Social Disorganization Theory

VIII. Future Directions

One could argue that the future of social disorganization theory looks bleak. Although it is likely to still be considered one of the major theories, especially given a continued focus on neighborhood research, it may very well dissipate in its classic form. Other than a few articles likely to be related to dissertation work, it is likely that replications or semi-replications of Shaw and McKay’s (1942) work will disappear. Two directions do look promising for the vestiges of social disorganization theory, however: (1) studies using data from the PHDCN and its associated collective efficacy theory and (2) work from environmental criminology.

Life course theory and research from the PHDCN has dominated much of the theoretical work over the past 20 years. Sampson and other researchers have produced many publications detailing the intricacies of crime related to neighborhood change in Chicago. The availability of these data for other researchers and its current popularity probably means that research will be using these data for at least another decade. Furthermore, the popularity of Sampson’s work on collective efficacy has probably ensured numerous publications in this area for the foreseeable future.

Beginning in the late 1970s with the work of crime prevention through environmental design (Jeffery, 1971), a new area of neighborhood research was formed. This quickly developed into what is now termed environmental criminology. This line of research is typically based more in routine activities theory (among other theoretical foundations) than social disorganization theory, but the tenets of social disorganization theory can easily be found in much of this line of study. A recent development in environmental criminology may signal a larger place for social disorganization theory within environmental criminology. Walker (2007) used complex systems science in an effort to improve the ability of social disorganization theory to explain neighborhood change and crime. Walker termed this new theory ecodynamics theory after the various theoretical traditions on which it was based (social disorganization, human ecology, environmental criminology, and complex systems theory). A few conference papers at an annual meeting on environmental criminology gave rise to the argument that social disorganization theory may continue to be tested more in its classic form by these researchers than by others in criminology.