Informal Social Control
Research in sociology and criminology consistently indicates that crime clusters in places characterized by adverse conditions such as neighborhood disadvantage and residential mobility. Scholars draw on social disorganization theory and its idea of community social organization – the capacity of local communities to solve commonly experienced problems and realize collective goals – to help explain this clustering of crime. In neighborhoods characterized by high levels of informal social control, social disorganization is comparatively low, suggesting the importance of informal social control as a strategy to achieve community social organization. Informal social control reflects the ability of local neighborhoods to supervise the behavior of their residents and the capacity of neighborhoods to socialize their residents conventionally (Bursik 1988; Bursik and Grasmik 1993; Sampson and Groves 1989). In addition to promoting social organization, a predominance of evidence shows the crime-controlling effect of informal social control. Not only do these neighborhoods have lower crime rates, such contexts also translate into lower levels of offending and victimization risk among individuals. Put simply, the impact of informal social control in shaping neighborhood crime is “widely accepted” (Kubrin and Weitzer 2003, p. 376).
Crime is unevenly distributed across neighborhoods, and research suggests that it tends to cluster in those communities with adverse conditions such as poverty, racial/ethnic heterogeneity, and residential mobility (Bursik and Grasmik 1993; Kubrin and Weitzer 2003; Sampson et al. 1997; Sampson and Groves 1989; Shaw and McKay 1942; Sampson 2012). Scholars draw on social disorganization theory and its idea of community social organization to help explain this clustering of crime. Community social organization refers to the ability of local communities to solve commonly experienced problems such as crime and realize common goals important to their residents such as achieving a crime-free environment (Bursik 1988, p. 521).
A major strategy to achieve community social organization is for neighborhood residents to exert informal social control. Informal social control is thought to have two central elements: the ability of local neighborhoods to supervise the behavior of their residents and the capacity of neighborhoods to socialize their residents conventionally (Bursik 1988; Bursik and Grasmik 1993; Sampson and Groves 1989). Supervision occurs through a variety of activities including resident’s surveillance of public spaces, a shared sense of responsibility for taking care of the neighborhood and its residents such as calling parents when kids are misbehaving or neighbors taking care of each other’s property especially when out of town, providing information to fellow residents about which parts of the neighborhood are unsafe and should be avoided, and directly intervening such as breaking up street fights, questioning strangers in the neighborhood, or admonishing fellow residents for behavior defined as unacceptable (Bursik 1988; Bursik and Grasmik 1993). Socialization occurs in the presence of strong conventional institutions such as two-parent families or well-funded and viable schools, which help to provide a setting where support for conventional processes of socialization can take hold. Neighborhoods characterized by extensive supervision and effective socialization are well situated to ensure norm compliance. As such, they enjoy little crime.
The goal for this encyclopedia entry is to provide a preliminary introduction for readers to the concept of informal social control. This entry is by no means exhaustive but is designed to outline the major contours of the concept and how it fits within the larger literature on communities and crime. This entry begins with a brief sketch of social disorganization theory, which serves as the theoretical footing for the role of informal social control in reducing community-level crime rates. Then, current conceptualizations and operationalizations of informal social control are discussed. The entry provides the current state of knowledge on its distribution and impact on local levels of crime and victimization as well as individual-level offending and victimization risk. The entry concludes with directions for future research.
Theoretical Background. Social disorganization theory serves as the primary theoretical backdrop of our understanding of the role of informal social control in shaping community crime rates. It is a long-standing theory in criminology originally pioneered by Shaw and McKay (1942), researchers grounded in the Chicago school, who sought to understand the neighborhood ecology of social problems such as juvenile delinquency. Utilizing a variety of secondary data sources including Cook County court information, they found that high delinquency rates associated positively with a variety of adverse neighborhood conditions including poverty, racial/ethnic heterogeneity, and residential mobility. They also found that high delinquency rates persisted in certain Chicago neighborhoods for several decades despite change in racial and ethnic composition. They drew on life-history data and argued that the uneven pattern of crime across urban neighborhoods and its persistence over time were rooted in adverse neighborhood conditions that impeded community social organization. In particular, they proposed that neighborhoods with economic deprivation tended to have high rates of population turnover (or mobility) and racial/ethnic heterogeneity, which in turn socially disorganized a community, and increased delinquency rates as well as other social problems.
Shaw and McKay (1942) argued that two key processes accompany the structural mechanisms that characterize disorganized areas and reinforce neighborhood disorganization. First, disorganization creates a context in which there is a wide diversity of values and attitudes with respect to conformity to the law. Because delinquency as a way of life competes with conventional ways, disorganized areas are characterized by divergent systems of values. This aspect of social disorganization theory aligns with cultural deviance theories. Second, because of weakened conventional institutions, socially disorganized communities are unable to control the behavior of residents and facilitate socialization processes so that they comply with conventional norms, especially those relevant for law-abiding behavior.
Shaw and McKay’s emphasis on the need for neighborhood structures to regularize norm compliance is consistent with notions of social control, one of the most widely discussed concepts in sociology (Meier 1982). Social control is considered to be a collection of mechanisms (a social process) to induce compliance to norms (Meier 1982). Controls can be invoked internally with feelings of guilt or shame (products of effective conventional socialization) or commitment in conformity. The logic is that people feel good when they adhere to conventional norms, allowing them to continue a conventional life. When they do not adhere to these universal beliefs, they feel bad, self-critical, and guilty, deterring such norm violations in the future. Controls can also be induced externally by others in direct ways such as with scrutiny or surveillance engaged in by formal agents like the police or informal agents like neighbors. Others like family, school officials, or the community can exert control via the withdrawal of sentiment. The logic is that people conform to norms or rules because they are rewarded with things like status, prestige, money, and freedom when they do adhere to them and are punished with the loss of them when they do not. Taking this logic to the macro level, social units by way of their social relationships can regularize norm compliance by providing rewards for compliance and prompting high costs for deviance.
Social disorganization theorists took the above logic to heart when they reframed the theory in the 1970s and 1980s. They contended that neighborhoods vary in their ability to exert social control; they vary in their ability to provide awards for compliance and punishments for deviance. As such, contemporary articulations of this theory are basically a “group-level analog of control theory and is grounded in very similar processes of internal and external sources of control” (Bursik 1988, p. 521). The current entry focuses on contemporary discussions of social disorganization (see Bursik 1988; Bursik and Grasmik 1993; and Kornhauser 1978 for historical accounts of social disorganization as well as greater elaboration on the re-articulation as a macro-control theory).
This encyclopedia entry centers on the informal ways neighborhoods exert social control in urban communities; the informal level also is where the bulk of theorizing and research has taken place (Bursik 1988; Bursik and Grasmik 1993; Carr 2003; Kubrin and Weitzer 2003; see also Hunter 1985; Bursik 1988; Bursik and Grasmik 1993 for discussion of two other levels of networks and social control: private and public). How do neighborhoods informally provide rewards for enforcing norms and engender high costs for engaging in deviance so that they ensure a crime-free environment? The logic is that social disorganization arises in contexts of adverse neighborhood conditions such as – residential mobility, racial/ethnic heterogeneity, family disruption, and neighborhood disadvantage. These adverse neighborhood conditions translate into less informal neighboring such as fewer people getting together to chat and neighbors not knowing the names of their fellow residents. When residents have limited social interaction, it makes it difficult for a community to develop mutual trust and shared expectation among residents, impinging on the community’s ability to provide the rewards for adhering to norms and the punishments for deviant behavior. This means that residents are unlikely to intervene during suspicious activity, admonish residents and local youth for deviant behavior, or watch out for one another’s property. In turn, public spaces are not supervised effectively and crime rates increase. Empirically this logic also means that the intervening mechanisms of informal networks and social control will absorb much of the effects of neighborhood adverse conditions on crime and victimization. Discussed below is how researchers study informal social control and its impact on levels of crime.
Conceptualizations of Informal Social Control. Informal social control is hypothesized to emerge and facilitate reductions in crime by way of three neighborhood-level processes: social interaction, collective efficacy, and community organizations. First, the dominant approach termed the systemic model views communities as a “complex system of friendship and kinship networks and formal and informal associational ties rooted in family life and ongoing socialization processes” (Kasarda and Janowitz 1974, p. 329). As such, informal social control is conceptualized as the regulatory capacity of a neighborhood, presumed to arise from the community’s affiliation, interactional, and communication networks among residents (Bursik 1988, 1999; Kasarda and Janowitz 1974). From this vein, larger, interconnected, and active associational networks provide the rewards for adhering to norms and the punishments for deviant behavior. The systemic model argues that poverty, residential instability and racial heterogeneity are expected to hamper the establishment of relational network structures that serve to facilitate mechanisms of informal social control. In turn, crime is expected to increase (Bursik 1999, p. 87). Importantly the systemic model assumes that places with strong ties among neighbors and to local institutions will bring about informal social control.
Empirical work suggests that strong informal ties among neighborhood residents do not always translate into low crime rates. For instance, ethnographic work on disadvantaged and minority communities indicates that although strong bonds exist among neighbors, they do not translate into reductions in crime (Pattillo 1998; Wilson 1996). Wilson (1996) finds that despite high levels of neighboring, inner-city residents in Chicago reported feeling they had little informal social control over their children. Wilson (1996, p. 64) states that “A primary reason is the absence of a strong organizational capacity or an institutional resource base that would provide an extra layer of social organization in their neighborhoods.” In her research about a predominantly African-American middle-class neighborhood in Chicago, Pattillo (1998) found a socially cohesive neighborhood characterized with abundant ties among residents. However, these ties did not always translate into an effective exercise of informal social control; rather, they often inhibited the ability of residents to admonish the behavior of other residents such as local youth hanging out in the street corner. Pattillo (1998, p. 763) argued that “… the more people are familiar with one another; the more illicit networks are absorbed into mainstream connections and thereby normalized.” She found this reluctance especially pronounced when it came to residents calling the police. As one resident said about a young man’s gang-affiliated behavior to Pattillo (1998, p. 763), “I didn’t wanna give this young man’s name to the police because his mama is such a sweet lady.” Bellair (1997) in a study of Seattle neighborhoods finds that social interaction among neighbors that takes place at least once a year or more has consistent and negative effects on rates of burglary, motor vehicle theft, and robbery across Seattle neighborhoods. He, however, finds that if social interaction is frequent such as once a week, it does not have consistent effects on crime rates. Bellair (1997) suggest that in terms of the regulatory and sanctioning capacity of local networks, it may matter very little whether neighbors are close friends as long as they interact with one another enough to provide the mutual support needed for “doing something” on behalf of the community.
Such findings set the stage for another conceptualization of informal social control. The focus here shifts to collective efficacy, which highlights the nature of social ties rather their presence or absence (Warner and Rountree 1997; Wilson 1996; Pattillo 1998). It may be that networks originating in churches, after school clubs, or schools may not lead to the social control of crime because these networks are not strictly focused on reducing crime. Whereas networks that result from being involved in a neighborhood watch group where neighbors meet once a month to talk about crime issues do lead to the social control of crime because the content or nature of the network is focused on crime. This logic is consistent with notions of social capital – networks are used in part to transmit group norms and expectations pertaining to appropriate behavior for neighborhood residents and to impose a wide variety of informal negative sanctions if those expectations are violated. So in the case of crime, ties have to be geared towards collective action to secure a crime-free environment. The concept offered to address this issue is collective efficacy, a form of informal social control, measured as mutual trust, social cohesion, and a willingness to intervene (Sampson et al. 1997). Collective efficacy thus only counts informal ties among neighbors when they are coupled with high levels of informal social control; otherwise, they are not assumed to reduce crime from this perspective.
A third strategy for conceptualizing informal social control is to account for the presence of or resident participation in community organizations. Community organizations, especially those that have indigenous roots, act as a central vehicle for neighborhoods to bring about informal social control (Bursik and Grasmik 1993; Sampson and Groves 1989; Skogan 1989, 1990). For instance, community organizations provide spaces and events for the fostering of informal networks, the planning out of collective action to address crime and other neighborhood problems, and the supervision and socialization of neighborhood youth with programming. Moreover, community organizations help to minimize isolation by linking primary (i.e., family and friends) and secondary institutions (i.e., neighborhood watch groups and local businesses). Thus, community organizations help to organize neighborhoods so that they can “protect and defend their interests and values” (Kornhauser 1978, p. 79). It is important to note that the above literature is not clear on what types of organizations are most consequential for the control of crime.
Operationalization of Informal Social Control. To study informal social control, researchers have focused primarily on secondary relational networks (relationships among neighbors) and the exercise of informal (parochial) control. The bulk of studies on informal social control is quantitative and uses questions from community surveys that sample residents across neighborhoods in a particular city. In most cases, researchers compile a multiple-item index to capture informal types of social interaction among residents that take place in the neighborhood. Responses are usually aggregated to the community level (i.e., census tracts, police beats, community areas, and neighborhood clusters).
Informal Neighboring. Some researchers measure social interactions among neighbors that are presumed to yield informal social control. Social interaction among neighbors is usually captured by a variety of aspects related to informal neighboring such as how often respondents get together with their neighbors either in their neighbor’s or their own home, how many people respondents know by sight or by name in the neighborhood, do respondents ask neighbors for favors such as borrowing tools or looking out for each other’s property, and how many neighborhood kids are known by name (Bellair 1997; Elliott et al. 1996; Simcha-Fagan and Schwartz 1986, Warner and Rountree 1997). Further, Bursik (1988) points to the importance of residents patronizing local business establishments as a strategy for integrating residents into the social life of a community. As such, Bursik (1999) measured informal networks with a six-item factor that tapped into how often (range from nearly always to never) respondents do their shopping for groceries, medical goods, and clothing; do car repairs; went out to eat; and did their banking in the neighborhood.
Direct Intervention. Other papers attempt to capture neighborhood levels of direct intervention by residents with the extent to which residents “do something” or that they can count on their neighbors to “do something” about crime. Specifically, respondents are asked how likely it is they can count on their neighbors to intervene to solve problems in the neighborhood like someone breaking into a house in plain sight, someone is trying to sell drugs to a child in plain sight, a fight in front of the house and someone is getting beaten up, and their kids are getting into trouble. As an early example, Maccoby et al. (1958) asked respondents hypothetical questions about whether they would step in and try to do something if they observed children using abusive language, engaging in property damage, fighting, or drunkenness. Bellair (2000) captures informal social control with a two-item factor scale that combines neighborhood percentages on whether respondents watch their neighbor’s property when the neighbors are out of town and if neighbors watch out for the respondent’s property when the respondent is out of town. Silver and Miller (2004) use a four-item Likert scale that asks respondents the likelihood they can count on their neighbors to take action if children were skipping school or hanging out on a street corner, children were spray painting on a local building, children were showing disrespect to an adult, or if there was a fight in front of the house and someone was being beaten up. In another study, Sampson et al. (1999) utilize a similar measure as Silver and Miller (2004) to capture child-centered control by asking respondents the likelihood that neighbors would take action if children were skipping school or hanging out on a street corner, children were spray painting on a local building, and children were showing disrespect to an adult. It is important to note that most measures capturing the extent that residents do “doing something” or that they can count on their neighborhoods to “do something” are based on hypothetical situations.
Collective Efficacy. To operationalize collective efficacy, scholars often replicate Sampson et al. (1997) who combine two factors that were closely associated across neighborhoods: (1) social cohesion and mutual trust are part of this construct because residents are unlikely to intervene when the rules are unclear or people mistrust or fear one another and (2) the willingness to intervene (informal social control). Sampson et al. (1997) state that the two measures tap aspects of the same latent construct, which they term collective efficacy (see also Sampson 2012). To measure the willingness to intervene on behalf of the neighborhood, Sampson et al. (1997) used a five-item Likert-type scale that asks residents about the likelihood (ranging from very likely to very unlikely) that their neighbors could be counted on to intervene in various ways if children were skipping school and hanging out on a street corner, children were spray-painting graffiti on a local 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. To capture “social cohesion and trust,” respondents were asked how strongly they agreed that “people around here are willing to help their neighbors,” “this is a close-knit neighborhood,” “people in this neighborhood can be trusted,” “people in this neighborhood generally don’t get along with each other,” and “people in this neighborhood do not share the same values” (the last two statements are reverse coded). Note that had Sampson et al. (1997) only used their willingness to intervene measure, it would have been consistent with above work on direct intervention. But to capture the notion of collective efficacy, they combine direct intervention with social cohesion and trust into one measure.
Community Organizations. Researchers measure the role of community organizations in one of two ways. First, using survey data, some researchers examine the extent of resident reported participation in community organizations. For example, Sampson and Groves (1989) computed the percentage of residents in a neighborhood that had attended a committee or club meeting in the week prior to the survey. As another example, Morenoff et al. (2001) measure the extent residents report participation in voluntary associations such as local religious organizations, neighborhood watch programs, block group associations, community councils, business or civic groups or ethnic/nationality clubs, or local political organizations. Second, scholars attempt to capture the presence of organizations in a community by either counting their presence with a directory or by asking respondents in community surveys about their knowledge of organizations present in their neighborhoods. For instance, Morenoff et al. (2001) put together an index of the number of resident reported organizations and programs in the neighborhood such as a community newspaper, block group, crime prevention program, alcohol/drug treatment program, mental health center, or family health service. Skogan (1989, p. 445) created an index that summed resident responses to three questions concerning respondent’s awareness of “volunteer citizens patrolling residential areas,” “groups that encourage citizen to undertake crime prevention efforts,” and “groups that work to improve police-community relations” within two to three blocks of their houses.
The State of Evidence Regarding Informal Social Control
The Distribution of Informal Social Control. Extant work from the systemic or collective efficacy approach shows that informal social control is harder to achieve in neighborhoods characterized by adverse neighborhood conditions including concentrated disadvantage, immigrant concentration, racial/ethnic heterogeneity, and residential mobility. In the now classic assessment of the systemic model, Sampson and Groves (1989) using data from the British Crime Survey find strong support for the idea that adverse neighborhood conditions like low economic conditions dampen informal strategies to control crime across neighborhoods in Great Britain. In particular, they find that neighborhoods characterized by low socioeconomic status, ethnic heterogeneity, family disruption, and urbanization have relatively high levels of unsupervised peer groups, their measure of a community’s diminished capacity to supervise youth. They also find that poor neighborhoods report less organizational participation than their more affluent counterparts. Similar patterns emerge from studies grounded in collective efficacy. In the first study on collective efficacy, Sampson et al. (1997) find that concentrated disadvantage and immigrant concentration decreases levels of neighborhood collective efficacy across Chicago neighborhoods while residential stability increases its presence. Morenoff et al. (2001) find that collective efficacy is significantly lower in Chicago neighborhoods characterized by concentrated disadvantage, immigrant concentration, and with prior high rates of homicide, whereas affluence, resident participation in voluntary associations, the presence of organizations, and strong kin/friendship ties increase collective efficacy levels across Chicago neighborhoods.
Although the above work establishes support for the idea that adverse structural contexts do not foster informal social control as successfully as more advantaged contexts, theoretical and empirical work has yet to fully articulate the source of this gap. In research directly addressing this question, Silver and Miller (2004) argue that if residents feel that local institutions have not met their needs or aspirations, which is often the case for disadvantaged neighborhoods, they will feel more like they are “passing through” and thus be less willing to intervene on behalf of the community. Moreover, when resident satisfaction with the police is low, typical in disadvantaged neighborhoods, residents will be reluctant to take personal risks to safeguard the community and so will be less willing to exert informal social control. Silver and Miller (2004) find support for this logic in that relatively higher levels of neighborhood attachment and satisfaction with police contributed significantly to increases in neighborhood levels of informal social control. Moreover, they find that neighborhood attachment and police satisfaction help to mediate a substantial portion of the effects of concentrated disadvantage and immigrant concentration on levels of informal social control.
Evidence for the Impact of Informal Social Control on Crime. Though more theoretical and empirical work needs to be done to account for the uneven distribution of informal social controls across neighborhood contexts, the fact that it is more limited in disadvantaged communities serves to compound the crime problem in these communities. At the same time, research also suggests that informal social controls can act as a protective factor, buffering the criminogenic influence of disadvantage. Evidence suggests that weak informal social control mechanisms increase neighborhood levels of crime and victimization. Early work by Maccoby et al. (1958) compared two Cambridge, Massachusetts neighborhoods that were similar in terms of socioeconomic status but with different levels of juvenile delinquency. One neighborhood had relatively high levels of juvenile delinquency, while the other had relatively low rates of juvenile delinquency. They find that area differences in informal social control at least partly explain differences in juvenile delinquency across the two neighborhoods. Specifically, they find significant area differences in informal social control, measured as the percentage of residents who “would do something about it” in hypothetical instances of fighting and drinking. They also found a higher percentage of interventions among non-victims in low versus high delinquency areas. At the same time, they did not find significant neighborhood differences in informal social control when it pertained to children involved in property damage or being openly rude such as using insulting language.
Recall that during the 1970s and 1980s, social disorganization was reframed as a systemic model, which emphasized the role of informal social networks as precursors of informal social control. In the first contemporary assessment of the systemic model, Sampson and Groves (1989) examined the impact of unsupervised peer groups, conceptualized as a neighborhood’s inability to regulate youth in public spaces, and local participation in formal and voluntary organizations (a measure of informal networks among neighbors) on 12 different victimization and offending rates across a large number of local British areas. They found strong direct effects of unsupervised peer groups in increasing crime and victimization rates, while participation in local organizations lowered crime and victimization rates. They also found strong support for the mediation arguments of social disorganization theory in that the intervening measures of informal social control absorbed much of the effects of poor socioeconomic conditions, ethnic heterogeneity, residential mobility, family disruption, and urbanization on crime and victimization rates.
Sampson and Groves (1989) strong support for the social disorganization framework paved the way for subsequent tests within the systemic and collective efficacy approaches to informal social control (Bellair 1997, 2000; Elliott et al. 1996; Simcha-Fagan and Schwartz 1986; Warner and Rountree 1997). Elliott et al. (1996) in an analysis of Chicago and Denver neighborhoods found neighborhood levels of informal social control significantly lowered juvenile delinquency rates across Chicago but not Denver neighborhoods. Supporting expectations of social disorganization theory, they also find that informal social control mediated the effect of neighborhood disadvantage on adolescent reports of delinquency in both Chicago and Denver. Two additional papers demonstrate the impact of collective efficacy on neighborhood levels of crime. In the first paper to advance the concept, Sampson et al. (1997) finds that higher levels of collective efficacy yield lower levels of homicide across Chicago neighborhoods. In a second paper, Morenoff et al. (2001) find that collective efficacy decreases both local levels of homicide victimization and homicide offending across Chicago neighborhoods.
Research has also examined the role of community organizations in shaping neighborhood levels of crime. Simcha-Fagan and Schwartz (1986) in a study of 12 neighborhoods in New York City found that neighborhoods with relatively high levels of organizational involvement had relatively lower levels of rates of delinquency. Similarly, Sampson and Groves (1989) investigate the impact of resident participation in community organizations on various types of crime. They find that neighborhoods with relatively high levels of organizational participation have lower levels of burglary, auto theft, mugging, street robbery, stranger violence, and total victimization across British neighborhoods. Other research suggests that the reason organizational participation reduces crime is because it fosters collective efficacy (Morenoff et al. 2001). This research indicates that beyond participation, the number of organizations available to community members matters. In fact, Morenoff et al. (2001) find the presence of community organizations is important for producing collective efficacy which, in turn, brings about decreases in homicide in Chicago neighborhoods. Regardless of how community organizations are measured, research suggests that they play a role in bolstering informal social control and thereby help to reduce crime.
Scholars also investigate how informal social control at the neighborhood level shapes individual-level offending or victimization risk using multilevel analytical strategies. For example, Elliott et al. (1996) find that, under some circumstances, informal social control decreases the likelihood of youth engaging in problem behavior. Though they find this to be the case among youth in Chicago, this pattern did not hold for youth in Denver. Simcha-Fagan and Schwartz (1986) find that community organizational participation, a composite of factors meant to capture informal social control, at the neighborhood level decreased the likelihood of self-reported delinquency for youth across 12 neighborhoods in New York City. Sampson et al. (1997) find that increases in neighborhood levels of collective efficacy translated into decreases in individual perceptions of neighborhood violence and individual-level victimization risk.
In the end, a preponderance of empirical evidence shows that residents in adverse neighborhood conditions struggle to engage in the kinds of informal social control necessary to reduce crime such as organizing neighborhood watches, intervening when suspicious activity occurs, or making the police more accountable to resident needs. Concentrated disadvantage, racial segregation, and residential mobility are powerful forces that dampen the ability of neighborhoods to provide (in informal ways) rewards for conformity and punishments for deviance. In turn, neighborhoods with relatively low levels of informal social control, measured in a variety of ways as outlined above, are the kinds of places that experience relatively high levels of crime. Such contexts can translate into higher levels of offending and victimization risk among individuals.
Future Directions for Informal Social Control
As established above, social disorganization research has focused almost exclusively on what residents can do inside the neighborhood to address crime (Bellair 1997; Bursik and Grasmik 1993; Sampson and Groves 1989; Sampson et al. 1997; Warner and Rountree 1997). As such, high rates of neighborhood crime are viewed as largely a result of the inability of residents within a neighborhood to organize collectively against crime. But a growing body of criminology shows that the ability of a community to control crime is shaped profoundly by its relationship with local political and economic actors. Favorable ties to political and economic elites are thought to translate into the allocation of lucrative resources to improve local public spaces, increase police presence in a community, and speed-up city approval for resident-driven initiates related to crime control. This process is often termed public social control. Recall that Silver and Miller (2004) found that neighborhoods with strong ties to the police and local public officials have high levels of informal social control. As another example, Carr (2003) documents how informal social control efforts are facilitated when cities enact policies that reinforce these efforts. He describes that when Chicago implemented a community policing program, it provided the resources and support for residents to coordinate two crime control programs: (1) the Beltway Night Patrol, the neighborhood problem-solving group that orchestrated the closing down of a troublesome tavern, and (2) the Court Advocacy Program that organized residents to attend hearings and pressure local judges to hand down harsher penalties for residents charged with criminal/delinquent acts. This growing body of work offers evidence that external actors from outside the neighborhood can facilitate informal social control. Criminologists should further investigate the interplay between informal dynamics of social control with local political and economic entities. Doing so should help to make more central the idea that broader political and economic forces are consequential for the ability of residents to control crime.
The bulk of our understanding of the role of informal social control on neighborhood crime is cross-sectional and thus does not adequately take into account that the relationship between informal social control and neighborhood crime is likely multifaceted, non-recursive, and dynamic. Two issues are particularly important. First, cross-sectional research designs do not handle very well the possibility of reverse causality: crime possibly influences the ability of a community to exert informal social control. For instance, research finds that disorder and incivilities often go hand-in-hand with high-crime areas, and residents often view these conditions as troublesome and threatening (Skogan 1990; Taylor 1995). In particular, violence, disorder, and incivility correspond to a variety of negative emotions felt by residents – fear of victimization, mistrust of others, desire to move, and general dissatisfaction with the neighborhood – that fuel an unwillingness to intervene on behalf of the common good. In a study of neighborhoods across five cities, Skogan (1990) finds that disorder decreased neighborhood satisfaction, the percentage of residents who planned to stay in the neighborhood, and the percentage of residents reporting that neighbors help each other. As another example, Hipp (2009) finds that households that perceived more social and physical disorder reported lower levels of satisfaction with their neighborhood, especially in communities where residents perceived crime as a problem. Clearly, crime itself can be a disorganizing force that can impair informal social control. A handful of studies have found support for this claim with cross-sectional designs (Bellair 2000; Markowitz et al. 2006; Sampson et al. 1999). But without longitudinal data, these findings must be taken cautiously. Future research should utilize longitudinal data that allow for a more careful examination of the informal social control – crime relationship. Specifically, longitudinal data will allow for the assessment of the sequencing of the relationship between informal social control and crime. By better incorporating strategies for feedback processes among informal social control and crime, a more definitive assessment of this causal relationship can be established.
Second, cross-sectional data are not well suited for providing information on how informal social control evolves over time. But there is reason to believe that informal social control is a dynamic process that changes within a neighborhood over time as events take place, policies are enacted, new populations move in or leave the neighborhood, and crime fluctuates up or down. Work by Carr (2003) and Small (2002) is instructive here. Carr (2003) spent 5 years conducting field work in a working-class Chicago neighborhood (Beltway). He found that although traditional forms of informal social control were low such as the direct supervision of youth, a hybrid version called new parochialism had evolved partly because of the introduction of a community policing program. He argues that new parochialism is a set of strategies of ongoing informal social control that are enabled and stimulated by the actions of city officials. Successful implementation of informal social control, Carr finds, only happens when there is intervention by institutions and groups from outside the neighborhood. Carr suggests that such a complex process would not have been discovered if he had used a shorter time frame. Similarly, Small (2002) attempts to understand why community participation declined in Villa Victoria, a poor Puerto Rican housing project in Boston. He finds that the decline in local participation in the housing project was driven by changes in cohorts (different generations of residents) and not changes in structural conditions and that the most important of these changes was the transformation in the cultural categories through which the cohorts framed their neighborhood. In particular, Small (2002, p. 25) finds that the first generation of residents framed the neighborhood positively “as a success, something beautiful to cherish and preserve” and so were willingness to participate in local community activities that enhanced informal social control. In contrast, the younger generation of residents framed their neighborhood poorly as “physically dirty and deteriorating …above all, a ghetto” and were less compelled to participate in local community activities, hindering most efforts at informal social control (Small 2002, p. 25). Had Small (2002) taken a single snap shot of one time period, he would have concluded that participation was either high or low depending on the cohort under observation. But by taking the long view, he is able to map out the process by which a disadvantaged community goes from being an efficacious one to a marginalized and socially isolated one. Longitudinal designs are a critical strategy for incorporating the dynamic and evolving nature of informal social control and assessing how this dynamism is consequential for neighborhood crime or victimization risk.
In sum, crime rates tend to cluster in neighborhoods characterized by adverse conditions such as disadvantage, residential segregation, and mobility. To explain this pattern, the bulk of social disorganization research has focused on the roles of informal neighbor networks and their attendant social controls. Informal social control reflects the ability of local neighborhoods to supervise the behavior of their residents and the capacity of neighborhoods to socialize their residents conventionally. As such, informal social control is a process by which norm compliance is achieved. Since Shaw and McKay’s (1942) early work, a majority of evidence shows the crime-controlling effect of informal social control. Neighborhoods with relatively high levels of informal social control are the kinds of places that enjoy relatively little crime and lower levels of offending among individuals. Put simply, the impact of informal social control in shaping neighborhood crime is “widely accepted” (Kubrin and Weitzer 2003, p. 376).
Recommended Reading and References
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