Social Disorganization

Crime and our reaction to it have been studied now for over 200 years. Utilitarian philosophers Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham suggested that individuals think rationally about crime and punishment and weigh the pros and cons before acting. These ideas came to be known as “classical criminology.” (Cullen and Agnew, 1999) Many theories exist today and all anyone has to do is pick up an introductory criminology text and you can read about individual/psychological reasons, sociological causes of crime and delinquency, and genetic/developmental explanations of deviant behavior. One of the most profound findings in criminology that have stood the test of time and the scrutiny of replication studies is Shaw and McKay’s social disorganization theory (1942). It shares a powerful understanding that, should we be capable of identifying the social forces behind it, would allow us to dramatically reduce or prevent future crime.

Social Disorganization

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The concept of social disorganization is largely associated with an ecological theory that was developed by researchers of the University of Chicago, such as Park, Burgess, and McKenzie (Reid, 1994). The Chicago School has studied humans in their natural environments, and has tried to thread the connections of city expansion and social disorganization with crime and delinquency (Cullen and Agnew, 1999). Park et al. (1925) examined the community characteristics to find some apparent explanations for variation in rates of delinquency in the Chicago area. They developed a five-concentric-zone model that portrayed the city as a series of circles. At the center of the concentric zone model was a zone referred to as the central business district with its businesses and factories but fewer residences. Zone two, referred to as the zone of transition because businesses and factories were encroaching on this area. This zone contained railroad yards and slum housing. Immigrants usually settled into this zone because it was not expensive and near the factories where they could find job. As they could afford to move, they move to the zone of workingmen’s homes (third zone). This zone was where the working class families lived.

The fourth zone was called the zone of better residences. It was essentially a middle-class residential area and it consisted of good quality apartment buildings, some residential hotels, and expensive houses owned or occupied primarily by the middle class. Called the communter zone. This zone contained the suburbs functioned as residential areas for upper middle class and upper class workers (Shannon, 1989). Each zone had its own structure and organization, characteristics, and inhabitants. Park et al. (1925) found that Zone two was primarily an urban area characterized by low-income individuals and social problems such as crime and juvenile delinquency. The most obvious characteristic of this zone was its constant change because of the influx of immigrants who moved into the area.

Shaw and McKay (1942/1969) used the Burgess’ concentric zone model to investigate the relationship between crime rates and the various zones of the city. They found higher crime rates in the areas nearest to the zone of central business, in other words, crime tended to be higher in the zone of transition and tended to decrease the further away from the zone of transition. They also found that high rates of crime and delinquency were associated with the areas of immigrants, nonwhites and low-income families who lived in “slum” areas. Shaw and McKay (1942) made a great effort to determine the characteristics of the community and to help provide valid explanations of why high crime and delinquency exist in some areas of a city.

Shaw and McKay (1942) examined the relationships between the rates of delinquency and differential characteristics of several major cities, namely Chicago. Cleveland, Philadelphia, Boston, Cincinnati, and Richmond. They found that delinquency rates varied from one community area to another with high-delinquency areas associated with population change often prompted by industrialization and urbanization. The researchers suggested that weak police systems and weak community social-control agencies contributed to an increase in crime rates and delinquency, especially in areas nearest the center of the city.

Shaw and McKay (1942:316), based on their ecological studies, formulated the major assumption of the Social Disorganization Theory:

In some parts of the city, attitudes which support and sanction delinquency are. it seems, sufficiently extensive and dynamic to become the controlling forces in the development of delinquent careers among a relatively large number of boys and young men. These are the low-income areas where delinquency has developed in the form of social tradition inseparable from the life of the local community.


Shaw and McKay (1942) noted other factors that may contribute to delinquency. These factors included economic and social factors, which were observed among youth in the slum areas where crime and delinquency thrive, where community controls were weak, and where family supervision was weak. They also showed relationships between delinquency and population change, poor housing, slum neighborhoods, poverty, and unemployment. Children who experience this type of culture tend to produce norms and values that are different from those of the larger society and, therefore, a subculture is produced.

Shaw and McKay (1942) pointed out that traditions and values of delinquency are transferred through successive generations in a similar way that language, social roles, and attitudes are learned and transferred. Shaw and McKay however, did not provide sufficient explanation of the processes of becoming a delinquent. This point was discussed by Sutherland (1947) in his theory of differential association. (Cullen and Agnew, 1999)

Shaw and McKay (1942) found that the rates of delinquency varied inversely with distance from the center of the city. They indicated that poverty-stricken areas usually contained a high degree of social disorganization, which in turns leads to delinquency. Shaw and McKay indicated that youths in deprived areas wanted to achieve their goals by using legitimate ways, but they did not have legitimate means to obtain what society encourages, such as material goods and education. This, in turn, may lead those youths to use illegitimate avenues to attain society’s goals. Shaw and McKay (1942) stated:

Groups in areas of lowest economic status find themselves at a disadvantage in the struggle to achieve the goals idealized in our civilization. Those persons who occupy a disadvantageous position are involved in a conflict between the goals assumed to be attainable in a free society and those actually attainable for a large proportion of the population. It is understandable, then, that the economic position of persons living in the areas of least opportunity should be translated at times into unconventional conduct.


Finally, Shaw and McKay (1942) pointed out that rapid social changes, such as migrations to cities, can cause social disorganization. They argued that social disorganization or disruption in the incoming groups occur if the institutions and social roles of newcomers do not meet the needs of the situation and if the incoming populations not able or is not given opportunities to perform the roles in traditional institutions.

Definition of Social Disorganization

Since the initial introduction by Shaw and McKay, the concept of social disorganization has been further refined and redefined by many criminologists who follow Shaw and McKay (1942) and expand their effort to relate crime and delinquency. They believe that crime and delinquency can be seen as a product of rapid social changes in the society, which in turn, lead to social disorganization.

Mowrer (1942) pointed out that social disorganization is a normal consequence of social change. He indicated many social problems occur because of the disorganization of society caused by divorce, delinquency, crimes, poverty, and unemployment. Mowrer believed that disorganization can be social and personal, although personal disorganization cannot grow out of social disorganization because they are bound together. Finally. Mowrer argued that social disorganization leads to the breakdown in institutional controls, official or nonofficial social controls.

Fans (1948:49) perceived social disorganization as coming from “a disturbance in the patterns and mechanisms of human relationships.” He indicated social disorganization appears when the parts of the patterns and mechanisms of such relationships lose their integration and fail to function according to their implicit purposes. Also, he believed the decline of unity and harmony in a society is a primary condition of social disorganization. For example, the family and the neighborhood showed indications of increasing disharmony with the increasing rate of divorce and the virtual disappearance of neighborhood life in certain parts of large cities. The essential feature in the social disorganization that underlies high crime rates and delinquency, according to Fans, appeared to be the failure of the normal mechanisms of social control. Fans believed social changes affected the modern societies, which led to a weakening of family and neighborhood controls.

Elliott and Merrill (1950:20) defined social disorganization as “the process by which the relationships between members of a group are broken or dissolved.” They noted a relationship between social changes and social disorganization by pointing out most changing societies tend to be disorganized because of the disparity in the rate of change between the different social elements. Thus, social disorganization, according to Elliott and Merrill, was a natural consequence of social change.

Merton (1966) defined social disorganization as inadequacies or failures in a social system that makes individuals less fully aware of their problems. Bursik (1988) studied the concept of social disorganization as the inability of local community to identify the common values of its residents and solve commonly experienced problems. Social disorganization, according to Sampson and Groves (1989:777) is defined as “the inability of a community structure to realize the common values of its residents and maintain effective social control.” This definition has been used by many researchers (Kawachi et al., 1999).

According to Taylor and Covington (1993:375), the social disorganization theory “posits effects of community structure on crime and delinquency.” Social disorganization theorists argue that rapid social changes, massive immigration, industrialization, and urbanization lead to weakening of social norms that cause the higher rates of crime rates (Traub and Little, 1999).

Bloch and Prince (1967) argued that there are many indices that help identify whether or not a society has problems of social disorganization: social problems are the most obvious symptoms of disorganization. They noted that indices of social disorganization may be subdivided into three principal categories: (a) individual: (b) family: and (c) community. Delinquency, crime, mental pathologies, alcoholism, and suicide are individual indices of social disorganization: desertion, divorce, and child neglect are some indices of family disorganization: and disorganization of community may be seen in the high rates of unemployment, disorganized community controls, and governmental corruption. Bloch and Prince (1967) argued that delinquency was caused from individual levels of social disorganization, instead it results from the disorder within both family and community life.

Crime is seen as a product of rapid change in society, an idea that can be traced to Durkheim’s (1964) work on social solidarity. The foundation for the social disorganization perspective emerged from Durkheim’s argument of social change. When a society is in a state of social disorganization, people have a low degree of solidarity and they are set free of normative constraints, leading people to drift from conformity into deviance; thus, social disorganization is a social disorder. (Bloch and Prince, 1967)

Despite the subtle variations in how social disorganization is conceived, it is clear that social disorganization is a product of structural transformation that weakens traditional and largely conforming reinforcement control structure. This disorganization tends to further give rise to computing and perhaps deviant value structures, which can promote deviant behavior including crime and delinquency.

Empirical Findings of Social Disorganization

Since the original studies conducted by Shaw and McKay, social disorganization has been empirically examined is a variety of studies. Chilton (1964) conducted a continuity delinquency area research study in three American cities: Baltimore (Maryland), Detroit (Michigan), and Indianapolis (Indiana), to determine and compare the delinquency rates in these cities. In these three cities, delinquency was characterized by overcrowded housing, low income, foreign birth, and low education. His findings supported the argument that delinquency was related to poor housing, and some economic factors.

Sampson and Groves (1989) conducted several studies centered around community traits and crime. They examined the disruption of community social organization. They tested factors such as low economic status, ethnic heterogeneity, residential mobility and family disruption, which contribute to community social disorganization. Sampson and Groves (1989), in their 1982 study of community structure and crime, used local friendship networks, control of street-corner teenage peer groups, and prevalence of organizational participation to measure the community level disorganization, using data from the British Crime Survey (BCS). They examined their model by analyzing the data for 328 localities in England and Wales. The model was replicated in 1984 on an independent national sample of 11.030 residents of 300 British localities. In these two studies, they found that urbanization, socioeconomic status, heterogeneity, family disruption, and residential instability have direct influences on crime rates. They considered their study an extension of Shaw and McKay’s (1932/1942) systematic model of community social disorganization and their findings support Shaw and McKay’s theory.

Bachman (1991) established a model that combined elements of social disorganization and economic deprivation. He examined the relationship between indicators of social disorganization and economic deprivation with the high level of lethal violence. Controlling other demographic variables, he analyzed 11 counties of American Indian reservation lands in Oklahoma. Findings of the study support the hypothesis that the higher the level of social disorganization and economic deprivation, the higher the level of lethal violence.

Smith and Jarjoura (1988:43) conducted study to test the relationship between community characteristics posited by Shaw and McKay and rates of burglary and violent crime. Their study was victimization interviews with a random sample of 11.419 residents of 57 neighborhoods in three Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMSA). They found that “communities that are characterized by rapid population turnover and high levels of poverty have significantly higher violent crime rates than mobile areas that are more affluent or poor areas that are characterized by more stable population.”

Warner and Pierce (1993) assessed the findings of previous social disorganization studies using data that included calls to the police from 60 Boston neighborhoods during the year 1980. Their aim was to examine how the variables of poverty, race, and residential mobility related to one another and the sequential effect of such relationships on social disorganization. Warner and Pierce found that poverty, racial heterogeneity, and residential mobility were related to areas characterized by social disorganization. Moreover, they suggested that replication studies of these three variables were needed to validate hypotheses. Warner and Pierce concluded that neighborhoods with high rates of crime tended to be characterized by low mobility, ethnic heterogeneity, and poverty.

Stem and Smith (1995) tested an ecological hypothesis that family context influences parenting, which in turn affects adolescent behavior. Their study was based on a sample of 864 adolescents and their parents. They found the family’s disadvantaged neighborhood, life distress, social isolation, and lack of parental support were associated with dysfunctional parenting that increased delinquency. This study also supports the social disorganization theory.

Bellair (1997) used data collected from 60 urban neighborhoods in 1977 to examine citizens’ attitudes and level of satisfaction when calling on local police departments. The research focused on social interaction of neighbor networks to examine the relationship between community and crime. Bellair (1997:696) discussed the importance of social disorganization to show its essential function. He believes systemic social disorganization is based on Shaw and McKay’s (1942) study of the neighborhood, and this theory now is more obviously conceptualized because its root is the concept that “well-developed local network structures reduce crime by increasing informal control.” The research examined the assumption that social interaction among neighbors is one of the most effective ways to reduce crime rates.

Bellair (1997) constructed 10 measures of social interaction and tested these measures separately on the rates of three serious crimes across 60 urban neighborhoods. The research found that social interaction among neighbors of a community has the most consistent and the strongest effect on preventing burglaries, motor vehicle thefts, and robberies. Bellair concluded that social disorganization research needs to continue exploring the dynamics of local network structures and he suggested that criminologists investigate interaction among neighbors and its relationship to crime; an issue that has rarely been studied.

Donnelly and Kimble (1997) investigated the effects of an urban neighborhood’s response to a significant increase in crime and drugs. They suggested locally developed crime prevention plans. They collected data on a number of issues before and after the design was fulfilled. They made pre-and post-planned telephone surveys in which 191 interviews were conducted in 1992 and 183 in 1993, after the plan was implemented. The researchers attempted to determine the residents’ perceptions of crime, safety, and involvement and commitment to the neighborhood. They found a significant decrease in crime when the number of outsiders coming into the community was kept to a minimum. They argued that locally developed crime prevention plans can be successful.

Veysey and Messner (1999) provided another test of the social disorganization theory making some modifications of the original Shaw and McKay (1942) theory. They added some new indicators of social disorganization and used data from the British Crime Survey (BCS) which was conducted in 1982: a multistage cluster design was used to collect data. Based on the findings, they believed that it is difficult to understand social disorganization by using one single construct. They also argued that there are two possibilities for the results that have the lack of support for the indicators of social disorganization, which do not interpose the effects of family disruption and urbanization. First, disorganization does not capture the fundamental construct: in other words, these measures used poor indicators; a second possibility is the measurement error. Veysey and Messner (1999) agreed with Sampson and Groves” (1989:799) conclusion that social disorganization has “vitality and renewed relevance for explaining macro-level variation in crime rates.”

Critique of Social Disorganization

Bursik (1988) studied social disorganization and theories of crime and delinquency by focusing on some criticisms of the perspective and attempted to address these criticisms and problems. He also tried to make new extensions of social disorganization and discussed the neighborhood as a context for individual behavior. Bursik pointed out that the causal linkage between social disorganization and neighborhood delinquency was not clearly examined by Shaw and McKay (1942). Bursik (1988:521) argued that Shaw and McKay draw their work on some elements of strain, cultural conflict, and control theories, but their “logical implications of those frameworks are at times inconsistent.” The Shaw and McKay model of social disorganization, according to Bursik. is similar to the control theory because their model has processes of internal and external sources of control.

Bortner (1988:229) pointed out that social disorganization is based on the assumption that high rates of crime and delinquency are associated with indicators of social disorganization. He criticized this by arguing that the assumption has been challenged because this perspective should examine “that high rates of delinquency will be eliminated when equilibrium of traditional social order is restored.”

Bartol and Bartol (1989) mentioned that the work of Shaw and McKay (1942) did not include female delinquents.  They justified that by saying that Shaw and McKay (1942) did not include female delinquents in their studies, but also most contemporary theorists and researchers have given scant attention to female offenders. Bartol and Bartol (1989:88) argued that exclusion of female offenders in Shaw and McKay’s studies was because they believed “male offenders accounted for the vast majority of the official data on delinquency … [and they] did not believe that their ecological theory applied equally to all delinquency.” Bartol and Bartol (1989) also noted that although Shaw and McKay (1932 and 1942) mentioned that traditions and values of delinquency are transmitted from generation to generation, they did not specify the process of becoming a delinquent.

Reid (1994) indicated that several sociologists criticized Shaw and McKay (1942) model of social disorganization by questioning the methodology of the studies, the representativeness of the data, and the logic of the research. Also, they argued that Shaw and McKay’s work does not explain why crime rates vary when ethnic groups are compared. Agnew (1999) argued that factors of social disorganization weaken the ability of residents of a community to control crimes in their area, which directly and indirectly causes crime with the emerging delinquent peer groups. He supported the need for more research on deprivation and crime because this will help to determine the relationship between non-economic variables and community crime rates.


It is important to note that the extensive study of Shaw and McKay (1942) identified findings similar to those of Park et al. (1925) concerning the distribution of juvenile delinquency. Their findings revealed that delinquency was concentrated near the center of the city, where social disorganization was most evidence. It is obvious that Shaw and McKay’s work played a major role in formulating the social disorganization theory.  Shaw and McKay were interested in the relationship between community organization and crime (Bellair, 1997). Bursik (1988) indicated that most criminologists interested in social disorganization used the concept as developed by Shaw and McKay during the 1950s and 1960s. In that time, Shaw and McKay established new methods to collect and analyze data from the field. They combined different types of data to determine the relationships between community and crime. Their efforts helped later criminologists believe that crime and delinquency can be seen as a product of the rapid social changes in the society, which in turn, lead to social disorganization.

The previously stated studies focused differently when they examined social disorganization. Many studies employed similar assumptions and methods that were used by Shaw and McKay. Several studies used community-level analysis to examine social disorganization by determining the effects of community factors on delinquency. Several others used neighborhood-level analysis to examine the impact of social disorganization on delinquency. Others linked social disorganization and economic deprivation.

Most of the above studies asserted the fact that social disorganization theory is important because it provides an adequate explanation of variations in delinquency rates, although few studies have included more than one indicator of social disorganization to examine its relative effects on delinquency. This theory was used by Shaw and McKay noted to explain the pronounced social changes following World War I and the Great Depression, including immigration, modernization, urbanization, development, and industrialization in the United States.