Informal social control and crime management in Belfast

Brewer, J. D., Lockhart, B., & Rodgers, P.

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Brewer, J. D., Lockhart, B., & Rodgers, P. (1998). Informal social control and crime management in Belfast. British Journal of Sociology, 49(4), 570-585.

Civil unrest , Community , Crime management , Ethnography , Informal social control , Northern Ireland

This paper examines the interplay between informal social control, civil unrest and local crime management in Belfast. Official crime management is the responsibility of the police, but where this role is contested, 'popular' or local forms of crime management occur. The local management of crime is accomplished in certain localities in Belfast by several mechanisms that extend beyond the policing role of the paramilitaries, and popular crime management is rooted in social processes, such as the survival of community structures, extended family kinship patterns, neighbourliness and legitimate authority accorded to community representatives, which constitute important informal social controls. Informal social control is recognized as important in inhibiting crime, but this paper reports on its role in the management of crime in the absence of reporting it to the police. These informal social controls are localized, being mediated by class, communal redevelopment, civil unrest and other social transformations affecting the locality. In this respect, political violence has helped, locally, to protect some areas from the worst vagaries of community breakdown and dislocation, with a positive effect on crime management. These issues are explored ethnographically by means of in-depth qualitative research.

Main finding
While Belfast may appear to be socially disorganized due to its civil unrest, the city retains informal social control at the neighborhood level. Paramilitary policing serves as a popular method of crime management, but crime is also managed informally by a local moral economy and a communication network that serve to preempt criminal acts against neighbors and to respond to crime without state intervention. Civil unrest has contributed to a local sense of community in certain areas and has been cited as an important factor in the survival of community structures. While neighborhoods with strong social controls can defend against petty crimes, the authors argue that they are ineffective against organized crime, which could more easily expand where neighbors also have negative attitudes towards police and paramilitary organizations.

Description of method used in the article
The authors conducted interviews with 115 individuals and with 10 focus groups, including 49 community organizations in East Belfast and 37 in West Belfast. Interview topics covered experiences of social change and the perception and management of crime.

Of some practical use if combined with other research

Organising categories

Crime and Aggression
Field Observations Interviews
Physical types
Geographic locations