According to Wilson and Kelling, minor disorders (like littering, loitering, public drinking, panhandling, and prostitution) if tolerated, produce an environment that is likely to attract crime. They signal to potential criminals that delinquent behavior will not be reported or controlled -- that no one is in charge. One broken window, left unrepaired, invites other broken windows. These progressively break down community standards, leaving the community vulnerable to crime.
A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other's children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the comer store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.
At this point it is not inevitable that serious crime will flourish or violent attacks on strangers will occur. But many residents will think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and they will modify their behavior accordingly.
Such an area is vulnerable to criminal invasion. Though it is not inevitable, it is more likely that here... drugs will change hands, prostitutes will solicit, and cars will be stripped. That the drunks will be robbed by boys who do it as a lark, and the prostitutes' customers will be robbed by men who do it purposefully and perhaps violently.
The social meaning in question is the meaning of order and disorder. Order means that the community cares about its neighborhood and is prepared to enforce norms of orderliness.
Social norm proponents suggest that "some social meanings are constructed." Those that are, are socially constructed through the interrelationship of action and context -- the context being certain expectations or understandings that are often unquestioned. Social meanings are "the frameworks of understanding within which individuals live; a way to describe what they take or understand various actions, or inactions, or statuses to be; and a way to understand how the understandings change."(n66) When these understandings are uncontested, the related social meanings acquire more power and appear unavoidable.
Social meanings can have social influence, which is to say that they can influence the behavior of individuals in society. In the broken windows context, the social meaning of disorder influences the disorderly to commit crimes and law abiders to leave the neighborhood. Conversely, the social meaning of order influences the disorderly not to follow their inclination to commit crime and law abiders to walk more freely in the streets at night.
The relationship between social meaning, social influence and social norms is illustrated in the following figure:
In the context of order-maintenance policing, this suggests that, by encouraging the social norm of orderliness, major crime may decline because (a)