Criminology Local Institutions and Neighborhood Crime
Randy Gainey, Ruth A. Triplett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 April 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 April 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0133


The foundation for thinking about “neighborhood institutions” and their role in controlling crime begins largely with Shaw and McKay’s theory of social disorganization. They saw three characteristics of neighborhoods—economic disadvantage, population turnover, and racial/ethnic heterogeneity—as being particularly problematic to the control of crime and delinquency. They and others have argued that these characteristics are not amenable to the creation and maintenance of strong institutions that are more directly related to the control of crime. A disadvantage community whose population base changes frequently and comprises people with different backgrounds, beliefs, and values is less able to attract stable businesses to support the economy, less able to support strong schools with qualified teachers and needed resources, and less able to provide organized activities (be they academic, religious, or recreational) that help organize and control youth likely to engage in delinquent and criminal activity. More recently, other sorts of “institutions” that appear to attract crime or reduce the ability of neighborhoods to control crime and other deviant behavior, such as liquor outlets and bars, have attracted theoretical and empirical attention, and research generally supports their detrimental role in certain neighborhoods. Although the notion of “neighborhood institutions” is appealing, researchers have criticized this conceptualization, arguing that institutions are much larger than neighborhoods, in that they reflect the political, economic, educational, and religious institutions of society, and that local businesses, political groups, schools, libraries, recreation centers, and churches are not institutions in the full sense of the term. However, churches, businesses, and schools serve as indicators of how religion, economy, and education are expressed in a particular area. A local business that provides jobs to a large number or residents, a church that regularly contributes to the local community, or even a restaurant or tavern that supports and holds civic meeting may be, for local residents, an important “local institution” that may (or may not) help control crime and deviance. Time will tell whether the term “local institution” will slip away to be replaced by “local organization” or “community association” or some other idiom or expression. For the time being, the term “local institution” is consistent with the literature, so the following bibliography reviews the theoretical and empirical literature on “local institutions and crime.”

General Overviews

Rosenfeld 2006 and LaFree 1998 provide general insights into “true” macro-level social institutions—such as market economies, the polity, the family, religion, and the military—and their relationships with social control and crime. These volumes do not, however, directly examine neighborhood-level institutions or organizations. Although there may be earlier works, Shaw and McKay 1942 seems to have introduced the idea of the role of local institutions in controlling crime within the context of the authors’ theory of social disorganization. Kornhauser 1978 examines three main approaches to the study of crime and deviance, criticizing cultural deviance and strain theories and promoting social control/social disorganization theory, including the role of social institutions. Hunter 1985 links social institution to three levels—private, parochial (often neighborhood-based), and public—to explore how they can affect crime and disorder. Peterson, et al. 2000 provides one of the first empirical examinations of the role of neighborhood institutions on crime. Finally, Triplett, et al. 2003 provides a schema for thinking about the strength of neighborhood institutions and how they may relate to crime.

  • Hunter, Albert. 1985. Private, parochial, and public school orders: The problem of crime and incivility in urban communities. In The challenge of social control: Citizenship and institution building in modern society. Edited by Gerald Suttles and Mayer N. Zald, 230–242. Norwood NJ: Ablex.

    Hunter argues that crime and disorder in communities can be better understood by considering the nature of controls available at three levels: (1) the private level, including family and peers; (2) the parochial level, including schools and churches; and (3) the public level, which includes government agencies such as the police and social services.

  • Kornhauser, Ruth. 1978. Social sources of delinquency: An appraisal of analytic models. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    In this work, Kornhauser rejects cultural deviance and strain theories in favor of social control theory at the micro level and social disorganization theory (also viewed as a control theory) at the macro level. She discusses the inability of the family, in certain areas, to link with other social institutions, such as the school, and of the school to link with other secondary institutions, such as voluntary associations that attempt to control misbehavior.

  • LaFree, Gary. 1998. Losing legitimacy: Street crime and the decline of social institutions in America. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    This work provides a theoretical account of the rising crime rates in America following the Second World War, focusing on the loss of legitimacy in the following social institutions: the family, the political system, and the economy.

  • Peterson, Ruth, Lauren Krivo, and Mark Harris. 2000. Disadvantage and neighborhood crime. Do local institutions matter? Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 37:31–63.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427800037001002

    The authors provide an empirical test as to whether certain local institutions might deter or attract crime. They found few direct effects; however, the number of bars and recreation centers interacted with extreme economic deprivation, suggesting these institutions have, respectively, a negative and positive effect in areas of economic distress.

  • Rosenfeld, Richard. 2006. Crime and social institutions. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

    This is an edited volume of previously published articles. Sections are titled “Theoretical Considerations,” “Cross-national Tests of Institutional-Anomie Theory,” “US-Based Tests of Institutional Anomie Theory,” “Crime and Institutional Dynamics at the Local Level,” and “Implications for Punishment.”

  • Shaw, Clifford, and Henry McKay. 1942. Juvenile delinquency and urban areas. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This classic work sheds light on the role of local social institutions in the control of youth misbehavior. In particular, it discusses the inability of social institutions, such as the family, to control youth behavior in certain areas of the city. The authors also discuss the difficulty of social organizations and agencies that are financed and staffed by individuals from outside the local area in controlling behavior.

  • Triplett, Ruth, Randy Gainey, and Ivan Sun. 2003. Institutional strength, social control, and neighborhood crime rates. Theoretical Criminology 7.4: 439–467.

    DOI: 10.1177/13624806030074003

    This theoretical piece suggests a model for measuring the strength of local neighborhood institutions at the private (family), parochial (schools and churches) and the public level (police and government agencies). Key indicators of strength include stability, resources, clarity of roles, and interconnections.

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