In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Neighborhood Disorder

  • Introduction
  • Defining Neighborhood Disorder
  • Fear of Crime
  • Social Disorganization

Criminology Neighborhood Disorder
Danielle Wallace, Mary Elizabeth Hoyle, Christopher Scott
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0154


Neighborhood disorder is generally thought of as one of the most pivotal concepts in criminology. While by no means representing a complete list, in criminology, scholarly work has related neighborhood disorder to policing styles and outcomes, crime, social control, social disorganization, neighborhood decay, foreclosure, and fear of crime. Sociological work extends the reach of neighborhood disorder to neighborhood characteristics, such as poverty and neighborhood migration patterns, social inequality, and a host of health outcomes. However, even with its prominence in these two fields, significant debate surrounds what neighborhood disorder impacts and how it should be defined.

Defining Neighborhood Disorder

Since the beginning of the 2000s, concern has been growing about the exact definition of neighborhood disorder. Kubrin 2008 discusses this issue in depth, specifically pointing to issues surrounding the opacity of current definitions. Differences in the definition of disorder can range from the theoretical (Is it normative violations?) to the mundane (Which aspects of the urban environment is disorder?). In his book Breaking Away from Broken Windows (Taylor 2001), Ralph Taylor walks through the previous thirty years of theoretical perspectives on disorder to show the evolution of the concept. Most definitions of disorder incorporate the idea that it signals a loss of social control that affects residents and neighborhood conditions alike. For instance, Skogan 1992 (cited under Crime) defines disorder as a neighborhood-level construct and puts it in a temporal time frame. Many studies split neighborhood disorder into two components: social and physical. Sampson and Raudenbush 1999 provides some of the clearest definitions of what constitutes physical and social disorder. Other works suggest that the distinction between physical and social is unnecessary (see Xu, et al. 2005, cited under Supporting Evidence). For example, Ross and Mirowsky 1999 defines disorder as a continuum between order and disorder and demonstrates that disorder cues, whether physical or social, statistically are indistinct. Concern has also been expressed that disorder and crime significantly overlap conceptually. Ross and Mirowsky 1999 and Sampson and Raudenbush 1999 show that crime and disorder are not overlapping concepts but are often defined as such. Additionally, some suggest that disorder definitions should be contextualized for the audience; Cagney, et al. 2009 demonstrates that what older adults consider disorder or disorderly does not uniformly overlap with more traditional definitions of disorder. Finally, some sources are beginning to focus on individuals when defining disorder; Sampson 2009 discusses the past use of theory in disorder definitions and delineates a means by which individuals can be incorporated in how we currently understand disorder.

  • Cagney, K. A., T. A. Glass, K. A. Skarupski, L. L. Barnes, B. S. Schwartz, and C. F. Mendes de Leon. 2009. Neighborhood-level cohesion and disorder: Measurement and validation in two older adult urban populations. Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 64B.3: 415–424.

    DOI: 10.1093/geronb/gbn041

    Cagney and colleagues define, develop, and validate a disorder scale for older populations and discuss why certain disorder cues are differentially applicable to certain populations. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Kubrin, C. E. 2008. Making order of disorder: A call for conceptual clarity. Criminology & Public Policy 7.2: 203–213.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9133.2008.00502.x

    In her commentary on neighborhood disorder in criminology and public policy, Kubrin delineates many of the overall critiques of neighborhood disorder but pays particular attention to the issue of defining disorder. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Ross, C. E., and J. Mirowsky. 1999. Disorder and decay: The concept and measurement of perceived neighborhood disorder. Urban Affairs Review 34.3: 412–432.

    In this article, Ross and Mirowsky aim to redefine disorder by including its counterpart, order. While still keeping with the visual aspect of disorder definitions, they include visual order cues in both social and physical forms. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Sampson, R. J. 2009. Analytic approaches to disorder. British Journal of Sociology 60.1: 83–93.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-4446.2008.01219.x

    Sampson briefly walks through the past and current history of disorder, including how disorder is contextualized by individuals, and presents models of disorder perceptions similar to those presented in Sampson and Raudenbush 2004 (cited under Differences in Perceptions and Interpretations of Disorder). Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Sampson, R. J., and S. W. Raudenbush. 1999. Systematic social observation of public spaces: A new look at disorder in urban neighborhoods. American Journal of Sociology 105.3: 603–651.

    DOI: 10.1086/210356

    In this seminal work, Sampson and Raudenbush do many things, including provide excellent definitions of physical and social disorder, detail their method for systematic social observations of disorder, and test whether disorder is related to crime. Most important here, they suggest that disorder and crime are caused by the same underlying neighborhood characteristic—low social control—and are different points along a continuum. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Taylor, R. B. 2001. Breaking away from broken windows: Baltimore neighborhoods and the nationwide fight against crime, grime, fear, and decline. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    In Breaking Away from Broken Windows, Ralph Taylor walks readers through the evolution of the idea of disorder and the schools of thought behind various definitions. He makes important distinctions between psychological and hierarchical definitions of disorder.

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