Neighbourhood Life, Social Capital and Perceptions of Safety in the Western Suburbs of Adelaide

By Ziersch, Anna; Putland, Christine et al. | Australian Journal of Social Issues, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Neighbourhood Life, Social Capital and Perceptions of Safety in the Western Suburbs of Adelaide


Ziersch, Anna, Putland, Christine, Palmer, Catherine, MacDougall, Colin, Baum, Fran, Australian Journal of Social Issues


1. Introduction

This paper explores the relationship between perceptions of safety and aspects of neighbourhood life in the Western suburbs of Adelaide, South Australia. We examine the impact of some of the social and physical characteristics of neighbourhoods on residents' perceptions of safety. We explore social aspects through the relationships between elements of neighbourhood-related social capital and perceived safety, and physical characteristics of the neighbourhood through the impact of perceptions of neighbourhood pollution on perceptions of safety. We also consider the inter-relationships of these factors and examine how demographic variables such as age and gender may mediate the relationship between neighbourhood-related factors and perceptions of safety. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of the findings for public policy.

1.1 Neighbourhood life, social capital and safety

The experience and fear of crime is often linked to people's place of residence and significant neighbourhood-level differences in crime have been found in a number of countries where deprived areas often experience higher levels of crime (Hale, 1996; Kawachi et al, 1999; Shaw, Tunstall & Dorling, 2004; Weatherburn, 1992). The concept of social capital has been used to understand these variations.

Social capital is a conceptually complex and contested term, with two main schools of thought (Baum & Ziersch, 2003). Robert Putnam conceived of social capital as a community-level resource and public good, and defined social capital as: "features of social organisation such as networks, norms and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit" (Putnam, 1995, pg. 67). Pierre Bourdieu, in contrast, focused on the resources that accrue to individuals as a result of their membership of social networks (Bourdieu, 1986). He defined social capital as "the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition" (pg. 248). Common to both definitions is a consideration of social networks and social interaction.

Studies have found that local differences in incidence of crime are associated with variation in the quality and quantity of social interactions, and that communities with strong neighbourhood networks and high levels of social cohesion have lower levels of crime. A multilevel study in Chicago, USA, found that a combined measure of neighbourhood social cohesion and informal social control was associated with lower levels of violent crime in neighbourhoods (Sampson, Raudenbush & Earles, 1997; Sampson & Raudenbush, 1999). In an Australian study, Carcach & Huntley (2002) found lower crime rates in areas with high levels of participation in community organisations. In Great Britain, Sampson and Groves (1989) found that density of local friendship networks and participation in local organisations had an impact on a range of crimes such as assaults and burglaries. Less research has considered the impact of neighbourhood social interactions and networks on fear of crime or perceptions of safety. An exception is McCrea et al (2005) in Australia who found that neighbourhood trust, neighbourhood reciprocity, neighbourhood involvement did not significantly predict fear of crime once age, gender and physical characteristics of the neighbourhood were taken into account.

A growing body of research has linked perceptions of neighbourhood with a fear of crime, which in turn can affect the degree to which people participate and interact in their community (Austin et al. 2002; Macintyre & Ellaway 2000; Ziersch et al. 2005). The evidence here is somewhat contradictory. Some research has found that fear of crime has a negative effect on neighbourhood cohesion, participation in neighbourhood associations and community ties (Makowitz et al, 2001; Riger et al, 1981; Saergent & Winkel, 2004; Skogan, 1990; Ziersch et al, 2005). …

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