Jump to Content Jump to Main Navigation

Criminology Social Disorganization
by
Andres F. Rengifo

Introduction

Social disorganization is a theoretical perspective that explains ecological differences in levels of crime based on structural and cultural factors shaping the nature of the social order across communities. This approach narrowed the focus of earlier sociological studies on the covariates of urban growth to examine the spatial concentration and stability of rates of criminal behavior. According to the social disorganization framework, such phenomena are triggered by the weakened social integration of neighborhoods because of the absence of self-regulatory mechanisms, which in turn are due to the impact of structural factors on social interactions or the presence of delinquent subcultures. The former process defines disorganization as the reflection of low levels of social control generated by socioeconomic disadvantage, residential turnover, and population heterogeneity; the latter highlights the convergence of conflicting cultural standards in poor neighborhoods and the emergence of group behavior linked to criminality. Research on communities and crime has generally been inspired by these two approaches, although the most prevalent formulation emphasizes the association between aggregate rates of crime and delinquency and the structural nature of community-based social controls. Overall, the social disorganization perspective has benefited from increasing scholarly attention in the form of further specification of the ecological mechanisms linking attributes of communities to aggregate levels of crime, the modeling of relationships across levels of analysis (“neighborhood effects”), and heightened attention to the operationalization and measurement of key variables.

Introductory Works

The rapid process of urbanization in the 1900s inspired scholars at the University of Chicago to reexamine the relationship between structural socioeconomic conditions and local processes of social integration. Drawing on the program of research at Chicago in the early 1900s, Sutherland 1947 gives the first articulated explanation of ecological differences in crime as resulting from a process of “differential social organization.” Shaw and McKay 1972 develops a similar argument concerning the “cultural transmission” of delinquent values across generations. However, unlike Sutherland, this study argues that the presence of these groups explained ecological variation in crime rates as a result of their negative impact on community self-regulation. More important, it elaborated on the range of structural socioeconomic factors shaping these informal controls (poverty, transiency, population heterogeneity). Delinquency emerges in this context because of the absence of effective parental supervision, lack of resources, and weak community attachment and involvement in local institutions. This approach guided a number of policy interventions but was harshly criticized for the absence of specification of mechanisms and normative bias (see Kornhauser 1978). Over time, this perspective lost prominence in the advent of other theories. However, a new generation of work such as Suttles 1968 broadened the theory’s original framework. More recent studies continue to specify the mechanisms by which structural factors influence the ability of communities to enforce collective goals. Sampson and Groves 1989 and its tests of the control model specified by Shaw and McKay highlight the importance of social ties and introduce new measures of social disorganization. Bursik and Grasmick 1993 presents a systemic model that further elaborates on the various linkages between ties and levels of social control. Current specifications of the theory summarized by Sampson and Bean 2006 move away from the examination of actual social exchanges in favor of other mechanisms linking informal controls with individual expectations and cultural processes.

  • Bursik, Robert J., and Harold Grasmick. 1993. Neighborhoods and crime: The dimensions of effective community control. New York: Lexington.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explains ecological variations in crime focusing on the relationship between processes of social integration and types and levels of social control.

    Find this resource:

  • Kornhauser, Ruth. 1978. Social sources of delinquency: An appraisal of analytic models. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reformulation of the social disorganization perspective as a control theory, dismissing the cultural approach to community self-regulation byShaw and McKay 1972 and others.

    Find this resource:

  • Sampson, Robert J., and Lydia Bean. 2006. Cultural mechanisms and killing fields. A revised theory of community-level racial inequality. In The many colors of crime. Edited by Ruth D. Peterson, Lauren J. Krivo, and John Hagan. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Overview of the reformulation of social disorganization in terms of “collective efficacy.” Links the structural perspective on informal controls to cultural approaches.

    Find this resource:

  • Sampson, Robert J., and W. Byron Groves. 1989. Community structure and crime: Testing social disorganization theory. American Journal of Sociology 94:774–802.

    DOI: 10.1086/229068Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Influential test of the control model by Shaw and McKay. Using data from the British Crime Survey, authors found that local social ties explain community-level variations in crime.

    Find this resource:

  • Shaw, Clifford R., and McKay, Henry D. 1972. Juvenile delinquency and urban areas. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Classic study first published in 1942 on the sources of ecological variation in delinquency rates. Argues that social disorganization emerges from population loss, transience, and population heterogeneity.

    Find this resource:

  • Sutherland, Edwin. 1947. Principles of criminology,. Philadelphia: J.P. Lippincott.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Introduces “differential social organization” as the macro-level context in which definitions favorable/unfavorable to crime develop through personal interactions and learning.

    Find this resource:

  • Suttles, Geraldo. 1968. The social order of the slum. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Ethnography of the “Addams” area in Chicago. Challenges Shaw and McKay 1972’s notion of “disorganization” and proposes an alternative specification of the local social order.

    Find this resource:

General Overviews

A number of reviews explore the historical development of the tradition of research leading to social disorganization theory. Bulmer 1986, for example, focuses on the early years of the Chicago School of Human Ecology (1915–1935). Short 1971 provides an anthology of representative texts. Abbott 1999 elaborates on epistemological issues using a broader historical framework. Kornhauser 1978 is an influential critique of Shaw and McKay 1972’s (see Introductory Works) cultural and control models of social disorganization, arguing that the latter specification was superior. Bursik 1988 and Kubrin and Weitzer 2003 address some of the methodological shortcomings of the theory and advocate for greater attention to the conceptualization of community controls, social ties, and the role of culture. Sampson, et al. 2002 reviews the literature connecting neighborhood conditions to a wide range of individual and aggregate outcomes—their assessment concludes that there is strong support for the linkage between various measures of local social interactions and crime-related measures. However, as Taylor 2002 suggests, the operationalization of constructs of social integration has been inconsistent, reflecting more general problems with the conceptualization of social controls at the neighborhood level.

Data Sources

As Abbott 1999 shows, early works on social disorganization relied on ethnographic methods of data collection for the study of specific urban institutions and local areas. With the advent of official statistics, researchers complemented this information with administrative records on a wide range of social problems, demographic attributes of the population, and characteristics of the urban space. The increasing use of multiple sources of data symbolized more substantive changes in the conceptualization of the interactions between urban dwellers and their immediate environment—from individuals as mere repositories of ecological relationships to a more balanced vision of the exchanges among individuals and between individuals and their “social space.” Venkatesh 2001 elaborates on this point while also describing the changing role of urban scholars of the Chicago tradition from academic researchers to “city managers.” For the most part, research has relied on social disorganization theory to explain ecological differences in rates of crime at the neighborhood level. However, some studies have examined variations in criminal behavior across countries and other areas. A number of contemporary data sources contain individual and community-level measures of social integration and control, crime and victimization, and more general attributes of subpopulations. In most cases, these data were collected through resident surveys selected through clustered probability samples. The US Census Bureau is a primary source of information in the United States about general population characteristics over time and across a number of levels of aggregation. The Project in Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN) is a comprehensive study of individuals and communities in Chicago that focused on a wide range of covariates and indicators of human development. The Los Angeles Family and Neighborhood Survey is a longitudinal study focused on neighborhood, peer, and family effects on children’s development. The Seattle Neighborhoods and Crime Project examines crime, violence, and social integration in Seattle neighborhoods. And finally, the online data holdings for the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research include several datasets on individual and neighborhood measures of crime, social control, and social integration.

Related Theories and Extensions to Social Disorganization

Social disorganization is part of a broader program of research on urban sociology. As such, a number of components of this perspective are associated with constructs developed by other traditions of ecological research. The first section below summarizes some of these perspectives, focusing on works that examine patterns and determinants of neighborhood social organization and its relation to a number of emerging outcomes and intervening processes (e.g., social isolation, disorder, mass incarceration). The second section focuses on one of these perspectives—social capital—providing a brief overview of the history of this concept and its applications in criminology. The third section highlights the significance of “collective efficacy” as the most influential contemporary extension of social disorganization theory.

Ecological Approaches: Processes and Outcomes Linked to Local Social Organization

Wilson 1987 examines the breakdown of social controls in black inner-city neighborhoods as a reflection of structural isolation and the outmigration of middle-class residents. Peterson and Krivo 2005 summarizes the contributions of this avenue of research on segregation, race, and crime and argues for more work on the conceptualization of racial dynamics beyond the black and white divide. Approaches in Anderson 1999 to the determinants of social order in communities emphasize subcultural processes as stand-alone intervening mechanisms, while Sampson and Bean 2006 highlights subcultural processes in combination with structural factors. Social disorganization theory has also provided a foundation for the study of signs of disorder and incivilities at the neighborhood level, as well as covariates such as fear of crime, neighborhood attachment, and policing strategies. Taylor 2001 provides an overview of this. Extensions to Shaw and McKay 1972’s (see Introductory Works) framework have recently elaborated on the types and levels of social control operating at the neighborhood level. Clear 2007 views incarceration as a negative form of public control, and Venkatesh 2002 uses the ethnography of a housing development in Chicago to illustrate the complex interplay of multiple agents of control in the configuration of order.

  • Anderson, Elijah. 1999. Code of the street: Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. New York: W.W. Norton.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Based on ethnographic research, Anderson argues that residents of dislocated neighborhoods develop a “code” as a mechanism of adaptation regulating order and controlling violence.

    Find this resource:

  • Clear, Todd. 2007. Imprisoning communities. How mass incarceration makes disadvantaged neighborhoods worse. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the concentrated impact of incarceration on poor minority neighborhoods. Argues that incarceration is a form of “coercive mobility” that weakens informal controls.

    Find this resource:

  • Peterson, Ruth D., and Laurie J. Krivo. 2005. Macrostructural analyses of race, ethnicity, and violent crime: New directions for research. Annual Review of Sociology 31:331–356.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.31.041304.122308Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reviews recent works on race and violence. Highlights the link between violence and structural disadvantage, advocating for more studies on the mediating role of racial/ethnic processes.

    Find this resource:

  • Sampson, Robert J., and Lydia Bean. 2006. Cultural mechanisms and killing fields. A revised theory of community-level racial inequality. In The many colors of crime. Edited by Ruth D. Peterson, Lauren J. Krivo, and John Hagan. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Overview of the reformulation of social disorganization in terms of “collective efficacy.” Links the structural perspective on informal controls to cultural approaches.

    Find this resource:

  • Taylor, Ralph B. 2001. Breaking away from broken windows. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the theory, research, and implications of studies on disorder and incivilities. Using longitudinal data, it shows that incivilities influence patterns of social integration and crime.

    Find this resource:

  • Venkatesh, Suddhir A. 2002. American project: The rise and fall of a modern ghetto. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Ethnography focused on the history and mobilization of social control in public housing. Highlights the role of gangs as regulators of public spaces in the absence of formal institutions.

    Find this resource:

  • Wilson, William J. 1987. The truly disadvantaged: The inner-city, the underclass, and public policy. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explains the isolation of the black urban poor as a result of structural forces (disappearance of jobs). Argues that over time these conditions have fostered crime via weaker traditional institutions.

    Find this resource:

Social Capital and Social Networks

A number of studies on crime and communities rely on the notion of social capital to describe the nature of local social organizations. Portes 1998 summarizes the development of this analytical category in sociology and provides relevant examples. The social capital perspective has been further developed by studies on neighborhoods and social control. In a seminal work on the nature of urban relations, Jacobs 1992 uses the concept of social capital to describe frequent neighborly interactions of Manhattan residents. From a broader perspective, Putnam 2000 emphasizes the role of interpersonal trust and civic participation as key components of social capital and explores the linkage between levels of social capital and a number of social problems. Other studies have examined social networks as a component of social capital or a stand-alone measure of neighborhood organization. The ethnographic research in Patillo 1999 suggests that dense local networks may not translate into more effective patterns of regulation. Quantitative research by Browning, et al. 2004 based on the Project in Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN) (see Data Sources) also elaborates on this point. From a different perspective, Matsueda 2006 argues for a renewed attention to Sutherland 1947’s (see Introductory Works) notion of differential social organization as a way to conceptualize the configuration of personal networks in broader social contexts. Rosenfeld, et al. 2001 relies on this general framework to study ecological variations in levels of violent crime. In recent years, the notion of social capital has been increasingly criticized because of its lack of proper specification, validity, and relevance (see, for example, Portes 1998). As posited by Taylor 2002, the lack of clarity on the theoretical formulation of the mechanisms connecting social integration to social control has translated into inconsistent protocols of measurement and more significant problems of specification of the theory.

Extensions to Social Disorganization: Collective Efficacy and Situational Mechanisms

The most influential extension of social disorganization theory was developed in Sampson, et al. 1997. Using data from the Project in Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN) (see Data Sources), this study finds that communities with high levels of “collective efficacy” (a combination of informal control and social cohesion) have lower rates of crime and victimization. A follow-up study provides similar findings but focuses on neighborhood-level covariates of homicide such as collective efficacy and density of community-based organizations (Morenoff, et al. 2001). These and other studies generated by the PHDCN provide not only a conceptual reformulation of social disorganization, but also new techniques and protocols for the assessment of ecological processes (see, for example, Raudenbush and Sampson 1999). From a broader perspective, Sampson 2008 advocates for more studies focused on the temporal ordering of neighborhood-level processes and more research on the mechanisms that link “neighborhood effects” to patterns of delinquent behavior (see also Kubrin and Weitzer 2003). Wikström’s situational action theory (Wikström 2006) provides a situation-based definition of context, advocating for a more systematic approach to offending as the interaction between individual propensities and criminogenic features of immediate environments.

  • Kubrin, Charis E., and Ronald Weitzer. 2003. New directions in social disorganization theory. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 40:374–402.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427803256238Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Studies the evolution of social disorganization theory. Advocates for more substantive work (e.g., social ties, culture) and greater attention to methods (e.g., spatial and reciprocal effects).

    Find this resource:

  • Morenoff, Jeffrey, Robert J. Sampson, and Stephen W. Raudenbush. 2001. Neighborhood inequality, collective efficacy and the spatial dynamics of homicide. Criminology 39:517–560.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2001.tb00932.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Studies the community-level factors associated with spatial variation in homicides in Chicago. Using survey-based data from the Project in Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN), the authors find that neighborhood-level variation is explained by collective efficacy controlling for structural socioeconomic factors.

    Find this resource:

  • Raudenbush, Stephen, and Robert J. Sampson. 1999. “Ecometrics”: Toward a science of assessing ecological settings, with application to the systematic social observation of neighborhoods. Sociological Methodology 29:1–41.

    DOI: 10.1111/0081-1750.00059Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Introduces a new approach to the measurement of neighborhood processes centered on the direct assessment of ecological relationships. Based on data from the Project in Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN).

    Find this resource:

  • Sampson, Robert J. 2008. Moving to inequality: Neighborhood effects and experiments meet social structure. American Journal of Sociology 114:189–231.

    DOI: 10.1086/589843Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses recent experimental research suggesting the relative unimportance of neighborhood context for a number of individual-level outcomes including crime and delinquency.

    Find this resource:

  • Sampson, Robert J., Stephen Raudenbush, and Felton Earls. 1997. Neighborhoods and violent crime: A multilevel study of collective efficacy. Science 277:918–924.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.277.5328.918Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Landmark study introducing the construct of “collective efficacy” as an ecological attribute of communities with high levels of social cohesion and informal control. Finds that collective efficacy is inversely related to levels of crime, controlling for an extensive set of social and economic covariates.

    Find this resource:

  • Wikström, Per-Olof. 2006. Individuals, settings, and acts of crime: Situational mechanisms and the explanation of crime. In The explanation of crime. Edited by Per-Olof Wikström and Robert J. Sampson. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Presents the framework of Wikström’s situational action theory of crime causation emphasizing the mechanisms linking contextual factors to individual actions. Such a perspective is based on earlier theoretical contributions on the significance of individual-level propensities and the role of environmental factors on patterns of decision making.

    Find this resource:

Social Disorganization over Time and across Contexts

Social disorganization theorists found that the distribution of juvenile delinquents in Chicago across neighborhoods was remarkably stable over time. Although some qualitative studies such as Carr 2005 and Venkatesh 2002 have highlighted the changing nature of order in local communities, only a limited number of quantitative studies have been able to examine the temporal dynamics of social integration and social control—among these, for example, Taylor 2001, a study on the effect of incivilities on crime and fear of crime. An emerging body of literature has begun to address the significance of the social disorganization framework for the study of patterns of neighborhood organization over time and across sociocultural contexts. For example, a number of projects have sought to expand this approach to the study of rural areas (e.g., Osgood and Chambers 2000) and in nations other than the United States (see, for example, Van Wilsem, et al. 2006; Oberwittler 2004). Wikström 1998 provides a good overview of this body of work and argues for the integration of social disorganization and routine activities theories; see also Bottoms 2007 for a broader overview of non-US based studies on communities and crime.

  • Bottoms, Anthony. 2007. Place, space, crime and disorder. In The Oxford handbook of criminology. Edited by Mike Maguire, Rodney Morgan, and Robert Reiner. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Summarizes key developments in urban sociology linked to the study of crime in cities and public areas. Examines spatial perspectives on the distribution of crimes, offenders, and signs of disorder. Describes the mechanism by which the changing nature of cities affects local patterns of social organization.

    Find this resource:

  • Carr, Patrick. 2005. Clean streets: Controlling crime, maintaining order, and building community action. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Describes how patterns of community self-regulation are defined by partnerships between community organizations and formal institutions that are triggered by local events.

    Find this resource:

  • Oberwittler, Dietrich. 2004. A multilevel analysis of neighbourhood contextual effects on serious juvenile offending. European Journal of Criminology 2:201–235.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the association between “neighborhood effects” and serious offending by adolescents in Germany. Relying on a series of multilevel models based on administrative data and self-reports, authors find empirical support for both subcultural and social disorganization theories.

    Find this resource:

  • Osgood, D. Wayne, and Jeff M. Chambers. 2000. Social disorganization outside the metropolis. Criminology 38:81–115.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Authors find support for the link between structural socioeconomic factors and juvenile delinquency in a sample of nonmetropolitan counties. No intervening variables were included.

    Find this resource:

  • Taylor, Ralph B. 2001. Breaking away from broken windows. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the theory, research, and implications of studies on disorder and incivilities. Using longitudinal data, it shows that incivilities influence patterns of social integration and crime.

    Find this resource:

  • Van Wilsem, Johan, Karin Wittebrood, and Nan Dirk de Graaf. 2006. Socioeconomic dynamics of neighborhoods and the risk of crime victimization: A multilevel study of improving declining and stable areas in the Netherlands. Social Problems 53:226–247.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.2006.53.2.226Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Authors find that improvements in socioeconomic conditions of neighborhoods increase the likelihood of victimization because of higher rates of residential turnover. Available online.

    Find this resource:

  • Venkatesh, Suddhir A. 2002. American project: The rise and fall of a modern ghetto. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Ethnography focusing on the history and mobilization of social control in public housing. Highlights the role of gangs as regulators of public spaces in the absence of formal institutions.

    Find this resource:

  • Wikström, Per-Olof. 1998. Communities and crime. In The handbook of crime and punishment. Edited by Michael Tonry. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reviews the literature on community factors influencing offending behavior. Focuses on contributions linked to social disorganization and routine activities theories. Develops a framework for the integration of these two approaches emphasizing the micro–macro interactions generated by the intersection of “community routines” and structural socioeconomic factors.

    Find this resource:

LAST MODIFIED: 12/14/2009

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396607-0008

back to top

Article

Up

Down