In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Community Disadvantage and Crime

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data Sources

Criminology Community Disadvantage and Crime
Robert J. Fornango
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0074


The literature on community disadvantage and crime covers a broad spectrum of topics. At the heart of the issue is the need to understand why crime rates are consistently positively correlated with community poverty, inequality, normative adaptations, and other social problems. Over time, disadvantage has been conceptualized and operationalized in a variety of forms such as absolute poverty, relative poverty or economic inequality, and measures of unemployment and joblessness indicating labor-market accessibility. These economic dimensions of disadvantage have also been supplemented with several social or cultural indicators such as the prevalence of single-parent families, racial minority population composition, and measures of educational achievement such as high school dropout rates. More recent research has also combined sets of indicators to form multidimensional indexes of concentrated disadvantage. The relationship between community disadvantage and crime has also been studied across numerous levels of aggregation, including neighborhood-level analyses within cities, across samples of large cities, and across metropolitan areas. Broadly stated, the theoretical mechanisms that link community disadvantage to crime include macrostructural forces that differentially concentrate disadvantage among specific populations, the concomitant social isolation and cultural adaptation of disadvantaged populations, and the weakening of systemic networks of social control.

General Overviews

There are several general overviews of community structure that are relevant to the study of disadvantage and crime. Wilson 1987 presents the author’s thesis on the truly disadvantaged, describing how social and economic transformations in the United States after World War II have disproportionately concentrated urban poverty in predominantly minority communities that experience severe social isolation and concentrated disadvantage. Wilson 1996 also details the experiences of those living in urban poverty and presents policy implications for addressing issues of race, poverty, and other social problems. Hagan and Peterson 1995 presents an edited volume that broadly examines social inequality and crime. Brooks-Gunn, et al. 1997a and Brooks-Gunn, et al. 1997b provide a two-volume set detailing the consequences, including crime, for youth development and family processes of growing up in disadvantaged communities, as well as describing public policy implications derived from the neighborhood disadvantage literature. Small and Newman 2001 presents a review of the urban poverty literature inspired by Wilson 1987. Sampson, et al. 2002 reviews the “neighborhood effects” literature developed during the 1990s, and discusses methodological issues and theoretical directions to pursue in future research. Peterson and Krivo 2005 also provides a review of research on the racial invariance hypothesis presented by Sampson and Wilson 1995 (see Racial Invariance Hypothesis). Finally, Pratt and Cullen 2005 performs a meta-analytic review of macro-level research on crime.

  • Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne, Greg J. Duncan, and J. Lawrence Aber, eds. 1997a. Neighborhood poverty. Vol. 1, Context and consequences for children. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    A collection of essays that explores the influence of community disadvantage on child and adolescent development, both in terms of cognitive ability and education, but also in terms of health, family, and social outcomes. The first volume in a two-volume set.

  • Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne, Greg J. Duncan, and J. Lawrence Aber, eds. 1997b. Neighborhood poverty. Vol. 2, Policy implications in studying neighborhoods. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    A collection of essays describing conceptual and methodological issues in performing neighborhood-level research, successful program and policy initiatives, and new directions for policy implementation designed to ameliorate the detrimental effects of neighborhood poverty. The second volume in a two-volume set.

  • Hagan, John, and Ruth D. Peterson, eds. 1995. Crime and inequality. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    A collection of essays describing the manner in which inequality across race, gender, economic level, and community shapes crime over time both at the individual and macro level. Additional essays provide insights into the role of inequality in formal social-control institutions and policy implications.

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

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.31.041304.122308

    The authors review literature inspired by the racial invariance hypothesis of Sampson and Wilson 1995 (see Racial Invariance Hypothesis). The review points to the need for additional research on issues of ethnicity and gender and crime, spatial isolation processes, the role of the criminal justice system, and the use of multilevel studies, as well as in multiple contexts beyond large central cities.

  • Pratt, Travis C., and Fancis T. Cullen. 2005. Assessing macro-level predictors and theories of crime: A meta-analysis. Crime and Justice 32:373–450.

    A meta-analysis of macro-level research on crime. The authors find clear importance for concentrated disadvantage in explaining crime at a variety of levels of aggregation. Additional factors are found to be important as well, and the authors provide directions for future research and theoretical integration, as well as public policy.

  • Sampson, Robert J., Jeffrey D. Morenoff, and Thomas Gannon-Rowley. 2002. Assessing “neighborhood effects”: Social processes and new directions in research. Annual Review of Sociology 28:443–478.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.28.110601.141114

    The authors review recent developments in neighborhood effects, and point to several new directions for research including better conceptualization and operationalization of neighborhoods, the use of systemic social observation, the spatial dynamics of child development, studies of neighborhood change, and the benchmarking of data for comparability across studies.

  • Small, Mario, and Katherine Newman. 2001. Urban poverty after The Truly Disadvantaged: The rediscovery of the family, the neighborhood, and culture. Annual Review of Sociology 27:23–45.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.27.1.23

    The authors review literature inspired by Wilson 1987. They call for future research to address comparative studies across places and times, to complement the study of poverty with better attention to culture and various forms of social capital, and to focus on other groups aside from blacks and whites.

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

    Wilson’s seminal book on the creation of the urban underclass during the 1970s and 1980s. He points to key social and economic transformations in the United States that conspired to concentrate multiple forms of social and economic disadvantage in, and socially isolate, predominantly poor, black, urban neighborhoods.

  • Wilson, William Julius. 1996. When work disappears: The world of the new urban poor. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

    Wilson expands on The Truly Disadvantaged (Wilson 1987) to discuss the consequences of prolonged exposure to socially isolated, poor communities. Particular attention is given to policy implications surrounding issues of race, inequality, and social problems in urban neighborhoods.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.