Perceptions of Disorder: It’s Not Just the Broken Windows

The broken windows theory famously proposes that major crimes in a neighborhood result, at least in part, from small signs of disorder in the neighborhood, like broken windows.  But a broken window can mean very different things to different people: to one person, it may indicate that the neighborhood is falling apart, but to another it may simply be an isolated blemish that is expected to be repaired in due course.  Perceptions of disorder likely matter more than objective indicia of disorder, and perceptions might or might not correspond in any straightforward way to observable realities.

So what drives perceptions of disorder?  Some research suggests that an increasing minority presence in a neighborhood tends to increase perceptions of disorder, even holding objective signs of disorder constant.  Other research focuses on perceptions of minority presence, which are associated with perceptions of disorder and fear of crime.

Now, an interesting new article by Rebecca Wickes and coauthors explores how these dynamics vary by neighborhood and city.

Wickes et al. analyzed survey data from individuals in 297 different neighborhoods in the Australian cities of Melbourne and Brisbane.  Four findings stand out.

First, not all minorities have the same impact on neighborhood perceptions.  For instance, a “one percentage point increase in immigrants from Asia increases the perceived non-Anglo Saxon [proportion in the neighborhood] by .5 percent, whereas a similar increase in Middle Eastern immigrants increases the perceived non-Anglo Saxon by 1.6 percent, and a similar increase by Southeastern Europeans increases it by 1.9 percent.” (20)

Second, “when residents overestimate the presence of minorities in their neighborhood, they report significantly higher perceptions of disorder. . . . In both [cities], overestimating the minority presence was one of the strongest predictors of perceived disorder . . . even when controlling for a comprehensive range of individual- and community-level predictors . . . .”  (22)  (Other variables associated with higher levels of perceived disorder were lower levels of income, higher total crime rates, and more residential instability.)

Third, not all neighborhoods are affected equally by higher perceptions of minority presence.  Wickes et al. focused on the effect of social cohesion, which “is commonly understood as a prosocial good that represents a sense of belonging and attachment and brings about positive outcomes for the collective.  In essence, it symbolizes a working trust and a general willingness of residents to work together.”  (8)  The researchers found that “higher levels of social cohesion diminish the association between overestimating the minority presence in a neighborhood and perceiving disorder.”  (26)  This suggests that highly cohesive neighborhoods can absorb a higher minority presence without a corresponding increase in perceived disorder.

Finally, the dynamics were somewhat different not only neighborhood to neighborhood, but also city to city:

We find that city context matters a lot: Overestimates of minority presence vary between the cities of Melbourne and Brisbane.  We suggest this is the result of their different racial, cultural, and ethnic histories.  For example, whereas high concentrations of indigenous residents strongly influenced overestimating minority presence in Brisbane and Melbourne neighborhoods, the strength of these effects differed across cities.  In Brisbane neighborhoods, greater proportions of indigenous people were associated with “seeing” more minorities and perceiving more disorder when compared with Melbourne.  (29)

The article, “‘Seeing’ Minorities and Perceptions of Disorder: Explicating the Mediating and Moderating Mechanisms of Social Cohesion,” is forthcoming in Criminology.