How 'broken windows' impact political activism

Feb 12, 2014 by H. Roger Segelken

(Phys.org) —If you left your apartment today to this scene – louts loitering in the street, drugs openly sold on the corner, prostitution and public alcohol consumption – would you call your city councilperson to complain? Become a community organizer like the young Barack Obama in Chicago? Or cover your eyes, kick the syringes aside and keep walking?

Perceptions of social disorder where people live or work are a powerful influence on their likelihood to become politically engaged, according to Jamila Michener, assistant professor of government in Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences.

"Sometimes grassroots politics starts where nothing else will grow," Michener says. "But if we're not troubled by disorder – or if we are so overwhelmed by it that we become mired in a perpetual state of fear and loathing – we're not likely to seek participatory pathways to reinvigorate failing neighborhoods."

Michener makes that case in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of Political Behavior, with her article, "Neighborhood Disorder and Local Participation: Examining the Political Relevance of 'Broken Windows.'"

The "broken windows" theory is used by social scientists and law-enforcement officials to explain criminal behavior in neighborhoods marred by graffiti, litter and abandoned buildings. Michener wanted to be the first to explain how such things affect

So Michener designed a study to evaluate the relationship between neighborhood disorder and political participation. She tried to account for "tangible markers of disorder," essentially broken windows and other physical signs that could be objectively measured, and "subjective perceptions" of disorder, like "How awful is this for you?" (her raw data came from the landmark Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods).

Reporting her results in a London School of Economics blog, Michener wrote, " . . . while objective conditions are politically consequential, these perceptions are a more powerful and consistent mechanism through which neighborhood disorder affects citizen engagement."

Graphing the roots of grassroots activism

She's no graffiti artist, but government's Jamila Michener can draw a graph. The trending lines in her scholarly paper, "Neighborhood Disorder and Local Participation: Examining the Political Relevance of 'Broken Windows,'" tell a more nuanced story of objective signs vs. subjective perceptions – and getting involved vs. being apathetic.

In one graph, increasing levels of objective social disorder were associated with a decreasing likelihood of citizens reaching out to political officials. That is to say, the more broken windows researchers objectively counted, the less willing neighbors were to participate in the formal political sphere.

A second graph, mapping perceptions of disorder, showed that neighborhood residents who were more troubled by disorder were more likely to attend meetings and discuss problems.

Yet another graph, illustrating the impact of perceptions on neighborhood residents proclivity for reaching out the political officials, looked like a mound of uncollected trash: Neighborhood residents with "average" perceptions of disorder were at the peak of the heap, while those with most negative perceptions and those with the most positive perceptions were at the lower extremes – not talking to politicians, just holding their noses.

"The lenses through which community residents interpret 'broken windows' are critical determinants of grassroots politics," Michener wrote in her blog. "This is not just a nifty scholarly finding; it bears directly upon the factors that policymakers must consider ... for promoting strong neighborhoods and urban renewal."

Explore further: Parent–child eating disorder perceptions investigated

More information: "Neighborhood Disorder and Local Participation: Examining the Political Relevance of 'Broken Windows.'" Jamila Michener Political Behavior. December 2013, Volume 35, Issue 4, pp 777-806. link.springer.com/article/10.1… %2Fs11109-012-9217-x

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Looks do matter, particularly when it comes to neighborhoods

Apr 26, 2011

It's an unfamiliar neighborhood and you find yourself in the middle of a bunch of streets and buildings you've never seen before. Giving the environment a quick once-over, you make a snap decision about whether you're safe ...

Children in public housing play outdoors more

Feb 17, 2011

Young children living in urban public housing spend more time playing outdoors than other urban children, according to researchers at Rice University, Columbia University and Princeton University.

Reviving the spirit of democracy

Jan 17, 2014

Just as voting participation rates have fallen over the last 40 years, civic engagement is on the decline in the United States, too. But there is some hope for a turnaround, says Peter Levine in his new book, ...

Recommended for you

Beyond human: Exploring transhumanism

10 hours ago

What do pacemakers, prosthetic limbs, Iron Man and flu vaccines all have in common? They are examples of an old idea that's been gaining in significance in the last several decades: transhumanism. The word ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

COCO
1 / 5 (1) Feb 13, 2014
Barry would be out there buying a bag.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (1) Feb 13, 2014
"mired in a perpetual state of fear and loathing – we're not likely to seek participatory pathways to reinvigorate failing neighborhoods."

The end goal of 'progressives'.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.