The Meaning of Social Disorganization Theory

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Social disorganization expresses how an individual’s social and physical environment impacts the risk of crime around them. At the core of this theory, high residential turnover, poverty, overcrowded living conditions, social isolation, racial and ethnic diversity comes to predicting illegal activities. Shaw and McKay developed a strategy based on the ecological concept of dominance, to explain the high rates of criminal behavior that affected neighborhoods in Chicago. Ernest Burgess’s Concentric Zone Model was used in Shaw and McKay’s study where they detected five concentric zones exhibiting social problems in Chicago. Shaw and McKay used this information to analyze the juvenile delinquency rate in detail and to explain why it was isolated to urban areas.

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Social disorganization theory was first developed in the studies of urban crime and delinquency by two sociologists, Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay, associated with the University of Chicago and the Illinois Institute for Social Research (Akers, 1999, p. 115-116). Social disorganization is described as a breakdown in conventional institutional controls, as well as informal social control forces within a community and the incapability of individuals in a neighborhood, organization or group to solve common problems together (Shoemaker, 2000, p. 78). Shaw and McKay began a set of studies using official records which demonstrated that in the city of Chicago, rates of crime, criminality, and devotion to correctional institutions differed significantly by area (Kubrin & Wo, 2016, p. 122). One of the factors that they focused on was the lack of stable neighborhood demographics. As the city grew, it expanded from the downtown core and developed zones that formed concentric circles (Fuller, 2012, p. 119). Shaw and McKay borrowed the concentric growth zones created by Burgess that represent unique characteristics and that are thought to appear in successive stages as the result of growth and expansion in a city (Shoemaker, 2000, p. 78).

The outer zones were inhabited by middle-class and wealthy homeowners, while inner zones included poor families and recent immigrants. Immediately outside the city’s core were a factory zone and a transitional zone with high rates of crime, alcoholism, and other social problems (Fuller, 2012, p. 119). Zone 2 which is described as “the zone in transition”, has the most impact on the theory because this is where most of the crimes would take place. The farther one moves away from this zone; the more crime decreases. It generates the idea that the individuals in a community who are closer to “zone 2” have more stress factors, including high residential turnover, racial and ethnic diversity, overcrowded living conditions, social isolation, and poverty. However, this illustration of urban growth is not comprehensive. Zones can be affected by numerous conditions, such as historical landmarks and natural obstacles (Shoemaker, 2000, p. 80). Robert Merton said that, “the type of social problem involved in disorganization arises not from people failing to live up to the requirements of their social statuses, as is the case with deviant behavior, but from the faulty organization of these statuses into a reasonably coherent social system” (Robert K. Merton, 1966, p. 804).

The most important proposition of social disorganization as an explanation of delinquency is that delinquency is mainly the result of a breakdown of institutional, community-based controls. The individuals who live in such situations are viewed as reacting ‘naturally’ to disorganized environmental conditions. The second proposition of this theory is that the disorganization of community-based institutions is often caused by fast economic development, urbanization, and immigration processes, which occur predominantly in urban areas. The third proposition is that the efficacy of social institutions and the attractiveness of residential and business locations correspond closely to natural, ecological principles, which are affected by the concept of competition and dominance. Because of this belief, the social disorganization explanation of delinquency is associated with the ‘ecological approach’. A fourth proposition is that socially disorganized areas lead to the development of criminal ethics and traditions, which replace conventional ones, and that this process is continues (Shoemaker, 2000, p. 78).

Ecological attributes of neighborhoods affect the extent of social disorganization in the community because certain characteristics can hinder the development of social bonds that encourage the capacity to solve common problems, including crime. According to the social disorganization theory, community attributes such as poverty or residential instability are related to crime, however, these factors themselves do not directly cause crime (Kubrin & Wo, 2016, p. 123). Social disorganization theory gives people a better understanding of why crimes occur in certain areas, and it can foresee street-level crime. However, it cannot explain other types of crime, it cannot explain why individuals commit crimes, and it does not explain why crime occurs in areas that are not socially disorganized. In the article, “a test of social disorganization theory in high-risk urban neighborhoods” an empirical test was conducted to explain the relationships between neighborhood social structure, social developments, delinquent opportunity, and rates of crimes among structurally disadvantaged neighborhoods. Researchers examined these issues by using a sample of only high-risk neighborhoods. The results show that for this high-risk sample the most consistent predictor of rates of problem behavior is youths’ views of limited prospects for the future.

In 1932, Shaw launched the Chicago Area Project, which established twenty-two neighborhood centers in six areas of Chicago. Local residents were in control of these centers and were also employed as staff. Two important functions of these centers were that they were to organize such community resources such as churches, schools, labor unions, industries, clubs, and other groups in addressing and resolving community problems. The centers also sponsored different activity programs including recreation, summer camping, and scouting activities. The project ran continuously for twenty- five years, until Shaw’s death in 1975, but its effects on delinquency in these areas were never accurately evaluated (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002, p. 125-126).

Shaw and McKay believed that social disorganization was linked to immigrant groups moving to more suitable neighborhoods. However, they discovered that the environment of neighborhoods played a big role in influencing crime rates. Their research revealed that high rates of crime occurred in communities that had a deteriorating population and property decline.


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