of structural characteristics and controls for individual characteristics of residents within neighborhoods. Third, neighborhood collective efficacy largely reduced the influence of neighborhood disadvantage on violence, something that is also referred to as a mediating effect.
Collective efficacy’s influence in neighborhoods reaches further than just understanding violence. More recently, neighborhood collective efficacy has been shown to partially explain the relationship between disorder and crime in neighborhoods. Ever since the dissemination of broken windows theory—that minor crime, if left unattended, will breed larger, more serious crimes—scholars have argued that disorder within a neighborhood leads to crime. Police have thus directed much of their attention to fighting disorder in the hopes of preventing more serious forms of crime from developing. Sampson and colleagues (2002) recently argued that the relationship between disorder and crime is not causal; instead, they both have the same underlying causes, one of which is collective efficacy. Analyzing data from the PHDCN again, they found that the relationship between disorder, measured through direct observations on street blocks, and crime could be explained by the levels of poverty and collective efficacy in neighborhoods.