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

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Texts
  • Neighborhood Demographics and Crime
  • Social Ties and Crime
  • Neighborhood Informal Social Control and Crime: Collective Efficacy Theory
  • Accounting for the Spatial and Temporal Dimensions of Social Disorganization Theory
  • Social Disorganization Theory and Community Crime Prevention

Sociology Social Disorganization Theory
Rebecca Wickes, Michelle Sydes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0192


Social disorganization theory is one of the most enduring place-based theories of crime. Developed by Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay, this theory shifted criminological scholarship from a focus on the pathology of people to the pathology of places. Shaw and McKay demonstrated that delinquency did not randomly occur throughout the city but was concentrated in disadvantaged neighborhoods in—or adjacent to—areas of industry or commerce. These impoverished neighborhoods were in a constant state of transition, experiencing high rates of residential mobility. They were also home to newly arrived immigrants and African Americans. In these areas children were exposed to criminogenic behavior and residents were unable to develop important social relationships necessary for the informal regulation of crime and disorder. Social disorganization theory held a distinguished position in criminological research for the first half of the 20th century. Although the theory lost some of its prestige during the 1960s and 1970s, the 1980s saw a renewed interest in community relationships and neighborhood processes. Kornhauser 1978 (cited under Foundational Texts), Sampson and Groves 1989 (cited under Social Ties and Crime), and later Bursik and Grasmick 1993 were central to the revitalization of social disorganization theory. In the mid-1990s, Robert Sampson and his colleagues again expanded upon social disorganization theory, charting a theoretical and methodological path for neighborhood effects research focused on the social mechanisms associated with the spatial concentration of crime. Social disorganization theory and its contemporary advances enhance our understanding of crime’s ecological drivers. Their core tenets underpin community crime prevention programs concerned with limiting the negative influence of poverty, residential instability, and racial or ethnic segregation on neighborhood networks and informal social controls. In this entry, we provide readers with an overview of some of the most important texts in social disorganization scholarship. We include foundational social disorganization texts and those we believe most saliently represent the theoretical and methodological evolution of this theory over time. Furthermore, we consider those articles that test the generalizability of social disorganization theory to nonurban areas and in other national contexts. We conclude this chapter with a discussion on the relevance of social disorganization theory for community crime prevention.

Foundational Texts

In this section we refer readers to Shaw and McKay’s original reflections on social disorganization (Shaw and McKay 1972) and include key texts associated with two revitalizations of the systemic model for community regulation and collective efficacy theory. The development of the systemic model marked the first revitalization of social disorganization theory. It emerged from Kornhauser 1978 and was further advanced by Bursik and Grasmick 1993 and, later, Kubrin and Weitzer 2003. The introduction of ecometrics and collective efficacy theory signaled the second major transformation of social disorganization theory. Drawing on data from one of the most comprehensive neighborhood projects conducted in the United States—the Project for Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods—Robert Sampson and his colleagues (Sampson 2012; Sampson and Groves 1989, cited under Social Ties and Crime) demonstrated the role of neighborhood social processes (like informal social control) in preventing crime and highlighted how changes in nearby areas influence the concentration of social problems in focal neighborhoods. Taken together these texts provide essential knowledge for understanding the development of social disorganization theory and the spatial distribution of crime in urban neighborhoods.

  • Bursik, Robert J. 1988. Social disorganization and theories of crime and delinquency: Problems and prospects. Criminology 26.4: 519–551.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1988.tb00854.x

    Social disorganization theory experienced a significant decline in popularity in the study of crime during the 1960s and 1970s. Bursik makes a significant contribution by highlighting the most salient problems facing social disorganization theory at the time, and charting a clear path forward for the study of neighborhoods and crime.

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

    In this manuscript Bursik and Grasmick extend social disorganization research by illustrating the neighborhood mechanisms associated with crime and disorder, detailing the three-tiered systemic model for community regulation and the importance of neighborhood-based networks and key neighborhood organizations for crime prevention.

  • Kasarda, John D., and Morris Janowitz. 1974. Community attachment in mass society. American Sociological Review 39.3: 328–339.

    DOI: 10.2307/2094293

    In this work, Kasarda and Janowitz examine the utility of two theoretical models commonly used to explain variations in community attachment. The first model considers population density and size to be the primary predictors of community attachment across place whereas the second focuses on length of residence. The authors find empirical support for the second model only.

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

    A key limitation of social disorganization theory was the failure to differentiate between social disorganization and the outcome of social disorganization, crime. This work clearly articulates the social control aspect of Shaw and McKay’s original thesis, providing clarity on the informal social control processes associated with preventing delinquency.

  • Kubrin, Charis, and Ronald Weitzer. 2003. New directions in social disorganization theory. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 40.4: 374–402.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427803256238

    Kubrin and Weitzer critically engage with the nature of the relationships among neighborhood structure, social control, and crime as articulated in social disorganization theory. These authors propose important substantive refinements of the thesis and provide a comprehensive discussion of the methodological issues that hinder the study of neighborhoods and crime.

  • Park, Robert E., Ernest W. Burgess, and Roderick Duncan McKenzie. 1925. The city. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This classic book is accredited with laying important groundwork for the development of the “Chicago School” of sociology. It is a key text for understanding the early theoretical foundations of urban ecology and social disorganization theory.

  • Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods.

    This website provides an overview of the PHDCN, a large-scale, interdisciplinary study of families, schools, and neighborhoods in Chicago. The website, part of the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, includes useful information on the PHDCN methods, how to access data, and an archive of all PHDCN-related publications to date.

  • Raudenbush, Stephen, and Robert Sampson. 1999. “Ecometrics”: Toward a science of assessing ecological settings, with application to the systematic social observation of neighborhoods. Sociological Methodology 29.1: 1–41.

    DOI: 10.1111/0081-1750.00059

    Drawing on a strong psychometric tradition, Raudenbush and Sampson propose several strategies to enhance the quantitative assessment of neighborhoods, what they coin “ecometrics.” They further demonstrate the utility of survey and observational data and stress the importance of nested research designs. This paper is particularly useful for designing neighborhood research.

  • Sampson, Robert J. 2012. Great American city: Chicago and the enduring neighborhood effect. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226733883.001.0001

    In this award-winning book, Sampson synthesizes neighborhood effects research and proffers a general theoretical approach to better understand the concentration of social problems in urban neighborhoods.

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

    Shaw and McKay originally published this classic study of juvenile delinquency in Chicago neighborhoods in 1942. This significant work provides an overview of the delinquency study and details social disorganization theory.

  • Shaw, Clifford R., Frederick Zorbaugh, Henry D. McKay, and Leonard S. Cottrell. 1929. Delinquency areas. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    As one of the first empirical inquiries into the geographic distribution of crime and delinquency, this study set the foundation for Shaw and McKay’s later work. Of particular interest to Shaw and colleagues was the role community characteristics played in explaining the variation in crime across place.

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