In This Article Contextual Analysis of Crime

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Neighborhood Context and Delinquency
  • School Context and Delinquency
  • Situational Opportunity, Unstructured Socialization, and Delinquency

Criminology Contextual Analysis of Crime
Matt Vogel, Brittany Jaecques
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0200


Criminologists have a long-standing interest in the relationship between community characteristics and crime. Much of this research has focused on how the social processes at work within neighborhoods influence aggregate rates of crime and delinquency. When most people think of neighborhoods and crime, it is usually this broad “neighborhood effects” literature. A second, albeit less common approach to studying neighborhood influences in criminology has been to examine how neighborhood characteristics affect individual behaviors. This is commonly referred to as “contextual analyses” or “contextual effects” research. It is worth noting that social context can refer to any social environment external to the individual, including families, peer groups, or schools. In this sense, many criminological perspectives point to the role of contextual factors in crime causation. However, the term “contextual effect” is most often used to describe how community characteristics, such as economic disadvantage, informal social control, and collective efficacy are related to individual variation in offending. In recent years, contextual studies have expanded to (1) consider the role of other social contexts, particularly schools, in crime causation and (2) examine how contextual factors mitigate or exacerbate the associations between individual risk-factors and offending. The broader criminological research on neighborhood effects, as well as some of the recent research examining neighborhood effects on individual behavior, has been succinctly summarized in earlier articles in this Modules (for instance, see “Situational Action Theory” and “Social Ecology of Crime”). Where appropriate, this article refers the reader to these summaries for a more comprehensive treatment of the subtopics covered here. In an effort to avoid substantial overlap, this article instead focuses on what the authors see as the most pressing developments in the study of contextual influences on crime and delinquency––namely, the increasing focus on school context, the growing person-context perspective, and methodological considerations unique to this area of research.

General Overviews

Unlike some of the other topics covered in this series, the study of contextual effects does not have the same coherent, canonical set of references to which scholars customarily refer. There are several classic texts on communities and crime that underscore the importance of social context in crime causation. The chapter Bursik and Grasmick 1996 provides a detailed overview of these earlier works. Liska 1990 highlights the importance of both aggregate dependent variables and contextual causal variables in the field, explaining that while these variables may explain only a small percentage of the variance in offending, they contribute significantly to understanding macro-micro linkages in theory. More contemporary works, such as Wikström and Sampson 2003, Wikström 2004, and Zimmerman and Messner 2012, help elucidate the mechanisms linking broader social environments with variation in individual behavior. Likewise, Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn 2000, which focuses on neighborhood context and child well-being, further emphasizes the enduring importance of neighborhoods on a variety of psychosocial domains, above and beyond criminal behavior. Kubrin and Weitzer 2003 and Sampson, et al. 2002 review the state of neighborhood studies more generally and provide roadmaps for future work in this area. Finally, Gottfredson 2001 provides a comprehensive overview of school context and delinquency, laying the groundwork for more recent analyses examining the influence of school context on student behavior.

  • Bursik, Robert J., and Harold Grasmick. 1996. Use of contextual analysis in models of criminal behavior. In Delinquency and crime: Current theories. Edited by J. David Hawkings, 236–267. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    This chapter provides a detailed overview of the unique theoretical and methodological issues that arise in the contextual analysis of crime. The authors focus specifically on issues related to choosing appropriate aggregations of “context,” measuring features of these contexts, and appropriately modeling individual and contextual process simultaneously.

  • Gottfredson, Denise C. 2001. Schools and delinquency. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Provides a comprehensive review of the research on schools and delinquency. Identifies a number of challenges to school-based research (including the need for person-context research) and discusses potential avenues for school-based delinquency prevention.

  • Kubrin, Charis, and Ronald Weitzer. 2003. New directions in social disorganization research. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 40:374–402.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427803256238E-mail Citation »

    This article “takes stock” of the literature on social disorganization and crime. The authors provide a comprehensive overview of neighborhood-effects research and identify several notable gaps in the literature. In particular, their discussion of neighborhood effects on individual outcomes and the issues with measuring spatial processes remain relevant today.

  • Leventhal, Tama, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn. 2000. The neighborhoods they live in: The effects of neighborhood residence on child and adolescent outcomes. Psychological Bulletin 126:309–337.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.126.2.309E-mail Citation »

    Provides a review of the research on neighborhood effects on child outcomes. Topics include methodological issues, theoretical implications, and key findings regarding the relationship between neighborhoods and outcomes.

  • Liska, Allen E. 1990. The significance of aggregate dependent variables and contextual independent variables for linking macro and micro theories. Social Psychology Quarterly 292–301.

    DOI: 10.2307/2786735E-mail Citation »

    The value of aggregate-dependent variables and contextual-causal variables should not be judged solely by the amount of variance they explain, but by their theoretical implications. Aggregate dependent variables are important as they are properties of social units and capture patterns and relationships that individual level factors do not.

  • Sampson, Robert J., Jeffrey D. Morenoff, and Thomas Gannon-Rowley. 2002. Assessing “Neighborhood effects”: Social processes and new directions in research. Annual Review of Sociology 28:443–478.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.28.110601.141114E-mail Citation »

    Reviews the literature of neighborhood effects from the mid-1990s to 2001, and discusses methodological issues in the area, particularly selection bias. Final comments address directions for future research and strategies that may prove useful.

  • Wikström, Per Olaf. 2004. Crime as alternative: Towards a cross-level situational action theory of crime causation. In Beyond empiricism: Institutions and intentions in the study of crime, advances in criminological theory. Edited by J. McCord, 1–38. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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    This chapter further elucidates the mechanisms through which individual risk factors (e.g., morality, low self-control) interact with broader environmental factors leading to criminogenic behavior settings (temptations, provocations, weak deterrence) to influence offending.

  • Wikström, Per Olaf H., and Robert J. Sampson. 2003. Social mechanisms of community influences on crime and pathways in criminality. In The causes of conduct disorder and serious juvenile delinquency. Edited by B. Lahey, T. Moffitt, and A. Caspi, 118–148. New York: Guilford.

    E-mail Citation »

    A comprehensive overview of community context and crime. Provides a detailed description of the pathways through which neighborhoods influence behavior. The authors demarcate and situate influences and encourage researchers to focus on (1) measurement, (2) mechanisms, and (3) the interactions between individual and contextual risk factors.

  • Zimmerman, Gregory M., and Steven F. Messner. 2012. Person-in-context: Insights and issues in research on neighborhoods and crime. In The future of criminology. Edited by Brandon C. Welsh and Rolf Loeber, 70–78. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199917938.003.0009E-mail Citation »

    Provides a succinct summary of person-context research in criminology and catalogues findings from recent research examining the interactions between neighborhood characteristics, individual risk-factors, and crime.

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