Jan. 6, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 7

current issue
archive / search

    [robert sampson] by lloyd degrane
    Robert Sampson, the Lucy Flower Professor in Sociology,
    is the lead author of a study that found social disorder
    and crime stem from the same sources, especially
    concentrated poverty and low collective efficacy.

    Study conducted in Chicago neighborhoods calls ‘broken-windows’ theory into question

    William Harms
    News Office

    A major study by University researchers who videotaped street activity on thousands of blocks throughout Chicago shows there is a much smaller connection than commonly believed between a neighborhood’s appearance and its crime rate.

    As lead author of the study, Robert Sampson, the Lucy Flower Professor in Sociology, writes that factors other than neighborhood orderliness hold the key to understanding predatory crime. One such factor is “collective efficacy,” the capacity of neighbors to work together to strengthen their community. Another major factor is concentrated poverty.

    The findings dispute one of the major concepts used in strategies to fight urban lawlessness––the “broken-windows” theory. This theory directs police to fight crime by ridding streets of “undesirable” characters and making disorderly areas appear more attractive.

    The broken-windows theory holds that urban disorder is a direct cue that local residents are reluctant to intervene in the community; consequently, their neighborhoods become vulnerable to perceptive criminals.

    “Once collective efficacy and other social factors that contribute to crime were taken into consideration, we found that neighborhoods high in disorder do not have higher crime rates in general than neighborhoods low in disorder,” said Sampson.

    Stephen Raudenbush, professor of education at the University of Michigan, co-authored the study, “Systematic Social Observation of Public Spaces: A New Look at Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods,” which has been published in the current issue of the American Journal of Sociology.

    Overall, the researchers contend that social disorder and crime stem from the same sources, especially concentrated poverty and low collective efficacy. Fighting social disorder as a means to fight crime thus does little good if these common factors are ignored, wrote Sampson and Raudenbush.

    This current study is part of a much broader examination of the city called the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods. Sampson and his fellow researchers compared the results of their videotaped observations with previously collected data, which include crime records and interviews with more than 3,500 residents.

    Project researchers interviewed residents to learn how they view their neighborhoods and how they respond to crime. The study also includes detailed neighborhood characteristics such as poverty, mixed-land use, population density and residential stability.

    Sampson and his team used an ambitious approach to measure urban decay. Working with trained observers at the University’s National Opinion Research Center, they fitted a sports-utility vehicle with a video camera and drove through about 240 miles of city streets in a wide variety of neighborhoods. Their study was the first to use systematic videorecording of street activity as a means for studying social behavior.

    The team videotaped physical activity and street scenes on 23,816 face blocks (one side of a block) in 196 census tracts throughout the city. They also documented the appearance of the blocks and the social activity they encountered.

    The team recorded the everyday evidence of physical disorder: empty beer bottles on streets, cigarette or cigar butts in gutters, gang graffiti, abandoned cars, drug-related needles and condoms. They also recorded evidence of social disorder, such as adult loitering, public alcohol consumption, fighting or hostile arguing between adults, solicitation for prostitution, drug sales and gang activity.

    “Disorder was moderately correlated with predatory crime, and it consistently varied with neighborhood characteristics like poverty,” Sampson said. Once these neighborhood characteristics were taken into account, however, the connection between disorder and crime vanished, except for robbery. Drug dealers and prostitutes may attract robbery offenders because they and their customers are considered less likely than other potential victims to turn to the police for protection, Sampson said.

    In an indirect way, disorder may lead to crime by discouraging people from becoming involved in their neighborhoods, but in general, the informal efforts of residents appear to be more effective than police-led crackdowns in fighting crime. Neighborhoods with a high degree of resident cohesion are better able to deal with problems that produce crime in the first place than neighborhoods that have similar economic and demographic characteristics but less cohesion.

    Municipal leaders who want to reduce crime and clean up neighborhoods should be aware of the informal networks and social controls that exist in communities and encourage local residents to become more involved, Sampson said.

    “Recent research has identified the creative ways in which socially organized communities react to disorder: establishing ‘phone trees’ among residents for calling police, organizing a group presence in court-sentencing hearings, creating ‘graffiti patrols’ and agitating for referendums to de-license problematic bars,” Sampson said. Such efforts may help improve the appearance of a neighborhood as well as reduce crime, he said.