Social Disorganization Theory

IX. Conclusion

Social disorganization theory has its roots in some of the oldest research in criminological theory, dating back to the early 1800s. Studies of neighborhoods, including crime characteristics, rose almost simultaneously with the development of the field of sociology. As Park began to build the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, he centered on the concept of human ecology. This examination of human behavior, mostly at the neighborhood level, gave rise to Burgess’s research and ultimately to the hiring of Clifford R. Shaw and Henry D. McKay, who went on to become the most influential social disorganization researchers in the first half of the 20th century.

Shaw and McKay’s (1942) work resulted in the formal development of social disorganization theory as an explanation of the behavior and characteristics of neighborhoods and how changes in those characteristics could influence the level of crime. After this, social disorganization theory enjoyed a time of prominence in criminological thought, producing many replications and research through the early 1960s.

Social disorganization theory fell into disrepute in the 1970s as a result of sharp criticism of Shaw and McKay’s (1942) work and because of a move away from official data concerning crime. As a consequence, not much research using social disorganization theory was conducted during this time. The research that was conducted downplayed the theory, foretelling social disorganization theory’s future.

Social disorganization theory made a brief resurgence in the 1990s as the deterioration of American neighborhoods and rising crime rates produced a new interest in understanding the characteristics of neighborhoods. Even during this period, however, social disorganization theory was seldom tested in its classic form, and researchers again downplayed the theory in relation to new methods and theory. By the end of the century, the PHDCN began to produce a new line of theory based on collective efficacy.

After the turn of the 20th century, most research paid tribute to the historical importance of social disorganization theory but did little to bring its tenets into modern research. Research on collective efficacy prevailed, as did research focusing on neighborhoods but doing little to further the theory itself.

The future of social disorganization theory appears close to its current status. A few criminologists are testing the theory close to its original configuration. Most of the research is likely to follow more along the lines of collective efficacy theory or to examine neighborhoods with only parts (or even none) of the tenets of true social disorganization theory.

Read more about Criminology Theories.


  1. Bordua, D. J. (1959). Juvenile delinquency and anomie: An attempt at replication. Social Problems, 6, 230–238.
  2. Brantingham, P. J., & Brantingham, P. L. (1981). Environmental criminology. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  3. Breckinridge, S. P., & Abbott, E. (1912). The delinquent child and the home. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  4. Browning, C. R., Leventhal, T., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2004). Neighborhood context and racial differences in early adolescent sexual activity. Demography, 41, 697–720.
  5. Bulwer, H. L. (1836). France, social, literary, and political. London: Richard Bentley.
  6. Bursik, R. J., Jr. (1988). Social disorganization and theories of crime and delinquency: Problems and prospects. Criminology, 26, 519–551.
  7. Bursik, R. J., Jr., & Grasmick, H. G. (1993). Neighborhoods and crime: The dimensions of effective community control. New York: Lexington.
  8. Bursik, R. J., Jr., & Webb, J. (1982). Community change and patterns of delinquency. American Journal of Sociology, 88, 24–42.
  9. Burt, C. L. (1925). The young delinquent. London: University of London Press.
  10. Chainey, S., & Ratcliffe, J. (2005). GIS and crime mapping. West Sussex, UK: Wiley.
  11. Chilton, R. J. (1964). Continuity in delinquency area research: A comparison of studies for Baltimore, Detroit, and Indianapolis. American Sociological Review, 29, 71–83.
  12. Elliott, D., Wilson, W. J., Huizinga, D., Sampson, R., Elliott, A., & Rankin, B. (1996). The effects of neighborhood disadvantage on adolescent development. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 33, 389–426.
  13. Guerry, A. M. (1833). Essai sur la statistique morale de la France. Paris: Crochard.
  14. Haeckel, E. (1866). Generelle morphologie der organismen. Berlin, Germany: Georg Reimer Verlag.
  15. Jeffery, C. R. (1971). Crime prevention through environmental design. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  16. Johnstone, J. W. C. (1978). Social class, social areas, and delinquency. Sociology and Social Research, 63, 49–72.
  17. Kubrin, C. E., & Weitzer, R. (2003). New directions in social disorganization theory. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 40, 374–402.
  18. Lander, B. (1954). Towards and understanding of juvenile delinquency. New York: AMS Press.
  19. Mayhew, H. (1983). London labor and the London poor (V. Neuberg, Ed.). Mineola, NY: Dover. (Original work published 1862)
  20. McNulty, T. L., & Bellair, P. E. (2003). Explaining racial and ethnic differences in adolescent violence: Structural disadvantage, family well-being, and social capital. Justice Quarterly, 20, 501–528.
  21. Morenoff, J. D., Sampson, R. J., & Raudenbush, S. W. (2001). Neighborhood inequality, collective efficacy, and the spatial dynamics of urban violence. Criminology, 39, 517–559.
  22. Park, R. E., & Burgess E. W. (1928). Introduction to the science of sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  23. Park, R. E., Burgess, E. W., & McKenzie, R. (1969). The growth of the city. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  24. Quinney, R. (1964). Crime, delinquency, and social areas. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 1, 149–154.
  25. Rawson, W. (1839). An inquiry into the statistics of crime in England and Wales. Journal of the Statistical Society of London, 2, 334–344.
  26. Sampson, R. J. (1985). Neighborhood and crime: The structural determinants of personal victimization. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 22, 7–40.
  27. Sampson, R. J. (1986). Crime in cities: The effects of formal and informal social control. In A. J. Reiss Jr. & M. Tonry (Eds.), Communities and crime (pp. 271–311). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  28. Sampson, R., & Groves, B. W. (1989). Community structure and crime: Testing social disorganization theory. American Journal of Sociology, 94, 774–802.
  29. Sampson, R. J., & Raudenbush, S. W. (1999). Systematic social observation of public spaces: A new look at disorder in urban neighborhoods. American Journal of Sociology, 105, 603–651.
  30. Sampson, R. J., & Raudenbush, S. W. (2001). Disorder in urban neighborhoods—Does it lead to crime? Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
  31. Sampson, R. J., Raudenbush, S. W., & Earls, F. (1997, August 15). Neighborhoods and violent crime: A multi-level study of collective efficacy. Science, 277, 918–924.
  32. Schuerman, L., & Kobrin, S. (1986). Community careers in crime. In A. J. Reiss Jr. & M. Tonry (Eds.), Communities and crime (pp. 67–100). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  33. Shaw, C. R., & McKay, H. D. (1942). Juvenile delinquency and urban areas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  34. Stark, R. (1987). Deviant places: A theory of the ecology of crime. Criminology, 4, 893–909.
  35. Stewart, J. M. (1974). Social disorganization and the control of fighting dogs. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Bowling Green State University.
  36. Walker, J. T. (2007). Advancing science and research in criminal justice/criminology: Complex systems theory and non-linear analyses. Justice Quarterly, 24, 555–581.
  37. Warming, E. (1909). Oecology of plants: An introduction to the study of plant communities. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  38. Warner, B. D. (2007). Directly intervene or call the authorities? A study of forms of neighborhood social control within a social disorganization framework. Criminology, 45, 99–130.s
  39. Wikstrom, P. H., & Sampson, R. J. (2003). Social mechanisms of community influences on crime and pathways in criminality. In B. L. Benjamin, T. E. Moffitt, & A. Caspi (Eds.), Causes of conduct disorder and serious juvenile delinquency (pp. 118–148). New York: Guilford Press.
  40. Wikstrom, P.-O., & Loeber, R. (2000). Do disadvantaged neighborhoods cause well-adjusted children to become adolescent delinquents? A study of male juvenile serious offending, risk and protective factors, and neighborhood context. Criminology, 38, 1109–1142.