Research highlights importance of collective efficacy in mitigating community fears

Monday, 11 May 2020

Criminologist from the University of Newcastle, Dr Justin Ellis has recently published a co-authored journal article into the level of fear of crime in inner city Sydney, with Professor Murray Lee at the Sydney Law School and Professor Jonathan Jackson at the London School of Economics.

Neighbours around table

The 2016 study involved a survey of 409 inner Sydney residents and 23 resident focus groups asking them about their perceptions of crime. The results of the study found that less than half of the participants worry about crime but that a sizable minority (13%) indicated that they have some worry about a category of crime every week of the year or more.

“This research shows that the majority of the City of Sydney participants surveyed do not experience episodes of worry about crime, and of those who do, most do not experience worry regularly or intensely,” Dr Ellis said.

The importance of collective efficacy (the neighbourhood’s ability to maintain order in public spaces such as streets, footpaths and parks) was also highlighted in the research and shows how important it is for communities to pull together in times of crisis to mitigate fear.

“The key causal mechanism in collective efficacy theory is social control enacted under conditions of social trust. When a community has shared expectations for action and residents trust that their neighbours will take action when required, their level of fear is lowered,” Dr Ellis said.

“This is particularly relevant information now with the COVID-19 crisis where we are depending upon the community at large to take action on the government’s health advice in order to get through the crisis with minimal fatalities and to slow and trace infections.”

Drawing on a novel approach to fear of crime research by Professor Jackson and colleagues, the article focuses on two categories of fear, functional and dysfunctional fear of crime, a concept that Dr Ellis explains.

“Functional fear is when people report being worried about crime, take some kind of precaution against crime, feel safer as a result of their precautions and do not think their

quality of life is reduced by their worry about crime or precautions

against crime,” he said.

“Worry can serve a motivational and precautionary function, helping to prepare for threat by prompting adaptive vigilance and routine precaution. However not all worry is functional.”

“Among the features of ‘high’ worriers we noticed more dysfunctional qualities such as the daily frequency of worry, greater difficulty in stopping worrying, rebounding worries and mood disturbance and perceived impairment in everyday functioning.”

The study concluded that only 12% of research participants reported frequent (more than once a week) dysfunctional worry about crime and that participants who were victims of crime were associated with more frequent and dysfunctional worry about crime.

“We found that greater direct and indirect experience of victimisation, believing one’s

neighbourhood to be disorderly and believing that collective efficacy is low, all predict moving up the scale from no worry, to functional fear, to increasingly frequent dysfunctional fear,” Dr Ellis said.

“Many are likely to have experienced victimisation first hand or have had someone close to them experience victimisation, or live in situations that lead them to feel their situation is somewhat precarious – perceiving their area as lacking informal social control, capacity for collective efficacy or perceiving the area to be disorganised.”

“While only a small percentage of respondents exhibited functional fear, this does reinforce the point that some people are able to convert their worry into positive behaviours with positive outcomes – particularly if they perceive their community and environment as supportive. This has implications for policy and interventions that focus on community building, social cohesion and the minimisation of perceived individual and social vulnerabilities.”

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