Political Behavior

, Volume 35, Issue 4, pp 777–806 | Cite as

Neighborhood Disorder and Local Participation: Examining the Political Relevance of “Broken Windows”

  • Jamila MichenerEmail author
Original Paper


Anyone who has lived in, driven through or walked by a “bad” neighborhood has a sense of the attributes that render such places unique: graffiti, litter, public intoxication and much more. According to the well-known theory of “broken windows,” these readily observable corporeal characteristics signal neighborhood disorder and lead to increased criminal behavior. This article investigates the implications of disorder for political behavior, taking particular care to distinguish between the objective tangible conditions of disorder and residents’ subjective interpretations of those conditions. Utilizing exceptionally rich data, this analysis reveals that while certain aspects of objective “reality” are consequential, perceptions of such reality are a more powerful mechanism through which neighborhood disorder impacts local political engagement. For some political outcomes, a heightened sense of the problems associated with disorder is linearly associated with an increase in participation. For others, the pattern is parabolic: those who perceive so little disorder that they remain content or so much disorder that they become disaffected are substantially less likely to take action to make their communities better. Ultimately, holding objective contextual features constant, the lenses through which residents interpret things like “broken windows” are critical determinants of grassroots politics. This information, combined with broader understandings of what shapes perceptions of disorder, lays the foundation for structuring policy in ways that facilitate grassroots activism—a vital component of the American democratic process.


Perceptions Neighborhood Political participation Broken windows Disorder Objective context Subjective context Community engagement Local politics 



This research was made possible by funding from the Ford Foundation and the University of Chicago. Special thanks go to Cathy J. Cohen, Michael C. Dawson, Christopher A. Bail, Jon C. Rogowski and the helpful participants of the American Politics Workshop at the University of Chicago. I also owe a tremendous debt to the editors and anonymous reviewers at Political Behavior for their valuable insights and comments. All remaining errors are my own.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  2. 2.Cornell UniversityIthacaUSA

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