The Role of Social Processes in Crime Control: Disentangling the Relative Contribution of Collective Efficacy and Systemic Models of Community Regulation
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The form and function of social relationships have a long history in both criminology and sociology. Classical and contemporary scholars from both disciplines view social bonds as the foundation of social organization and necessary in developing and maintaining a collective conscious, preventing crime and delinquency and generating positive outcomes for group members. More recently, however, present day Chicago School scholars suggest that neighborhoods can prevent deleterious outcomes without the existence of strong social bonds and call for a shift in emphasis to the shared norms for action. Robert Sampson and his colleagues suggest a community’s collective efficacy not only mediates the relationship between structural disadvantage and crime, but better explains the variation of violence across urban communities. This new wave of social theory questions the importance of systemic approaches, and, more specifically, of social relationships, in attempting to understand a community’s ability to prescind serious crime. In theory, collective efficacy places a greater emphasis on agency and active engagement and resonates with the changing role of communities in contemporary society. Yet, in practice it may not provide a substantively different picture of the social processes that lead to crime reduction or other important collective outcomes. Despite the recent uptake of collective efficacy in criminology, a systematic examination of its fundamental theoretical tenets and its empirical conceptualization is notably absent. Drawing on social disorganization and social capital theory, this dissertation examines the unique theoretical and empirical contribution of collective efficacy theory in explaining crime and disorder across urban communities. This thesis comprises two studies and combines quantitative and qualitative research techniques. Study 1 draws on the results of a large-scale survey of 2,859 residents located in S.E. Queensland. Using a confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) and multi-level modelling it explores the empirical relationship between multidimensional indicators of systemic and social capital theories and collective efficacy and assesses the relative importance of collective efficacy using a more refined operationalization of this construct. The results from the CFA suggest that the present conceptualization of collective efficacy does not significantly advance our understanding of social processes as the overlap among various indicators of community organization is substantial. Using a reconceptualized measure of collective efficacy, the multi-level models reveal that a belief in the collective's ability to deal with particular issues is associated with lower perceptions of violence and disorder. However, contrary to the results from the Project of Human Development in Chicago Neighbourhoods, levels of collective efficacy are inextricably linked with social relationships networks across 82 statistical local areas in Brisbane. Through in-depth interviews with key stakeholders and local residents in two communities, Study 2 examines particular collective processes or norms that promote or constrain responses to various challenges or threats. In support of collective efficacy theory, the results from the interviews suggest that strong social bonds are not necessarily associated with a belief in the collective. Yet, in line with social capital theory and systemic models of community organization, the interviews reveal a strong reliance on key institutions and organizations to manage and respond to problems of a civic and criminal nature. Although both communities reported high levels of collective efficacy, the task specific processes were primarily generated by structures not residents. Moreover, the interviews point to an important component of community organization, specifically, the ‘imagined community’, which is not readily captured by collective efficacy theory, social capital or systemic approaches. In the absence of repeated interactions and strong social bonds, collective representations or symbols of community life provided important cues to residents and were central in providing a sense of cohesion, a working trust among neighbors and a perceived willingness to intervene in pro-social ways. My research suggests that the unique theoretical, conceptual and empirical contribution of collective efficacy theory to criminology is limited. In an Australian context, collective efficacy does not represent a task specific process nor does not elucidate the activation of ties from the ties themselves. The findings from my two studies lead me to conclude that collective efficacy, as it stands, can only be understood as a nominal concept not a casual process as it is heralded in the literature.
Thesis (PhD Doctorate)
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
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