Social Disorganization Theory

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

At least within criminology and criminal justice, the focus on neighborhoods experienced a resurgence in the 1990s. This was largely based on recognition of the increasing decline of American cities, increasing crime rates, and the popularity of community policing. This renewed focus produced a great deal of research on neighborhoods. Most of the research paid homage to social disorganization theory but largely abandoned it as a theoretical basis. Some studies, however (Bursik & Grasmick, 1993; Sampson & Raudenbush, 1999; Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997), maintained at least some of the tenets of social disorganization theory. These studies often attempted to further the understanding of neighborhoods and crime with better methodological techniques and more appropriate data.

In one of the more extensive statements of neighborhoods and crime in the 1990s, Bursik and Grasmick (1993) presented a reformulation of social disorganization theory by placing it “within a broader systemic theory of community, which emphasized how neighborhood life is shaped by the structure of formal and informal networks of association” (p. 55). Bursik and Grasmick used as a backdrop to their argument a three-level system of relationships influencing informal social control. The first level, the strength of individual relationships within a neighborhood, formed the base for the next two levels. Bursik and Grasmick argued that strong relationships among residents would result in strong neighborhood networks, which was the second level. Bursik and Grasmick argued that when neighbors know each other, they are more likely to pay attention to events that are influencing the common good of the community. The final level of relationships were those between residents and organizations external to the neighborhood, such as local government officials or the police. This was the level at which a neighborhood would be able to marshal resources to combat invasions into the neighborhood, such as unwanted organizations (e.g., a halfway house) or crime (e.g., drug dealers).

Bursik and Grasmick (1993) found that instability greatly reduced the neighborhood residents’ ability to exert social control. At the level of residents, high population turnover made it difficult to maintain ties to other residents. For example, a tenant in a public housing unit may live there for years and never form a relationship with his or her neighbors. Residents who do not know the children of the area were less likely to intervene when the children displayed unacceptable behavior. Instability also negatively influenced the security of the neighborhood because it reduced informal surveillance. A strong neighborhood network reduced the places crime could hide from surveillance, whereas weak networks increased the ability of crime to occur in the open without being detected.

A large part of research related to social disorganization in the 1990s began to fragment and examine only portions of social disorganization theory. For example, Elliott et al. (1996) analyzed the ethnic diversity of neighborhoods (measured by the number of different languages spoken) to examine the influence of crime based on differences in values and norms between the ethnic groups. Elliott et al. proposed that when there were a variety of languages being spoken, communication could be difficult, and consensus concerning appropriate values and behaviors for the community might not be reached. There was also considerable research related to a breakdown of the family unit. Much of this research (e.g., McNulty & Bellair, 2003) sought to examine the influence of single-family units (especially related to race) on crime. The research of P.-O. Wikstrom and Loeber (2000, p. 1135) indicated that youth in public housing were more likely to participate in serious offending. They argued that this could be due to the serious neighborhood disadvantage of public housing and a lack of the residents’ ability to collectively defend against crime (as stated by Bursik & Grasmick, 1993).

By the end of the 1990s, the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN) began to change the nature of social disorganization research. This project used social disorganization theory as a basis for a reexamination of neighborhood crime patterns in Chicago. This was easily the most extensive research in criminology since the work of Shaw and McKay (1942) and perhaps in the history of criminology research. It spawned a wealth of publications related to social disorganization theory but that took different conceptual paths. For example, Sampson and Raudenbush (1999, p. 627) took Bursik and Grasmick’s (1993) research on the capacity of neighborhoods to control crime and introduced the concept of collective efficacy, defined as “cohesion among neighborhood residents combined with shared expectations for informal social control of public space” (p. 3; see also Sampson & Raudenbush 2001, p. 1).

Sampson et al. (1997) argued that collective efficacy was an intervening variable between structural conditions of neighborhoods (poverty, residential instability) and crime. They examined collective efficacy using data on 343 Chicago neighborhoods and their residents as part of PHDCN. In their analysis, Sampson et al. examined structural characteristics (disadvantage, residential stability, immigrant concentration, etc.), characteristics of residents (race, age, socioeconomic status, etc.), and collective efficacy in relation to violent crime measures. They found that collective efficacy had a statistically significant relationship to violent crime regardless of structural or individual characteristics of neighborhoods. They argued that in low-crime neighborhoods, residents used informal control to regulate the behavior of members by developing rules and collective goals for the neighborhood. For this to occur, residents must develop relationships and trust among one another. When a neighborhood’s residents had a high level of social cohesion and trust among them, informal control was easier to exert, and social disorder and crime were less likely.

In addressing the influence of collective efficacy on crime, Sampson and Raudenbush (1999) followed many of the variables used in early social disorganization research. For example, they argued that a high percentage of immigrants in an area was often associated with high levels of disadvantage. This in turn increased the disorder in the neighborhood, which would lead to high levels of crime. One of the most innovative and extensive parts of the PHDCN research involved driving down selected streets using video equipment to capture measures of physical and social disorder. Sampson and Raudenbush found that both social and physical disorder were observed in neighborhoods characterized by a diverse commercial and residential use of property. They concluded that the level of crime could be explained by collective efficacy, meaning that disadvantage, not race or the ethnic composition of a neighborhood, was responsible for high levels of crime.