Social disorganization theory states that crime in a neighbourhood is a result of the weakening of traditional social bonds. This weakening of bonds results in ‘social disorgnization’.
Social bonds that might be weakened include: family connections, community connections, and religious connections.
Traditional social binds (family, community, and religious) are usually weakened thanks to large-scale migration, industrialization, and social disadvantage. Social disorganization theory points the finger at these sorts of forces as the cause of delinquency.
The theory further states that disorganization can be pinpointed to certain specific areas and demographics. The theory’s founders highlighted certain high-risk demographics such as: areas with a high proportion of migrant workers, and areas with a high proportion of blue-collar workers.
Below are some standard definitions of the social disorganization theory:
- Robert E. Lee Faris (1955) – Social Disorganization is the “weakening or destruction of the relationships which hold together a social organization” .
- Shaw & McKay (1969) – Social disorganization, defined as a sudden influx of a large number of people in and out of a neighborhood, creates a pathological environment that contributes more to crime than the deviant behavior of abnormal individuals.
- Bursik & Grasmick (1993) – “neighborhood life is shaped by a network of formal and informal community associations” that form the essence of social organization. A disruption in these community associations results in social disorganization.
*APA citations for the above sources are listed at the end of this article
A simple aid to understanding this theory is to break it down into its what, where, and why.
1. What – Crime
The social disorganization theory is a theory that applies the principles and methods of sociology to understand the prevalence of high crime rates especially among juveniles of working-class communities.
2. Where – Urban Blue-collar Neighborhoods
The social disorganization theory has mostly been applied to understanding crime rates in urban neighborhoods with blue-collar working class populations and high rates of migration.
Social disorganization is a type of spatial theory, in that it posits that certain neighborhoods or areas within a city tend to have higher rates of crimes.
Its early proponents such as Shaw & McKay (1969) even developed detailed crime maps of cities. They called their map-making exercists ‘spatial mapping’, that attempted to show how crime varies as you move from a city center to its suburbs. Such spatial models however, were discarded later.
3. Why – Disorganization
The social disorganization theory holds that traditional societies were organized according to certain rules and norms that have been nurtured and strengthened over time.
Some rules and norms in communities gained the status of unsaid, unenforced, yet widely accepted laws. ‘Respect your mother’, ‘go to church’, and ‘do not steal’ might be examples of these established norms. Social disorganization theorists believe that all traditional societies had mechanisms for internal policing or regulation that acted as checks and balances against deviant behavior by its members.
However, in cases where traditional societies are subjected to stress factors such as large-scale immigration and/or industrialization, a disorganization occurs, leading to a breakdown of the society’s internal norms. In these situations, the community fails to ensure order and regulation.
Social disorganization manifests in the form of a spike in deviant behavior by its members, particularly juveniles and youth, leaving external, state-backed policing the only mechanism for regulating crime.
The social disorganization theory grew from the work of a group of University of Chicago researchers in the 1920s and 30s who are credited with founding the Chicago School of Sociology.
These researchers were interested in examining the increasing rates of crime in the first few decades of the 20th century as the city of Chicago witnessed a boom in both industrialization and immigration.
The theory provided many insights into crime, that today, we think of as obvious givens, but were path-breaking for their time. Some of these included:
1. Theory of Social Ecology – The social disorganization theory is an ecological theory which attempts to attribute human behavior to influences absorbed consciously or unconsciously from their surroundings.
2. The City as an Environment – At the end of the 19th century, metropolises such as Chicago were a relatively new phenomenon. So the idea that a city is an environment much like the natural environment, and that Darwinian rules of evolution apply to this urban environment, much like they do in nature, was a novel one. The social disorganization theory began by basing itself on Darwinian postulates. For instance, the theory held that just as certain kinds of plants thrive in certain environments, specific human behavioral traits such as delinquency also thrive in certain kinds of environments.
3. Acculturation – A central postulate of the social disorganization theory was that attitudes are not innate but stem through a process of acculturation or an imbibing of cultural norms and mores.. It follows then that in a socially disorganized neighborhood, children and juveniles are likely to get acculturated to a lack of control and conflicted morality, leading to crime.
Good to Know Information
The development of the social disorganization theory is closely tied to the phenomenal Polish migration to the US at the beginning of the 20th century.
One of the foundational texts of the social disorganization theory is a book by University of Chicago sociologists, W.I. Thomas and Florain Znaniecki titled The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, published between 1918 to 1920.
The beginning of the 20th century saw a huge influx of migrants to America, many of whom eventually found work in the booming manufacturing industries of Chicago. It is estimated that almost 25% of all new immigrants to America at this time came from Poland. In fact, such was the magnitude of this wave of Polish immigration that Chicago soon became home to the third largest population of ethnic Poles after major cities in Poland such as Warsaw and Lodz.
The Polish Peasant in Europe and America is today considered a classic text in sociology. The insights contained in this book laid the foundation of what was later to be called the social disorganization theory. The authors emphasized the importance of the “group”, as defined in the social sciences, to understanding social change.
According to them, members who become isolated from the “group”, in this case the immigrant Polish community, tend to become vulnerable to deviant behavior and delinquency.
Examples of Social Disorganization Theory
1. Public Housing Projects and Delinquency – Several social disorganization theorists such as Bursik & Grasmick (1993) and Wikstrom & Loeber (2000) concluded that juveniles living in public housing projects in western countries may be more susceptible to crime as the ties of community in such projects are weak. Neighbors may not often know each other, and family networks are likely to be small, with the nuclear or single-parent family being the most common. In the absence of community level organization, juveniles in such projects were being rendered vulnerable to the effects of social disorganization
2. Linguistic Diversity, and Challenges in Community-level Regulation – Elliot et al (1996) concluded that in neighborhoods with a high percentage and high diversity of first generation immigrants, crime rates tend to be higher. This is because in such neighborhoods, a large number of different languages are spoken, making communication, and by extension, community self-regulation difficult.
3. Self-regulation in Rural/Tribal/Primitive Communities – In contrast to the previous two examples cited, colonial anthropologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries travelling to remote tribal and “primitive” societies, were often struck by the remarkable order and absence of crime from such societies. While they may not always have approved of the means of dispensing justice in such societies – comparing “primitive” law mostly unfavorably with systems of justice in the western world – they did however note the sense of community and organization in primitive communities, and their efficient functioning for the purpose of maintaining order. Some examples include Weber’s writings on primitive law, and Malinowski’s Crime and Custom in Savage Society.
R.R. Marett summed up the attitudes of a generation of sociologists and anthropologists when he wrote that
“ in a savage community, it is often hard to distinguish any sovereign determinate person vested with the power either of making or maintaining the laws. Nevertheless, the result is often so law-abiding in the sense of being responsive to social order, that it might seem superfluous to provide a legal machinery that must actually but rust in disuse.” (Marett 1912)
Of course, sociology has since moved well beyond such simplistic binaries of savage and civilized, but these examples serve to buttress the basic premise of the social disorganization theory – that all societies, in their natural, stable state have mechanisms for internal regulation of human action and behavior, and delinquency occurs when such community-based mechanisms are disturbed or broken.
4. Hate Crimes and “Lone Wolf” Shooters – The social disorganization theory does not apply to immigrants alone. It can equally well be used to explain crimes against immigrants by members of dominant groups. Such individuals, isolated from their social groups on account of breakdown of traditional groupings such as family, church, etc., and being unable to cope up with a rapidly changing environment around them, begin to display deviant behavior. Think of “lone wolf” shooters who often attack immigrants.
A famous pop-cultural example would be the character of Travis Bickle played by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, who, living an isolated life cut-off from his family and community, and struggling to make sense of the rapidly changing post-Vietnam war American society, begins to harbor delusions of “cleaning up” his neighborhood.
Strengths of Social Disorganization Theory
1. Grounded in Empiricism – The social disorganization theory was one of the earliest projects that marked the empirical turn in sociology from a theoretical perspective. The Polish Peasant in America, for instance, was based on thousands of personal documents, interviews, and case histories, resulting in a 5-volume magnum opus. Other University of Chicago projects such as those by Shaw & McKay (1969), and Park & Burgess (1925) too relied on large bodies of empirical data collected over several years, detailed city maps, and voluminous statistics to produce elaborate theoretical models.
2. Durability – In the second decade of the 21st century, the theory has now been around for a little over a century. Unlike many other premises of the social and natural sciences, the theory however continues to stay relevant, even though it has been modified and adapted several times from the time of its first formulation.
3. Accuracy – Within its limited scope, the mathematical models derived from social disorganization theory worked remarkably well in predicting delinquency. For instance, the unit-weighted regression model devised by Ernest Burgess, a founding theorist of the social disorganization theory to predict the parole success rates of convicts is noted as a remarkably accurate model, and one that further found application in fields such as insurance. Burgess based his model on assigning scores to convicts on various parameters of their integration with their social environment such as having a job, a family network, etc.
4. Provides Actionable Policy Insights – The theory is useful in drawing our attention to what works and what does not when it comes to tackling crime. For instance, by pointing to the roots of delinquency, the theory helps explain why incarceration and the penal justice system are futile in reducing crime. Several studies, for instance, Pratt & Cullen (2005) have in fact demonstrated that incarceration is inversely related to crime. The theory gives several actionable policy insights such as where to direct public funding to prevent crime ( certain neighborhoods, as depicted by mapping models), how to govern urban cities ( delegating more authority to neighborhood and community-level organizations), and which social values to uphold ( families, as units that can prevent social disorganization).
Related Theory: Family Systems Theory
Criticisms of Social Disorganization Theory
1. Ecological Determinism and Spatial Discrimination – A key concept of the social disorganization theory was the concentric zones model which divided a city into concentric zones, with certain areas, closer especially to the city center being identified as the breeding grounds of crime, whereas a movement radially outwards from the centre seemed to be correlated with a decrease in crime. However such an approach made a claim that was later found to be untenable – that certain spaces and cites within a city by themselves induce socially pathological behavior Such hypotheses in turn led to further stigmatization and marginalization of already marginalized spaces.
2. Ignores Positive Role of Migration – The theory, especially in its earlier formulations, emphasized anomie-inducing effects of migration that are no longer held to be tenable. Studies of migration by sociologists are now increasingly pointing to an overall positive effect of migration with immigrant presence being linked to greater innovation, increased wealth creation and more liberal societal values in general. In fact for many rich countries such as Canada, immigration is critical for continued economic growth.
3. An Overreliance on Sociological Factors of Crime – We now understand that crime has both social as well as psychological causes. An overemphasis by the social disorganization theory on the structural and social causes of crime eventually led to its taking a backseat to psychological theories of crime, until a balance was found between the two towards the end of the 20th century.
4. Inability to Explain White Collar Crime – Like other similar “location” theories based on urban ecology, that attribute crime to certain locations within an urban center (such as those with higher immigrant populations, or lower economic status), the social disorganization theory fails to explain white collar crime or organized, multinational crime rackets that do not seem to be rooted in any neighborhood or limited to immigrants or economically deprived sections of the society.
Don’t make this Mistake
The social disorganization theory is closely related to another key sociological concept – anomie. But don’t confuse the two!
The term anomie is of French origin and can be loosely translated to normlessness. It is traced to the French Sociologist Emile Durkheim who used it in two influential works – The Division of Labor in Society (1893) and Suicide (1897).
Like the social disorganization theory, Durkheim laid stress on human groupings and social organization as the determinants of human behavior, and a disruption to these structures, as a cause of deviant behavior. Anomie, however, possesses a wider semantic scope and signifies a greater range of meanings than social disorganization.
For instance, while anomie may result from rapidly changing societal norms (social disorganization), it may also result from a mismatch between an individual’s personal ambitions and his/her capacity to achieve them. Durkheim’s formulation of Anomie preceded the work of the Chicago School on social disorganization by about 3 decades and had a significant influence on them.
For more on Durkheim, see his concept of social facts.
Bursik, Robert J., & Grasmick, H.G. (1993) Neighborhoods and crime: The dimensions of effective community control. New York: Lexington Books.
Elliott, D.S., Wilson, W.J., Huizinga, D., Sampson, R.J., Elliott, A., & Rankin, B. (1996) The effects of neighborhood disadvantage on adolescent development. Journal of Research in Crime and delinquency. 33 pp: 389–426. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0022427896033004002
Faris, R. E. L. (1955) Social Disorganization. New York: The Ronald Press Company.
Malinowski, B. (1989) Crime and Custom in Savage Society Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
Marett, R.R. (1912) Anthropology London: Williams & Norgate.
Park, R. E., Burgess, E.W. & McKenzie, R.D. ( 1925) The city. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Pratt, T. C. & F.T. Cullen. (2005). Assessing macro-level predictors and theories of crime: A meta-analysis. In M. Tonry (Ed.), Crime and Justice, Volume 32: A Review of Research (pp. 373−450). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Thomas, W. I. & Znaniecki, F. (1918-20). The Polish peasant in Europe and America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Shaw, C. R. & McKay, H.D. (1969). Juvenile delinquency and urban areas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wikstrom, P.O & Loeber, R. (2000) Do disadvantaged neighborhoods cause well-adjusted children to become adolescent delinquents? A study of male juvenile serious offending, individual risk and protective factors, and neighborhood context Criminology 38(4) pp: 1109-1142. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-9125.2000.tb01416.x
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.