Social Disorganization Theory

III. Development of the Theory: Shaw and McKay

Shaw and McKay (1942) used the ideas of human ecology to study the association between urban ecological characteristics and juvenile delinquency. On the basis of this research they developed social disorganization theory. Their study of social disorganization centered around three sets of variables: (1) physical status, (2) economic status, and (3) population status.

Shaw and McKay (1942) used three variables to measure the physical status of an area: (1) population change, (2) vacant and condemned housing, and (3) proximity to industry. They proposed that areas with high delinquency rates tended to be physically deteriorated, geographically close to areas of heavy industry, and populated with highly transient residents. The primary characteristic Shaw and McKay examined was population change. They found that as population rates increased or decreased there was a corresponding increase in delinquency. They proposed that population shifts influenced delinquency because of the process of invasion, dominance, and succession, a term they used for disruption of the social organization of an area because members of one (typically ethnic) group moved into another group’s neighborhood. The disruption in order caused a rise in crime that would get progressively worse until the invading group became the majority; then crime rates would return to near their previous level. To analyze the relationship between proximity to industry and delinquency, Shaw and McKay mapped industrial areas and the home addresses of juvenile delinquents. Borrowing from Park and Burgess (1928), they found that surrounding the central business district was a zone of manufacturing and industry. Surrounding the industrial zone was a ring characterized by high levels of the physical, economic, and population factors they were studying and a corresponding high delinquency rate. Moving toward the outskirts of the city, they found a reduction in the prevalence of these characteristics and the rate of delinquency. The final physical characteristic Shaw and McKay analyzed was the number of vacant and condemned homes in an area. They found that there was an association between the number of vacant and condemned homes in an area and its delinquency rate.

Next, Shaw and McKay (1942) analyzed the association between the economic status of an area and its delinquency rate. They used three variables for this analysis: (1) the number of families receiving social assistance, (2) the median rental price of the area, and (3) the number of homes owned rather than rented. Shaw and McKay found that, as the number of families receiving social assistance increased, there was a corresponding rise in delinquency rates. They concluded that delinquency was higher in areas with low economic status relative to areas with higher economic status. Next, Shaw and McKay analyzed the relationship between the median rental price and delinquency. They found that delinquency rates dropped as the median rental price of the area rose. Finally, Shaw and McKay examined the relationship between the percentage of residents who owned their own homes and the delinquency rate. Their findings revealed a significant negative relationship between home ownership and delinquency. Where home ownership was low, there were high rates of delinquency. As home ownership increased, even in small increments from the lowest level, the level of delinquency dropped, being lowest in areas with the highest levels of home ownership.

In explaining the influence of economic status on delinquency, Shaw and McKay (1942) suggested that economic conditions indirectly influence delinquency rates. They asserted that affluent areas offered an atmosphere of social controls, whereas areas of low affluence produced an environment conducive to delinquency because of the diversity of the residents. This diversity influenced rates of delinquency in the area because of the disparity in social norms. In areas of low delinquency, a substantial majority of people would not tolerate abnormal behavior. In areas of high rates of delinquency, however, some of the residents condoned delinquent acts, thus offering tacit support for these behaviors. Finally, Shaw and McKay proposed that economic status influenced delinquency in the case of owning one’s home in that people who could afford to own their homes had a greater stake in the neighborhood where they would be permanent residents, whereas people renting would expend less effort to maintain the social organization or decrease the delinquency rate of the neighborhood.

The final analysis included in Shaw and McKay’s (1942) study was the relationship between the population composition of an area and its rate of delinquency. Shaw and McKay found that areas with the highest delinquency rates contained higher numbers of foreign-born and black heads of household. They cautioned that this finding does not mean that nativity or ethnicity was the cause of crime. Delinquency rates in areas containing foreign-born and minority heads of households remained constant despite the total population shift to another group. Delinquency rates also remained constant in areas where the displaced population moved. Shaw and McKay concluded that the area of study, and not the nativity or ethnicity of its residents, was the factor contributing to delinquency.

On the basis of their findings, Shaw and McKay (1942) concluded that the ecological conditions existing in areas with high delinquency were contributing to a breakdown in the social order of the area, resulting in conditions conducive to delinquency. Shaw and McKay found that conventional norms existed in high-delinquency areas but that delinquency was a highly competitive way of life, such that there was advantage for some people to engage in delinquency and there were fewer consequences. This became the core of social disorganization theory. Shaw and McKay replicated their Chicago findings in at least eight other cities. Their research also spawned a wealth of other research, becoming one of the key theoretical seeds for most of the current criminological theories.