Social Disorganization Theory

By the turn of the 20th century, social disorganization theory had largely died out in its original form. It was replaced with (a) research paying tribute to the theory but straying from its original intent, (b) research focused on collective efficacy, and (c) research focused on neighborhood characteristics but using a different theoretical base (including the variety of research conducted under the term environmental criminology).


I. Introduction

II. Precursors of Social Disorganization Theory

III. Development of the Theory: Shaw and McKay

IV. The Second Wave: Replications of Shaw and McKay

V. The Lean Times: Social Disorganization in the 1970s and 1980s

VI. A Resurgence: Social Disorganization Theory in the 1990s

VII. Social Disorganization Theory in the 21st Century

VIII. Future Directions

IX. Conclusion

I. Introduction

A description of the history and current state of social disorganization theory is not a simple undertaking, not because of a lack of information but because of an abundance of it. From its beginnings in the study of urban change and in plant biology, research related to social disorganization theory has spread to many different fields. These areas of concentration range from simple spin-offs of the original studies (Bordua, 1959; Chilton, 1964; Lander, 1954), to the variety of research in environmental criminology (Brantingham & Brantingham 1981), to the growing field related to crime mapping (Chainey & Rafcliffe, 2005), to such far-reaching topics as the behavior of fighting dogs (Stewart, 1974). Given the space limitations, this research paper limits its discussion to studies closely related to the original principles of the theory.

II. Precursors of Social Disorganization Theory

The forerunners of social disorganization research are probably more varied than any other area of criminological thought. The ecological study of delinquency is the result of the unlikely combination of the study of change in France, plant biology, and the growth of the urban city.

The direct lineage of social disorganization research is found in the study of plant biology. Warming (1909) proposed that plants live in “communities” with varying states of symbiosis, or natural interdependence. Communities containing plants predominantly of the same species were more in competition with nature than with each other. Communities with several different species, however, competed for limited resources more among themselves than with the environment. Warming called this relationship a natural economy because of the use of resources by the plants. This natural economy was expounded on by a Haeckel (1866), who used the German word oikos, from which economics was formed to coin the term ecology.

One of the first social ecological studies was conducted by Guerry in 1833. Guerry compared the crime rates in 86 departments (counties) in France from1825 through 1830. His study showed that crime rates had marked variation in different cities in the country. Similar studies compared different regions and cities in England (Mayhew 1862/1983), different countries in the United Kingdom (Rawson, 1839), and England and European countries (Bulwer, 1836).

The relationship between a city’s central district and juvenile delinquency was first explored by Burt in 1925, who proposed that areas in London with the highest rates of delinquency were located adjacent to the central business district, and areas with the lowest rates were located near the periphery of the city.

One of the first ecological studies undertaken in the United States was conducted by Breckinridge and Abbott in 1912. They examined the geographic distribution of the homes of juvenile delinquents in Chicago. A map showing the location of these delinquents indicated that a disproportionate number of the juveniles’ homes were located in a few areas of the city.

Park and Burgess (1928) used the terminology of Haeckel, the concepts of Warming, and the research of Breckenridge and Abbot to develop what they called human ecology. Specifically, Park and Burgess used the concept of symbiosis to describe the phenomenon in human communities where people work together for common goals and at the same time compete for resources. They also applied Warming’s concepts of dominance and succession to describe a situation in which a stronger group would disrupt the community through change and eventually reestablish order by replacing (succeeding) a previously dominant group.

Park, Burgess, and McKenzie (1969) expanded on Park and Burgess’s (1928) work by observing that certain characteristics of the population tended to cluster in rings set at about 1-mile increments from the center of Chicago and that the patterns changed dramatically from one ring to the next. For example, Part et al. found a zone of manufacturing enterprises immediately surrounding the central business district of the city. Outside this factory zone was an area of very low-income housing. In the third concentric ring, the dominant residential characteristic was working-class homes. The fourth and fifth rings from the center of the city were middle- and upper-class homes. Park et al. labeled this pattern the Burgess zonal hypothesis.