In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Disorganization

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Data Sources
  • Social Disorganization over Time and across Contexts

Criminology Social Disorganization
Andres F. Rengifo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0008


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.

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

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

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

  • 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.

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

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

    DOI: 10.1086/229068

    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.

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

    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.

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

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

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

    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.

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