Understanding Neighborhoods and Crime

By Ruth A. Triplett and Randy R. Gainey

The authors of this article work together and live in the same neighborhood close to campus. It is a nice, quiet neighborhood where many faculty members reside. However, while Ruth was away visiting family last Christmas, someone tried to break into her house. We know this because there are marks on the back door where a crowbar was used to pry between the frame of the door and the door itself. One can see where the wood was damaged and how the metal of the door was beginning to turn down at the edge. A little more time, a little more effort and the frame would have given way. Then a good solid push and the intruder would have been in her home.

No one got in, though, and Ruth attributes this to her next-door neighbor. He is very friendly and frequently out on his front porch or puttering around in the backyard. Rain or shine, light or dark, it does not seem to matter—he is out surveying his property and being neighborly. Although he never mentioned the incident, there is little else to explain the failed break-in attempt. That is, the neighbor probably deterred the entry, even if he didn’t know it, simply by being nearby.

Have there been other crimes that were not even attempted against Ruth’s home because of her neighbor’s presence? Do social relationships like the one between Ruth and her neighbor, something that develops time and time again, help keep crime rates low and neighborhoods a more pleasant place to live?

If relationships among neighbors can prevent crimes, do these relationships develop in some neighborhoods more than others? If so, what fosters these types of connections? Are there characteristics about neighborhoods that either discourage or encourage this type of relationship between neighbors? These are important questions that criminologists have been exploring since the 1920s and are central to the research we are conducting with colleague Ivan Sun, from the University of Delaware.

Neighborhoods and Crime
Research on neighborhood differences in crime is rooted in the studies Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay conducted from the 1920s to the 1940s at the University of Chicago. They documented clear differences in crime rates across different parts of Chicago. Criminologists are still interested in variation in neighborhood crime rates today. Consider any city—even without looking at arrest rates, or knowing the number of calls to the police—and invariably there are areas most folks would want to avoid (and some, unfortunately, where many would be–and are–scared to live).

Shaw and McKay began with the popular notion at the time that there was something about the types of people who lived in these areas that explained neighborhood variation in crime. One of their most important findings was that differences in crime rates across areas did not change with changes in the population (for example, the ethnicity of the residents), but remained relatively consistent across time. So, it could not simply be that different people lived in the high-crime areas than in the low-crime areas. Something about the areas had to explain the differences.

Why Does Neighborhood Matter?
Shaw and McKay developed social disorganization theory to explain variation across neighborhoods. It is centered on the concept of social control. The theory is based on the idea that crime prevention results from the efforts of formal agents of control (for example, the police), but most importantly from informal agents of social control, such as family, friends and neighbors. Most of us do not commit crimes but it is not because we fear being arrested. What keeps us in line is the fact that we do not want to upset our family, friends or other informal relations. Even our fear of the police comes in large part, not from what the police would do to us, but from the fact that our behavior would then become known to those to whom we are attached. Social disorganization theory assumes the same is true at the neighborhood level. The police have an important role to play but it is the activities of the people who live in the neighborhood that most centrally maintain order.

One of the key factors in understanding why some neighborhoods are better at controlling crime than others has to do with “social networks”—relationships among people in the neighborhood. As seen in the relationship between Ruth and her neighbor, the idea behind this concept is that the more neighbors know each other and socialize with each other, the less crime there will be. A number of reasons explain why this is. First, knowledge of our neighbors gives us the feeling that we have a responsibility to watch out for them. Second, this same knowledge tells us when someone is out of place or something inappropriate is going on. Finally, caring neighbors are more likely to agree upon common problems and work together to solve them.

As important as social networks are, they alone cannot explain differences in crime across neighborhoods. One reason is that the social networks of some people include offenders. Would even close social networks prevent crime when some members of the network are criminals? Would there have been a different outcome to the attempted break-in of Ruth’s house if the intruder had been her neighbor’s best friend or son?

While social networks are important, recent theorists have turned their attention to another factor to help understand differences in social control and crime in neighborhoods – neighborhood-based institutions. The idea is that institutions in neighborhoods can 1) provide places where social networks can develop and 2) serve as resources that help people develop solutions to neighborhood problems. Although we are interested in several neighborhood institutions, such as schools and civic leagues, a particular institution that is the center of much attention today, from the White House down, is the church.

The Special Role of Churches
Faith-based and community initiative centers currently exist in 11 key agencies of the federal government, and a wide variety of projects with faith-based organizations (such as the Department of Labor’s Ready 4 Work program) have now been established. In 2005, more than $2 billion in ­federal funding went to faith-based organizations, according to the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In addition, currently there are four featured programs of the federal government’s various faith-based and community initiative centers–Compassion Capital Fund, Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program, Access to Recovery (a substance abuse program) and a prisoner re-entry program—and crime control is one of their central concerns.

Researchers interested in neighborhood-based institutions argue that churches are unique among the various institutions found in neighborhoods. They can be found in all types of communities, from the rich to the poor. They are perceived as relatively stable institutions, arguably stemming from the networking that goes on in churches and with the surrounding community. Churches often provide services and support to other organizations in the neighborhood. These activities could help to develop social control in the neighborhood because they may foster solutions to neighborhood problems, and aid in the development of ties between individuals and organizations both in and outside of the neighborhood. Whether churches actually elicit these predicted effects is unclear. Despite a wealth of financial support from the federal government, little research exists into just what churches are able and willing to do for neighborhoods.

What Causes Neighborhood Differences?
Why do neighborhoods vary in the relationships and activities of neighbors and in the strength and resources of institutions? The answer to this question is important because it could provide needed information for policymakers. Social disorganization theory suggests that structural characteristics of neighborhoods shape the level of social control in the neighborhood. For example, in neighborhoods where poverty is high, people are divided by ethnic and racial differences, and where few people live in the neighborhood for any length of time, neighbors’ abilities to establish relationships, work together, promote institutions and control crime are diminished.

What Does It All Mean?
There are strong theoretical reasons for suspecting that social institutions such as schools, civic leagues and churches promote social networks and enhance social cohesion. Indeed, the federal government has provided large sums of money to faith-based institutions assuming that they are a useful catalyst for providing services to ameliorate social problems such as poverty, homelessness and recidivism. Unfortunately, empirical research appears to lag behind political decisions. Policy should not be based on theory alone. Studies on neighborhoods and crime are particularly important. If empirical research shows that neighborhood institutions, including churches, can promote the goals of neighborhood residents, then current practices are supported. If the research is less optimistic, it is still likely to suggest avenues for better use of the limited resources available.


Quest June 2007 • Volume 10 Issue 1