Collective efficacy is broadly defined as the extent to which community members believe they are able to intervene in community issues to maintain social control and solve community problems. The thinking behind the concept was born out of a discussion of the social disorganization theory. The actual concept was first introduced by Robert J. Sampson, Stephen W. Raudenbush, and Felton Earls 1997) in a 1997 Science article titled “Neighborhood and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy.” Since that time, there has been a plethora of analytical tests that consistently support the argument for lower levels of violent crime in neighborhoods with higher levels of collective efficacy.
In criminology, collective efficacy has been adapted and extended from social psychology to examine the differential ability of communities to prevent crime and/or disorder. The concept is seen as a more useful and contemporary framework of community organization. Collective efficacy theory is beneficial in two ways. First, it can be applied in a manner that evaluates the degree of a neighborhood’s ability (as opposed to the efforts of an individual within the community) to effectively organize resources to resolve issues. Second, the concept of collective efficacy does not rely on the existence of strong bonds between individuals within the community, which allows research to transcend the absence of interpersonal bonds, a phenomenon that has plagued urban criminological studies. By the same token, within the communities in which residents exhibited higher levels of collective efficacy, there appears to be a corresponding feeling of obligation to intervene in situations to prevent violence.
Collective efficacy at the neighborhood level necessitates mutual trust and cohesion among residents. Increasing perceptions of collective efficacy lead to reductions in fear of crime so much so that the concept is thought to be critical in explaining differences in levels of crime between neighborhoods. Levels of collective efficacy can, therefore, be increased, and levels of crime decreased, by bringing neighbors together to define common problems and to work collectively toward solutions. On the other hand, communities are not characterized by intimate ties but are, instead, defined by a working relationship of trust, shared goals, and cohesion, all of which contribute to collective efficacy.
It is important to note that the concept in its original form is goal-specific. Therefore, a community’s level of collective efficacy, with respect to its impact on neighborhood crime, is not equal to its ability to achieve other outcomes. Low levels of collective efficacy are more likely to be found in disadvantaged neighborhoods where inequality of resources poses serious challenges. On the other hand, levels of collective efficacy are related to levels of positive actions in poor, disadvantaged communities as evidenced by decreasing crime, delinquency, and the establishment of positive peer networks for youths.
Groups have an internal control capacity that allows them to uphold specific values, norms, and goals. Not surprisingly, therefore, collective sanctions establish a system of compliance norms that can be enjoyed by all members. As such, reward and punishment for members who violate these values, norms, and goals are also characteristic. Such social sanctions serve as deterrents for those who might otherwise violate group expectations. Therefore, a behavioral model based on persuasion, selective incentives, and control of opportunity structures as an effective mechanism to ensure and maintain acceptable levels of collective group behavior may be best. Additionally, agents such as the judicial system employ sanctions through bureaucratic structures that operate very slowly, often with years elapsing between breaches and punishments. In contrast, collective sanctions within group settings tend to be quicker and more effective. Although the original presentations of collective efficacy did not address the concept from the community context, later approaches explore and explain the intricacies of social control upon which the concept is closely tied. This is especially important since exogenous agencies have weaker control capabilities than internal measures.
In the final analysis, levels of crime are negatively associated with collective efficacy, that is, the higher a community’s level of collective efficacy, the lower the community’s level of crime. The concept therefore has implications for both theoretical and policy-relevant decision making as it relates to crime. This is particularly true when one evaluates the relative value of informal and formal mechanisms of social control.
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