"How did East New York become a Ghetto" (Walter Thabit)

    Social disorganization is a rather difficult term to define.  It basically refers to the failure of social institutions or social organizations (e.g., schools, business, policing, real estate, group networking) in certain communities and/or neighborhoods (although nothing prohibits such theories from being couched at the "macro" level to talk about all of society).  It has its origins in the study of ecology, which is the examination of relations between an organism and its environment.  In criminology, social disorganization is usually treated as both perspective and theory, while ecology is an approach or "school."  The ecological school refers to a group of professors associated with the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago from 1920 to 1932, hence their other name, Chicago School Sociology.  These professors included: Small, Thomas, Mead, Park, Burgess, Faris, Ogburn, and Wirth.  In addition, Sutherland and Thrasher worked there for awhile, and some of the more well-known students were Shaw and McKay,  Everett and Helen Hughes, and Saul Alinsky.  An important predecessor to the Chicago School was Charles Horton Cooley at the University of Michigan from 1895-1925, who is perhaps best known for his concept of the "looking glass self." 

    Modern social disorganization theories exist, but Shaw & McKay (1942), who borrowed from Park & Burgess, and developed cultural transmission theory in the 1930s and 1940s, are probably the most famous.  However, as you can imagine, Shaw & McKay's ideas have been extensively improved upon in recent years.  For example, the work of Harvard professor Robert Sampson [see author's website] and colleagues (1997) added the terms "collective efficacy" and "social capital" to the criminological vocabulary.  Collective efficacy refers to a community's ability to maintain order in public places; social capital refers to having many informal networks (interdependence, relying upon one another, ties) within a community; and a community must first have social capital in order to have collective efficacy.  Cohen and Felson's (1979) routine activities theory is also often treated in criminology as an example of a modern social disorganization theory.  Routine activities theory holds that in order to eliminate crime anyplace, you need to address three necessary conditions: pool of motivated offenders; suitable targets of opportunity; and ineffective guardianship.  All social disorganization theories are really theories about place, not people (contextual, not compositional), and to understand them, it's best to start at the beginning with the Chicago School.  


    Although there is probably much disagreement over it, the following are some of the important assumptions in most, if not all, social disorganization theories.

1. Crime and delinquency are caused primarily by social factors (environmental determinism)
2. The facts speak imperfectly for themselves, but better if fitted into theory (positivism)
3. Official statistics are OK, but fieldwork is better (acceptance of official arrest data)
4. The city is a perfect natural laboratory (cities like Chicago reflect society as a whole)
5. Components of social structure are unstable (conflict, anomie, social disorganization; conflict or anomie if talking about political economy or society; social disorganization if talking about cities and neighborhoods)
6. Instabilities and their effects are worse for the lower classes (lower class crime focus)
7. Human nature is basically good (social ability thesis) but subject to vulnerability and inability to resist temptation.

    A couple of points can be made about the above. Environmental determinism means that people are NOT ordinarily going to know what causes all the crime around them, and in fact, under such circumstances, they are most likely to blame bad people rather than the bad places (this is often what is meant when it is said sociological forces are mostly invisible).  The components of social structure being unstable implies that there is a stable pattern somewhere, someplace where all social institutions and organizations function as they're supposed to (in other words, a functionalist perspective on social systems is somewhat taken, however, social disorganization theorists do NOT tend to be functionalists).  The social ability thesis refers to the revolution in social psychology in shifting from Freud's Id-Ego-Superego model of the self to Mead's I-Me model of the self.  The shift from a tripartite to a homo duplex model, where the Me develops thru role taking (what others see you as), became nothing less than the birth of symbolic interactionism in sociology.  In criminology, it represented a shift from a social disability conception of the self (social disability thesis) which saw people as socially as well as physically and mentally handicapped to a social ability conception of the self (social ability thesis) which saw people as inherently capable of doing many things competently.


    One of the first things to be called a theory out of the Chicago School was really a typology, not a theory.  The theoretician behind "Four Wishes Theory" was W. I. Thomas, who is famous in sociology for the "Thomas Theorem" (if a person defines something as real, it's real in its consequences).  Thomas is also famous for co-authoring a book called The Polish Peasant which, among other things, discussed the Polish concept of neighborhood, "okolila", which means a neighborhood stretches as far as a person's reputation stretches.  This concept became part of the idea in sociology that secondary groups and reference groups play as important a role as primary agents of socialization like the family or school.

    Four Wishes Theory is based on the idea that values in a given environment produce "wishes", which are the sociological equivalent of drives or instincts.  In other words, what the person senses is important to their community or neighborhood as a whole becomes the core of their being in terms of the fundamental or generalized thing that "drives" them.  The Four Wishes are:

    Thomas' definition of social disorganization is often characterized as "the inability of a neighborhood to solve its problems together" which is a very simple and useable definition, almost as quick and dirty as "no sense of community."  To be sure, the term "disorganization" was objectionable to some Chicago School sociologists.  It smacked of overtones associated with pathology and personal disorganization.  The term, "differential social organization" was preferred by many, and may have been the source of Sutherland's (1947) differential association theory.  Many of the psychological ideas of Thomas were never really incorporated into social disorganization theory, or criminology for that matter, primarily because Thomas was frequently willing to postulate "subconscious" and/or "unconscious" motivations for crime which were far more deterministic about non-social factors that sociology was willing to tolerate.  Thomas's wife also developed a quite deterministic model in business which connected crime rates to economic boom and bust cycles.

     Thomas and Znaniecki (1920:2) formally defined social disorganization as "a decrease of the influence of existing social rules of behavior upon individual members of the group."  They are specifically referring to an active process (not a state of being unorganized).  It is a process of disruption, disunion, or deterioration in the constituent parts of something.  Hence, the characterization of Thomas' concept as some sort of "inability" (to organize) or "absence" (of organization or orderly arrangement) may be an error of misinterpretation.  Even more uncertain is the meaning of disorganization if we go back to Cooley (1902; 1909) where the tentative or experimental nature of social organization is seen as involving competition or conflict between being both "personal" and "impersonal" with others.      


    One of the more important contributions of the Chicago School was the defining features (classic definition) of a "gang."  Frederick Thrasher made much out of the Recognition wish, extracting the significant features of a "gang" -- group awareness, shared tradition, solidarity and cohesiveness, group cooperation, esprit de corps, turf, and unreflectiveness.  Even today, some of the most common reasons for joining a gang -- status and belonging -- are derived from Thrasher's pioneering work.  Modern sociologists have added identity, discipline, love, and money as further reasons for joining a gang (see Gangwar Dynamics), and modern criminology even has general models.  Thrasher saw gangs as originating in play groups, like juvenile delinquency, and like dust, collecting in the nooks and crannies of "interstitial areas" -- low level neighborhoods existing in places located on the boundaries between developed neighborhoods.

    Early gang theory gave way to a host of different approaches that are often called cultural deviance or subcultural theories, which emerged in the 1950s.  These involved explorations into how delinquent subcultures arise in urban, lower class areas (strain theories); how subcultures of violence remain so enduring in city slums (Wolfgang's approach) or throughout the South (Southernness hypothesis); how lower class culture as a whole influences urban gang delinquency (Miller's controversial focal concerns); and how the mechanisms of learning delinquency work (Akers et al.'s approach).  Many modern gang theories continue to reflect these concerns and have decidedly cultural and subcultural emphases.  Much of Kornhauser's (1978) devastating (or "straw man") critique against social disorganization theory is aimed at these offshoots, and it may be worthwhile to examine Kornhauser's criticism in depth.

Kornhauser's Critique of Subcultural Theories

     Kornhauser (1978) classifies the major theories of criminal or delinquent subcultures as either “pure cultural deviance theories” or “mixed models” of delinquency. Pure cultural deviance theories state that deviance is normative to the adherents of a delinquent subculture, that the root cause of delinquency lies in conflicting subcultures, and that the intervening cause of delinquency is socialization into a subcultural value system that condones as “right” what happens to be defined by the legal system as “wrong.” Other theoretical models of delinquency are not “pure” because they combine assumptions from cultural deviance theory and other analytical models of delinquency, such as control theory or strain theory. That is, mixed models of delinquency assume that individuals are “selected for delinquency on the basis of experienced strain or weak controls,” but that delinquency will not ensue “without the endorsement of a delinquent subculture.”
     Kornhauser’s critique of pure cultural deviance theories and mixed models of delinquency concerns the logical status of their underlying assumptions. According to this critique, pure cultural deviance theories (namely differential association theory) are problematic in a logical sense because one can derive from them a set of incoherent assumptions that leave nothing left to explain. Arguably, mixed models of delinquency are even more dubious. Not only do they contain a set of untenable assumptions from which only absurdities can be derived, they are also internally inconsistent. Shaw & McKay's social disorganization theory is the running exemplar of this problem in Kornhauser’s analysis. On the one hand, social disorganization theory holds that social disorganization produces weak institutional controls, which in turn loosen the constraints on individuals’ natural propensity to deviate. Most proximally, delinquency results from weak social bonds. On the other hand, Shaw and his associates emphasize, especially in their later work, that delinquent youths’ denial of the moral validity of the laws they violate explains their illegal behavior. In this sense, delinquency is assumed to require the endorsement of a delinquent subculture. This latter assumption, Kornhauser argues, is not necessary to make social disorganization theory work. In fact, it only confounds the logical structure of the theory, which can stand alone on the former assumption that disorganization produces weak institutional controls, and thereby frees people to deviate. [from Kalkhoff, W. (2002). "Reviving the Subcultural Approach" Electronic Journal of Sociology]


    Park and Burgess were two Chicago School professors who shared the same office, and they were the ones to take the ecological "plant" or organic approach the farthest in sociology.  The saw cities as consisting of five zones (CBD - Central Business District, transition, workingman, residential, and commuter), each gradually invading and dominating the adjacent zones, with an overall growth outward.  The "natural" process was one of invasion, dominance, and succession; much like the way a new species of plant takes control of an ecosystem.  Their "zonal hypothesis" was that delinquency is greatest in the zone of transition.  At the time, their findings were quite radical for the idea that cities grow from the inside out. 

    They defined social disorganization as "the inability of a group to engage in self-regulation" which is a social control theoretic formulation.  Their model of the city tested well in most places except the west and with modern, planned cities.  Their model is easily found pictured in most textbooks, and there are many different pictures of it, but they all should pinpoint Zone 2, or the Transitional Zone, as the place where the high crime always is.


    Shaw and McKay were a prolific couple of researchers at the Chicago School who specialized in using official data to make pin maps, spot maps, rate maps, and zone maps.  They took over the Institute for Juvenile Research from Healy.  They aggressively borrowed from Park and Burgess. They were hardcore sociologists of deviance.  Shaw once said: "I never met a delinquent who acted alone." They studied and noticed that the same neighborhoods in Chicago seemed to have about the same delinquency rates irregardless of which ethnic group moved in.  This fact proved true for most later research except for Asian ethnic groups which didn't fit the pattern.  

    Their ideas developed into Cultural Transmission Theory (or Shaw & McKay's 1942 social disorganization theory), which was a dominant criminological theory for much of the 20th century.  The theory simply states that "traditions of delinquency are transmitted through successive generations of the same zone in the same way language, roles, and attitudes are transmitted."  They defined social disorganization as "the inability of local communities to realize the common values of their residents or solve commonly experienced problems."  Many researchers in criminology have focused on how criminal traditions get embedded into the functioning of a community and co-exist alongside conventional values.  Some of these foci resulted in subcultural theories, a separate (and somewhat ethnocentric) area of criminology that emerged in the 1950s, which argues that lower-class neighborhoods simply tend to have different values and needs, and are simply organized differently in ways that best serve their interests.  Sutherland (1947) himself termed the phenomenon differential social organization (instead of disorganization, to avoid any implied value judgments the term "disorganization" implies).  The three traditional sources of social disorganization in social disorganization theory are: residential instability; racial/ethnic heterogeneity; and poverty. These were also the three ways in which "criminal traditions" got embedded into communities. 

    Shaw and McKay were also concerned about the three D's of poverty: Disease, Deterioration, and Demoralization.  They never said that poverty causes crime. Poverty, by itself, is never a cause of crime; it only facilitates crime by deprivation of adequate resources to deal with crime.  They only said that "poverty areas" tended to have high rates of residential mobility and racial heterogeneity that made it difficult for communities in those areas to avoid becoming socially disorganized.  These two population variables (mobility or turnover which impedes informal structures of social control, and heterogeneity which obstructs the quest to work together on common problems) have become the primary causal variables for social disorganization theories.  The causal chain is sometimes called the "gradient tendency" for the mechanistic way in which successive declines in the effectiveness of neighborhoods leads to higher and higher rates of delinquency. One of the best ways to defeat the gradient tendency is to stop sending so many community residents to prison, then back to the community, and then back to prison again.  Since incarceration crime control policies only added to residential instability, most POLICY IMPLICATIONS in social disorganization theory are dedicated to finding alternatives to incarceration.  Social disorganization would justify youth athletic leagues, recreation programs, summer camps (things tried with the Chicago Area Project and the later Mobilization for Youth), along with urban planning and alternatives to incarceration as crime control policy. By contrast, differential organization (and subcultural theories where people are seen as simply differently organized) might lead to interventionist policies which are seen as ethnocentric and actually increase crime in some neighborhoods. Backlash or boomarang effects have been known to occur when applying social disorganization theory in practice or in applied criminology.  

    Shaw and McKay, however, are regarded as the most important of the social disorganization theorists in criminology. Although their ideas were not without plenty of criticism, they generated a ton of research, facts, ideas, and puzzles for theorists and researchers to work on for years.  Control theorists in recent years have adopted many of their ideas, working them into their formulations with almost as much zeal as Durkheim's ideas have been integrated in many ways. 


    Robinson (1950) was one of the many critics of social disorganization theory, and his article pointed out the problematic nature of making individual-level inferences on the basis of aggregate data.  Doing so to the extent that individual decision making processes or group "mechanisms" are inferred would be making the "ecological fallacy" and is just not the appropriate use of aggregate data.  For many, this criticism led to the use of aggregate data for such purposes becoming a taboo in criminology, except for possible appropriate use in "opportunity" models and victimization theories based on routine activities.  To abide by the warnings of the ecological fallacy, instead of saying "Socially disorganized neighborhoods produce delinquent behavior among children in those neighborhood," a researcher would have to say "Socially disorganized neighborhoods produce problems associated with the concentration of low-income families."


    The problem of multicollinearity comes up whenever all the causal factors are intercorrelated with one another.  It's a potential problem with Shaw and McKay's theory because they never clearly separated the presumed outcome of social disorganization (delinquency) from disorganization itself.  This leads to equating the causal construct with the phenomenon to be explained (a confounding of cause and effect).

    The so-called "Lander approach" (Lander 1954) defines social disorganization as delinquency, and vice-versa, and examines these intercorrelations for clues into the total "general complex" of factors that lead to delinquency, crime, broken homes, and other socio-pathological conditions.  Since correlations are quite commonly found in this area of criminology (more so than "true" causes), there is a need to make sense of them in some way without being ethnocentric in any way.  According to this line of research, the following correlations with delinquency are fairly well-established:

Overcrowding .85
Substandard housing .81
Percent nonwhite .70
Percent renting .57
Percent low education .64
Percent foreign-born .16


    The 1980s and 90s have seen a resurgence of interest in developing social disorganization theories.  The so-called "contextual" movement attempts to achieve linkage between the effects of neighborhood contexts on motivational processes that may lead to criminal behavior.  Two basic approaches have characterized this movement: (1) the "sanctions" approach (characterized by the work of Bursik) in which official arrest data are used as an indicator of community guardianship or loss of social control; and (2) the "structural density" approach (characterized by the work of Sampson) in which official data sources are mixed with qualitative data sources to better understand the effects of deteriorating informal as well as formal controls. A certain amount of controversy and debate characterizes the directions for contextual research.

    The victimization, or guardianship, movement draws upon the routine activities approach developed by Cohen and Felson (1979). In this view, victimization data at the local level is sought to test the idea that spatial structures of a city (lack of guardianship or supervision) partially determine the rate at which motivated offenders meet criminal opportunities.  Aggregating the local data back up again into "pseudoneighborhoods" or cities experiencing "decay and disorder" allows tests for many aspects of social disorganization theory as well as traditional victimization variables like fear of crime.  Routine activities theory does NOT, however, focus as much as other social disorganization theories do on aspects of informal social control or networks of interpersonal relationships.  Instead, routine activities theory focuses on the opportunities for crime.  Other "opportunity" approaches exist in criminology (most notably in strain theory), but opportunity is conceptually different than either "place" or "situation" which are all-important in social disorganization approaches.  Routine activities theory treats the offender as a given and the opportunity as problematic, which is part of its design to look strategically at how long-term change, for example, might lead to increased or decreased opportunities for crime.    


    Not only did the disorganization theorists help establish sociology as a viable discipline, they left an enormous legacy in criminology, spawning cultural deviance theories, strain theories, learning theories, and control theories.  One could even say that all modern criminological theory can be traced back to social disorganization theory. 

    Beginning in the 1930s, Shaw attempted to put theory into practice by establishing the Chicago Area Project (CAP). The idea was that workers would be recruited from the local community to help local residents organize against crime, to rebuild communities from the "bottom up", to create role models (detached social workers) that would advocate for the people.  First of all, the strongest emphasis of the CAP program was the creation of recreational opportunities (baseball lots, playground equipment).  Secondly, efforts were made to physically clean up the community.  Thirdly, CAP workers would often try to intervene in juvenile court on behalf of a child in trouble.  The closest things today that resemble what CAP tried to do include: public housing tenant councils; citizen task forces; citizen patrols; and neighborhood watch groups.  Subsequent research tended to show that what worked best were youth athletic leagues, recreation programs, summer camps (things tried with the Chicago Area Project and the later Mobilization for Youth), along with urban planning and alternatives to incarceration as crime control policy. Such programs also fail, research shows, primarily because there is not a sustained financial commitment to them, since the programs most needed are non-entrepreneurial in nature and non-self-sustaining.

    Modern theories in this tradition include the recent examples of Newman’s (1972) defensible space theory, Cohen and Felson’s (1979) routine activities theory, and Wilson and Kelling’s (1982) broken windows theory.   Newman was an architect who wrote that flaws in the physical environment served as attractors or facilitators for crime.  He wrote mainly about housing projects and how they seemed to be designed to provide easy access with common entrances and exits for criminals, and also with hiding places and poorly placed windows which allowed easy surveillance by would-be criminals.  Cohen and Felson (1979) wrote routine activities theory, a theory of victimization, which is to say that it predicts a high rate of potential victims becoming actual victims whenever three things occur in space and time together -- absence of capable guardians -- abundance of motivated offenders -- and suitable targets.  Wilson and Kelling's (1982) broken windows theory, which in some circles has become a classic foundational document for community policing, referred to physical signs that an area was uncared for.  Abandoned buildings and automobiles, the accumulation of trash and litter, broken windows and lights, and graffiti or profanity (signs of crime or incivilities) all invite criminal behavior.  It is perhaps not too much of an exaggeration to say that the ideas of social disorganization in criminology have never been, and probably never will be, fully exhausted or exploited, either in all the theoretical or policy directions.


    It's important to note that social disorganization theories are NOT all about spatial matters and geography.  There is the often-overlooked temporal element too.  For example, although technically not a part of the disorganization approach, crime wave theories (which have been around for a long time) tend to draw attention to the cyclic, temporal aspect of crime, especially certain crimes which seem to impact large segments of the population over and over again.  Sacco (1995) is probably the best place for someone to start reading about crime wave theories.   However, it is the opinion of this author that wave theory rightly belongs to the functionalist tradition, going back to Erikson (1966) who argued that crime waves (as well as control waves) represent how societies establish their unique moral character in response to boundary crises. Erikson only studied a 60-year period of 17th-century Massachusetts, but a key point of Eriksonian sociology is that overly dramatic acts of boundary maintenance are often called for to fulfill a reaffirmation function. In other words, societies (as well as all social systems) sometimes push themselves to the limits of toleration in order to experience the felt sensations of integration and solidarity.  This is also known as Parsonian sociology.

    The graphic below is a normal crime wave. The important thing to note is that even though most people will only think of the "rise" stage as a crime wave, to criminologists the decline may be just as important to study. In fact, the study of falling crime rates has been something of a growth industry in criminology.  LaFree (1999) states that a normal crime wave will have four main properties: (1) wave length -- some crime, like riots, are of short duration, being "mini-waves" lasting only a few hours, days, or weeks while other crime waves, like murder, tend to have a longer sweep, about 60 years on average it turns out; (2) wave shape -- the symmetry of the wave, or whether the rise is as rapid as the fall, with economic conditions being critical here, the ebb and flow of the economy helping smooth or symmetricize the wave; (3) degree of linearity -- whether or not the rise and decline are proportionate or consistently up and down, and most criminologists who have studied waves find they are non-linear, usually with a tail peak or something at the end; and (4) synchronicity -- whether or not the wave catches hold across the whole nation, or is isolated in a specific geographic region.

    Gurr (1981; 1989) has also written about the wave-crest-plateau patterns of crime waves, and Gurr's (1976) ideas have been the inspiration for more than one sociological theory about terrorism. The Gurr wave occurs with some regularity in a 50- or 60- or 70-year cycle (length is not predictable). It's intended to be a "long wave" but not as long as Kondratieff or K-waves in economics (cycles of balance and surplus in the supply of labor relative to employment). In the short run, it has its uses, like for new types of crime that are especially heinous; e.g., serial or mass murder, gay-bashing, cyber-terrorism, carjacking, etc. The Wave Peak is the sharp rise in something new. There is always a subpeak or "copycat" phase where there may be not so much of the phenomenon, but it may be more brutal or damaging in ways. Then, there's always a final crest, the last part of the wave before the behavior starts to fizzle out and settle down to tolerable levels in the plateau stage.

    Overhead views of a crime wave are also possible (Sacco 2005) as are other ways of portraying the way rumors and panic are distributed in a population. Discovering the dynamic points of waves involves the discovery of key social constructionist points being that a crime wave exists when people come to perceive that one exists. Wave theory holds that there is no rule about the number of people who must be involved, however. Sacco (2005) states that every wave has four characteristics: (1) victims -- there is a redistribution of victim experiences; (2) offenders -- there is a national preoccupation over them; (3) events -- interesting, new, unique twists put on ordinary happenings; and (4) places -- certain domains become risky, like schools in "school crime" or "workplace" in workplace crime. Experts, academic and otherwise, propagate crime waves by drawing attention to their purported understanding of the size and dimensions of the problem. In other words, protesters will generate a crisis over national security regardless if the grounds for protest are warranted or not, and enemies will be demonized regardless if they exist or not. What travels through the population is a sociocultural artifact in a process of diffusion, but is better described by the older term, contagion, because what happens is unthinking and almost automatic copying of behavior. There are specific means by which diffusion occurs, called channels or linkages, but the basic model is similar to that in communication studies -- consisting of senders (emitters) and receivers (adopters). Crime therefore sometimes diffuses like a fad or fashion, not in most cases transmitting the motive (adopters are seen as already predisposed), but the techniques, values, and lifestyles which increase the risk of blind or improvised action.          

Communities and Crime Prevention

CrimeTheory's Chicago School

Ecology of Crime

George Herbert Mead Project
Notes on Social Disorganization

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