Cultural Mechanisms and the Persistence of Neighborhood Violence

American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 116, No. 4, pp. 1190-1233

63 Pages Posted: 9 Jan 2008 Last revised: 27 Apr 2011

See all articles by David Kirk

David Kirk

University of Oxford

Andrew V. Papachristos

Sociology; Northwestern University - Institute for Policy Research

Date Written: December 6, 2009


Over the past two decades, sociologists have given considerable attention to identifying the neighborhood-level structural and social-interactional mechanisms which influence an array of social outcomes such as crime, educational attainment, collective action, mortality, and morbidity. Yet, cultural mechanisms are often overlooked in quantitative studies of neighborhood effects, largely because of outdated notions of culture. This paper aims to inject a much needed cultural dimension into neighborhood effects research, and, in the process, provide an explanation for the paradoxical co-existence of law-abiding beliefs and law violating behavior that characterize so many disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. To these ends, we explore the origins and consequences of legal cynicism. Legal cynicism refers to a cultural frame in which people perceive the law, and the police in particular, as illegitimate, unresponsive, and ill-equipped to ensure public safety. Using data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, we find that legal cynicism explains neighborhood variation in homicide rates net of neighborhood structural conditions, collective efficacy, and tolerant attitudes toward deviance and violence. Moreover, our results reveal that legal cynicism explains the persistence of homicide in certain Chicago neighborhoods during the 1990s when homicide declined drastically city-wide.

Keywords: Legal Cynicism, Homicide, Culture, Neighborhood Effects

JEL Classification: K4, R1

Suggested Citation

Kirk, David and Papachristos, Andrew V., Cultural Mechanisms and the Persistence of Neighborhood Violence (December 6, 2009). American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 116, No. 4, pp. 1190-1233, Available at SSRN:

David Kirk (Contact Author)

University of Oxford ( email )

Oxford, OX1 3UQ
United Kingdom

Andrew V. Papachristos

Sociology ( email )

2001 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208
United States


Northwestern University - Institute for Policy Research ( email )

2003 Sheridan Rd
Evanston, IL 60208-2600
United States

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