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Social Disorganization Theory

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Social disorganization theory pioneers Clifford X. Shaw and Henry W. McKay suggested that disorganized communities characterized by poverty, ethnic heterogeneity, residential mobility weakened social stability (Kelly, 2000; Messner, Bauo).

In light of the social problems plaguing Chicago and its suburbs, Shaw and McKay studied the prevalent local crime and delinquency. Building on “an ecological theory of urban dynamics,” social disorganization theory aimed to explain the larger ratio of delinquency that occurred in certain Chicago neighborhoods (Cantillon, Davidson, & Schweitzer, 2003, p. 322). Shaw and McKay “discovered that high delinquency rates persisted in certain Chicago neighborhoods for long periods of time despite changes in the racial and ethnic composition of these communities—a finding that led to the conclusion that neighborhood ecological conditions shape crime rates over and above the characteristics of individual residents” (Kubrin & Weitzer, 2003, p. 374). Further, their study revealed that high rates of crime occur in those communities that exhibit declining populations and physical deterioration (Jensen, 2003).

At its core, social disorganization theory focuses on the effects of location and location-specific characteristics as they relate to crime (Mustaine, Tewksbury, & Stengel, 2006). Neighborhoods lacking organization lack the necessary social controls and are unable to provide essential services. This leads to an inability of the community to control its public, which is why “one way to define social disorganization is to view such places as unable to maintain public order through informativeness. In fact, “defined in terms of the absence or breakdown of certain types of relationships among people,” social disorganization theory “is intimately tied to conceptions of those properties of relationships that are indicative of social or communal ‘organization’” (Jensen, 2003, p. 1).

The question then becomes: How effective is social disorganization theory in explaining criminal behavior? There are five criteria used in evaluating theories, which demonstrate whether the theory makes sense in the simplest way of explaining crime and whether the theory is able to be tested to deliver true and valid results. In greater detail, each of the five criteria is applied to social disorganization theory as follows:

  1. Logical consistency: Social disorganization theory makes sense; its assumptions are logically consistent.
  2. Scope: While aiming to explain a broad range of phenomenon, the scope of social disorganization theory is an effective tool to be used in critical analysis of criminal behavior.
  3. Parsimony: Social disorganization theory is simple and easy to comprehend as demonstrated by the name of the theory itself.
  4. Testability: As seen with the early studies of Shaw and McKay as well as more recent efforts, it is clear that social disorganization theory is able to be tested and is not limited in its scientific value.
  5. Empirical validity: Shaw and McKay’s study supported the research as did the more recent efforts of Elizabeth Ehrhardt Mustaine, Richard Tewksbury, and Kenneth M. Stengel in their 2006 study of registered sex offenders, illustrating the validity of social disorganization theory.

Because social disorganization theory is effective within the scope of the aforementioned criteria, it follows that the theory is useful in the real word and, therefore, has possible public policy implications. The most important of which should be to organize those communities that are disorganized. Services should be offered to community residents; for example, the residents of a disorganized community should be aided in owning and maintaining homes. Also, recreation programs and other community organizations should be created to deter delinquent activity and increase community involvement. By improving neighborhoods and making them more appealing, social controls will be strengthened. In addition to leading to the improvement and organization of communities, social disorganization theory is a useful tool for analysis, which is why it has historically been “the predominant theory of the spatial location of crime has been social disorganization theory” (Rice & Smith, 2002, p. 306).

Despite its early origins, social disorganization theory continues to be a prominent tool in the study of criminal behavior. In fact, Charis E. Kubrin and Ronald Weizer suggest that “social disorganization theory has experienced a renaissance in recent years” and that the theory may actually be stronger now than when it was first put forward (2003, p. 397). Perhaps, “the need to accurately and validly measure the level of community social organization” (Cantillon, Davidson, & Schweitzer, 2003, p. 321) prompted the recent resurgence of social disorganization theory.

Regardless of what brought about the rebirth of social disorganization theory, it is clear that the theory is not going anywhere as evidenced by recent studies. For example, in 2002, Kennon J. Rice and William R. Smith used social disorganization theory in an attempt to explain patterns of automobile theft. Then, in 2003, Jodi Lane and James W. Meeker used the theory to study the correlation between social disorganization, gangs, crime, and fear. Even more recently, Elizabeth Ehrhardt Mustaine, Richard Tewksbury, and Kenneth M. Stengel (2006) used social disorganization theory as a guide in evaluating the characteristics of neighborhoods where registered sex offenders reside in an effort to determine whether registered sex offenders are likely to live in areas with greater social disorganization.

As suggested by the recent body of research and the studies that came before, social disorganization theory continues to dominate in explaining the influence of neighborhood characteristics—specifically, poverty, racial/ethnic heterogeneity, and residential mobility—on crime rates. Looking to the future, social disorganization theory will continue to be applied to different types of crime and will continue to aid criminologists and social scientists in their analysis of criminal behavior.

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