The Idea of Social Disorganization Theory

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When I think of neighborhoods, I think of how they vary by different characteristics they each possess. For example, one neighborhood might be run down, abandoned like and seem poor in a lack of terms, while another neighborhood could be clean, crisp cut grass and come off as wealthier. When looking at those neighborhoods it could be a way of deciding which one might involve a higher level of crime. Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay introduced a theory that became known as the social disorganization theory which has had a few expansions based off it, which will be discussed throughout this paper. In 1942 Shaw and McKay developed this theory after basing their theory around the idea that Ernest Burgess (1967[1925]) “theorized that urban areas grow through a process of continual expansion from their inner core towards outer areas” (as cited in Cullen, Agnew and Wilcox, 2018, p.34). By introducing their theory, Shaw and McKay wanted to use it to focus more on the topic of juvenile delinquency. The idea of social disorganization according to Shaw and McKay was based on the idea that social disorganization referred to a more in-depth version of the social groups within a community. They used “zones of transition” to represent their study. According to Shaw and McKay “the hypothesis is that delinquency would be higher in these communities and lower in neighborhoods that were more affluent and stable” (as cited in Cullen et al., 2018, p.34). Once Shaw and McKay started their research, they analyzed how measures of crime involving the youth population referred to the juvenile court, truancy and recidivism. The findings from the research was that the characteristics of the of an area not just the individual regulated levels of delinquency. Going off that, the assumption of this theory is that a person’s, residential location is going to have more significance than a person’s personal characteristics that they possess. The juveniles are going to possess the criminal behavior due to the neighborhood they are living in and the acceptance of that behavior.

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Shaw and McKay realized that crime was not evenly disbursed, and it led them to believe that crime was more of a neighborhood dynamic and that it was not as focused on the individual within that neighborhood. In all the findings suggested that there was a lack of social control and cultural mechanisms which supports the idea of social disorganization. This theory slowly faded off before it was revitalized in the 1980’s by Robert Sampson. Sampson (1986) argued that “crime was high in inner cities because the residents has lost the capacity to exercise informal social control” (as cited in Cullen et al., 2018, p.36). Sampson did agree with Shaw and McKay when it came to the concept of the traits of an individual varied due to the capacity to regulate a situation and decrease the criminal behavior. In 1989 Sampson partnered up with W. Byron Groves to extend his research even further. These two used a data set from a British Crime Survey and were able to test Shaw and McKay’s idea that “in communities marked by poverty, heterogeneity, residential transiency and family disruption, informal relations and controls would be weakened and as a result, crime would be higher” (as cited in Cullen et al., 2018, p.36). Once Sampson and Groves conducted their research the results came out to be that weakly organized areas were indeed higher in crime. This conclusion supported the idea of Sampson and Groves. As mentioned above, this theory was has been extended on since its initial appearance. There have been two inquiries that have made its way into the field and those are the collective efficacy theory as well as the legal cynicism theory.

Sampson and Groves used a systemic model to draw off ideas from which were interpreted by the “society as friendship and kinship networks and formal and informal associational ties rooted in family life and on-going socialization processes” (as cited in Cullen et al., 2018, p.37). Although this was studied by many others as well as the original testers it became very clear that these were not always related to neighborhood crime. Shaw and McKay’s ideas are very embedded in social disorganization theory they exemplify this even further in two ways: First by adding the concepts of trust or supporting one another. This is an important factor to add in because it bases the idea that neighbors are willing to support one another when the time comes, and the social support becomes needed. The second thing is that “social disorganization is portrayed as a condition or as a state or being into which, a person moves or is born” (as cited in Cullen et al., 2018, p. 38). They refer to this as a “static” factor basically meaning that the person is staying in place and they are constant in that one place. However, on the opposite spectrum of that Sampson and other theorists referred to collective efficacy as “dynamic” meaning that the resource itself could be moved at anytime and that it was not going to constant in one place for long. David Kirk and Andrew Papachristos brought everyone’s attention on legal cynicism as the focus. Kirk and Papachristos (2011) “stress that legal cynicism is a cultural frame through which individuals interpret the functioning and viability of the law and its agents” (as cited in Cullen et al., 2018, p.40). What this is saying is that the individuals view the law as someone who is unreliable, does not seem to care to keep the people safe and that they are useless in a sense of terms. According to Kirk and Papachristos (2011) legal cynicism derives from: concentrated disadvantages and the previous police resident encounters (as cited in Cullen et al., 2018, p.40). The concentrated disadvantages refer to the belief that the police offers little to no help nor security. The previous police resident encounters are going to refer to the idea that the police are going to be more likely to use harsh and unfair punishment rather than responding with a sense of acknowledgement and security. The assumption with legal cynicism is that people see it as a reason to take matters into their own hands, which can in return lead to a crime. These two theories do provide a reasonable amount of support in relations to the original theory. Now that the background of the expansion theories has been implied, the rest of the paper will discuss the two theories a little more in detail and what they represent.

As Robert J. Sampson, Stephen W. Raudenbush and Felton Earls mention “we focus on the effectiveness of informal mechanisms by which residents themselves achieve public order” (as cited in Cullen et al., 2018, p.54). When referring to collective efficacy, it refers to the idea that a community can control the behavior of the individuals in their own community. This will allow the individuals in the community to have a sense of security as a result. Sampson et al., formed this theory to suggest mainly that if a community saw one of their own in distress, that they would be able to act effectively enough to solve the problem. One factor that takes time to adhere to is the ties that are made. Those ties will take time to form and become a working junction. Sampson et al., noted that in contrast, if a community did not have those ties and were lacking the straws that could bind those ties together, the efficacy would not be there which in return would resort to committing crime. According to Sampson et al., “the data was collected from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN), a collection of people and institutions occupying a subsection of a larger community were combined by 847 census tracts in the city of Chicago to create 343 neighborhood clusters” (as cited in Cullen et al., 2018, p.56). A five-item Likert-type scales was used in order to conduct the measurements from the data. This measure represented informal social control. The participants were asked questions such as “would you say that is very likely, likely, neither likely nor unlikely, unlikely or very unlikely your neighbor could be counted on to intervene in various ways if: children were skipping school and hanging out on a street corner, children were spray painting graffiti on a local building, children were showing disrespect to an adult, a fight broke out in front of their house and the fire station closest to their home was threatened with budget cuts” (as cited in Cullen et al.,2018, p.56). Trust and social cohesion were also placed in to represent five of the questions that were administered as well. The results did indicate the indeed, collective efficacy is effective and maintains its importance in the community. The use for this is that it can measure reliability within the neighborhood with different levels. There were some limitations that occurred throughout this study such as that it was only located in one city, there could be other ties that could be involved, and the analysis was using a cross-sectional design which caused that to be causal effects that were not proven.

Legal cynicism refers to the idea that the way law enforcement treats individuals in a community can affect those individuals view on law enforcement in a negative way. According to Kirk and Papachristos (2011) “legal cynicism is the product of two related influences: neighborhood structural conditions and neighborhood variation in police practices and resident interaction with the police” (as cited in Cullen et al., 2018, p.61). How police treat individuals truly makes a difference on how the community will respond to them as law enforcement. The way individuals are treated by the police varies in different places. According to Smith (1986) “police are less likely to file incident reports following a crime in high-crime neighborhoods than in low-crime neighborhoods” (as cited in Cullen et al., 2018, p.62). The way that the youth views police can be a product of how they have been treated in the past by the police or how they have seen someone else get treated in a negative manner. Cynicism is not necessarily going to cause crime, but it does have strong connection for one to take matters into their own hands instead of putting their trust into the hands of the law. Communication and social interaction within the community are two ways of which we learn how individuals can view the way the law reacts when they are called upon for a criminal act. According to Kirk and Papachristos (2011) “the data used in the study comes from three sources: the PHDCN, the Chicago Police Department and the U.S. census” (as cited in Cullen et al., 2018, p.64). The variables there were interpreted to this study included: legal cynicism, tolerance of deviance, collective efficacy and homicide. The reason that homicide was included in the study was because homicide is less susceptible to the problems that are faced during investigating an officer. In order to have obtained accurate studies the focus had to shift from culture in values framework to cultural mechanisms. According to Kirk and Papachristos (2011) the findings indicated that the level varies each individual due to concentrated poverty and residential stability, homicide is not in relation to deviance and violence, rates are positively connected to legal cynicism structure and socially connected and finally it explains unexpected change in homicide (as cited in Cullen et al., 2018, p.66).

In conclusion the two expansions of the social disorganization support the original theory in more ways than just way as mentioned above. According to Shaw and McKay the youth are unstable and more prone to hang around juveniles who want to create criminal traditions. I believe that is something that still holds true today. There are many areas in the nation to where crime occurs, and the youth are at risk due to the involvement they have with older juveniles who make them believe that crime is okay. The original theory as well as the two expansions exert the idea that social cohesion is a key. Social cohesion as mentioned above refers to the idea that the community wants to step in, to help one another in the time of need. The lack of collective efficacy did seem to prove that it can cause crime to emerge as well. I believe with future research and expansions of these theories will bring about so much more information that we have not yet to consider.


  1. Sampson, Robert J. 2006. “Communities and Crime Revisited: Intellectual Trajectory of a Chicago School Education.” In Francis T. Cullen, Cheryl Lero Jonson, Andrew J. Meyer, and Freda Adler (eds.), The Origins of American Criminology- Advances in Criminological Theory, Volume 16, pp. 63-85. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
  2. Sampson, Robert J. and W. Byron Groves. 1989, “Community Structure and Crime: Testing Social Disorganization Theory.” American Journal of Sociology 94: 774-802
  3. Kirk, David S. and Andrew V. Papachristos. 2011. “Cultural Mechanisms and the Persistence of Neighborhood Violence.” American Journal of Sociology 116: 1190-1233
  4. Cullen, F., Agnew, R., & Wilcox, P. 2018. Criminological theory. New York: Oxford University Press. 33-66

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