The goal of this research paper was to provide an introductory overview of the link between neighborhoods and crime. First, several neighborhood facts were discussed that have been confirmed by years of research on neighborhoods and their social conditions. Second, some of these facts, such as the link between neighborhood structural conditions and crime, were discussed from theoretical perspectives. Specifically, social disorganization and collective efficacy theory were introduced as key theoretical explanations for the link between neighborhood structural conditions and crime. Research support for both of these theories was discussed, and various theoretical perspectives on how neighborhood contexts in which children grow up can influence their involvement in delinquent and criminal behaviors were discussed. This final section discusses various limitations and some future directions for research on neighborhoods and crime.
As described earlier, many advances have been made in the arena of neighborhood research since the early discoveries of Guerry and Quetelet, the Belgian researchers who discovered correlations between regional crime rates and social factors in France during the 1800s. Starting with Shaw and McKay’s (1942) findings and theory to the most recent advances by Sampson and his colleagues (e.g., Sampson & Groves, 1989), we know much more today about neighborhood influences on crime than we did a century ago. Nonetheless, several obstacles stand in the path of understanding the impact and reaching effects of neighborhood conditions on crime and how to prevent crime in neighborhoods.
First, one of the most important obstacles facing neighborhood research is the issue of selection bias. To understand the effect of any neighborhood influence on crime, research must be able to account for the types of families and adolescents living in those neighborhoods, because families are not randomly assigned to live in a particular neighborhood. Instead, they often choose which neighborhoods they live in; some have limited choices as to the neighborhoods in which they can afford to live. This poses the following questions: How do we truly know that neighborhood-level differences in crime rates are the consequences of neighborhood level factors, such as collective efficacy? Could differential crime rates be attributed to the types of families and children who live in those neighborhoods and not the neighborhood conditions themselves? Some recent research carried out in large cities such as Boston and New York has attempted to address this issue by moving families and their children from high-poverty neighborhoods to lower poverty neighborhoods. This is known as the Moving to Opportunity study (Goering & Feins, 2003). It has been able to address the issue of selection bias because families were randomly assigned to live in various neighborhoods. In general, the study has found that families who moved to lower poverty areas had more positive outcomes, especially in the children’s problem behaviors; however, these effects are not totally consistent across sites. As Sampson (2006) pointed out, however, the Moving to Opportunity study does not address the causal effects of neighborhood conditions on crime rates. For this to be accomplished, a researcher would need to randomly assign treatments or programs to neighborhoods and then assess how the crime rates change over time while comparing the treated neighborhoods with those that did not receive treatment.
Second, many neighborhood-level factors have been discovered that help us understand crime within and between neighborhoods, but less is known about how to use this research in a way that will reduce neighborhood crime rates. For instance, it appears that collective efficacy is a very important correlate of crime. In fact, Pratt and Cullen (2005) conducted a recent review of 200 studies on macrolevel predictors of crime. They discovered that collective efficacy ranked fourth in the mix of factors that were important for explaining crime rates. Although we now know that collective efficacy is an important neighborhood- level influence, what we do not know is how a neighborhood without collective efficacy can achieve it. Few, if any studies, have explicitly focused on increasing collective efficacy at the neighborhood level.
Third, although we now know considerably more about how crime rates are influenced by structural and social conditions of neighborhoods, less is known about how neighborhood contexts influence the development of children and adolescents in terms of their delinquent behavior. This is largely because scholars do not have the required data and methodological sophistication to analyze many children and their families from various neighborhoods in a city. Such a study would require an amazing amount of resources and money. However, now studies are under way, and some (e.g., the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods) have even been completed. These types of studies (i.e., that assess how neighborhood conditions influence the behavior of children and adolescents) are becoming important developments in the research literature.
As for neighborhood contextual influences on delinquent and offending behaviors of youth, several scholars (Leventhal & Brooks-Gunn, 2000; Wikström & Sampson, 2003) have outlined key areas for further improvement and expansion of the understanding of mechanisms by which neighborhood conditions may lead to adverse outcomes for children. They argue that the reasons why neighborhood characteristics impact developmental and behavioral outcomes are important areas of inquiry currently lacking a substantial empirical base. Their recommendations are very similar. First, they propose that community organization and socialization are likely more important than structural aspects of neighborhoods (e.g., concentrated disadvantage, residential instability). An important candidate in this arena is child-based collective efficacy (Sampson et al., 1999), which consists of the willingness of residents to share responsibility for children and is largely contingent on conditions of mutual trust and shared expectations between residents. These characteristics include intergenerational closure, reciprocal exchange, and child-centered social control, which together represent neighborhood aspects of child rearing or collective efficacy for children (see Sampson et al., 1999).
According to Sampson et al. (1999), intergenerational closure indicates the closeness of parents and children within a community, and it is argued that this closeness is important for neighborhood control of children beyond parental child-rearing practices and monitoring in that it provides social support for children and information to parents and helps in facilitating control. For instance, examples of such questions include whether there are adults whom children can look up to in the neighborhood and adults in the neighborhood who can be counted on to watch that children are safe and do not get into trouble. Reciprocal exchange is the interaction of families with respect to child rearing (both parent and children); such exchanges can involve giving advice, material goods, and information about child rearing. For example, questions may include: How often do people in the neighborhood do favors for each other? How often do people in the neighborhood visit in each other’s homes or on the street? Child-centered social control relates to the collective willingness of residents to intervene on behalf of children in the neighborhood, and it represents a neighborhood’s willingness to take action to help monitor and look after children. In studies of child-centered social control, residents are asked whether their neighbors would do something if youth were skipping school and hanging out, spray-painting graffiti, or showing disrespect to an adult.
In their review of neighborhood influences and youth development, Wikstr0m and Sampson (2003) argued that the development of criminal propensities is partially influenced by community socialization and that this impact is due to the level of collective efficacy present in the neighborhood. Collective efficacy is likely related to the frequency in which children experience behavioral settings that are not conducive to prosocial development. Specifically, children living in neighborhoods that are low in child-based collective efficacy might be expected to frequently encounter behavioral settings that provide less parental support and fewer positive role models. Wikstrom and Sampson also indicated that neighborhoods can exert a direct effect on child and adolescent development. Finally, both Sampson et al. (1999) and Wikstrom and Sampson agree that a lack of empirical evidence prevents researchers from drawing any conclusions as to which theoretical models are most important, which, at present, limits the advancement of a contextual model of neighborhood influences on children.
Researchers have yet to determine whether neighborhood structural and social processes interact with children’s personal attributes to ameliorate or amplify their involvement in delinquency, the age of onset of delinquency, the frequency in which they engage in delinquency, and whether they persist in delinquency and crime. These are issues that are still being theoretically developed and lack systematic research. Only with time; many resources; the correct methodological designs; appropriate analytic strategies; and quality data on neighborhoods, crime, and youth will these complex issues regarding the link between neighborhoods and crime be adequately addressed.
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