Systematic Social Observation of Public Spaces: A New Look at Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods

Robert J. Sampson & Stephen W. Raudenbush

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Sampson, R. J. & Raudenbush, S. W. (1). Systematic Social Observation of Public Spaces: A New Look at Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods. American Journal of Sociology, 105(3), 603–651.

This article assesses the sources and consequences of public disorder. Based on the videotaping and systematic rating of more than 23,000 street segments in Chicago, highly reliable scales of social and physical disorder for 196 neighborhoods are constructed. Census data, police records, and an independent survey of more than 3,500 residents are then integrated to test a theory of collective efficacy and structural constraints. Defined as cohesion among residents combined with shared expectations for the social control of public space, collective efficacy explains lower rates of crime and observed disorder after controlling neighborhood structural characteristics. Collective efficacy is also linked to lower rates of violent crime after accounting for disorder and the reciprocal effects of violence. Contrary to the “broken windows” theory, however, the relationship between public disorder and crime is spurious except perhaps for robbery.

Main finding
Systematic Social Observation (SSO) uncovers important principles of public space design and characteristics, such as mixed land use, for the perception of crime and danger. The authors' findings indicate that structural disadvantage and collective efficacy are greater predictors of an area's crime than disorder in public space, casting doubt on "broken windows" policing tactics.

Description of method used in the article
The authors conducted a content analysis of video recordings of 23,000 street segments in Chicago to create scales of social and physical disorder at the neighborhood level. These scales were combined with a survey of more than 3,500 residents in order to measure disorder, cohesion, control, and crime. Census data and police records were also utilized.

Of practical use

Organising categories

Crime and Aggression
Content analysis Field Observations Survey
Physical types
Geographic locations