Criminology | Section 6.4

Fundamentals of Criminology by Adam J. McKee

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Social Disorganization Theories

Since its inception in 1892, the sociology department at the University of Chicago has been an important force in American sociological thought.  The group of scholars associated with this sociology department is collectively known as the “Chicago School.”  An important theme common to many of the scholars of the Chicago School was the idea that human behavior is determined by physical and social environment rather than by genetic factors.  People are seen as highly complex and capable of great variety in lifestyles.  The Chicago School scholars believed that the community was a major influence on human behavior.

Prior to the early part of the twentieth century, American criminology was based largely on the European intellectual heritage of positivism.  This positivism was dominated by biological views of crime causation with an emphasis on heredity.  A change in this perspective came with the advent of cultural theories of the behaviors of groups and the individuals that constituted them.  As with any new science, sociological criminologists were concerned not only with the substantive aspects of their theorization and research, but also in establishing criminology as a legitimate science.  As with many of the social sciences, there is a perception of those working in the natural sciences that the social sciences are mostly philosophical and speculative.  The study of crime was seen by many as a way for sociologists to enhance their scientific credibility.

Two major methods of study were used by the Chicago School.  The first was the use of official data.  This information was applied to geographical maps of the city, indicating areas high in crime and poverty.  This painstaking gathering of facts led to the discovery that crime statistics were remarkably stable within specific geographic areas.  This led to the revolutionary theory that certain areas of the city remained crime-prone even though various ethnic groups moved in and out of those areas.

The second method employed by the Chicago School was the case study.  This type of study shifted away from abstract theorization and to the more intimate facets of the “real world.”  This life history approach presented the social and psychological processes of becoming a criminal.  Sociologists became enmeshed in the daily lives of their subjects, meeting with, talking with, and sometimes eating with them.

Robert Park and Ernest Burgess

These Chicago School Scholars developed a conception of the city as a series of distinctive concentric rings radiating from the central business district.  The farther away from the center of these concentric zones, the fewer social problems are found.  The basic idea is that the growth of cities and the growth of social problems in those cities are not random, but part of a pattern.  This concentric zone idea became the foundation of theorization about crime and delinquency by other members of the Chicago School.

The first zone was the central business district.  Here there were very few residential properties.  The zone next to the central business district was referred to as the zone of transition because businesses and factories were encroaching on this area.  This zone is marked by deterioration and a lack of desirability as a place to live.  Owing to the deterioration, however, the transition zones are usually the cheapest place to live.  Immigrants usually settled into these transition zones because it was inexpensive to live there and was near to the factories where they could find work.  As they could afford it, they moved into the third zone, the zone of workingmen’s homes, and were replaced in the zone of transition by another wave of immigrants.  Other zones radiating out from the center were increasingly more expensive to live in.

The portrait of the city painted by the Chicago School was a place where life is superficial, people are anonymous, relationships are transitory, and kinship and friendship bonds are weak.  The Chicago School saw the weakening of primary social relationships as a process of social disorganization.  Eventually, social disorganization became the primary explanation for the causation of crime.

Shaw and McKay

Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay’s version of social disorganization theory is based on a conception of primary relationships similar to those found in a village.  If relationships in the family and friendship groupings are good, neighborhoods are stable and cohesive, and people have a sense of loyalty to the area, then social organization is sound.

Sampson and Groves (1989) list four elements that constitute social disorganization:

      1. Low economic status
      2. A mixture of different ethnic groups
      3. Highly mobile residents moving in and out of the area
      4. Disrupted families and broken homes.

Shaw and McKay (1942) noted that the zone of transition was more socially disorganized than other areas, primarily because of the high degree of mobility, the decaying of neighborhoods, and the encroachment of businesses and factories. This was a particularly serious matter in the zone of transition because of the high number of immigrants.  Faced with the difficulty of maintaining primary relationships, immigrants retreated to the safety of their own native cultures.  The relationship between immigrants and crime was finally seen not as a product of heredity but as a dual problem of social disorganization and of conflict with existing American values.

Symbolic Interactionism

The social-psychological theory of symbolic interactionism has been one of the more lasting of the Chicago School’s theoretical perspectives.  Symbolic interactionism developed from a belief that human behavior is the product of purely social symbols communicated between individuals.  A basic idea of symbolic interactionism is that the mind and the self are not innate but are products of the social environment.  Humans define themselves and others through the process of communicating (symbolizing).  These symbols have meanings affecting the way we see the world.  For example, if we are introduced to a “criminal” we may not see the individual, but view him as the standard criminal.  We see someone who is all the things we expect a criminal to be.  In addition, we get our own self-concept from our perception of what others think about us.  These persons are not necessarily specific individuals, but a “generalized other.”

I. Thomas added the idea of situations to symbolic interactionism. According to this version of the theory, we can have many identities, or self-concepts, depending on the setting in which we find ourselves. We wear these different “hats” depending on the circumstances.  One person might be a police officer while at work, a father while playing with his children, and a husband while spending time with his wife.  Each situation demands its own behaviors, and thus its own identity.  Deviant behavior comes out of this when one incorrectly defines the situation and behaves inappropriately.

For the Chicago School, human behavior is relative.  That is, there are no universal rules such as the Natural Law School would have us believe.  If follows from this that there are places where normal behaviors would be defined by those outside of those places as deviant.  There people engage in “deviant” behavior by correctly defining the situation and following the roles expected of them.  The behavior is of course not deviant from the perspective of that specific setting, but only to those of outside society.  [Consider the activities that occur on Bourbon Street].

Symbolic interactionism provides a true social origin for both self-concept and behavior.  It also gave us a situational perspective on the rules that govern behavior.  This served to upset the universal rules of the Positivists.  This revolutionary change would pave the way for the vast wealth of social theories to come.

Culture Conflict

The relativistic (situational) position on human behavior made it highly probable that the Chicago School would recognize that conflict is common in society.  Robert Park incorporated the notion of conflict as a central component of an influential sociology textbook that he wrote with Ernest Burgess.  This laid the foundation for Thorsten Sellin to produce what is regarded by many as the seminal work on culture conflict.  His text, Culture, Conflict, and Crime (1938) established the central component of conduct norms, which are rules that govern behavior.  According to Sellin’s formulation, one is reared with cultural values about proper conduct.  The content of those norms varies from culture to culture.  Groups with social and political power can even use their conduct norms to control the definition of crime.  Thus, the legal definition of crime is but the conduct norm for one particular social group.  People come into conflict with these laws of behavior accidentally or intentionally.  If one’s own culture approves of an act but the dominant culture does not, criminal behavior is highly likely.

Sellin suggests that there are two main forms of culture conflict.  The first, known as primary conflict, occurs when two different cultures govern behavior, such as when someone from one culture immigrates to another cultural area.  The old culture cannot be simply cast off, and it continues to influence the person’s behavior.  The other form of culture conflict is called secondary conflict.  This refers to smaller cultures existing within a larger culture.  People who live in a specific area will over time begin to develop their own conduct norms.  While these values are not wholly different from those of the larger culture, there are enough differences to give rise to conflict.  For example, some subcultures see gambling and prostitution as legitimate endeavors, but the larger society has usually declared them illegal.

Broken Windows Theory

Broken windows was developed by two academics, but it was never offered as an academic theory in the peer-reviewed journals.  It emerged as a piece in Atlantic Monthly, a somewhat sophisticated magazine.  The theory is been much maligned in the media of late because it has been conflated with some terrible ideas and racist practices such as “zero tolerance policing” and “stop and frisk” tactics.  The actual application of the theory to neighborhood policing dictates a specific type of partnership between police and citizens that would, if implemented properly, improve relationships between citizens and police.  The major flaw of the theory seems to be that it is an oversimplification of a complex set of social phenomena, and thus lacks much empirical support.

Since criminologist George L. Kelling and his coauthor James Q. Wilson published their “broken windows” more than 30 years ago, it has become a sort of “standard” theoretical explanation of why community policing is a good idea.  It was quickly taken up by several major police departments, including the LAPD, as part of community policing. It called for the building of police and community partnerships that would seek to prevent local crime and to create order. The basic logic was the simple premise that interrupting minor offenses before they could snowball and open the door to serious crimes, including violent crimes.  

At the core of the Broken Windows thesis is that incivilities beget further incivilities, and the severity of the incivilities gets worse over time.  At some point, the mere incivilities evolve into serious crime if the causal chain is not broken. It is important to note that Broken Windows does not suggest how problems should be solved, and it certainly never specifies that arrest is always the most appropriate tool.  Heavy-handed tactics like New York’s “stop and frisk” program cannot be reconciled with Broken Windows, nor with the problem-oriented approach that is often found in conjunction with it.

Prior to the advancement of various incivility theories such as broken windows, policing scholars and the police themselves tended to focus on serious crime.  The major concern was always with crimes that were perceived to be the most serious and consequential for the victim, such as rape, robbery, and murder. Wilson and Kelling viewed the crime problem from a different, more holistic vantage point. They saw “serious crime” as the ultimate outcome of a much longer chain of neighborhood phenomena, theorizing that crime stemmed from “disorder,” and that if disorder dissipated, then serious crimes would not occur.

The link between disorder and crime was theorized to be mediated by fear of crime, an important social variable in its own right.  Wilson and Kelling’s theory further postulates that the proliferation of disorder creates fear in the minds of citizens who are persuaded that the neighborhood is unsafe.  The fear of crime, which can range in intensity from a slight unease to a debilitating fear of victimization, causes residents to withdraw behind closed doors in order to remain safe. This withdrawal from the community weakens social controls that previously kept criminals in check. Once this process begins, the theory suggests, it tends to start a destructive feedback loop. Neighborhood disorder causes crime, and crime encourages yet more disorder and crime.   

A major aspect of the popularity of Broken Windows is the fact that it creates a theoretical framework for police practice.  Most criminological theories support changes in macro-level social policy rather than police policy within the framework of community policing. Earlier social disorganization theories offered solutions that were highly political, costly to develop and implement, and would take a long time to demonstrate any effectiveness.  These theoretical causes of neighborhood problems and crime are more appropriate to legislatures than they are to police departments. Broken Windows theory is seen by many as a way to institute rapid neighborhood-level change with minimal expense by simply altering the police crime-control strategy. It is far easier and less costly to attack “disorder” than it is to assail such daunting social ills as poverty and deficient education.   


Kelling, G. L. & Wilson, J. Q. (1982). Broken Windows:  The police and neighborhood safety.  The Atlantic.  

Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/13/2018

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