Social disorganization theory refers specifically to the failure of a neighborhood’s social institutions to develop cohesion, exert social control, and diminish crime. A departure from individual explanations of crime, social disorganization theorists examine how the structural characteristics of neighborhoods— residential stability, housing quality, economic opportunity, income levels, and social institutions—affect how residents realize common values and wield social control. In general, socially disorganized neighborhoods are characterized by high residential turnover, poverty, overcrowded living conditions, racial and ethnic heterogeneity, and social isolation. Together, these conditions hinder strong social ties and trust among neighborhood residents, making it difficult to develop the informal social control that maintains conventional values and reduces crime.
In socially disorganized neighborhoods, residents often move, choosing not to invest in their communities and strengthen neighborhood institutions that preserve traditional values (e.g., churches, voluntary associations, youth clubs). Poverty also makes it difficult to address social problems; little funding exists to support social institutions, and most residents focus on daily survival. As a result, these neighborhoods never develop the social resources to deal with crime. Here, an alternative value system emerges, one supporting crime and competing with the conventional values of most residents. Isolated from mainstream institutions and individuals, some adolescents become confused as to what constitutes appropriate behavior. Once criminality surfaces, it can sometimes flourish, especially when successful criminals earn respect through displaying material status symbols and violence. Thus, in socially disorganized neighborhoods, deviance and crime result not solely from the individual, but more from the breakdown of neighborhood social institutions that maintain conventional values and social control.
Social disorganization theory originates in the sociological studies of the early 20th-century Chicago School. During this period, Chicago was a growing city, with a booming manufacturing industry and a large influx of immigrants. However, crime and poverty accompanied this growth—social problems that sociologists from the University of Chicago would focus on for subsequent decades. To understand such problems, W. I. Thomas and Florian Znaiecki documented the hardships of Polish immigrants as they adjusted to Chicago in the early 1900s. Thomas and Znaiecki contended that new urban conditions (a dramatic change from rural and isolated living) disrupted immigrants’ traditional family and community social control. Thus, Polish crime rates in Chicago rose to much higher levels than rates found in Poland.
Robert E. Park and Ernest Burgess were also interested in the relationship between people and place; they developed a social ecological approach to studying neighborhoods. In a spatial analysis, Park and Burgess divided Chicago into five concentric zones, finding that zones varied in physical and social characteristics, such as housing quality, income, and crime. The inner zones—characterized by new immigrants, poverty, overcrowding, and deteriorating housing—had the highest rates of crime. The outer zones—characterized by successively higher-income groups, single-family housing, and spacious environments—had lower rates of crime. Park and Burgess concluded that, because of the constant influx of immigrants and outflow of established residents, inner-zone residents cannot exercise sufficient social control over the neighborhood.
The two Chicago sociologists credited with developing the first comprehensive theory of social disorganization were Clifford R. Shaw and Henry D. McKay. Borrowing from Park and Burgess, Shaw and McKay analyzed Chicago’s concentric zones, collecting more than 56,000 juvenile court records that covered three periods between 1900 and 1933. They found that, despite ethnic succession (the replacement of one ethnic group by another), inner-zone crime rates remained high. And when an ethnic group, en masse, left inner-zone neighborhoods for outer ones, their crime rates diminished substantially. For Shaw and McKay, this meant that ethnicity, or the cultural characteristics of groups, had less impact on crime than the neighborhood structure.
In analyzing inner-zone neighborhoods, Shaw and McKay consistently found high rates of poverty, residential instability, family dissolution, and overcrowding. The researchers argued that these factors created a collapse in informal social control, leading to high rates of crime. For instance, in these neighborhoods, stabilizing family traditions weakened because of immigrant encounters with American ideas and the new powerlessness of immigrant parents relying on their children to navigate the new language and environment. Racial and ethnic differences also hindered neighborhood organization by creating distrust among residents and making communication difficult. Furthermore, many residents sought better living conditions and moved to more stable neighborhoods. This continuous exodus of long-term residents hampered the growth of strong social institutions, leaving a disorderly neighborhood for new immigrants to inherit. Under these conditions, argued Shaw and McKay, informal social control is absent, allowing criminality to thrive and compete with conventional values. For some youth (certainly not all), criminal enterprises and gangs become viable, almost legitimate, alternatives to the legal world. Once criminal traditions solidify, they become difficult to undo. Thus, unconventional values become permanent fixtures of the neighborhoods rather than values of the people themselves.
To reduce crime, Shaw and McKay advocated the replication of social institutions found in organized, low-crime communities. Organized communities exert informal social control through institutions that protected and perpetuated conventional values and isolated children from criminal influences. They were mostly voluntary organizations, such as parent-teacher associations and social clubs and neighborhood clubs for children. In the early 1930s, Shaw put theory into practice, founding the Chicago Area Project, which still exists today. This project focuses on reducing delinquency through local organizations and activities: recreational centers for children; neighborhood associations; working relations among neighborhood residents, police, and school authorities; adult-child mentor programs; and the improved physical appearance of neighborhoods. In short, Shaw and McKay’s mission was explaining and reducing crime from a neighborhood perspective, from examining neighborhood structures and improving neighborhood organization, a decisive departure from individual-based explanations and reforms of crime.
Subsequent research during the 1980s and 1990s built upon social disorganization theory, providing theoretical improvements and methodological sophistication. In terms of race and crime, sociologists Robert J. Sampson and William J. Wilson emphasized how macro factors (economic shifts and discriminatory housing practices) interacted with community-level factors (local poverty, residential turnover, family disruption) to produce weak social institutions in urban areas. This outcome reduces the neighborhoods’ social control over crime and eventually leads to a destructive culture. Sampson and Wilson’s main focus was on how poor minorities experience “social isolation,” a segregation that keeps inner-city residents poor and disadvantaged. Poor minorities are isolated not only from work, but also from mainstream institutions that teach youths the benefits of conventional roles and values. Sampson and Wilson concluded that the black-white difference in violence results from racial segregation, a crucial separation that limits minorities’ options in work and social values and confines minorities within a space of destructive cultural adaptations.
In a multiple-level study of Chicago neighborhoods during the mid-1990s (using statistical analysis, surveys, interviews, and field observations), other researchers also found that although some inner-city neighborhoods appeared socially disorganized because of poverty and high crime rates, residents still displayed strong social ties. Such findings suggest that strong social ties alone cannot informally control crime. What matters is the neighborhood’s level of “collective efficacy,” a community’s sense of needing to respond to neighborhood transgressions.
More recent community-level research, however, runs counter to social disorganization theory. Although social disorganization theory posits that increased immigration, especially a poor and low-skilled wave, disrupts social control, new research suggests that neighborhoods with large immigrant concentrations and high poverty establish high social cohesion and low rates of violent crime. This latest finding led the researchers to conclude that the 1990s crime drop, among many factors, partly resulted from the decade’s large influx of immigrants to urban areas. However, violent crimes increase among second-generation immigrants and then even more among the third generation.
Throughout its development, social disorganization theory has also had other critiques. One criticism addresses how social disorganization assumes that crime and delinquency occur less in affluent communities, where offenders can escape notice or are dealt with informally. Another critique is that neighborhoods with high rates of poverty can exhibit strong social bonds between residents and maintain social order. Last, social disorganization cannot explain the low crime rates of some ethnic groups residing in poor urban areas, who, as some research suggests, maintain strong ties within the family and community.
- Sampson, Robert J. 2006. “Open Doors Don’t Invite Criminals: Is Increased Immigration behind the Drop in Crime?” New York Times, March 11, p. A27.
- Sampson, Robert J., Jeffrey D. Morenhoff, and Stephen W. Raudenbush. 2005. “Social Anatomy of Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Violence.” American Journal of Public Health 95:224-32.
- Sampson, Robert J., Stephen W. Raudenbush, and Felton Earls. 1997. “Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy.” Science 277:918-24.
- Sampson, Robert J. and William J. Wilson. 1990. “Toward a Theory of Race, Crime, and Urban Inequality.” Pp. 177-89 in Crime and Inequality, edited by J. Hagan and R. D. Peterson. Stanford, CA: Standard University Press.
- Shaw, Clifford R. and Henry D. McKay. 1942. Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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