James Q. Wilson, one of America’s greatest social scientists, died on March 2. Though he was not well known to the general public, Wilson was at once an exemplary scholar and an extraordinary citizen, who both advanced our understanding of social problems and contributed mightily to their solution.

Wilson’s most famous work is a 1982 article, co-authored with George Kelling and published in The Atlantic, titled “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.”

In that article, Wilson, a Harvard government professor, reports on the results of an experiment, conducted in Newark, N.J., to determine whether assigning more police officers to foot patrol duty would reduce the incidence of crime.

It didn’t. Whether officers walked the streets or patrolled in their cars, crime rates during the studied period were about the same.

Wilson, however, noted that, though crime rates were immediately unchanged, the people in the neighborhoods where the police patrolled on foot felt much safer, and they reported much higher satisfaction with the police. What the neighborhood police presence established, Wilson saw, was a communal sense of public order.

In an unruly neighborhood, one has reason to fear being harassed by groups of delinquent teenagers, or by aggressive panhandlers, or drunks, addicts and vagrants. From the confines of an automobile, a police officer has only a limited ability to establish personal relationships with people in the community. And, though officers in squad cars can respond quickly to individual crimes, a vehicular police presence does little to promote public order.

When the police walk a beat, they learn who the residents and business owners are; they get to know which teens are going to school and which ones are likely to cause trouble. When the police are integrated within the community, they can prevent the social disorders that cause respectable citizens to fear going outside, and their visible presence also empowers the law-abiding to work cooperatively to sustain the social norms that promote public order in the community.

Wilson conjectured that, over the long run, the preservation of public order would drive down the rates of serious crime. It was, he wrote, well known that “if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.” The unrepaired window sends a signal that no one cares about the property, which even otherwise respectable people can take as permission to keep breaking windows.

Likewise, other manifestations of unchecked social disorder express a kind of implicit permission to engage in bad behavior and seem to invite more serious criminal activity.

That conjecture has since been thoroughly tested, and community policing has proven extraordinarily successful.

As a result, crime rates in the United States have fallen sharply since the early 1980s, and our major cities have enjoyed a cultural and demographic revivial.

The key insight of Wilson’s “Broken Windows” article — “that the police ought to protct communities as well as individuals” — echoes one of the principal themes in his whole body of work, namely that social scientists need to look beyond simple models that focus narrowly on the behavior of individuals, without taking into account contextual factors, such as social norms and community values.

It probably sounds obvious to argue, as Wilson has, that the most successful schools are those that foster a culture that values academic achievement and where the teachers seek to instill in their students the virtues of self-discipline and persistence by assigning regular homework and consistently praising those students who do well and correcting those who do not.

When Wilson’s academic career began, however, scholars sought to understand human behavior with the same intellectual tools that have proved so effective in the natural sciences. They assumed people could be understood as little machines, individually responding to material incentives.

It eventually became clear that such a narrow focus on individual-level behavior made it impossible for scholars to solve the problems they were trying to solve.

Whether he was investigating the ways society might reduce the incidence of crime, or how to understand the operation of governmental bureaucracies, or how to improve school achievement, the hallmark of Wilson’s approach was an open-minded, modest attention to the evidence. And that evidence led him to perceive the enduring significance of community and culture.

He also insisted, modestly and wisely, on how much more we still have to learn about politics and society. And his career reminds us how much we can learn from those who discover the right tools to study them.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.

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