Anyone who has lived in, driven through or walked by a “bad” neighborhood has a sense of the attributes that render such places unique: graffiti, litter, public intoxication and much more. According to the well-known theory of “broken windows,” these readily observable corporeal characteristics signal neighborhood disorder and lead to increased criminal behavior. This article investigates the implications of disorder for political behavior, taking particular care to distinguish between the objective tangible conditions of disorder and residents’ subjective interpretations of those conditions. Utilizing exceptionally rich data, this analysis reveals that while certain aspects of objective “reality” are consequential, perceptions of such reality are a more powerful mechanism through which neighborhood disorder impacts local political engagement. For some political outcomes, a heightened sense of the problems associated with disorder is linearly associated with an increase in participation. For others, the pattern is parabolic: those who perceive so little disorder that they remain content or so much disorder that they become disaffected are substantially less likely to take action to make their communities better. Ultimately, holding objective contextual features constant, the lenses through which residents interpret things like “broken windows” are critical determinants of grassroots politics. This information, combined with broader understandings of what shapes perceptions of disorder, lays the foundation for structuring policy in ways that facilitate grassroots activism—a vital component of the American democratic process.
Political Behavior – Springer Journals
Published: Dec 24, 2012
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