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Social Disorganization Theory

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Social disorganization theory refers specifically to the failure of a neighborhood's social institutions to develop cohesion, exert social control, and diminish crime. A departure from individual explanations of crime, social disorganization theorists examine how the structural characteristics of neighborhoods--residential stability, housing quality, economic opportunity, income levels, and social institutions--affect how residents realize common values and wield social control. In general, socially disorganized neighborhoods are characterized by high residential turnover, poverty, overcrowded living conditions, racial and ethnic heterogeneity, and social isolation. Together, these conditions hinder strong social ties and trust among neighborhood residents, making it difficult to develop the informal social control that maintains conventional values and reduces crime.

In socially disorganized neighborhoods, residents often move, choosing not to invest in their communities and strengthen neighborhood institutions that preserve traditional values (e.g., churches, voluntary associations, youth clubs). Poverty also makes it difficult to address social problems; little funding exists to support social institutions, and most residents focus on daily survival. As a result, these neighborhoods never develop the social resources to deal with crime. Here, an alternative value system emerges, one supporting crime and competing with the conventional values of most residents. Isolated from mainstream institutions and individuals, some adolescents become confused as to what constitutes appropriate behavior. Once criminality surfaces, it can sometimes flourish, especially when successful criminals earn respect through displaying material status symbols and violence. Thus, in socially disorganized neighborhoods, deviance and crime result not solely from the individual, but more from the breakdown of neighborhood social institutions that maintain conventional values and social control.

Social disorganization theory originates in the sociological studies of the early 20th-century Chicago School. During this period, Chicago was a growing city, with a booming manufacturing industry and a large influx of immigrants. However, crime and poverty accompanied this growth--social problems that sociologists from the University of Chicago would focus on for subsequent decades. To understand such problems, W. I. Thomas and Florian Znaiecki documented the hardships of Polish immigrants as they adjusted to Chicago in the early 1900s. Thomas and Znaiecki contended that new urban conditions (a dramatic change from rural and isolated living) disrupted immigrants' traditional family and community social control. Thus, Polish crime rates in Chicago rose to much higher levels than rates found in Poland.

Robert E. Park and Ernest Burgess were also interested in the relationship between people and place; they developed a social ecological approach to studying neighborhoods. In a spatial analysis, Park and Burgess divided Chicago into five concentric zones, finding that zones varied in physical and social characteristics, such as housing quality, income, and crime. The inner zones--characterized by new immigrants, poverty, overcrowding, and deteriorating housing--had the highest rates of crime. The outer zones--characterized by successively higher-income groups, single-family housing, and spacious environments--had lower rates of crime. Park and Burgess concluded that, because of the constant influx of immigrants and outflow of established residents, inner-zone residents cannot exercise sufficient social control over the neighborhood.

The two Chicago sociologists credited with developing the first comprehensive theory of social disorganization were Clifford R. Shaw and Henry D. McKay. Borrowing from Park and Burgess, Shaw and McKay analyzed Chicago's concentric zones, collecting more than 56,000 juvenile court records that covered three periods between 1900 and 1933. They found that, despite ethnic succession (the replacement of one ethnic group by another), inner-zone crime rates remained high. And when an ethnic group, en masse, left inner-zone neighborhoods for outer ones, their crime rates diminished substantially. For Shaw and McKay, this meant that ethnicity, or the cultural characteristics of groups, had less impact on crime than the neighborhood structure.

In analyzing inner-zone neighborhoods, Shaw and McKay consistently found high rates of poverty, residential instability, family dissolution, and overcrowding. The researchers argued that these factors created a collapse in informal social control, leading to high rates of crime. For instance, in these neighborhoods, stabilizing family traditions weakened because of immigrant encounters with American ideas and the new powerlessness of immigrant parents relying on their children to navigate the new language and environment. Racial and ethnic differences also hindered neighborhood organization

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