Collective efficacy

‘Community’ has been prescribed for much of what allegedly ails modern society. Indeed, calls for a return to community values and community governance are being heard from across the spectrum. Whether from politicians (on both the left and right), private foundations, developers,, entrepreneurs,  government officials, communitarians, or social scientists, the appeals to community seem ubiquitous.

Intellectual interest in the idea of community is, of course, quaint. The very discipline of sociology was founded on the upheavals of the late 19th century widely thought to have frayed the social fabric of local communities. In the mid-20th century, Robert Nisbet (1953) noted what he called the ‘ideology of lament’ – a widespread concern that something has been lost in modern society, and that a return to community is in order. Yet again, Robert Putnam (2000)has bemoaned the loss of community and decline of civic society as we enter the 21st century.

There is, however, a problem, one that presents us with a deepening array of ironies, paradoxes, and fundamental questions. For starters, the ‘loss of community’ thesis was wrong 100 years ago and remains so today.

For another, if community has come to mean everything good, then as a concept it loses its analytic bite and therefore means nothing. The current appropriation of community rhetoric also tends connotations to the dark side of communal life, and the clear evidence that a generation of community-building efforts came up largely empty.

One might ask, what do we stand to lose by a return to community and the idea of community governance and control – what does such a communal life potentially deny?

Does the current drumbeat of community values beseech a mythical past, raising the paradox of returning to nowhere? Or to a suffocating yesterday? Academic fashions have not helped matters either. Facile debates about globalization have blinded many social scientists and politicians to the persistence of local variation, concentration, and place stratification. We are said to live in an era of globalization that renders place irrelevant – the internet, cell phones, and planes are the coin of the global realm, not social difference.

Yet serious globalization theorists suggest that, if anything, the reverse is true. The traditional stratification of resources by place remains entrenched despite the advance of globalization. Paradoxically, in fact, inequality among communities in life chances has increased in salience along with, and perhaps has been exacerbated by, globalization.

In short, society and community remain important but mired in myth. In this paper we consider the nature of communities in modern society, attempting to separate fact from fiction, and policy relevant theory from ideology. We discuss in particular the promises and perils of community governance, with a special focus on public order and community well being. Our position is that society and community do matter, but not for everything.

■ First, there is considerable inequality between communities in terms of socioeconomic and racial segregation. There is also clear evidence on the connection of concentrated disadvantage with the geographic isolation of social,  racial and ethnic minority groups.

■ Second, a number of social problems tend to come bundled together at the community level, including, but not limited to, crime, social and physical disorder, infant mortality, school dropout and child maltreatment.

■ Third, these two sets of clusters are themselves related – community predictors common to many child and adolescent outcomes include the concentration of poverty, social and racial isolation, single-parent families..

■ Fourth, the ecological differentiation by factors such as social class, race, and health is a robust and apparently increasing occurrence that emerges at multiple levels of geography. The place stratification of local communities is seen for both smaller parts of communities and larger community areas – even cities.

■ Fifth, the ecological concentration of poverty appears to have increased significantly during recent decades, as has the concentration of affluence at the upper end of the income scale.

Taken together, these findings yield an important clue in thinking about why it is that communities matter for well-being and hence public governance. If multiple and seemingly disparate outcomes are linked together empirically across communities and are predicted by similar characteristics, there may be common underlying causes or mediating mechanisms.

Collective efficacy

‘social cohesion among community members combined with their willingness to intervene on behalf of the common good’

Rejecting the outmoded assumption that communities are characterized by dense, intimate, emotional bonds, we define communities ecologically and highlight variations in the working trust and shared willingness of residents to intervene in achieving social control.

The concept of community collective efficacy captures the link between cohesion – especially working trust – and shared expectations for action. Just as self-efficacy is situated rather than general (one has self-efficacy relative to a particular task), a community’s efficacy exists relative to specific tasks such as maintaining public order. The key causal mechanism in collective efficacy theory is social control enacted under conditions of social trust.

Viewed through this theoretical lens, collective efficacy is a task-specific construct that draws attention to shared expectations and mutual engagement by residents in local social control. To measure the social control aspect of collective efficacy, residents were questioned about the likelihood that their community members could be counted on to take action under various scenarios (for example, children skipping school and hanging out on a street corner, or the ambulance station closest to home being threatened with budget cuts).

The cohesion dimension has been measured by items that capture local trust, willingness to help community members, and shared values. Controlling for a wide range of individual and community characteristics, including well being and the density of friendship ties, collective efficacy directly predicts lower rates of violence (Sampson et al 1997).

Moving away from a focus on private ties, the use of the term collective efficacy is meant to signify an emphasis on shared beliefs in a community’s capability for action to achieve an intended effect, coupled with an active sense of engagement on the part of residents.

Some density of social networks is essential, to be sure, especially networks rooted in social trust. But the key theoretical point is that networks have to be activated to be ultimately meaningful. Distinguishing between the resource potential represented by personal ties, on the one hand, and the shared expectations for action among community members represented by collective efficacy, on the other, helps clarify the dense networks paradox. Namely, social networks foster the conditions under which collective efficacy may flourish, but they are not sufficient for the exercise of control.

Thus the theoretical framework proposed here recognizes the transformed landscape of modern life, holding that while community efficacy may depend on working trust and social interaction, it does not require that a community member or an authority figure be a close or personal friend.

The natural question that follows is: What are the kinds of contexts and policies that promote collective efficacy? Inequality in resources matters greatly for explaining the production of collective efficacy. Concentrated disadvantage and lack of “ownership”, in particular, predict lower levels of collective efficacy.

In one recent study, it was shown that both initial levels of concentrated poverty and unexpected increases in poverty over the course of a 20- year period led to the erosion of collective efficacy in communities (Sampson and Morenoff 2004), supporting the inference that collective efficacy is causally related to structural inequality. Moreover, the associations of disadvantage and inequality with inappropriate behavior are significantly reduced when collective efficacy is controlled.

These patterns are consistent with the inference that larger community constraints influence inappropriate behavior in part through the mediating or more proximate role of collective efficacy (Sampson et al 1997). Although beyond the scope of this paper, we would also argue that a strong institutional infrastructure and working trust among organizations help sustain capacity for social action in a way that transcends traditional personal ties.

In other words, organizations are at least in principle able to foster collective efficacy, often through strategic networking of their own. Whether garbage removal, choosing the site of a fire station, school improvements, or emergency responses, a continuous stream of challenges faces modern communities, challenges that no longer can be met (if they ever were) by relying solely on individuals.

Action depends on connections among organizations, connections that are not necessarily dense or reflective of the structure of personal ties in a community. Research supports this position, showing that the density of local organizations and voluntary associations predicts higher levels of collective efficacy.

Governance implications

Collective efficacy theory suggests first of all that information is a tool of community governance. The tradition has usually been for government(s) and local organizations to hoard information that bears on evaluation. To date, information technologies have been used as tools mainly and perhaps only by ‘experts’—mostly law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

True to the notion that collective efficacy is fundamentally a leveling process that entails civic participation, such information should not just be available to the agencies or researchers alone. With the rapid spread of technology, dissemination of data and the mapping of challenges could, in principle, be made available to local residents and community-based organizations. If residents knew when and what was occurring appropriate action could be undertaken or coordinated.

Such knowledge could ultimately lead to a sense of increased collective efficacy on the part of residents, and perhaps demands that ameliorative efforts be undertaken by the appropriate institutions.

In short, it is not simply a plea for devolution of control to communities, but rather an argument for analytic information sharing.  If concentrated disadvantage is by far the major predictor of poverty and decreased well being, as the data clearly suggest, then at the end of the day, policies to eradicate these events are ultimately strategies to eradicate inequality.

At least in theory, community control emphasizes the establishment of working partnerships between the agents which are given authority and the community to reduce tension and enhance well being.

Community is most relevant to present theoretical concerns with regard to its explicit goal of fostering greater civic involvement by residents in the social life of their communities.

One logical implication is to act as a catalyst in sparking a sense of local ownership over public space and greater activation of informal social control. A key organizational tool designed to accomplish this outcome  is the regularly scheduled meetings of community leaders or role models  with residents of their community, usually in local institutions with public access (for example community halls, schools, etc.). The idea is to ensure community input in the problem-solving process.

Does it work?

Evidence suggests that meetings were one of the most visible and unique features of community (Skogan and Harnett 1997). The meeting is of particular interest because it can trigger the sort of civic involvement that has been problematic in many communities.

In this sense we see the value of community not so much in community members taking direct action, but in the institutionalization of forums for input and social control by citizens. The action should be undertaken by those given the authority or have other (expert)value to add in finding solution(s).

As there might be issues of mistrust in the (part of) communities that bear the brunt of inequality, as where cooperative efforts might fail even though all residents share a desire for a solution and perhaps even a latent willingness to get involved. A long-standing problem in the minority communities (and most cities) is a lack of trust between authority and residents. As a result, it becomes difficult in communities of concentrated inequality to reach a consensus on what constituted legitimate and constructive activity.

Rather than shut to out, leaders in community should demand change and essentially become an intermediary institution within the community, adjudicating between conflicting goals and providing legitimacy for proper activities.

Constructing the ‘good’ community

The promise of collective efficacy theory is that it reaffirms the importance of thinking about social ways to approach social problems. Too often policies are reductionist in nature, looking to change or incapacitate individuals, usually in a hierarchical fashion with State controls dominant.

The perspective here suggests nearly the opposite, although it is not that individuals are unimportant, or that State controls are unnecessary or necessarily unjust. Rather, the goal is to articulate how we might enhance society from theoretical perspectives on community-level change, especially policies that involve government community intersections.

Although some insights were gained, nonetheless it is important to caution against falling too far into the trap of local determinism. The ideal of residents joining forces in order to build community and maintain social order is largely a positive one, but what happens within communities is shaped to large degree by extra-local social forces, the wider political economy, and other spatial dynamics.

In addition to encouraging communities to mobilize via strategies of informal social control, strategies are needed to address the larger social-ecological changes that have been challenging our societies – especially the constraints imposed by resource inequality, racial segregation, and concentrated poverty.

There are also obvious limits to community, which can be drawn upon for negative as well as positive goals. In the pursuit of informal social control, there is the danger that freedoms will be restricted unnecessarily – that individuals will face unwanted and even unjust scrutiny.

Consider further that many a community has come together to block the residential entry of minority groups.  Furthermore, the mere existence of local institutions does not ensure that their interests coincide with that of the community.

Much effort in the area of community governance seems to imply that we just need to get local organizations to work together to solve local problems. But in many cases organizations, such as interest groups, are in the community but not of the community (McRoberts 2003). There is good evidence, in fact, that local organizations often have as their primary goal organization survival at the expense of the wider community. These cautionary notes suggest that we must balance concerns for the collective with a concern for the realization of truly public goods.

To judge whether community structures serve collective needs one could apply the non-exclusivity requirement of a social good. This argues that safety, clean environments, quality education for children, active maintenance of inter-generational ties, the reciprocal exchange of information and services among families, and the shared willingness to intervene on behalf of local safety all produce a social good that yields positive externalities potentially of benefit to all residents – and children in particular.

It seems fitting to close, then, by reflecting on the essential features that go into making the ‘good’ community. The good community, at least with respect to well being, is one that is created not through marginalization, exclusion of outsiders, and the singular reliance on agencies of formal control.

Rather, the good community is one where the legitimacy of social order comes in part from the mutual engagement and negotiation among residents, mediating institutions, and agencies. Inevitably this means we have to come to terms with constructive opportunities for conflict resolution in the production of social goods.

It is instructive to recall Albert Hirschman’s (1970) classic work on the options available to persons in organizations – exit, voice, and loyalty. Residents of communities have long employed the exit option, often depleting the social capital of abandoned areas. Loyalty has been used as well, but often in an exclusionary manner – infamously in the case of racially or socially defended communities.

The success of a collective efficacy approach to community governance is tied ultimately to the equitable implementation of ‘voice’ in the process of building legitimate state and community authority, while at the same time redressing the durable social, economic and racial stratification by place that pervades modern societies. Communities are, after all, socially constructed, and so the process of constructing them should form the building block of our theories and policies. – It’s really you


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