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Guardianship and Informal Social Control

Summary and Keywords

This article provides a critical overview of the concepts of guardianship and informal social control. The discussion compares these fundamental criminological concepts and highlights areas where there is overlap, as well as key points of departure. The relationship between these concepts is scrutinized to illustrate their distinct origins as well as the distinctive ways each of these concepts have developed within the criminological literature. This article focuses on informal social control as a multi-level community process, and on guardianship as a multi-dimensional situational concept comprising, in its most fundamental form, the presence or availability of guardians, inadvertent and/or purposive supervision and direct or indirect intervention. In doing so it showcases the dimensions of guardianship which bear close resemblance to aspects of informal social control, while simultaneously emphasizing that there are important distinctions to consider when comparing some of these dimensions and the levels at which they operate. One core distinction is that informal social control is dependent on neighborhood social ties and collectively shared expectations. On the other hand, while guardianship can be strengthened by social ties at the street-block or neighborhood level, it does not necessarily require such ties to function effectively at the microlevel. Although these concepts do coincide the discussion stresses that theoretical and empirical clarification about what makes them distinct is important. In conclusion, this article shows how each concept makes a unique contribution to criminological understanding about the role of informal citizens in crime control at places.

Keywords: guardianship, informal social control, supervision, intervention, inadvertent guardianship


Informal social control is a core sociological concept borne out of contemporary social disorganization literature (Warner, 2007). It traditionally has been viewed and studied as a function of collective, community dynamics and processes. Guardianship, on the other hand, stemmed from the situational paradigm that focuses on the opportunity structure of crime. It traditionally has been treated as a function of an interaction of microsituational factors that determine an individual’s availability and capability to guard. Just as early work on informal social control did not focus on situational aspects of crime control in residential contexts, early research on guardianship did not focus on social and sociological dimensions of crime control by residents. Nevertheless, researchers have used these concepts interchangeably, operating under the assumption that guardianship and informal social control are the same.

This article will illustrate why and how this assumption is flawed. Through explication of the concept of guardianship, as well as how its definition and measurement have evolved, the discussion will cover the overlap between the concepts of guardianship and informal social control, drawing on their similarities depending on the context in which they are applied. By highlighting what we know empirically about guardianship, it also will detail the points of divergence between these concepts, and in doing so, it will reveal the ways in which they are two distinct criminological concepts. Taking both of these points of convergence and departure into consideration, this article will sum up by discussing how we can use an improved understanding of these similarities and differences to our advantage. In conclusion, I will argue that applying both guardianship and informal social control as distinct but related concepts likely will yield greater criminological insights into how crime prevention and control mechanisms function within the residential context.

Guardianship and Crime Control

Guardianship has been identified within the field of criminology as the mechanism through which crime control is effected by citizens. When citizens function to prevent or disrupt crime, they serve as guardians against crime. The routine activity approach of Cohen and Felson (1979) theorized about the role of guardians as crime controllers. They explained that at the most fundamental level, the occurrence of crime depends on the convergence of a likely offender, a suitable target (person, object, or place), and the absence of a capable guardian. Through their presence, guardians typically have the ability to keep an eye on potential crime targets and defend them from victimization. Likewise, through their absence, the likelihood of crime increases (Felson, 1995), as they are not available to provide protection.

The original definition of guardianship by Felson and Cohen (1980, p. 392) was “any spatio-temporally specific supervision of people or property by other people which may prevent criminal violations from occurring.” This definition highlights guardianship as place and time specific, and therefore situation dependent. More recently, Hollis-Peel, Reynald, van Bavel, Elffers, and Welsh (2011, p. 57) proposed a refined definition of guardian based on the Reynald (2009) guardianship in action model: “[A] guardian is any person and every person on the scene of a potential crime that may notice and intervene (whether they intend to or not).” In the same vein, Hollis-Peel, Felson, and Welsh (2013, p. 76) define guardianship as “the presence of a human element which acts—whether intentionally or not—to deter the would-be offender from committing a crime against an available target.” These corresponding definitions of guardian and guardianship highlight the fundamental elements of the concept: presence, supervision, and action. They also highlight another key to the guardianship concept, which is that deterring crime may be intentional or unintentional. Within criminology, guardians have been conceptualized as being formal (e.g., police officers, security guards) and informal (i.e., lay citizens). However, within the routine activity approach, a guardian is conceptualized as an informal role fulfilled by ordinary citizens whose daily routines facilitate their availability to guard potential targets against crime. Felson (1995) explains that guardians are most often household residents (who can act as guardians over their own as well as nearby properties), or passers-by (who may act as guardians over others in their presence), and they are more likely to be present to discourage crime than formal guardians like police officers and security guards. “Who fulfills the role of a guardian in a given situation is therefore dependent on who is present within the context of the crime opportunity” (Reynald, 2017, p. 721).

The guardian is one of three crime controller roles within the routine activity framework. While guardians supervise and protect targets against victimization, place managers supervise, manage, and exercise control over places (Eck, 1994), and handlers supervise and exercise control over potential offenders (Felson, 1995). Eck’s (1994) concept of the place manager refers to those who have the power to discourage crime at certain places through the effective supervision and management at those places. Felson’s (1995) concept of the handler was devised by linking the routine activity approach and Hirschi’s control theory to explain how parents and other community members in close proximity to and with knowledge of a likely offender can serve as intimate handlers, with the capability to exert control over them when their rule-breaking is observed.

With these groups of crime controller roles in mind, the routine activity approach highlights the fact that crime prevention can be effected at multiple levels by exercising control over potential targets, crime sites, or offenders through effective supervision, management, and intervention when necessary. These crime controller concepts, therefore, can be viewed as being linked with that of informal social control, where purposive or intentional supervision by the guardian over the target, the handler over the offender, and the place manager over the place is usually informed by social norms and potentially enhanced by social bonds that lead ultimately to crime control (Reynald, 2014, 2017).

It is important to note that the extent to which guardianship and informal social control overlap depends on the definitions of the concepts being used. While there is clear consistency in the definitions of guardianship that have been presented earlier in this article, the same is not true for informal social control. As Bellair and Browning (2010, p. 500) note, the conceptualization of informal social control in criminology is “wide ranging and eclectic.” One of the clearer definitions that seems to reflect agreed-upon dimensions of the concept comes from Groff (2015, p. 90), who defines informal social control as “a spectrum of actions taken by citizens to signal unacceptable behavior” or prevent undesired behavior. A similar definition of action taken to prevent unwanted behavior was put forward by Warner (2007) and adopted by Wickes, Hipp, Sergeant, and Mazerolle (2017). Greenberg, Rohe, and Williams (1985, p. I2) explain that informal social control is a form of community involvement, and that “[n]eighbors questioning strangers, watching over each other’s property and intervening in disturbances (e.g., scolding children) are all examples of informal social control. The basis for these behaviors is a shared set of norms for appropriate public behavior.” This is synonymous with the explanation by Sampson and Groves (1989) of social disorganization as a consequence of the inability of communities to maintain effective social controls and to realize shared values through informal social networks.

While there is a clear connection between this definition of informal social control at the street level and guardianship as a form of crime control, they are not synonymous. There are some notable distinctions that accompany the points of convergence between the two concepts. This topic will be fleshed out in this article by examining what guardianship is, how it has been operationalized and measured, the ways in which it functions as a crime-control mechanism, and how it relates and departs from the concept of informal social control as defined by Groff (2015).

Inadvertent Guardianship Versus Informal Social Control: Focusing on Mere Presence

Informal social control traditionally has been viewed as a community-level process operating at multiple social levels, from small social units like families to larger units like street blocks and even larger neighborhoods (Groff, 2015). Guardianship, on the other hand, has been put forward by Cohen and Felson (1979) as a microlevel process typically enacted by an individual or individuals who are likely to be present at the specific point in time and space when an offender and a target converge. With this in mind, the other critical distinction between informal social control and guardianship is that the routine activity approach presents guardians as individuals whose mere presence makes crime less likely (Felson, 1995). Felson (1995) explains that, for example, a retired person at home may serve to discourage burglary at his or her own property and neighboring properties, simply by being there. By the same token, people who work away from home during the day leave their properties unattended and more vulnerable through their absence.

While the availability of a guardian can be sufficient to discourage offenders from victimizing targets from the routine activity perspective, informal social control requires some form of action to be taken by citizens to signal unacceptable behavior (Groff, 2015; Warner, 2007; Wickes et al., 2017). In other words, while guardianship that protects targets from crime can be inadvertent, informal social control is not. Reynald (2011b, p. 108) describes inadvertent (as opposed to purposive) guardianship by explaining that available guardians “may serve to deter crime events merely by being present, without knowing that they are discouraging an offender and without having to take any deliberate action to do so.” Burglars in several criminological studies have confirmed that they prefer to target households that have no signs of occupancy (e.g., Bennett & Wright, 1984; Maguire, 1988; Wright & Decker, 1994; Nee & Meenaghan, 2006), highlighting the importance of availability or mere presence as a critical guardianship dimension that deters some offenders. Informal social control is quite distinct from this form of inadvertent guardianship through presence, as it requires responses to crime or related events to bring about conformity to established norms (Greenberg, Rohe, & Williams, 1985; Bellair & Browning, 2010; Groff, 2015; Warner, 2007; Wickes et al., 2017). Moreover, inadvertent guardianship is also distinct from informal social control because it does not involve the intent to control criminal behavior (Hollis, Felson, & Welsh, 2013).

Most early research on guardianship focused on the inadvertent dimension of the mere presence of guardians in the neighborhood context. Miethe, Stafford, and Sloane (1990) used the number of persons over the age of 12 who occupied a household as a measure of guardianship and found that household occupancy was negatively associated with burglary victimization. These results showed that time spent away from home decreases property guardianship by leaving properties unattended. Time away from home also was found to increase the risk of personal victimization through increased exposure.

Garofalo and Clarke (1992) used a survey measure of inadvertent guardianship that asked household members how often they were at home during the weekdays and on weekends. They also measured other indicators of guardianship, including the presence of an alarm system, a timer for lights or radio, informal arrangements with neighbors, the presence of a dog, and other security measures. They concluded that the likelihood of residential burglaries was reduced through guardianship measures used in combination. The British Crime Survey also uses long-standing self-report survey items to measure the amount of time that people spend away from home which can be used as an indicator of property-level guardianship. Other studies opted for proxy measures that estimated the likelihood of home occupancy/availability to measure guardianship. These guardianship proxy measures traditionally have included indicators such as percentage of labor force participation, number of owner-occupied households, and number of household members (see Reynald & Elffers, 2015, for a review). This predominant focus on inadvertent guardianship through mere presence reinforces the distinction between this unique dimension of guardianship and informal social control.

Guardianship Versus Informal Social Control: Distinguishing Inadvertent and Purposive Supervision

With prior research having established the fundamental role of the availability or presence of guardians in reducing the likelihood of crime, Reynald (2009, 2010, 2011a) took this research a step further by demonstrating that given its availability, the ability to guard against crime can be enhanced first through the supervision or monitoring of residential space and property targets therein. This supports the original definition of guardianship as spatiotemporally specific supervision, and it is consistent with the findings of Lynch and Cantor (1992) that high levels of surveillance or watching keep places safe and crime levels low. Felson (2006) supports this perspective, explaining that offenders search for targets and places that are not well attended to so they can escape supervision by informal guardians. It is, therefore, the absence of supervision that determines when and where crime occurs (Felson, 2006). This is supported further by offenders themselves in Homel, Macintyre, and Wortley (2014) in which offenders expressed concern with being seen by passers-by; and in Wright and Decker (1994), in which they were concerned with being observed by both passers-by and neighbors. Wright and Decker (1994, p. 97) reported that burglars wanted to avoid being “observed while entering or leaving a residence and therefore were drawn to dwellings with access points that could not be easily seen from the street or from surrounding buildings.”

Once we take into account this purposive supervision dimension of guardianship, its connection to informal social control becomes more apparent. From both the guardianship and the informal social control perspectives, residents can discourage crime effectively by actively keeping an eye on each other and on each other’s property. When residents deliberately and purposively look out for one another, we consider this purposive supervision as a form of guardianship, and this overlaps with informal social control actions when neighbors agree to keep an eye on each other’s property while they are away. From the guardianship perspective, however, it is critical to note that supervision can be both inadvertent and purposive. Reynald (2011b) explains that guardians may provide inadvertent supervision as an unintended consequence of being present, or they may look out their window deliberately, for the express purpose of monitoring what is happening in their surroundings.

Felson and Boba (2010) highlight the fact that inadvertent supervision stems from the mere presence of a guardian, as it is that presence that threatens supervision or the possibility that someone is looking. They suggest that when ordinary citizens go about their daily routines, even when they are minding their own business, their presence provides inadvertent supervision, and ultimately “some degree of security” (Felson & Boba, 2010, p. 37). From an informal social control perspective, on the other hand, supervision is always purposive, as any action taken is intentionally directed at maintaining shared norms and maintaining control.

Groff (2015) explains that informal social control on residential streets develops amid a range of social bonds among neighbors that are strengthened through familiarity and community involvement or participation. This leads to the development of social norms that revolve around a commitment to being neighborly that is strengthened over time and helps generate group cohesiveness (Groff, 2015). It is through this familiarity, cohesion, and shared norms that residents gain assurance in taking the actions required to maintain these norms, and therefore maintain control over their residential space. Supervision and keeping an eye out for each other are among those actions. Within the context of informal social control, actions like supervision rely on the described social bonds. Wickes et al. (2017, p. 102) state: “The exercise of informal social control requires the availability of neighborhood social ties and shared expectations for informal social control. Neighborhood social ties include friendship ties, instrumental relationships with neighbors and links to organizations internal or external to the neighborhood.”

However, it is important to note that this is not the case for guardianship. While guardianship in the form of supervision can certainly be enhanced and strengthened in its effectiveness through these types of social bonds, supervision is not necessarily dependent on these social ties. Particularly when supervision is inadvertent or unintentional, neighborhood social ties are not necessarily relevant for guardianship.

Guardianship in Action and Informal Social Control

Alongside supervision, Reynald (2009, 2010, 2011a) showed that guardianship can be intensified further when guardians take action to intervene after witnessing crime or related activities in their surroundings. Intervention is categorized as a range of actions deliberately taken to disrupt or prevent crime event, which may include shouting out to perpetrators, calling the police, or physically intervening to stop a crime (Reynald, 2014). Groff (2015) makes a similar point when discussing the work of Jane Jacobs. She explains Jacobs’s perspective that “the presence of bystanders, or ‘eyes on the street’, does little good if no one is comfortable taking action” (p. 96). Brown and Bentley (1993, p. 52) also highlight the importance of intervention in residential guardianship, as they explain that the risk of being seen is not always sufficient to discourage burglars, since burglars also focus on “whether potential onlookers would care about their presence . . . Burglars also may decide that some neighbors will intervene and others will not.”

While early research focused on inadvertent guardianship through the presence or availability of residents, Reynald’s (2009, 2011a) guardianship-in-action studies develop this multidimensional conceptualization of guardianship by including supervision and intervention as action dimensions of capable residential guardianship. Reynald (2009, 2011a, 2011b) argued that these three critical dimensions of guardianship—availability/presence, monitoring/supervision, and intervention when necessary—not only were directly observable, but also collectively provide a more ecologically valid measure of the routine activity concept of guardianship than traditionally used proxy measures. Reynald (2009, 2011a) explains that guardianship intensity increases at each stage, and as it increases, the likelihood that crime will occur decreases.

When a guardian is visibly available, guardianship intensity is higher than when there is no guardian visibly available at home. When an available guardian can be observed monitoring or looking out of the window, guardianship intensity increases even more. Finally, when an available guardian witnesses something suspicious and intervenes, guardianship intensity peaks. Results from testing in the Netherlands showed that as the guardianship-in-action model predicted, property crime decreased as guardianship intensity increased. Interestingly, the strongest effect was observed at the availability stage of guardianship in action. Together, presence/availability, monitoring/supervision, and intervention formed a reliable and valid integrated measure of guardianship (Reynald, 2009, 2011a). These findings were replicated in the United States by Hollis-Peel and Welsh (2014), and in Australia by Moir, Stewart, Reynald, and Hart (2017).

Reynald (2010) follows up these observational studies of guardianship in action by interviewing available guardians to uncover what motivated them to supervise and intervene when they witnessed suspicious activity in their home environment. The results highlighted that residents’ willingness to take action is influenced by a combination of individual, contextual, and situational factors (Reynald, 2010). In a sample of 255 available guardians, 15% admitted to not supervising, paying attention to, or being aware of what happened in their surroundings. These findings confirmed that just because residents are available at home, that does not necessarily mean that they will inevitably keep an eye on or have any awareness of their surroundings. By the same token, the results showed that residents who did supervise when they were at home had increased contextual awareness and consequently increased guardianship capability, as they were better able to identify suspicious people and situations that were out of the ordinary.

These findings are consistent with those from the observational Guardianship in Action (GIA) studies, which reveal the contribution of monitoring/supervision in increasing the intensity of guardianship in various places (Reynald, 2009). Moreover, interviews with available guardians revealed that awareness of the residential context was enhanced by social networking among neighbors (Reynald, 2010). Two dominant factors emerged as critical in determining residents’ willingness to supervise their surroundings: residents’ sense of responsibility for keeping watch over their residential community, and their perception of their residential context, which is also intimately related to their sense of responsibility and level of investment in their community (Reynald, 2010).

Bridging the Gap Between Guardianship and Informal Social Control

With these results in mind, we can make a closer link between guardianship, in terms of purposive supervision, and supervision as a form of action to enforce informal social control. We see that in a residential context, social bonds among residents can encourage purposive guardianship action. Researchers have reported that citizens’ willingness to guard against crime is influenced by their social context (see, e.g., Wickes, Zahnow, Shaefer, & Sparkes-Carroll, 2016). Freudenburg (1986) argues that supervision by residents and the effect that this has on crime are mediated by the social context and the degree to which residents know each other. He describes the density of acquaintanceship among stable populations (i.e., the degree to which residents know each other) as an important factor determining the extent to which residents keep watch over their surroundings (Freudenburg, 1986). Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls (1997) refer to a similar concept—social cohesion among neighbors—which they found to be negatively associated with violent victimization at the neighborhood level and linked to residents’ willingness to intervene. Wickes et al. (2017) also found that residents with strong social ties were more likely to engage in informal social control actions in response to large-scale neighborhood problems. These studies emphasize the importance of the social environment in encouraging residents’ willingness to act as guardians against crime and their informal social control actions.

Reynald’s (2010) interview study also revealed other factors that were important in influencing residents’ willingness to intervene when they observe suspicious activity in their immediate surroundings while at home. A total of 16% of the 217 residents who reported witnessing crime or related events in their surroundings stated their willingness to intervene directly, regardless of the type of crime event that they witnessed, while 20% reported that they would not take any action when they observed suspicious, crime-related activity. Most residents who witnessed crime intervened indirectly by calling the police for help, and many explained that their choice of intervention would depend on the severity of the event witnessed.

Three overarching categories of factors emerged as being most influential in residents’ decision-making about responding to crime or related events that they witness. These included their perceived risk to their own personal safety, their perceived capability to respond effectively, and their perceived responsibility to respond. When residents saw their risk as low and their capability and responsibility high, they were more likely to intervene. Residents’ sense of responsibility for taking action, which is determined by a range of interconnected factors, including social distance in terms of familiarity and attachment and physical distance to potential targets/victims, is a critical motivation behind guardianship (Reynald, 2011b; Felson, 1995).

This is reinforced by results showing an association between neighborhood sociodemographic factors—including income and ethnic heterogeneity—and residents’ self-reported willingness to intervene in crime and related events. Reynald (2010) revealed that residents from average-income neighborhoods were more willing to intervene directly than those from low- or high-income areas, while residents from both average- and high-income neighborhoods were more willing to intervene directly. The results also showed that direct intervention was lowest among residents from neighborhoods with a relatively high proportion of ethnic minorities, and indirect intervention was highest among respondents from neighborhoods with a relatively low proportion of ethnic minorities. These results in particular highlight the connection between the intervention dimension of guardianship, when aggregated and examined at the neighborhood level, and informal social control. Informal social control and its relationship with crime have typically been examined at the neighborhood level as a function of neighborhood factors related to social status and social disorganization such as economic status, resident mobility, race/ethnicity, and home ownership (Greenberg et al., 1985).

Research has consistently shown that neighborhood demographic characteristics fundamentally shape residents’ immediate social environment. The dominant explanation for the concentration of crime and related events (such as disorder) at the neighborhood level is social disorganization, which suggests that serious crime results from a breakdown of social networks, social cohesion, and the web of social relationships required to generate informal social control (see, e.g., Kornhouser, 1978; Shaw & McKay, 1969; Skogan, 1990; Bursik & Grasmick, 1993). Sampson and Groves (1989) explain that neighborhood demographic characteristics such as high resident mobility, low income, and ethnic heterogeneity disrupt social networks and organizations, weaken informal social control, and contribute to high crime and delinquency rates.

At the property level, Xie and McDowall (2008) reported that high residential turnover constrains residents’ guardianship capabilities, causing an independent increase in the risk of property victimization. They explain that these constraints to residential guardianship fundamentally change the opportunity structure for crime. High residential turnover on the streets is likely to increase the vulnerability of households because “newcomers tend to have fewer friends in the neighbourhood who might act as guardians of their homes” (Xie & McDowall, 2008, p. 543). Newcomers also contribute to increased vulnerability, as they lack the capacity to identify those who belong to an area from those who do not. “Long-term neighbours are more likely to recognize unusual patterns and unfamiliar people that may be signs of criminal activity. They will also be more likely to intervene, ask questions, and notify the police of clear indications of unusual activities” (Xie & McDowall, 2008, p. 543). High rates of resident mobility creates high numbers of new residents who lack contextual awareness and knowledge about their residential area, which in turn has a negative impact on the effectiveness of supervision and on their capability and willingness to intervene (Reynald, 2011b, 2014).

While early research on informal social control tended to focus almost exclusively on the social context, later research included the importance of both the social and physical environments (Greenberg et al., 1985). Contemporary research on guardianship also examines the effects of the physical and social environments, but it looks more closely at spatial characteristics. Newman’s (1972) defensible space theory is most commonly applied to develop our understanding of how the physical design and layout of the environment affect residents’ capability to function as guardians against crime and exercise informal control over their residential space.

One of the core principles of defensible space is that the design and layout of the residential environment can create opportunities for natural surveillance. Natural surveillance opportunities determine residents’ capability to supervise, monitor, or keep an eye on their surroundings. Newman (1972) argues that residents can maximize their ability to be seen and to monitor their surroundings when property windows and doors are oriented toward public space and designed to face each other along a street. Equally important is that lines of sight between private residences and public space are clear and unobstructed to maximize the visibility of properties and public space immediately surrounding them. These environmental design and layout features support residents’ ability to supervise their surroundings (whether purposively or inadvertently) while carrying out routine household activities (Newman, 1972). This is critical to facilitating effective residential guardianship through supervision, as it allows guardians to see as much of their residential space as possible. When residents are more visible in their homes and they can be seen supervising, this increases the risk that potential offenders will be seen (Reynald, 2014).

Newman’s defensible space theory also highlights the importance of the image of a residential environment in reflecting the extent to which it is controlled, maintained, and well cared for by its residents. The image of a residential environment provides cues about the management of a residential place and whether its residents are likely to be effective guardians of their property and wider residential space (Reynald, 2011b). While defensible space theory explains how image reflects the extent to which residents take responsibility for and control over a place by ensuring that it is clean and well maintained (Newman, 1972), Wilson and Kelling’s (1982) “broken windows” theory provides a compatible perspective. They explain that visual cues like broken windows and graffiti reflect poor management and maintenance, consequently encouraging crime by promoting an image of vulnerability.

Research shows that physical incivilities, such as broken windows, graffiti, litter, and disrepair, are likely to encourage social incivility and lead to increases in crime, fear of crime, and community withdrawal (Skogan, 1990; Welsh, Braga, & Bruinsma, 2015). The image of a place thus can have a significant impact on informal social control, as these factors negatively affect resident engagement and the development of social ties. Similarly, image can influence guardianship significantly by affecting the amount of time that residents are willing to spend in their home environment (i.e., availability), as well as their willingness to monitor their surroundings and intervene when necessary (Reynald, 2011b, 2017).

Going hand-in-hand with natural surveillance and image is Newman’s (1972) defensible space concept of territoriality. Territoriality refers to the level of care and territorial control that residents have over their properties. It is typically expressed through real or symbolic barriers that signify control and ownership. Residents can create symbolic signs of ownership and control through the use of property signs, decorations, or landscaping. Newman (1972) explains that symbolic barriers like these are likely to discourage territorial breaches by providing important cues to outsiders (including potential offenders) that a property is well cared for and controlled by owners. Real or physical barriers include the use of fences or gates, which restricts access to private property and serve to clearly demarcate the boundary between public and private property. Defensible space theory suggests that territorial breaches are less likely at properties that have real and symbolic barriers and greater territorial definition.

The level of territoriality and the image of a place are also affected by the routine activities of that place (Reynald, 2011a, 2011b). The routine activities of a place are generated by the level, type, and rhythms of activity that occur in a location, which typically stem from factors such as land-use patterns and place accessibility. Accessibility and land use can either generate or inhibit opportunities for effective supervision and intervention by guardians (Reynald, 2011b, 2017). The more accessible a place is, and the more nonresidential land use that it incorporates, the more likely it is to attract a higher volume of users who are outsiders. Taylor, Koons, Kurtz, Greene, and Perkins (1995) explain that nonresidential land use in certain places can alter the ratio of outsiders to regular users on a street block, and this can have a negative impact on the extent to which residents are familiar with other users. The same is true for highly accessible places, which also attract a higher proportion of users who are outsiders.

High accessibility and activity level in a place also generate increased opportunities for crime by encouraging opportunities for physical and social incivility (Taylor et al., 1995). This makes it more difficult for residents to detect suspicious or untoward activity (Reynald, 2011b). The high use of space and the number of external users who are attracted to it can have a negative effect on residents’ place attachment, participation, and their territorial behavior (Taylor et al., 1995). This withdrawal by residents restricts opportunities for capable guardianship and serves to reinforce the negative place image. In addition, Taylor et al. (1995) suggest that nonresidential land use also creates holes in the residential fabric that are unattended, and therefore uncontrolled, by residents. Both of these dynamics are likely to thwart informal social control and simultaneously reduce the capability of residents to guard effectively against crime (Reynald, 2011b).

The debate still rages on over the effect of accessibility and mixed land use on residents’ guardianship capabilities and on crime in general, as the empirical evidence around this point remains scant. Jacobs (1961) argues that mixed land usage and the regular flow of people that this attracts at different times of the day actually encourage, rather than discourage, opportunities to guard against crime. This perspective relies on the logic that having more people translates into having more available guardians. Based on the ideas of Jacobs (1961), New Urbanism promotes residential developments comprised of mixed land use, including public transportation stops and other amenities. The empirical evidence base to support the idea that mixed land use results in more eyes on the street, and therefore less crime, does not yet exist.


As is evident from the research that has been reviewed in this article, both guardianship and informal social control studies within criminology have focused on how these processes function to control crime in the residential context. Informal social control has been examined most frequently on the neighborhood level, and also on the residential street level. Regardless of the unit of analysis, informal social control depends on group social processes or the collective. In a residential area, residents can serve as guardians and are likely to serve as the most effective guardians in that context, depending on their level of familiarity with the context. Outsiders also can serve as guardians in a residential context according to the guardianship perspective. Similarly, strangers can act as guardians for each other in any context, according to the guardianship concept. Guardianship does not necessarily rely on group/community level processes, while informal social control does. As a microlevel process, guardianship can be aggregated to the neighborhood level for the purposes of analysis, but it is not a neighborhood process. When guardianship is enacted at the street-block level and involves purposive action directed at crime and crime-related control within a residential community, it is similar to informal social control. This, however, is only one vein in which guardianship functions. As highlighted in this article, guardianship is much broader than this.

While research on guardianship has focused predominantly on the neighborhood level, more recent research has examined guardianship as a microlevel process functioning at the individual property level and the street level (e.g., Reynald, 2009, 2011a; Hollis-Peel & Welsh, 2014). Moreover, guardianship research has expanded recently to examine how guardianship functions in public space among individuals who are unlikely to be acquainted (Leclerc & Reynald, 2017), as well as how it functions in cyberspace, where guardians, victims, and offenders may or may not be identifiable or known to each other (see, e.g., Vakhitova & Reynald, 2014; Bichler & Malm, 2015). Other extensions to guardianship research include guardianship against sexual assaults and other sex-related crimes, including sexual homicide, in which victims and offenders were strangers and victims and guardians were most likely to be strangers (see, e.g., Beauregard & Leclerc, 2007).

These studies serve to highlight another fundamental distinction between guardianship and informal social control: Guardianship is about that microlevel interaction that occurs when offenders and targets converge. Thus, guardianship can occur anywhere or anytime there is the potential for that offender-target convergence. Guardianship can occur in spaces, locations, and contexts outside those in which individuals reside, belong, or are attached to as part of a community. Moreover, guardianship can involve either active or passive supervision or action that may protect unknown people, property, and places from victimization. We see this particularly in contexts like cyberspace and public spaces.

When we focus on the context of the residential community, there is no doubt that broader contextual neighborhood characteristics are often closely related to microlevel place characteristics, and therefore, they affect residential guardianship and crime. The same is true for informal social control. There is also no doubt that, in addition to the important influence of broader contextual factors, guardianship is very heavily influenced by situational factors. In fact, research shows that the same guardian makes different guardianship decisions depending on the situational parameters of the crime or related event witnessed in the residential context (Reynald, 2010). This reveals another critical distinction between guardianship and informal social control: Guardianship is influenced by a combination of environmental/contextual, situational, and individual factors (Reynald, 2009, 2010, 2011b; Hollis-Peel & Welsh, 2014; Hollis-Peel, Reynald, & Welsh, 2012; Reynald & Moir, submitted).

In contrast, the informal social control literature within criminology does not consider individual or situational influences on informal social control. In light of these issues, I would argue that both informal social control and guardianship can be considered as contributing something separate when we consider residential crime control. At its core, informal social control speaks to neighborhood social factors that lead to collective agency and collective resources for action to stop undesirable behavior. In contrast, guardianship speaks to the microlevel, situational distinctions that determine variations in individual guardianship behaviors and actions, including factors such as routine activities, individual property design, street-level features, and specific characteristics of the crime event. In light of these fundamental distinctions, even though there is some overlap between these concepts, it seems that they very clearly focus on different and useful perspectives of citizen involvement in crime prevention and control.


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