Collective Efficacy: The Key to Community Change?
Posted by Alice Chasan on May 14, 2008
Nandinee Kutty, who, with James Carr, is co-editor of the newly released book Segregation: The Rising Costs For America, comments on my previous post about the correlation between residential segregation and high levels of violence in America’s cities.
What happens to people in neighborhoods plagued by the confluence of segregation, disinvestment, and degraded schools Kutty describes?
For one answer, read the powerful piece by Eyal Press published in May 2007 on The American Prospect‘s Web site.
Press examines the provocative theory that some neighborhoods suffering from these structural problems fare far better than others, as measured by their levels of crime, violence, and general deterioration.
The reason? According to Press, some social scientists point to the communities’ level of “collective efficacy”: the degree to which they have a “sense of social cohesion and shared expectations about the willingness to intervene” to prevent violence, maintain their homes and property, keep public spaces clean, and generally work with one another to solve community problems.
“Collective efficacy is a variation on a concept known as ‘self-efficacy’ that was coined several decades ago by a Stanford University psychologist named Albert Bandura. Bandura postulated that individuals are capable of overcoming any number of disadvantages if they believe their actions will make a difference in their lives. Studies showed that when children were convinced they could solve math problems, for example, they were more successful at solving them than peers with more talent who doubted their own abilities. ‘A resilient sense of efficacy enables individuals to do extraordinary things by productive use of their skills in the face of overwhelming obstacles,’ Bandura observed.”
As Press points out, this theory is neither “liberal” (ascribing a community’s ills to structural causes such as racism and poverty), nor “conservative” (blaming the victims’ lax morality or lack of work ethic for their problems).
That may be so. But what’s the take-away for community activists and advocates seeking to bring about community change?
Because it emphasizes the view that poor people can be the agents of their own redemption, is the theory of collective efficacy empowering to communities, or does it get the powers-that-be in our society off the hook from addressing the structural inequalities that clearly contribute to the violence that plagues low-income communities?