Coined by Robert Sampson, Stephen Raudenbush, and Felton Earls, collective efficacy refers to mutual trust among neighbors combined with a willingness to act on behalf of the common good, specifically to supervise children and maintain public order. In communities where collective efficacy is high, neighbors interact with one another, residents can count on their neighbors for various types of social support such as childcare, people intervene to prevent teenagers from engaging in delinquent acts, and neighborhood leaders struggle to obtain funding from governments and local businesses to help improve neighborhood conditions.
Inspired in large part by a deep-rooted commitment to developing a rich sociological understanding of the impact of community characteristics on crime, especially acts of interpersonal violence in impoverished inner-city communities, these social scientists have conducted pathbreaking studies showing that collective efficacy mediates the effects of neighborhood poverty on violations of legal and social norms.
Research in the late 1990s showed that in Chicago neighborhoods where concentrated poverty was high, collective efficacy was low, which is why, it was hypothesized, these neighborhoods had higher rates of crime. The data showed that collective efficacy—not race or poverty—was the greatest single predictor of violent crime. However, collective efficacy does not completely mediate the relationship between a community’s structural characteristics and crime. For example, research has controlled for collective efficacy and still shown that concentrated disadvantage exerts independent effects on violent crime. Therefore, although it is necessary to develop community-based, informal crime prevention strategies, such approaches should not be viewed as substitutes for economic strategies and public spending. To nourish a community, and to develop one that is rich in collective efficacy, jobs and effective social programs are necessary.
Several key issues should be addressed in future theoretical work on collective efficacy. For example, it can take different shapes and forms, and definitions of the “common good” of a neighborhood may vary among residents in different contexts or situations. If social cohesion and trust are considered, for instance, many poor urban public housing residents may feel that the police are oppressive and are more likely to target them and their neighbors for wrongdoing than those in more affluent areas. So, in addition to counting on their neighbors to help them care for their children, they may be able to rely on them to hide from the police if they are being investigated for criminal activity.
Similarly, an exploratory qualitative study of separation/divorce sexual assault in rural Ohio revealed that what is perceived as the common good may actually be behaviors and discourses that threaten the health and well-being of women seeking freedom from abusive male partners. For example, if one considers social cohesion, many of the women interviewed (67%, n = 29) for this study reported a variety of ways in which their ex-partners’ male peers (some of whom were police officers) perpetuated and legitimated sexual assault. Moreover, in rural sections of Ohio and other states, such as Kentucky, research has shown that there is widespread acceptance of woman abuse and community norms prohibiting victims from publicly talking about their experiences and from seeking social support.
Another issue is that many poor neighborhood residents, like a sizable portion of middle- and upper-class people, are reluctant to deal with crime and disorder themselves. This does not mean, however, that they are unwilling to act on behalf of the common good or that they are unwilling to contribute to making their communities safer. Rather, many people prefer formal means of social control and will call the police if they directly observe or suspect crime in their community. Thus, future research on collective efficacy should ask survey respondents questions about the likelihood of their neighbors seeking the assistance of the police or other authorities.
Measures of social cohesion and trust need to be elaborated to address other important issues such as the following:
• The type of people in the neighborhood who can be trusted
• The people to whom respondents are most closely tied
• The reasons why people in a neighborhood do not get along
• The specific types of values that are shared or not shared by people in the neighborhood
Less than a handful of studies have applied collective efficacy theory to woman abuse in intimate, heterosexual relationships. Moreover, almost all studies of collective efficacy and crime use quantitative techniques, such as analyses of census data. However, many rural social problems are not easy to study using such methods, which is perhaps one of the key reasons why so few researchers focus on crime in these settings.
Despite these concerns, theoretical and empirical work on collective efficacy has had a major influence on criminology and will continue to do so in the future. Further, research has shown that informal methods of social control are highly effective means of making communities safer.