The content of the questions may overlap somewhat, but your answers should not have much overlap with each other.
CCJ 5625 – Ecology of Crime
Wrap-up for Discussion Question 1 and Week 3 Lecture Notes
First, a few general notes about the course…
Now that we have made our way through the first two weeks of the semester, which included the
first reading assignment and the first discussion question, I thought it would be helpful to review
a few things about the course so everyone is “on the same page.” Most of this information is also
included in the syllabus which you should have read very carefully by now, but it might help to
reiterate a few things here.
• First, though there are two ‘textbooks’ listed in the syllabus, these are not like traditional
textbooks that would typically cover all the topics in the course. Rather, they are both
monographs that each cover a single topic (though quite broadly). We will start reading
Great American City next week, so be sure to order it as soon as possible if you haven’t
already. For weeks when we are not reading chapters from one of these books, the
readings for the week are listed in the syllabus, and you can find the pdf files in the
weekly “Module” on Canvas.
• Second, as you already know since you are reading this document, during certain weeks
of the semester there will be supplementary lecture notes. The information in these notes
will serve various purposes, including 1) reviewing progress that we have made in the
course so far, and offering important tips on how to improve your grade, 2) providing
additional background on the topic for that week, 3) providing additional examples of the
kind of research that has been conducted on that particular topic, 4) discussing any
limitations or weaknesses in the readings for that week, 5) discussing important policy
implications, 6) etc…. When there are lecture notes for a week, I will always make an
announcement and upload the notes to Canvas as a PDF file in the module for that week.
Be sure to read the notes along with the other readings for that week. You may also
incorporate them into your discussion posting. Again, there won’t be lecture notes every
week, but when there are, don’t forget to read them!
• Lastly, let’s briefly review how the discussion postings work. During weeks that are
identified as a “Discussion posting week” in the course schedule (found at the end of the
syllabus), you are required to make an initial discussion posting by the Friday of that
week at 11:59 PM ET. Then you must respond to the posting of at least one other student
by the following Sunday at 11:59 PM ET. Of course, you are welcome to make either
posting before the due date/time. Just be sure not to be late because you will lose points!
Note that there is another discussion question due this week.
Conceptualization and the ‘community question’
When systematically studying any topic, we must first identify and define the key concepts that
we will be studying. If you have ever taken a research methods course, you may have learned
that this process is typically referred to as “conceptualization.” It often starts by identifying the
conceptions or “mental images” that arise when we think about the concept, which we then
categorize, refine, and ultimately develop into a “conceptual definition.” One key concept that we will be working with throughout this course is “community,” and the first discussion question
was our initial step in conceptualizing this term.
The ensuing discussion was very interesting and lively, and I was pleased to see that many of you
seemed to put nearly as much time into your response postings as you did your original post.
When we have such an effective and extensive back-and-forth, the discussion postings can truly
simulate the type of discussion we would have in a classroom. In fact, discussions in DL courses
can be even more stimulating than in-person class discussions because you have more time to
think about the points being made, and to develop your responses. You certainly achieved that
level of discourse in response to last week’s discussion question. Great work! The quality of the
discussion is reflected in the grades, as nearly everyone received full credit for their initial
posting and response posting. For the handful of people that lost some points, it was because you
did not directly cite the readings, your posting lacked depth or was too vague, or there was no
response posting. Fortunately, these shortcomings are not difficult to remedy, and those of you
who received the full 10 points, just keep up the good work!
In reviewing all of the discussing postings, I saw many similar themes across the postings, but
also many differences in how each of you view the concept of community. Many of you
emphasized the role of connections and shared interests, citing Chaskin’s argument that
communities typically involve “some combination of shared beliefs, circumstances, priorities,
relationships, or concerns.” This suggests that communities are something more than simply
geographic areas. Indeed, several of you noted a potential distinction between the terms
‘neighborhood’ and ‘community,’ with the former being predominantly determined by
geographic boundaries, and the latter determined more by social connections, shared
backgrounds, and mutual concerns. Perhaps these connections are what is most important, and
criminologists should focus more on them than on geographic boundaries?
On the other hand, it is clear that many of you believe geographic proximity is also important.
Several of you explicitly favored the concept of “community of limited liability” at least partly
because it retains the importance of some sort of geographic boundary. This common sentiment
is reflected in the posted statements that “there are not exact geographical lines that define a
community,” but “it is still important to include geographical area when we define community.”
One way to organize the various approaches to the “community question” is provided in a highly
influential, though rather dated, article by Wellman and Leighton (1979). This article, which is
briefly cited by Chaskin, directly addresses the question of whether geographic nearness is an
important component of community. They describe three different approaches that researchers
have typically followed when discussing communities— community lost , community saved , and
community liberated .
The first approach, community lost , essentially argues that local community ties have been
drastically weakened over time due to major political, technological, and demographic changes.
For example, some scholars argue that tremendous population growth in cities over the past
century resulted in a reduction in “primary ties” such as those between neighbors, with a
corresponding increase in the prevalence of “secondary ties” such as those between co-workers
or members of clubs and organizations, most of which are not located in the neighborhood. Some scholars also point to the rapid development of inexpensive and widely accessible transportation
and communication options. With the advent of interstate highways, air travel, telephones, and
computers, geographic proximity is no longer necessary to develop and maintain primary
relationships. According to this approach, such developments have also allowed our society to
become much more geographically mobile, with people frequently moving across
neighborhoods, cities, states, and countries. Some argue that all of these things have led to a
gradual weakening of communal bonds, to the point that people are now highly isolated,
alienated, and largely unattached to their local neighborhoods.
The second approach described by Wellman and Leighton is the community saved tradition. This
approach argues that these same political, social, and industrial changes have actually
encouraged the maintenance of local primary ties, as residents work together to develop their
neighborhoods as safe havens, buffering themselves against the dramatic changes occurring in
broader society. Many scholars carefully documented specific examples of such “urban villages,”
where densely knit networks and solidarity among residents have successfully protected the
neighborhood from outside encroachment (e.g. blocking development of new expressways and
overpasses, opposing urban renewal projects or gentrification efforts that would displace current
residents). From this view, the local community is not lost, but rather saved, and perhaps even
stronger than before.
F inally, Wellman and Leighton describe an approach they refer to as community liberated , which
essentially agrees with both of the prior approaches, but with an important caveat . It agrees with
the community lost argument that local neighborhoods are no longer a strong source of solidarity
and communal action among residents. I t also agrees with the community saved argument that
primary ties remain viable and important despite, and perhaps in reaction to, the same causal
factors. The key distinction made by the community liberated perspective is that those primary
ties, while highly relevant, are now rarely located within neighborhoods. Wellman and Leighton
provide a rather prescient (for 1979!) discussion of how “new developments in computing
technology foreshadow major increases in telecommunication capabilities such as ‘electronic
mail’ and ‘computer conferencing’” (p.380). They argue that these advancements have allowed
for the development of “community without propinquity.” That is, primary ties are increasingly
likely to transcend neighborhood boundaries, and indeed, people can just as easily maintain close
relationships across countries as they can within their neighborhoods. The development and
dramatic growth of social media makes their arguments of 40 years ago all the more impressive
So where does that leave us with regard to last week’s discussion question? How should we
define the concept of community?
• Is community lost ? Many of you lamented the “disappearance of the neighborhood,” and
“lack of relationships among neighbors,” with one student noting “as an area becomes
more urbanized, the interconnections of people living in communities become more
stressed and social controls are diminished.” Indeed, another student explained “you
could live next door to someone you have no social ties to… [with] the only relationship
being your home sits next to theirs.” • Is community saved ? Many of you noted the continuing relevance of local areas, and the
persistence of solidarity among neighborhood residents despite the large-scale social,
economic, and political changes occurring around them. Many of you emphasized the
importance of “connections” and “commonalities” among neighbors, and the influence
that local communities can have on residents, noting that “we often see the impacts that
communities have on children,” and “communities can shape a person’s life.”
• Is community liberated ? In discussing the importance of commonality and shared
interests, many of you noted that this does not require proximity. One student stated that
“some communities are based on place…[but] others are bound by their cultures and
beliefs,” and others agreed that someone can simultaneously belong to many
communities including “culture communities” and “religious communities,” many of
which transcend all geographic boundaries.
At this point, I suspect all of us can agree that each of these perspectives is correct to some
extent. However, the second part of the discussion question provided a very important
qualification—we want to arrive at a definition that is specifically relevant for the study of crime.
In response to this qualification, the most comm on sentiment across discussion postings was that
we need to consider both geographic proximity and shared interests, local ties, and
connectedness. Many of you expressed this view directly with statements including “I would
define community as both a geographical area and a group of individuals who are connected with
common interests,” and “a good balance [includes] a defined territory, but still recognizes the
individual social connections (or lack of) within the community.” Likewise, one student summed
it up very well by saying “it would be useful to have both these definitions to see the physical
boundaries of a neighborhood along with the information of what groups people have
As you will see throughout the remainder of this course, macro-level criminological theory and
research has typically taken this balanced approach to the community question. Most of the
research that we will review examines variation in social relationships, characteristics, and
processes across clearly identified geographic boundaries, and assesses the extent to which these
factors are associated with levels of crime within those areas. For this reason, criminologists
often use the terms “neighborhood” and “community” somewhat interchangeably. It is important
to recognize that there is a distinction between the terms in their broadest sense, but when
studying criminological outcomes, we typically agree that (1) the distinction between the two is
not as important since most of the offending and victimization that we study is geographically
located, and/or (2) the question of whether people in specific geographic areas are, indeed,
socially connected is directly addressed in our research project. A notable exception would be
something like white-collar crime, which does not typically have a relevant geographic context.
This is why scholars of neighborhoods and crime do not examine white-collar crime as an
But still, how do we define community?
Though we have refined our conceptual definition of community somewhat, we are still left with
the question of how we will specifically define, identify, and measure communit ies . Again, if you have taken a research methods course, you probably learned that this process is referred to as
“operationalization.” After arriving at a somewhat abstract conceptual definition, we need to
develop an “operational definition” that clarifies precisely what will constitute a “community” in
our specific research project. Unfortunately, this can be just as difficult, or even more so, than
One challenge when operationalizing community is that there can be many different, and perhaps
equally relevant, definitions. As many of you noted in your discussion postings, a s ingle person
can live within a series of “nested” geographical communities ranging from a street block (“47th
Street between 7 th
and 8 th
Ave”), to a planned residential development (“Killearn Estates”), to a
region of the city (e.g. “the south side”), t o a city, county, or borough (e.g. “the Bronx”) , to a
metropolitan area (e.g. “ New York -Newark-Jersey City Metr opolitan Statistical Area”). To
further complicate things, if you ask two people who live directly next door to each other how
they define their geographic community, they may give very different answers.
Indeed, in a study by Coulton, et al. (2001), researchers presented maps to 140 residents in 7
neighborhood areas in Cleveland, OH, and asked them to draw a line around what they
considered to be their neighborhood boundary. Results showed that even people who live directly
adjacent to each other tend to have rather different definitions of their neighborhood boundaries.
Another part of the same study involved comparing the residents’ definitions of their
neighborhood boundaries with the boundaries that researchers typically use. The most commonly
used geographic definition of a neighborhood in criminological research is a census tract . This is
a geographical boundary developed by the U.S. Census Bureau in consultation with local area
boards. They are intended to correspond with meaningful physical features of the area (e.g.
roads, railroad tracks, rivers, parks, etc.) and have a target size of about 4,000 people. It is not
surprising that none of the neighborhood residents that were interviewed were aware of the
boundaries of the census tract that they lived in, and it follows that the residents’ neighborhood
definitions did not correspond very closely with census tract boundaries. On a positive note,
however, the average size of the resident definitions were very close to the average size of census
Another study examined whether different operationalizations of neighborhood lead to different
conclusions when examining the neighborhood characteristics that are associated with crime
(Hipp 2007). Specifically, the study compared two commonly used definitions of neighborhood
—census tract s and census block s . As noted above, census tracts are intended to hold about 4,000
people, while census blocks are much smaller at about 50 people per block. Results showed that
the factors that appear to affect neighborhood crime at the tract level are different than the
relevant factors at the block level. For example, the divorce rate of an area was associated with
crime rates regardless of whether tracts or blocks were being examined, but economic
characteristics were only relevant when examining blocks. This suggests that some neighborhood
features have diffuse effects that operate over larger areas, while other features have a highly
While these two studies clearly suggest that we should be very cautious in how we operationalize
neighborhoods, the reality is that we rarely have data precise enough to map on to such small
areas as census blocks, nor that we can use to generate a neighborhood unit s specific to each individual’s personal definition of neighborhood. By far, the most common small geographic unit
for which we can obtain data is the census tract. In one sense, this makes our process of
operationalization easier since we usually have just one option. However, the research described
above, combined with many similar studies, strongly suggest s that researchers must be aware of
the limitations of these data, and we must always be clear and honest about the implications of
these limitations for our findings and conclusions. This is something that you should always keep
in mind as you evaluate the research findings throughout this course, and throughout your
Some background for this week’s readings
Now, moving on to this week…. This week, we start a unit of the course that will introduce you
to the major theoretical perspectives in criminology that deal with communities and crime. This
week’s readings are on ‘social disorganization theory,’ which you have probably heard about in
other courses since it is a foundational theory in criminology. Subsequent weeks will deal with
other theories. For example, next week’s readings will introduce some key extensions and
expansions of social disorganization theory, including the concepts of collective efficacy and
informal social control. In the week following that, we will read articles devoted to the theory of
differential association, and finally (after taking Exam #1), we will cover a couple of alternative
theoretical explanations that are perhaps less popular, but still important for understanding why
crime is higher in some communities than others. However, before we start discussing specific
theories, it is important to understand the broad distinction between micro-level, macro-level,
and multi-level approaches, which is what I address in the remainder of these notes.
Micro-level approaches to crime tend to deal solely with individuals, or sometimes families.
They are typically interested in the question of why some people are more likely to engage in
crime or delinquency than others, and they typically point to specific characteristics of
individuals to explain this variation. For example, Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) widely
studied ‘general theory of crime’ argues that children with low self-control are more likely to
engage in a wide range of delinquent, criminal, and analogous behaviors. They believe that
people who are high in self-control are better able to resist criminal impulses, while those with
lower levels of self-control are more likely to give in to the temptation and immediate
gratification associated with crime and deviance. Moreover, they claim that the primary source of
self-control in children is effective parenting. The important thing to note here is that all of the
key concepts of this theory— effective parenting , which increases self-control in children, which
leads to lower levels of criminal behavior —are characteristics of individuals.
On the other hand, purely macro-level approaches deal with larger units of analysis such as
neighborhoods, cities, states, or entire nations. The theory that we are reading about this week—
social disorganization theory—is a good example. As we will see, the original formulation of the
theory by Shaw and McKay (1942) attempts to explain not why some people are more likely to
engage in crime, but rather why some neighborhoods have higher crime rates. Now, you might
be thinking that in order for a neighborhood to have a high crime rate, many individuals must
have committed crimes there. However, the explanation provided by social disorganization
theory, as well as other macro-level theories, involves solely the characteristics of places, such as the poverty rate, urban/suburban/rural, the percentage of renters vs. owners in an area, or how
much residential turnover there is in a neighborhood.
Finally, there is a relatively small but growing number of theoretical explanations that are
considered to be multi-level . That is, they incorporate both the characteristics of individuals and
characteristics of the broader contexts that those individuals exist within. The specific context
that this course focuses on is the community or neighborhood. However, there are many other
interesting contexts that could influence criminal or delinquent behavior, such as schools,
workplaces, and cities. We will occasionally encounter multi-level explanations throughout this
course. For example, some researchers combine the concepts of self-control (a micro-level
theory) and social disorganization (a macro-level theory) to explain variation in involvement in
crime and delinquency. These researchers argue that it is more difficult for effective parents to
instill self-control in their children (micro) when they live in disorganized neighborhoods
(macro). Multi-level theories can often be the most appealing, but they are usually the most
difficult to test since they require us to collect information about people as well as the places
where they live, work, and play.
As you work through the readings this week, and in subsequent weeks, be sure to keep in mind
this distinction between micro-level, macro-level, and multi-level theory and research. Consider
which type of argument the authors are making, and whether it is the appropriate level for their
propositions and hypotheses. Could the same arguments be applied at one of the other levels?
Would it be better to develop the theory as a multi-level explanation? Can all macro-level
theories be boiled down to micro-level causes and effects?
Happy reading and h ave a great week!
Coulton, Claudia J., Jill Korbin, Tsui Chan, and Marilyn Su. 2001. “Mapping Residents’
Perceptions of Neighborhood Boundaries: A Methodological Note.” American Journal of
Community Psychology 29:371-383.
Hipp, John R. 2007. “Block, Tract, and Levels of Aggregation: Neighborhood Structure and
Crime and Disorder as a Case in Point .” American Sociological Review 72:659-680.
Wellman, Barry, and Barry Leighton. 1979. “Networks, Neighborhoods, and Communities:
Approaches to the Study of the Community Question”. Urban Affairs Quarterly 14: 363-