Social Capital and Collective Efficacy Research Paper

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Criminologists have long theorized that some neighborhoods have a greater capacity than others to recognize common problems and act collectively to solve them. Though this basic notion is derived directly from social disorganization theory, collective efficacy – a recent reformulation – has brought substantial new attention to the idea. Collective efficacy borrows from the idea of social capital to rethink the ways that this capacity is rooted in the local connections among neighbors. Specifically, social capital refers to a resource potential facilitated by the structure of local networks, while collective efficacy is the ability of a group to draw on this resource to recognize common interests and achieve specific tasks related to local social control. This reformulation has also garnered attention for innovations in the operationalization and measurement of the concept. Recent research has established that collective efficacy is an important predictor of differences in the level of crime between neighborhoods and may be significant to our understanding of the disproportionate prevalence of crime in neighborhoods characterized by economic disadvantage and residential instability (Sampson et al. 1997; Morenoff et al. 2001). However, important questions remain about the way residents perceive collective efficacy, the different ways they can choose to intervene when they become aware of a crime problem, and the connections between collective efficacy and other neighborhood phenomena including cultural forces and more formal crime control efforts.


In 1942, a now-classic volume was published which made a radical suggestion: the high crime rates found in immigrant and African-American neighborhoods were not the product of the inherent criminality of individual members of these groups – a popular explanation at the time. Instead, Shaw and McKay revealed that delinquency rates were related to the social-structural organization of the city and were highest in the “transitional zone,” an area characterized by low home ownership, socioeconomic disadvantage, and other social-structural disadvantages. The enduring power of their work is derived from the carefully collected and presented evidence of this link between neighborhood structure and crime rates.

Shaw and McKay (1942) also pose an explanation for this link, suggesting that, in simple terms, there is something about some neighborhoods that allows them to organize in ways that prevent crime problems or respond to them as they occur. Notably, however, this is somewhat of an amorphous concept, and both Shaw and McKay (1942) as well as a number of subsequent researchers have struggled with two important issues. The first is how to theoretically conceptualize exactly what is important about the social organization of a neighborhood. The second is how to measure this theoretical concept systematically such that its role as a mechanism can be tested.

After more than 50 years of incremental and mixed progress on these issues, a 1997 study purported to address both issues. Collective efficacy attempts to capture “the differential ability of neighborhoods to realize the common values of residents and maintain effective social controls” (Sampson et al. 1997, p. 918). While earlier work relied on either administratively collected data or aggregations of individual reports of personal behaviors, collective efficacy employed individuals as reporters of neighborhood conditions. Any one of these respondents, on their own, may be biased or simply in error in their assessments. Collectively, however, and when controlling for potential individual-level sources of bias, such respondents may produce a reliable and valid measure of a collective phenomenon – or, as Warner and Rountree characterize it, a Durkheimian social fact: “a thing distinct from its individual manifestations” (1997, p. 520).

By situating this collective capacity for control in the resource potential of specific forms of personal and organizational networks (Sampson et al. 1999, p. 635), collective efficacy potentially represents significant progress in our understanding of the group social processes relevant to the spatial distribution of crime. This research paper begins by providing background on collective efficacy as a theoretical mechanism, tracing its development through several previous propositions. Collective efficacy, however, departs from previous propositions through several theoretical and measurement innovations. The following section details these innovations and surveys research on its importance to a variety of neighborhood phenomenon. The final section raises a number of potential controversies and open questions facing future work on collective efficacy.


Simply stated, social disorganization theory suggests that the structural conditions of a neighborhood, especially the level of poverty and residential instability, disrupt local social organization and thereby increase crime. The direct association between the structural conditions and the crime rate is relatively easy to observe using administrative data, such as the US Census and the Uniform Crime Reports. More difficult to observe is the social mechanism by which this structure affects crime rates. Over time, research on social disorganization has frequently revised the theoretical operationalization of what it is about the organization of the neighborhood that matters, while simultaneously experimenting with a variety of different more or less successful means of measuring these theoretical mechanisms.

Shaw and McKay (1942), in their initial proposal of the theory, suggest several theoretical mechanisms. Some components of their explanation – including value heterogeneity and the cultural transmission of delinquent traditions between generations of boys within neighborhoods – have been largely ignored or dropped in subsequent revisions to social disorganization, including in the notion of collective efficacy. One component of their explanation, however, is the direct intellectual antecedent of collective efficacy. Drawing on a classic account of Polish communities in Chicago by W.I. Thomas, Shaw and McKay (1942) suggest that an “organized” community is characterized by “the presence of social opinion with regard to problems of common interest, identical or at least consistent attitudes with reference to these problems, the ability to reach approximate unanimity on the question of how a problem should be dealt with, and the ability to carry this solution into action through harmonious co-operation” (p. 184).

In subsequent years, Kornhauser’s (1978) critique of the theory led to an increasing focus on the mechanism of social control to the exclusion of the subcultural and learning mechanisms – those explanations interested in value heterogeneity or the transmission of delinquent skills and values. Simultaneously, an emphasis on social ties among neighbors rose to prominence following Kasarda and Janowitz (1974) argument for a systemic model of social organization in which the local community is “a complex system of friendship networks and formal and informal associational ties” which are in part a product of local structural conditions (p. 329). Out of these trends came a new operationalization of the mechanism at the heart of social disorganization: a disruption of the social networks among neighbors which damages the neighborhood’s capacity to self-regulate (e.g., see Bursik and Grasmick 1993).

While research inspired by these ideas represented both theoretical and methodological progress, it was still hindered by basic measurement issues. In perhaps the best example of this work, Sampson and Groves (1989) operationalize the mechanism of social disorganization as a combination of sparse local friendship networks, the presence of unsupervised teenage peer groups creating a nuisance, and low levels of organizational participation. In the measure of nuisance-causing unsupervised teenage groups, Sampson and Groves are attempting to directly measure a neighborhood’s capacity for informal social control. Unfortunately, by operationalizing social disorganization via an outcome (the presence of rabble-rousing teenagers) rather than the social mechanism itself (the capacity for informal social control), Sampson and Groves open themselves up to the classic criticism of social disorganization research as using delinquency “both as an example of disorganization and something caused by disorganization” (Pfohl 1985, p. 167).

Sampson and Groves (1989) find a strong relationship between their measure of the presence of trouble-causing unsupervised youth groups and a variety of measures of local crime, but their measure of local friendship networks has somewhat less success. Warner and Rountree (1997) find similarly mixed effects for the role of local social ties in relation to local crime rates: they find that measures of the prevalence of interactions between neighbors (borrowing tools, having lunch or dinner, helping neighbors with problems) are negatively related to the crime rate only in largely white neighborhoods and appear unrelated to crime in neighborhoods with larger numbers of racial or ethnic minorities. Critics of the idea of social disorganization pointed out that some high-crime communities in fact had strong criminal organization (recent example in Venkatesh 1997; see discussion in Sampson 2002). Critics of the systemic model of social disorganization pointed out that many poor communities had dense social networks (Gans 1962) and that in some communities, ties between neighborhoods prevented informal social control efforts when they bridged the gap between residents who were involved in crime and those who may otherwise have organized against it (Pattillo 1998).

As of the 1990s, then, research on social disorganization theory was faced with several key issues. First, the exact role of social networks in social organization remained ambiguous. Second, there appeared to be a need to distinguish organizational activities that suppress crime versus those that encourage crime. Third, research in the area continued struggling to identify direct measures of any of these theoretical concepts to test the core hypotheses.

Social Capital And Collective Efficacy

The concept “collective efficacy” attempts to resolve some of the issues in social disorganization theory by grounding it in new ideas about the dynamics of interpersonal connections within groups and the capacity these connections create for collective action. By asking residents to report on their perceptions of their neighbors’ reactions to hypothetical local problems, collective efficacy attempts to capture a task-specific potential for collective action rooted in the social networks of a neighborhood. Collective efficacy, then, is the collective realization among neighbors that they have a common goal in the safety of their neighborhood and a collective willingness to act to achieve this goal (Sampson et al. 1997).

Collective efficacy has found success by making three key theoretical revisions to older versions of social disorganization theory and by using theses revisions to better operationalize and measure the presence or absence of this phenomenon within neighborhoods. Theoretically, Sampson et al. (1997); (see also Sampson 2002) define collective efficacy as rooted in social capital: “the resource potential of personal and organizational networks” (p. 635), as task specific, and in particular as oriented toward the universally shared goal of living in a safe neighborhood. They find empirical evidence for a role for collective efficacy by operationalizing it as potential rather than actualized organization and as an emergent property of neighborhoods best captured by using local residents as imperfect reporters of this group-level phenomenon. The following sections discuss each of these theoretical and measurement dimensions that distinguish collective efficacy from earlier versions of social disorganization.

Social Capital

Perhaps the most important theoretical development for the reformulation of social disorganization theory is Coleman’s (1988) version of social capital. Coleman (1988) combines economic rational choice theory with sociological normative theory to create the notion of “social capital,” with the premise that “rational or purposive action, in conjunction with particular social contexts, can account not only for the actions of individuals in particular contexts but also for the development of social organization” (p. S96).

In a simple sense, social capital suggests that certain kinds or qualities of connections among people can facilitate particular actions that may not otherwise have been possible. It can take a variety of forms which may be better or worse at facilitating different kinds of actions. One such form is a marketplace of obligations and expectations in which people do favors or help one another with the expectation of indirect reciprocation (Coleman 1988). This form of social capital provides a framework for understanding why a resident would undertake an action – for example, intervening when they see teens vandalizing public property or a neighbor’s house – that has minimal direct benefits for themselves. The key is that when that resident lives in a community with an active marketplace of obligations and expectations, they can expect that their favor will be reciprocated by others at some other point when the resident currently performing the favor has a need of their own arise. Other forms of social capital include the transmission of potentially useful information through networks maintained for other purposes or the presence of norms and effective sanctions. Coleman (1988) describes, for example, a norm in which all local adults are responsible for the safety of all local children in public spaces.

These forms of social capital are facilitated by social structure. The trust required for a marketplace of obligations and expectations, for instance, is more likely to emerge in a community with relative residential stability – the presence of long-term residents who may be expected to remain in the neighborhood long enough to repay debts into the collective pool. Such a marketplace may also be more likely when residents have enough resources to be able to do favors for neighbors but not so many resources that they will never need to ask neighbors for favors (Coleman 1988). Coleman (1988) also identifies particular kinds of relational structures that produce social capital, one of which is relevant here. Closure in social networks refers to the presence of sufficient ties between network actors. One specific form of closure relevant to collective efficacy is intergenerational closure, in which parents know the parents of their children’s friends, through which they can more effectively monitor and sanction their own children. In simpler terms, it is harder to do something without your parents’ knowledge when they know all your friends as well as the parents of your friends. Thus, network closure is an aspect of social structure that facilitates certain kinds of actions within the structure.

Social capital, then, suggests that elements of local social organization provide neighborhoods with a social resource that can be drawn upon to address local problems. For instance, in highly residentially stable neighborhoods, there is more likely to be a high degree of interconnectedness among residents. Due to this interconnectedness, residents may feel a sense of trust that if they help a neighbor, another neighbor may be willing to help them when they need it. This, Coleman argues, provides a social resource potential that can be drawn upon to address local problems. Similarly, interconnections between local parents and local children may both increase the surveillance of and provide greater adult resources for local children. Thus, social capital describes a process by which structural characteristics of a neighborhood like residential stability assist in the development of particular forms of social organization, which in turn can facilitate specific kinds of local actions.

Collective Efficacy As Task-Specific Action

One key to social capital is that – like physical or human capital – it often exists as a value-neutral tool that could be appropriated to different kinds of actions. A person could use a biology degree to cure cancer or create a weapon; spray paint can be used for art or vandalism. Similarly, a neighborhood could use comparable kinds of social capital alternatively to address a rash of burglaries, to prevent African-Americans from moving into their neighborhood, or even to encourage residents to refrain from reporting crimes to or cooperating with the police.

One type of action that can result from this social resource potential is attempts to control local delinquency or crime. Collective efficacy is the collective realization among neighbors that they have a common goal in the safety of their neighborhood and a collective willingness and ability to act to achieve this goal (Sampson et al. 1997). Notably this conception of social organization has changed little since Shaw and McKay’s (1942) description of “harmonic cooperation.” The theoretical advancements since Shaw and McKay have largely come in two areas: conceptualizing this organization as task specific (organization specifically against crime will be more relevant to crime as an outcome than more general kinds of organization) and developing a better model of how such a capacity might develop, especially as a product of the structural characteristics of a community. In practice, the task-specific potential to address crime is so highly related to the presence of specific local forms of social capital that the most frequent measure of collective efficacy combines a direct measure of the capacity for informal social control with a measure of social cohesion and trust (Sampson et al. 1997; Morenoff et al. 2001).

This conceptualization helps resolve some of the questions about the role of social ties and networks from prior work. Specifically, Sampson et al. (1999) suggest that collective efficacy is a task-specific potential for action that is rooted in social capital: “the resource potential of personal and organizational networks” (p. 635). In this way, collective efficacy departs from some of the more recent versions of social disorganization by de-emphasizing the importance of close friendship networks and instead suggesting that a resource potential exists in particular forms of local social organization, including more utilitarian and less affective connections among persons. Thus, a place where neighbors trust one another enough to develop a marketplace of obligations and expectations may possess collective efficacy even when neighbors are not actively friendly with one another, while a different neighborhood with dense friendship ties may still lack it. In fact, Granovetter (1973) has described the ways in which the preponderance of dense and largely redundant ties will be less useful in exposing people to new ideas or information than ties that bridge the gaps between different groups of people.

Measurement As Potential For Action

The key to measuring this new concept is to capture the potential for collective action rather than measuring the presence or absence of potential outcomes of such actions, as Sampson and Groves (1989) did with their measure of perceived juvenile delinquency. The potential, in this case, is reflected in a norm: shared expectations for informal social control. The measurement of this kind of norm – something that exists between neighbors rather than within any one neighbor – requires the perspectives of those residents. Sampson et al. (1997) accomplish this by using questions which ask residents to speculate about how their neighbors would respond to a series of hypothetical situations involving delinquent acts by youths. Respondents are asked about the likelihood that their neighbors would take action if they encountered one of a number of instances of youth delinquency. These include children skipping school and hanging out on a street corner, children spray-painting graffiti on a local building, children disrespecting an adult, and circumstances in which a fight breaks out in front of their house. Additionally, some versions of collective efficacy have included an additional noncrime outcome: the likelihood of neighbors acting to save a local fire station threatened by budget cuts.

By asking respondents to report their perceptions of the level of collective efficacy in their neighborhood, they attempt to capture a potential for action which exists in the connections among persons in the neighborhood rather than within any one resident or in any simple aggregation of residents. In this sense, collective efficacy represents an emergent property of neighborhoods – shared expectations about the control of local delinquency – that theoretically would not be captured by the simple aggregation of reports of individuals’ willingness to engage in such control.

Reflecting the theoretical relationship between social capital and collective efficacy, most measures of collective efficacy also include items capturing the degree of social cohesion and trust in the neighborhood. Though the two are distinct concepts theoretically and it appears plausible that collective efficacy is to some degree a product of local social capital elements such as cohesion and trust, in practice the two appear highly correlated and thus have frequently been combined to create a single scale.

In doing so, collective efficacy appears to be more successful than earlier measures of the social disorganization mechanism in predicting local levels of violent crime and even mediating some of the association between structural conditions and violence (Sampson et al. 1997; Morenoff et al. 2001). Research has also found collective efficacy to be predictive of fear of crime (Gibson et al. 2002), partner violence (Browning 2002; Wright and Benson 2011), as well as outcomes less directly related to crime including health and mental health and sexual behavior outcomes such as pro-social competency and problem behavior, birth weight, premature mortality, short-term sexual partnering, and age of sexual initiation. Collective efficacy is also suggested to be the source of a spurious disorder-crime relationship suggested by broken windows theory (Sampson and Raudenbush 1999).

Controversies, Unresolved Issues, And Open Questions

By situating the collective capacity for control in the resource potential of specific forms of personal and organizational networks, collective efficacy represents significant progress in our understanding of the group social processes relevant to the spatial distribution of crime. Operationalizing collective efficacy as an emergent task-specific potential for collective action against delinquency and crime is a noteworthy effort to resolve the difficult problem of measuring phenomena which are a property of groups, or a property of the connections among persons, rather than a property of the persons themselves. This concept represents substantial progress over earlier attempts to theorize and measure a neighborhood’s capacity for social control. However, several unresolved issues remain which pose questions for future research.

Lack Of Mediation And Measurement Issues

Despite evidence for an apparent role for collective efficacy in the distribution of crime over neighborhoods, the structure of a neighborhood continues to exert strong direct effects on the crime rate. Although Sampson et al. (1997) claim strong mediation effects, Morenoff et al. (2001) suggest this claim may have been overstated. Though collective efficacy appears to have a direct effect on crime, it may not be the long-sought mechanism explaining the link between social structure and crime – or it may only be one component of such a mechanism. Alternatively, this lack of mediation may be a product of measurement error related to ways in which collective efficacy has been operationalized – specifically the difficulty involved in speculating about the potential reactions of other people to hypothetical situations. This raises a key issue for both the measurement of the concept of collective efficacy and the theory itself: we still know too little about how residents make assessments of the local capacity for collective efficacy.

How Do People Intervene?

Another area for future research is to develop a better understanding of how residents choose to intervene when they become aware of crime problems. Residents may directly intervene by confronting troublemakers or they may indirectly intervene by mobilizing external resources including the police department. Residents may be fearful that intervening in local problems could result in retaliation or simply put them at greater risk for victimization. Recent work has suggested just this: that a fear of reprisals acts as an impediment to participation in traditional forms of informal social control (Carr 2003; St. Jean 2007). Instead, such residents may choose to work through the police department to exert control over local crime, actions which do not appear to require the cohesion necessary for informal efforts (Carr 2003; Warner 2007). On the other hand, neighborhoods which lack faith in the police may be wary of choosing to intervene through the police, and in some of these neighborhoods, residents may choose to attempt to address some specific crime problems through local criminal organizations like gangs (Venkatesh 1997; Pattillo 1998). Thus, while collective efficacy research has largely been interested in whether neighborhoods are willing to intervene, we may also want to consider how neighbors choose to intervene and the differential consequences for neighborhoods resulting from these choices.

Culture And Norms About Crime: Universality Or Heterogeneity?

Collective efficacy assumes that communities share common values with respect to local public safety (Sampson 2002) and – following Kornhauser (1978) – has largely eschewed a role for culture in encouraging crime. Kubrin and Weitzer (2003) suggest, however, that culture may play several different roles that are relevant to the collective organization against crime; future work would do well to consider the potential links.

Early criminological work on culture emphasized the prevalence of pro-crime values in lower-class or minority communities. Often portrayed as a reaction to strain over status, respect, or access to legitimate or illegitimate economic opportunities (Cohen 1955; Cloward and Ohlin 1960), such communities were characterized as having pro-crime or crime-tolerant cultural norms. These norms emerge as a negativistic or oppositional reaction to societal norms (Cohen 1955; Anderson 1999), or as an appropriate or predictable reaction to economic circumstances (Miller 1958; Cloward and Ohlin 1960). Shaw and McKay’s (1942) early work in social disorganization characterized disorganized neighborhoods as suffering from a kind of normative heterogeneity in which children will be exposed to examples of both criminal and conventional behavior. Sutherland (1947) suggests that both organization against crime and organization in favor of crime will be relevant to understanding the local crime context.

Alternatively, instead of pro-crime values mattering, it may be that communities simply differ in the strength with which they claim conventional norms (Kornhauser 1978; Warner 2003). It may be that these communities are simply more resigned or accustomed to the presence of crime – that crime has infiltrated their cognitive landscape. Finally, culture may matter in ways that have little to do with values about crime. Small (2002), for instance, suggests that cultural framing mechanisms have the ability to either incite or sustain collective organization, including organization toward the goal of addressing local crime problems. For instance, a framing of the neighborhood as in crisis or under threat may incite organization (Small 2002; Carr 2003), while a cultural frame defining a neighborhood as one’s best opportunity for success is necessary to sustain continued organization (Small 2002).

Connections Between Formal And Informal Social Control

Collective efficacy is, in essence, the capacity for informal social control. Of course, the police also act as agents of more formal social control efforts, and prior work has suggested that neighborhoods differ in both the behavior of police and perceptions of the police. The capacity for informal social control, then, may also be related to local formal efforts. This idea has only just begun to receive serious attention (see Kubrin and Weitzer 2003). Recent work has found evidence for a link between perceptions of the police and informal social control efforts.


Collective efficacy draws on the notion of social capital to present a new theoretical and methodological conceptualization of differences between neighborhoods in their ability to recognize common problems and act collectively to solve them. Social capital is grounded in social networks – it “exists in the relations among persons” (Coleman 1988, p. S100) – and is facilitated by particular kinds of local structural conditions such as residential stability or the presence of formal organizations. In turn, collective efficacy is the ability of a community to draw on this resource to recognize a shared interest in the safety of the local area and to achieve specific tasks related to local informal social control. Recent research has provided evidence of a role for collective efficacy in explaining inter-neighborhood differences in crime rates. Important questions remain, however, about how respondents estimate their neighbor’s capacity for informal social control, the different ways people choose to intervene, connections to cultural dimensions of a neighborhood, and the links between formal and informal social control efforts.


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