Social Disorganization Theory Research Paper Starter

Social Disorganization Theory

Unlike most theories of crime that focus on the individual, social disorganization theory focuses on place and tries to explain why some communities experience high levels of crime while others do not. The theory attends to the ecologies or environments of communities in which social institutions succeed or fail in maintaining order in public places. Arguably, the success of a given neighborhood or community is based upon the effective collective use of skills, resources, focus, and energy to solve problems and enhance the quality of life in order to deter criminal activity. Social disorganization theory argues that because of failures in the skills and networking abilities of community organizations, whether they be educational, business, law enforcement, social services, health care, or religious organizations, a specific neighborhood or community can experience high crime rates through a breakdown in social order and a lack of compliance with social rules.

Keywords Broken Window Theory; Cartographic School; Chicago Area Project; Chicago School Sociology; Concentric Zone Theory; Cultural Transmission Theory; Ecology; Ecological Niche; Environmental Determinism; Collective Efficacy; Network Density; Social Capital; Social Disorganization; Social Integration; Social Networks

Social Disorganization Theory


Adolphe Quetelet

According to Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi (1990), the basis of social disorganization theory emanates from the statistical work of Belgian sociologist Adolphe Quetelet in the early nineteenth century. Quetelet studied various urban geographical areas and determined that the crime rates in each area were stable over long periods of time regardless of the race, nationality, or national origin of an area's residents at a given point in time. Quetelet concluded from this data that there were features unique to each area or to the groups adapting to reside in an area that were responsible for the area's crime rate.

The Chicago School

Theorists in economics, geography, sociology, and criminology built upon Quetelet's work and used maps of geographical areas to show the spatial distribution of crime in a given area. This approach was known as the "Cartographic School," and it was popular with scholars at the University of Chicago during the first half of the twentieth century. William Isaac Thomas and Florian Znaniecki added to the theoretical framework around 1919 by arguing that people's beliefs and attitudes were shaped by their interactions with their "situation," or the environment, as well as their behavior. This acculturation process, they said, takes place on both an individual level and within a group as a whole.

Building on their colleagues' work, in 1925 Robert Ezra Park and Ernest W. Burgess adapted Darwinian evolutionary concepts to this Chicago School Sociology, as it had by then become known. They argued that urban environments mirrored natural ecosystems and that careful analysis would reveal distinctive ecological niches or zones throughout a city. "Ecology" is defined by the Encarta English Dictionary "as the study of the relationships between living organisms and their interactions with their natural or developed environment" (Soukhanov, 2004). Ecological studies of crime view "the physical structure of communities as shaping the routine activities of inhabitants in ways that affect the likelihood of crime" (Gottfredson, 1990, p. 82). Through the interplay of humans with their environment and its resources, the theory holds, the zones evolve into diverse, unique areas with the residents sharing similar social characteristics. This process can be said to mirror the evolutionary changes experienced by plants and animals as they adapt to varied ecological niches in a diverse landscape.

Park and Burgess used their cartographic research on the City of Chicago to argue that urban areas have five distinct zones of natural competition:

• The central business district,

• The transitional zone,

• The working-class zone (single family tenements),

• The residential zone (single family homes with yards and garages), and

• The commuter zone (suburbs).

Their theory, which they called "the concentric zone theory," held that as a city evolves through outward expansion, the more desirable and successful zones are those that avoid the intense concentration and competition for land and resources within the inner city. Zone Two, the transitional zone, is therefore arguably the most disadvantaged and thus evidences the highest rates of crime and delinquency. Park and Burgess described the transitional zone as being driven by industrial expansion; it serves as a residential entry point for immigrants and has a wide variety of cultural groups, high unemployment and welfare rates, low educational and occupational attainment levels, low real estate rental values, and social institutions with poor community organization abilities. Despite high rates of movement in and out of the zones, Park and Burgess argued that each zone retained its characteristics. Subsequent efforts to duplicate their findings in different countries have successfully linked high delinquency rates with areas of economic decline. Park's and Burgess's analysis of concentric zones, however, has proven to be flawed in cities where "the wealthy are often near the center of the city, while the poorer zones of the city are found near its fringes" (Wong, 2007, p. 3).


In 1942, Clifford R. Shaw and Henry D. McKay became the most famous members of the Chicago School by trying to explain the spatial distributions of crime and delinquency set forth by their predecessors. In seeking a social causation of crime, Shaw and McKay focused on social institutions—educational, law enforcement, business, social services, healthcare, and religious entities—rather than on individual perpetrators and their social characteristics. Shaw and McKay argued that social institutions in Zone Two–type locales are too disadvantaged and disorganized to perform their major social function of training or socializing individuals to be law-abiding members of the community. Secondarily, they also fail to monitor the behavior of individuals in order to ensure lawful behavior. One major assumption of social disorganization theory, then, is that crime is caused by social factors or bad places rather than bad people. Another term for this perspective is "environmental determinism."

Within this context, social disorganization is defined as "the inability of local communities to realize common values of their residents or solve commonly experienced problems" (Shaw & McKay, 1942, qtd in O'Connor, 2006, ¶ 13). In an attempt to explain why these communities faced social disorganization to such a level that criminal traditions became embedded, three reasons were set forth:

• residential instability/mobility,

• racial/ethnic heterogeneity

• poverty.

Residential instability/mobility was defined as individuals having no commitment to their locale since they moved frequently and intended to leave the area as soon as possible. The mid-twentieth century "white flight," the migration of working- and middle-class Caucasian residents out of areas with growing numbers of African American residents, left the poorest members of these communities behind in an even more depressed environment. Racial, cultural, and language barriers were erected as a result of racial/ethnic heterogeneity to such an extent that residents isolated themselves from dissimilar community members in small pockets of minority areas. In consequence, they forfeited the meaningful interactions that might have led to solutions to overarching community problems such as crime. Finally, because of poverty due to a low tax base and restricted local resources, community members did not have the resources to solve their social problems, and residents continued to seek housing in less disorganized residential zones. Poverty itself does not cause crime, according to Shaw and McKay, but it does facilitate it due to a lack of the resources necessary to eradicate criminal behavior. Subsequent researchers have added family disruption and urbanization as additional factors to the theory.

One major feature of a socially disorganized zone was that it offered an explanation for how high crime and delinquency rates can cause further disruptions in a community due to the high levels of incarceration of its residents. Obviously, according to social disorganization theorists, a pattern of frequent, repeated incarceration adds to the residential instability factors in a given community and only worsens a community's social ills. Thus, a major policy implication of social disorganization theory is to find alternatives to incarceration and crime control. Expanded remedial educational programs, youth athletic leagues, community youth services and clubs, summer camps, youth employment services, recreation programs, and other types of social service and educational interventions are championed by social disorganization theorists to create the positive socialization opportunities for youth that the community is unable offer on its own.


Strain Theory

Social disorganization theory concerns itself with the abilities of a community's social institutions to inculcate common values of lawfulness and to monitor compliance with those values. One major criticism of the theory focuses on its foundational premise "that people will commit criminal acts when the surrounding 'society' is unable to prevent them from doing so" (Gottfredson, 1990, p. 82). No empirical basis has been offered for this assumption, and several subsequent theorists have argued that the absence of social organization does not adequately account for...

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