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Ecology of Crime - City And Regional And City Differences

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Documented variations in local crime or arrest or offender rates date to the mid-nineteenth century. In France, for example, officials and researchers were particularly interested in seeing the effects of their new criminal laws. They looked at how many people were being arrested, imprisoned, flogged, or hung in different parts of the country. Researchers like Guerry and Quetelet found spatial variation in the rate at which people were being arrested for crime in different parts of the country (Brantingham and Brantingham).

The specifics of the patterns observed by these researchers still hold true when looking at spatial differences in crime rates today. In France, a few administrative subdivisions had very high rates, a few had very low rates, and many places were in between. Differences between regions were stable over time. In the United States, the South has been the highest violence region for quite some time K. Harris). Nevertheless, rates have varied widely in a range of locations. For example, the rate for people accused of crimes against persons for the period 1826–1830 ranged from 1 in 2,199 on the Mediterranean island of Corsica to 1 in 37,014 in Creuse in central France. In the United States reported violent crime rates at the state level in 1998 varied from 1,023 per 100,000 in Florida to 87 per 100,000 in North Dakota (Maguire and Pastore, eds. Table 3.118).

Patterns for violent and property crimes differ. Violent crimes were highest in rural areas of the U.S. South; in France during the 1990s property rates were highest in the industrialized, northern urban departments. During the same period in the United States, states with high rates of property crime were found not only in the South (Florida), but also in the far West (particularly in Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico) (Maguire and Pastore, eds., Table 3.116). In short, such patterns of local crime rates have proven durable in research over the past one hundred fifty years. Researchers in Britain during the mid-nineteenth century found comparable patterns at the county and local level (Glyde).

By the end of the nineteenth century, environmental criminologists had discovered the following fundamental features about spatial and temporal distributions of crime:

  1. There is spatial variation in rates of reported crime, and that variation shows up no matter the level of detail. The variation is higher in some places than in others, regardless of whether one looks at the large-scale units, such as counties, or at areas within counties, like different towns or different cities, or different sections of a city (Brantingham et al.).
  2. The spatial variation was persistent. Areas that were high on offense or offender or delinquency rates might stay high for a decade, or even generations, regardless of the physical changes made in or the population changes occurring in the locale.
  3. Sometimes the spatial patterns are not what one might expect. High violence in rural areas represents one case in point. In 1980, seventy-one out of the one hundred highest homicide rate counties in the United States were rural counties (Kposowa et al.).

American criminologists have worked hard to explain the higher rates of violence in the South. Some have suggested that historically rooted and racially linked subcultural variations are linked to higher violence (e.g., Messner and Rosenfeld). Studies since the early 1990s, however, focus not on race but on a culture of honor originating in historical patterns of independent pig farming in the Deep South (Cohen and Nisbett). The famous Hatfield-McCoy feud, for example, started over a pig.

A more micro-scale view on subcultural differences has emerged since the mid-1970s. This view builds on Louis Wirth's theory of urbanism (1938), which sought to explain differences in how people acted in cities as compared to nonurban locations. City size, density, and heterogeneity of populations were expected to affect residents' social networks, mood, and community involvement.

The subcultural theory of urbanism does not address crime per se, but rather unconventional behavior that deviates from broader societal norms. Both criminal behavior and delinquency could presumably be considered unconventional behaviors. The theory contains four propositions:

  1. Larger places develop more and more specialized subcultures than do less populous ones, and are therefore more culturally heterogeneous.
  2. More populous places develop not only more distinct subcultures but also more intense subcultures than less populous places.
  3. Between-group contact leads to mutual influence. Diffusion from more unusual to more typical groups is likelier the larger the atypical subculture and is therefore more likely in urban places.
  4. The more urban the place, the higher the rates of unconventionality relative to the wider society, because a) larger places generate more diverse and more specialized subcultures; and b) critical mass and intergroup friction are likelier in larger places (Fischer, 1995, pp. 545–546).

Subcultural theory is an ecological theory because it is about impacts of places, usually cities. This model could explain differences in crime and delinquency linked to city size, as well as urban versus suburban versus rural differences in offending rates and delinquency rates.

Researchers have tried to explain the causes of city-to-city (or metro area-to-metro area) differences in crime rates, the net of regional differences, concentrating largely either on economic or racial differences. A range of theorists link crime and related outcomes to structural inequality. Models differ in the aspects of inequality addressed, forces giving rise to inequality, outcomes of interest, or the different processes whereby inequality leads to crime or related outcomes. All these models presume a conflict perspective.

From the mid-1850s to the 1950s large U.S. cities witnessed increases in industrial manufacturing, and increasing needs for disciplined, cooperative workers. These shifts resulted in increasing orderliness and routine in white and ethnic urban neighborhoods, the improvements in the latter neighborhoods taking place as immigrants became assimilated into the workforce. African Americans, in response to strong demand during World War II, and decreased segregation at least in some cities in the 1960s, also joined these occupational groups, with concomitant shifts in their neighborhoods. This was followed, from about 1965 onward, by deindustrialization and the economic deconcentration of manufacturing jobs from central city locations. Particularly hard hit were African American communities because those workers were the last group permitted entry to the industrial jobs, and the group whose ability to move to the new jobs was lowest.

Inequality theorists describe how in the last thirty years industrial restructuring and the shift to post-industrial economies have further accelerated processes leading to increased inequality across urban communities (e.g., Hagan and Peterson). These shifts have markedly affected urbanites' mood (Fisher, 1982) and their economic well-being. More specifically, since the 1960s poverty has increased rapidly in urban centers, with African Americans being heavily represented among the urban poor. These rapidly increasing concentrations of poverty have transformed low-income, urban communities. In many communities welfare-dependent, female-headed households have become the norm.

Concentration effects linked to high poverty levels may explain between-city differences in crime rates as well as between-community differences. In extremely poor, predominantly African American urban communities, fundamental transformations take place in neighborhood life when poverty rates climb past 39 percent following class-selective out-migration by lower-middle to middle income African American households (Wilson). The broader commitment to the formal economy falters, as does commitment to mainstream values. Neighborhood institutions disappear, their customer base severely eroded. The joblessness itself triggers a range of social problems, including more disorderly street life, drug use, and crime. Concentration effects are economic in origin, and can operate in the context of a stratified labor market.

As neighborhoods become increasingly disorderly and socially isolated, outsiders avoid them and outside employers become more wary of hiring residents from these stigmatized locations; those remaining become increasingly socially isolated, making it even more difficult to network and get back into the mainstream economy. These represent concentration effects emerging from the extremely high density of unemployment, problems and disadvantage in these locations, not from the racial composition of the locales themselves. Recent ethnographies confirm such isolation in predominantly African American and some predominantly Hispanic communities (e.g., Bourgois).

As neighborhoods become increasingly disadvantaged one might expect crime to go up for any number of reasons. Four possible functional dynamics have been proposed at the city level, focusing on racial inequality, that could be driven by the concentration effects described by W. J. Wilson (Messner and Golden). One path expects more widespread "social disorganization/anomie" and thus more violence as racial inequality increases. Ties across communities will be poorer, and commitment to norms will weaken. Wilson would say that commitment to the formal economy and associated values would weaken. A second pathway ("relative deprivation/frustration-aggression") expects that increasing racial inequality makes the disadvantaged groups experience more relative deprivation; these sentiments increase offending rates among members of those disadvantaged groups. So violence rates just among the deprived groups should increase. A third pathway ("relative gratification/reduced aggression") looks at the reverse; as racial inequality increases those in the better-off contingent, that is, whites, should have lower offending rates because they are less deprived and more advantaged. Finally, an "opportunity effect" model suggests that as concentrations of extremely poor and often African American groups increases in cities, and chances for meaningful contacts between various racial groups decrease, interracial violence rates should drop. Blacks and whites simply have fewer chances of interacting with each other as racial inequality and isolation increase.

In addition to crime being an outcome influenced by inequality, if it increases as disadvantage increases, it can spur further concentration effects, including neighborhood depopulation, as selective out-migration increases.

An alternate view on racial inequality and crime emerges from D. Massey's work on segregation (Massey and Denton). His historical perspective suggests that virtually all ethnic groups except African Americans have moved out of segregated, inner-city, impoverished locations, and successfully assimilated. His work also highlights the constraints on African Americans migrating out of severely distressed neighborhoods. Crime's ability to cause neighborhood depopulation may be limited by poor African Americans continuing to move in, and limitations on the African Americans attempting to leave the distressed neighborhoods. For Massey, concentration effects emerge from long-standing racial attitudes and practices, not economic shifts.

Many researchers addressing city and metropolitan area changes work within a "new urban sociology" perspective, and the processes they highlight may help explain increasing crime rates from the late 1960s through the early 1990s in many large cities, and differences in crime rates between cities and suburban 1ocations (Gottdiener, The New Urban Sociology). These analysts point out:

  1. The international political economy has significant effects on urban, suburban, and rural life.
  2. A fundamental transformation of metropolitan structures took place in the last thirty to forty years as hierarchically arranged, central-city-dominated metro areas serving outlying suburbs and rural areas were transformed into highly differentiated, economically deconcentrated polynucleated metropolitan structures.
  3. The transformation has produced highly uneven development, as capitalist growth always does, resulting in more radical spatial separations of different races and classes, reflected, for example, in increasing numbers of gated communities, hypersegregated "excluded ghettos," and "totalizing suburbs" where all residents' needs can be met in a small area (Marcuse); there is increasing economic, social, and political separation not only within the cities but also in the broader metropolitan areas.
  4. As homogeneity in many city neighborhoods has decreased, so too have shared local ties. These shifts make for weaker local political cultures. In the language of systemic control theory, the increased heterogeneity and decreased local ties weaken informal local ties or parochial control, and the strength of public control as well. In the language of routine activity theory, fewer committed informal place managers may be present, or it may be harder to place managers to decide who belongs where.

The recent crime drop seen in many larger cities starting around 1990 or 1992, and continuing into the mid or even late 1990s has drawn considerable attention. Some have suggested the decline is due to better, "smarter" policing (e.g., Bratton), others have suggested it was due to declining gun use among juveniles, which may have linked to declining activity of crack cocaine-drug dealing activities, but the causes may vary from city to city (Fagan et al.).

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