Social Disorganization and Crime

Much of the research on communities and crime is rooted in social disorganization theory. In their seminal work, Shaw and McKay (1942) studied crime rates in Chicago’s neighborhoods between 1900 and 1933. They found that the neighborhoods with the highest crime rates (mostly the communities closest to the city’s urban-industrial center) maintained high levels of crime over time despite significant population turnover. Consequently, they concluded that crime could not simply be attributed to characteristics of the residents of those communities because the demographic profile of the residents significantly changed. In other words, crime cannot be fully explained by the characteristics of individuals; something about the neighborhoods themselves contributes to high crime rates.

Shaw and McKay (1942) attributed high rates of crime “social disorganization.” The early version of the theory has widely been interpreted as emphasizing Durkheimian anomie: a lack of common social norms. Early operationalizations included structural characteristics, such as ethnic heterogeneity, and later ones sometimes emphasized physical deterioration. The most recent theoretical work on “social disorganization” has focused on social ties. Bursik and Grasmick’s (1993) widely-cited contribution outlines three levels of neighborhood social control. The first level, private control, consists of intimate social groups of friends and family who can regulate behavior through ridicule and ostracism. The second level, parochial control, consists of local institutions and social networks like schools and churches that foster interpersonal bonds amongst community residents, thereby increasing the capacity for community action to solve problems. The third level, public control, consists of official sources of control, like the police and government agencies, that can directly secure goods and services to fight crime in the neighborhood. Kubrin and Weitzer (2003a) further elucidate the mediating influence of social ties and informal control as central to a modern understanding of social disorganization theory, contributing to a growing consensus on this point (e.g., Morenoff et al., 2001; Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997).

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