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.
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