Sociology Cities and Crime
by
Rachael Woldoff, Heather Washington
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0264

Introduction

The subject of urban crime has long fascinated researchers, policymakers, social workers, journalists, and the public. Historically, the subject of crime has been so linked to urban places that the very mention of cities has evoked images of violent slums and fear of victimization. It is common for government officials to publicly politicize and racialize urban crime as they pander to certain blocks of voters. For instance, among his many derogatory comments about cities and urban populations, former US President Donald Trump—a New Yorker—tweeted about needing help with “crime-infested inner-cities.” Why the emphasis on crime in cities? A main reason is that crime is not randomly distributed. Rather, environmental opportunities for crime vary by time and place, and cities tend to have characteristics that increase vulnerability to crime. Though cities vary along many dimensions, including culture, climate, history, politics, and demographic characteristics (e.g., population size, density, racial and ethnic heterogeneity, age structure, and migration patterns), crime rates historically have been higher in urban communities than in rural, suburban, and smaller-sized places, on average. For this reason, many consider cities to be the ideal social laboratory for studying crime. Urban sociology has been essential to the theory and research on crime as a place-based social problem. Research on the spatial distribution of crime has compared different levels and scales of analysis, including samples of cities, Metropolitan Statistical Areas, and neighborhoods (as defined by residents, researchers, or administrative census boundaries). Many studies focus on a single city, or even a single neighborhood. In addition, the urban crime literature covers topics that are quite varied, including different place-based theoretical approaches, concepts, explanations of causes and consequences, and policies. For example, researchers have explored topics related to the impact of neighborhood residential mobility on crime, the consequences of residents’ experiences with crime on their sense of neighborhood attachment, and the ways in which crime control policies affect the distribution of crime and residents’ lives. The books and articles outlined below are not exhaustive, but instead we view them as a curated sampling of the vast range of research on these topics—simply one of many ways to organize the vast amount of work that has accumulated on the important but broad subject of cities and crime. We respectfully acknowledge that this summary is focused on the United States and that many subtopics relevant to urban crime necessarily have been omitted because of space constraints but deserve their own bibliographies to be drafted by experts in those subfields.

Introductory Classical Works and Influences

The idea that cities are especially likely to have crime problems is often attributed to early typologies that contrast urban and rural lifestyles. European works such as Durkheim 1897 and Tönnies 2002 (originally published 1887) theorized that cities cause crime, with Durkheim’s concept of anomie or “normlessness” being especially influential in depictions of cities as places that foster feelings of alienation. Understanding the spatial organization of urban crime requires separate discussions of key theories of urbanism and urbanization. Wirth 1938, Simmel 1950, and Fischer 1975 each offered important explanations and depictions of urbanism, describing how cities produce micro-level forms of social organization, disorganization, and specific ways of life. In contrast, research on urbanization describes the macro-level formation and population growth of cities, with rapid change and expansion seen as major causes of a wide array of social problems, including crime. The well-known ecological arguments about urban crime originate in the works of the Chicago School of sociology and are featured in later iterations of demographic composition arguments, such as those by Gans 1962. Marxist political economy approaches, including the work of Logan and Molotch 1987, called for a “paradigm shift” away from strict ecological models to incorporate politics, land economics, and decision-making logics. Research influenced by Suttles 1968 and others contributed a sociocultural critique and lens for studying urban life without pathologizing or “othering” it, arguing that “slums” have a logic and a social order that has meaning and usefulness to residents. Finally, and importantly, Du Bois 1973 (originally published in 1899) and later, Wilson 1987, influenced emerging perspectives on urban crime that focus on racialized geographies of opportunity. Morris 2015 skillfully explained the need to better recognize Du Boisian perspectives and integrate them into studies of race, place, stratification, and crime. Work by Muhammad 2010 is especially important for critically examining the racialized social construction of urban crime and crime data and the role of social scientists in perpetuating racist crime narratives.

  • Du Bois, W. E. B. 1973. The Philadelphia negro: A social study. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

    This study of a Black Philadelphia neighborhood shows the nuance and diversity found within a segregated area with high levels of crime. Du Bois’s surveys and observations highlight indirect causes of crime, documenting the conditions of housing, family, children, health, and food security. He showed that urban migration patterns create economic competition for work and emphasized that racial discrimination causes poor employment outcomes, economic strain, and crime. Originally published 1899.

  • Durkheim, Émile. 1897. Suicide: A study in sociology. London: Routledge.

    Durkheim argued that moving away from rural life leads people to become estranged and have dissimilar values. In his view, normlessness and anomie cause urban social problems (e.g., deviance, crime, suicide, and gangs). As a functionalist, Durkheim argued that society’s reaction to crime creates solidarity, which lowers crime levels. He also argued that cities are characterized by a division of labor and by interdependency, which may lead to some beneficial social ties.

  • Fischer, Claude S. 1975. Toward a subcultural theory of urbanism. American Journal of Sociology 80:1319–1341.

    DOI: 10.1086/225993

    Rather than arguing that cities cause malaise, instability, isolation, divorce, crime, and estrangement, this article has an optimistic view of cities, focusing on the ways in which cities increase the likelihood of thriving subcultures (e.g., artists and bohemians). It summarizes previous approaches to studies of urbanization and urbanism, arguing that cities have the population size, density, and heterogeneity to create critical masses of people with niche interests.

  • Gans, Herbert. 1962. The urban villagers: Group and class in the life of Italian-Americans. New York: Free Press.

    In his study of an Italian-American working-class community in Boston, Gans argued that cities are composed of many types of residents who can have strong social bonds and community attachment. His concept of an urban village suggests that some urban neighborhoods are low-crime and surveilled. He argued that in stable, ethnically homogeneous urban neighborhoods, longtime residents may recreate small towns and enact social control.

  • Logan, John R., and Harvey L. Molotch. 1987. Urban fortunes: The political economy of place. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    This book argues that studies of cities must examine the politics of urban growth. Urban social problems, such as crime, are part of the symbolic politics found in cities. The city is considered to be a “growth machine” with powerful interest groups and constituencies who determine which social problems the police, media, and politicians should prioritize (e.g., crime and homelessness versus infrastructure and housing) and how to do so.

  • Morris, Aldon D. 2015. The scholar denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the birth of modern sociology. Oakland: Univ. of California Press.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520960480

    This book, though a relatively newer publication at this time, is important because the author highlights the Du Boisian legacy of examining urban social problems and racial inequality (including crime) as rooted in social conditions. In so doing, it outlines the ways in which white sociologists (especially the Chicago School) used racist and white supremacist assumptions in their frameworks and discussions of problems that disproportionately occur in Black urban neighborhoods.

  • Muhammad, Khalil Gibran. 2010. The condemnation of blackness: Race, crime, and the making of modern urban America. 2d ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvjsf4fx

    This book, also relatively recent at this time, examines the origins of the idea of Black criminality and shows how these ideas developed over time to contribute to images of race and crime, as well as urban development and policies in the United States. Second edition with new preface.

  • Simmel, Georg. 1950. The metropolis and mental life. In The sociology of Georg Simmel. Edited by K. H. Wolff, 409–424. New York: The Free Press.

    This article on the ways urban residents survive the stressors of city life does not specifically discuss crime, but considers the city to be crowded, dangerous, and overstimulating. Simmel thinks urban residents value freedom and individualism and take on an indifferent, independent, and socially distant personality or lifestyle to cope with the city. He implies that urbanites’ blasé attitude is inconsistent with the social control needed to maintain order.

  • Suttles, Gerald. 1968. The social order of the slum: Ethnicity and territory in the inner city. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This participant observation study of a high-crime slum in Chicago presents the concepts of provincialism and ordered segmentation and argues that poor urban areas that seem disorderly have their own systems of order.

  • Tönnies, Ferdinand. 2002. Community and society: Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft. Translated and edited by Charles P. Loomis. Mineola, NY: Dover.

    This piece describes theory and concepts related to social changes that affect patterns of social interaction, contrasting the emergence of two kinds of societies: market-oriented urban and close-knit rural. Rural places are organized around family, small towns, and shared bonds and values, whereas urban places are organized around profit and transactions, so interactions are impersonal. He argues that urbanization destroys bonds, interfering with social control, and causing delinquency and crime. Originally published 1887.

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

    Wilson’s work on race, poverty, and crime shows that deindustrialization disproportionately affects cities. With the rise of urban joblessness, poverty became geographically concentrated in Black communities. In addition to discussing the impact of economic structural changes on joblessness, he covers a range of consequences that affected geographies of opportunity, including the disproportionate number of urban Black residents affected by violent crime, “out-of-wedlock” births, female-headed families, teen pregnancy, and welfare dependency.

  • Wirth, Louis. 1938. Urbanism as a way of life. American Journal of Sociology 44.1: 1–24.

    DOI: 10.1086/217913

    This article is a pessimistic perspective on cities, contrasting urban and rural life and arguing that urbanization causes a way of life called urbanism (defined by population size, density, and heterogeneity). Urbanism interferes with social control, leading people to break the social bonds found in smaller places and creating forms of social disorganization, including moral deviance, crime, delinquency, disorder, and corruption, as well as a sense of dissatisfaction and malaise.

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