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

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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

and relevant.

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

connections with.”

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

localized impact.

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

criminological studies.

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!

Cited studies

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-


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