Social Disorganization Theory

VII. Social Disorganization Theory in the 21st Century

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).

A number of studies acknowledged social disorganization but did not use the theory. These studies paid tribute to the theory by using the term social disorganization to describe neighborhoods, but they rarely used the tenets of the theory. These studies found that juveniles from socially disorganized neighborhoods were more likely to engage in aggressive and delinquent behaviors (P.-O. Wikstrom & Loeber, 2000), sexual activity at an early age (Browning, Leventhal, & Brooks-Gunn, 2004), and violence. In addition, juveniles in these neighborhoods were more likely to witness violence and develop mental health problems. P. H. Wikstrom and Sampson (2003) argued that the development of antisocial and delinquent propensities among children and adolescents was influenced by community socialization and that this relationship was due to the level of collective efficacy present in the neighborhood. Neighborhoods low in collective efficacy produced children who were often unsupervised, and there was little threat of repercussions for negative behaviors.

Sampson and Raudenbush (2001) also indicated allegiance to social disorganization but strayed from its original connotation. They conceded that the ability to understand social disorganization is crucial to fully understanding urban neighborhoods. In their research, however, social disorganization consisted primarily of visual indications of neighborhood physical deterioration. They proposed that this physical deterioration was an indication of what was happening in the neighborhood, such that “disorder triggers attributions and predictions in the minds of insiders and outsiders alike, changing the calculus of prospective homebuyers, real estate agents, insurance agents, and investors” (p. 1).

Sampson and Raudenbush (2001) proposed that neighborhood structure rather than social disorganization influenced the level of disorder. Where physical and social disorder was low, high levels of collective efficacy were usually found. They proposed, however, that disorder did not produce crime. They found no relationship between disorder and homicide, suggesting that crime and disorder were both influenced by something else. They proposed that the common underlying factor comprised the characteristics of the neighborhood and the cohesiveness and informal social control of its residents (Sampson & Raudenbush, 2001). This would feed into Sampson and others’ research on collective efficacy.

Continuing the line of research of Sampson and Raudenbush (2001), Morenoff, Sampson, and Raudenbush (2001) made a connection between social disorganization and what they termed social capital. They viewed local communities as complex systems made up of friendships, kinships, and acquaintances. They argued these groups were tied to each other through family life and other aspects of their social lives. Morenoff et al. (2001) used social capital to describe the social ties between people and positions. They argued social capital increases the social organization and trust within networks, which helps maintain cooperation. They proposed that neighborhoods devoid of social capital were less able to hold common values and maintain social control. This lack of control lead to an inability of the neighborhood to ward off unwanted social problems, including increases in crime. Morenoff et al. did concede that if strong expectations of social control were shared among a community, few ties were necessary among neighbors.

In one of the few articles that refocused on social disorganization, Kubrin and Weitzer (2003) stated that experimental and analytical work on the connection between crime and community characteristics has led to clarification of social disorganization theory. They argued that social disorganization theory was aided in recent research by addressing it as more of a systemic model that included both intra- and extra-neighborhood factors. They argued, however, that substantive and methodological issues remained that needed to be overcome if social disorganization theory were to continue to advance.

The substantive improvements proposed by Kubrin and Weitzer (2003) included advancements in the operationalization of key concepts and the addition of mediating variables between neighborhood structural characteristics and crime. They argued that the primary variable that has improved the theory is collective efficacy. Kubrin and Weitzer argued that, although social control was not central to social disorganization theory, formal social control (police, code enforcement, etc.) was a critical concept in social disorganization research and should be brought into future research. Finally, Kubrin and Weitzer bemoaned the fact that the culture of the neighborhood has largely been ignored in recent research. They proposed that there should be a return to the neighborhood culture included in Shaw and McKay’s (1942) original work.

Kubrin and Weitzer (2003) described recent “methodological innovation” in social disorganization theory that had helped researchers test key propositions and clarify relevant causal models. They identified these innovations as dynamic models, reciprocal effects, contextual effects, and spatial interdependence. They correctly pointed out that one of Shaw and McKay’s (1942) principal findings was the changing nature of cities. They decried the research following Shaw and McKay’s as dismissing urban dynamics, and they called for a return to including dynamic models of neighborhood change in social disorganization research. Kubrin and Weitzer also indicated that although the reciprocal effects of crime and community were beginning to be addressed, the inclusion of models in which community characteristics could influence crime and crime could then influence community characteristics is still not sufficient. Drawing on the current trend in multilevel modeling, Kubrin and Weitzer proposed that contextual effects addressing the connection between the neighborhood and its effect on individual outcomes should receive greater attention in social disorganization theory research. Finally, Kubrin and Weitzer argued that spatial interdependence, whereby spatially adjacent neighborhoods could influence one another’s level of disorganization, should be more fully developed in social disorganization theory and research.

Kubrin and Weitzer (2003) concluded that more complete and more rigorous testing of social disorganization theory’s propositions was possible because of methodological innovations. They conceded that although researchers continued to be challenged with the proper measurement of central concepts and methodological shortcomings, social disorganization theory could greatly increase the understanding of crime at the neighborhood level with the improvements outlined in their article.

Combining many of the developments from the previous 15 years, Warner (2007) sought to delineate the forms of social control (and collective efficacy) by examining the willingness of residents to directly intervene in a situation rather than relying on formal means of control (typically the police, but also avoidance or tolerance). Like many of the previous studies, Warner paid tribute to social disorganization theory in the introduction and literature review but did little to support the theory in the research, only including disadvantage and residential mobility as classic social disorganization variables. Other independent variables included by Warner were social ties and faith in the police. Warner found that the relationship between neighborhood disadvantage and social control was nonlinear. She argued that this meant that both highly disadvantaged and highly advantaged people were likely to use indirect methods of control (the police) or to avoid or tolerate the situation, whereas people in the middle were more likely to take direct action. Warner stated this is in opposition to the tenets of social disorganization theory, which would hold a more linear pattern of the most disadvantaged using indirect methods and the likelihood of direct action increasing as the disadvantage of the neighborhood lessened. Warner found similar patterns for residential mobility: Mobility was significantly and positively related with the likelihood of using indirect methods of social control (police, avoidance, etc.), but it was not related to the likelihood of using direct methods. Warner found support for these results in confirming the tenets of social disorganization theory.

Overall, social disorganization theory in the first decade of the 21st century seemed to fare no better than in the last part of the 20th century. The theory still received some support from research on neighborhoods, but most of the research included only parts of the theory, a few of the variables, or simply paid tribute to the theory in the literature review and then conducted neighborhood research that was faintly consistent with the theoretical foundation of social disorganization.