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date: 29 November 2022

Social Disorganization Theoryfree

Social Disorganization Theoryfree

  • Paul BellairPaul BellairDepartment of Sociology, Ohio State University


Contemporary sociologists typically trace social disorganization models to Emile Durkheim’s classic work. There is continuity between Durkheim’s concern for organic solidarity in societies that are changing rapidly and the social disorganization approach of Shaw and McKay (1969). However, Shaw and McKay view social disorganization as a situationally rooted variable and not as an inevitable property of all urban neighborhoods. They argued that socioeconomic status (SES), racial and ethnic heterogeneity, and residential stability account for variations in social disorganization and hence informal social control, which in turn account for the distribution of community crime. Empirical testing of Shaw and McKay’s research in other cities during the mid-20th century, with few exceptions, focused on the relationship between SES and delinquency or crime as a crucial test of the theory. As a whole, that research supports social disorganization theory. A handful of studies in the 1940s through early 1960s documented a relationship between social disorganization and crime. After a period of stagnation, social disorganization increased through the 1980s and since then has accelerated rapidly. Much of that research includes direct measurement of social disorganization, informal control, and collective efficacy. Clearly, many scholars perceive that social disorganization plays a central role in the distribution of neighborhood crime.


  • Criminological Theory


This review of the social disorganization perspective focuses on its chronological history and theoretical underpinnings, and presents a selective review of the research literature. The goal is to assess the literature with a broad brush and to focus on dominant themes. Given that the social disorganization literature has increased rapidly in recent years, it is not possible to cite or discuss every issue or study. In addition, the review emphasizes what is commonly referred to as the control theory component of Shaw and McKay’s (1969) classic “mixed” model of delinquency (Kornhauser, 1978). Interested readers can expand their knowledge of social disorganization theory by familiarizing themselves with additional literature (see Bursik & Grasmick, 1993; Kornhauser, 1978; Kubrin & Weitzer, 2003; Sampson, 2012).

In this review, first social disorganization theory is tethered to the classical writings of Durkheim (1960 [1892]), and then progress is made forward through the theory and research of Shaw and McKay (1969; also see Shaw et al., 1929). Research issues that emerged in research attempts to replicate the work of Shaw and McKay in other cities are reviewed. During the 1950s and 1960s, researchers moved beyond Shaw and McKay’s methods for the first time by measuring social disorganization directly and assessing its relationship to crime. The results of those studies are consistent with the hypothesis that community organization stimulates the informal controls that constrain individuals from expressing their natural, selfish inclinations, which include delinquency and criminal offending.

Many scholars began to question the assumptions of the disorganization approach in the 1960s when the rapid social change that had provided its foundation, such as the brisk population growth in urban areas during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, began to ebb and was supplanted, particularly in the northeastern and midwestern cities of the United States, by deindustrialization and suburbanization. The historical linkage between rapid social change and social disorganization was therefore less clear and suggested to many the demise of the approach. Soon thereafter, William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged (1987) described the rapid social changes wrought by an evolving U.S. economy, particularly in the inner city, and in so doing he provided a new foundation on which to conceptualize the consequences of rapid change. The theoretical underpinning shifted from rapid growth to rapid decline. Wilson’s model, as well as his more recent work, continues to provide a dominant vision of the urban process and lends intellectual energy to the approach. Since the 1970s, increasingly sophisticated efforts to clarify and reconceptualize the language used to describe community processes associated with crime continued. Today, the disorganization approach remains central to understanding the neighborhood distribution of crime and is indeed among the most respected crime theories.

Classical Social Disorganization Theory

The impact of informal constraints (often referred to as informal social control) on crime is traditionally associated with concepts such as community or group cohesion, social integration, and trust. For instance, Durkheim’s Suicide (1951 [1897]) is considered by most sociologists to be a foundational piece of scholarship that draws a link between social integration and deviant behavior. His analysis of social change in the The Division of Labor (1960 [1892]) was concerned with apprehending the basis of social integration as European societies were transformed from rural, agricultural to urban, industrial economic organization. Durkheim argued that the division of labor was minimal in traditional rural societies because individuals were generally involved in similar types of social and economic activities. As a result, shared values and attitudes developed pertaining to appropriate modes of behavior and the proper organization and functioning of institutions such as families, schools, and churches. Those values and attitudes made up the societal glue (referred to as a “collective conscience”) that pulls and holds society together, and places constraints on individual behavior (a process referred to as “mechanical solidarity”).

As societies shift toward urban, industrial organization, the division of labor becomes differentiated and complex, and, for instance, leads to greater reliance on individuals assuming specialized, yet interdependent, social roles. For instance, responsibility for the socialization of children shifts from the exclusive domain of the family and church and is supplanted by formal, compulsory schooling and socialization of children toward their eventual role in burgeoning urban industries. Durkheim argued that this type of social and economic differentiation fosters interest group competition over standards of proper social behavior. Under those conditions, the “collective conscience” loses some of its controlling force as societal members internalize a diverse set of thoughts, ideas, and attitudes that may be in conflict with those of the family and church. The achievement of social order under those conditions (referred to as organic solidarity) is based on the manipulation of institutional and social rewards and costs, given interdependent roles and statuses. The development of organic solidarity in modern societies, as they shift away from mechanical solidarity, can be problematic and is achieved through a relatively slow process of social readjustment and realignment. Greater delinquency and crime are a consequence of that shift in the foundation of social control.

Durkheim’s social disorganization theory is closely tied to classical concern over the effect of urbanization and industrialization on the social fabric of communities. One of the first urban theories, often referred to as the “linear development model” (Berry & Kasarda, 1977), argued that a linear increase in population size, density, and heterogeneity leads to community differentiation, and ultimately to a substitution of secondary for primary relations, weakened kinship ties, alienation, anomie, and the declining social significance of community (Tonnies, 1887; Wirth, 1938). According to that view, some between-neighborhood variation in social disorganization may be evident within an urban area, but the distinctive prediction is that urban areas as a whole are more disorganized than rural areas.

A second approach, referred to as the systemic model (Berry & Kasarda, 1977), denies that cities as a whole are more disorganized than rural areas. Rather, social disorganization within urban areas is conceptualized as a situationally rooted variable that is influenced by broader economic dynamics and how those processes funnel or sort the population into distinctive neighborhoods. The resulting socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of neighborhood residents (Kornhauser, 1978), tied with their stage in the life-course, reflect disparate residential “focal concerns” and are expected to generate distinct social contexts across neighborhoods.

The Chicago School

Durkheim’s conception of organic solidarity influenced neighborhood crime research in the United States, particularly social scientists at the University of Chicago and its affiliated research centers in the early 1900s. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, many small communities grew rapidly from agriculturally rooted, small towns to modern, industrial cities. This was particularly the case for the city of Chicago. During the period between 1830 and 1930, Chicago grew from a small town of about 200 inhabitants to a city of more than 3 million residents (Shaw & McKay, 1969). The ensuing model of urban processes was heavily influenced by the work of Park, Burgess, and McKenzie (1925), who argued that neighborhoods develop their own character through the process of city growth.

Park et al.’s (1925) systemic model held that the primary social process underlying all urban interaction is competition over the right to occupy scarce physical space. Given competition, real estate markets develop naturally, and prices reflect the desirability of or demand for a particular parcel of land. Neighborhoods nearer to the central business district (CBD) are more valuable given their proximity to commerce, and well-resourced industrial firms were able to purchase that land. As the city grew, distinctive natural areas or neighborhoods were distinguishable by the social characteristics of residents. For instance, the poorest, most racially and ethnically diverse populations inhabited neighborhoods encroaching on the central business district. Families with few resources were forced to settle there because housing costs were low, but they planned to reside in the neighborhood only until they could gather resources and move to a better locale.

During the 1920s, Shaw and McKay, research sociologists at the Institute for Juvenile Research affiliated with the University of in Chicago, began their investigation of the origins of juvenile delinquency. They were strongly influenced by Park and Burgess’s systemic model, and they argued adamantly that the roots of juvenile delinquency and adult crime are found, at least in part, in the social organization of neighborhood life. From Shaw and McKay’s (1969) perspective, the most important institutions for the development and socialization of children are the family, play (peer) groups, and neighborhood institutions. The character of the child gradually develops with exposure to the attitudes and values of those institutions. The nature of the interaction between the child and the family, as well as the character of children’s informal play groups, is strongly influenced by the social organization of the neighborhood. An organized and stable institutional environment reflects consistency of pro-social attitudes, social solidarity or cohesion, and the ability of local residents to leverage cohesion to work collaboratively toward solution of local social problems, especially those that impede the socialization of children. (Shaw & McKay, 1969). In stable neighborhoods, traditional institutions, such as schools, churches, or other civic organizations, stabilize and solidify the social environment by reinforcing pro-social values. Institutions falter when the basis for their existence, a residentially stable group of individuals with shared expectations, a common vision of strengthening the community, and sufficient resources, do not reside in the community. When spontaneously formed, indigenous neighborhood institutions and organizations are weak or disintegrating, conventional socialization is impeded, and thus informal constraints on behavior weaken, increasing the likelihood of delinquency and crime. Their theory is clearly very compatible in structure with Durkheim’s (1951) explanation of the social causes of suicide.

Shaw and McKay developed their perspective from an extensive set of qualitative and quantitative data collected between the years 1900 and 1965 (Bursik & Grasmick, 1993, p. 31). Their quantitative analysis was facilitated by maps depicting the home addresses of male truants brought before the Cook County court in 1917 and 1927; alleged delinquent boys dealt with by juvenile police in 1921 and 1927; boys referred to the juvenile court in the years 1900–1906, 1917–1923, 1927–1933, 1934–1940, 1945–1951, 1954–1957, 1958–1961, and 1962–1965; boys brought before the court on felony charges during 1924–1926; and imprisoned adult offenders in 1920 (Bursik & Grasmick, 1993). Visual inspection of their maps reveals the concentration of juvenile delinquency and adult crime in and around the central business district, industrial sites, and the zone in transition. Gradually, as the distance from the CBD and zone in transition increases, the concentration of delinquents becomes more scattered and less prevalent. Examination of maps depicting the distribution of physical and economic characteristics reveals that delinquency areas are characterized by the presence of industrial land, condemned buildings, decreasing population size, high rates of family dependency, and higher concentration of foreign-born and African American populations. Shaw and McKay joined their knowledge of the distribution of social and economic characteristics with their concern for community integration and stability to formulate their social disorganization theory. Thus, in their view, the relationship between neighborhood characteristics and crime and delinquency was mediated by social disorganization (Kornhauser, 1978).

While Shaw and McKay’s (1931, 1942) data supported their theory, multivariate techniques, though available, were time consuming and difficult to execute by hand. Thus, it is difficult to determine from their results which of the exogenous neighborhood conditions were the most important predictors. However, Kornhauser (1978), whose evaluation of social disorganization theory is highly respected, concluded that the pattern of correlations presented favored the causal priority of poverty and thus that poverty was the most central exogenous variable in Shaw and McKay’s theoretical model (Kornhauser, 1978). Social disorganization research conducted by other scholars from the 1940s to the 1960s debated whether neighborhood socioeconomic status (SES) is associated with delinquency because it was assumed that the relationship provided a crucial test of social disorganization theory.

Tests of Shaw and McKay’s Model

Lander’s (1954) analysis of juvenile delinquency across 155 census tracts in Baltimore, Maryland, is a relevant example. He concluded that poverty was unrelated to delinquency and that anomie, a theoretical competitor of social disorganization, was a more proximate cause of neighborhood crime. Lander’s conclusions concerning the causal role of poverty, it was argued, called into question a basic tenet of social disorganization theory. However, Lander’s (1954) regression models were criticized for what has become known as the “partialling fallacy” (Gordon, 1967; Land et al., 1990). In essence, when two or more indicators measuring the same theoretical concept, such as the poverty rate and median income, are included in a regression model, the effect of shared or common variance among the indicators on the dependent variable is partialed out in the regression procedure. The coefficients linking each indicator to crime thus represent the independent rather than joint effect. The results, then, underestimate the effects of SES when multiple indicators are included as distinct independent variables rather than combined into a scale. Gordon’s (1967) reanalysis of Lander’s (1954) data shows that when a single SES indicator is included in delinquency models, its effect on delinquency rates remain statistically significant. Studies conducted by Bordua (1958) and Chilton (1964) further supported the view that SES, independent of a number of other predictors, is a significant and important predictor of delinquency rates. Contemporary research continues to document distinctively greater levels of crime in the poorest locales (Krivo & Peterson, 1996; Sharkey, 2013).

While the emphasis of early social disorganization research centered on the relationship between poverty and crime, the effects of racial and ethnic composition or heterogeneity and residential stability on delinquency were not studied as carefully. Perhaps this was a result of the controversy surrounding the eugenics movement and the related discussion of a positive relationship between race, ethnicity, and crime. Shaw and McKay (1942) argued, in opposition, that racial and ethnic heterogeneity, rather than racial and ethnic composition, is causally related to delinquency because it generates conflict among residents, which impedes community organization. Lander’s (1954) research examined the issue. He reported that crime rates increase as the percentage nonwhite approaches 50% and that crime rates decrease as the percentage nonwhite approaches 100%. Those results support the heterogeneity rather than the composition argument. Bordua’s (1958) and Chilton’s (1964) findings indicate that regardless of the functional form, percentage nonwhite and delinquency rates are not related. In addition, Bordua (1958) reported a linear relationship between the percentage foreign born and delinquency rates, while Lander (1954) and Chilton’s (1964) results contradict that finding. None of the aforementioned studies included a measure of population increase or turnover in their models. Thus, the role of racial heterogeneity and population mobility in differentiating neighborhoods with respect to delinquency rates remains uncertain from these studies. More recent research (Hipp, 2007) suggests that heterogeneity is more consistently associated with a range of crime outcomes than is racial composition, although both exert influence. Hipp (2007) also found that homeownership drives the relationship between residential stability and crime.

To an extent, the lack of theoretical progress resulting from early research studies can be attributed to Shaw and McKay. Scholars focused on replicating associations between sociodemographic characteristics, such as poverty, and delinquency, but didn’t measure or test the role of community organization. Although definitions and examples of social organization and disorganization were presented in their published work, theoretical discussion was relegated to a few chapters, and a few key passages were critical to correctly specify their model. Shaw and McKay (1969, p. 184) clearly stated, however, that in an organized community there is a “presence of [indigenous] social opinion with regard to problems of common interest, identical or at least consistent attitudes with reference to these problems, the ability to reach approximate unanimity on the question of how a problem should be dealt with, and the ability to carry this solution into action through harmonious co-operation.” Shaw and McKay (1969) assumed that all residents prefer an existence free from crime irrespective of the level of delinquency and crime in their neighborhood. Thus, they implied that “a socially disorganized community is one unable to realize its values” (Kornhauser, 1978, p. 63).

Confusion persisted, however, because they were relatively brief and often interspersed their discussion of community organization with a discussion of community differences in social values. Consequently, it was unclear, at least to some scholars, which component of their theory was most central when subjecting it to empirical verification. Brief statements, however, provide insight into their conceptualization. For instance, Shaw and McKay (1969, p. 188) clearly state (but did not elaborate) that “the development of divergent systems of values requires a type of situation in which traditional conventional control is either weak or nonexistent.” Based on that statement, weak community organization is conceptualized to be causally prior to the development of a system of differential social values and is typically interpreted to be the foundation of Shaw and McKay’s (1969) theory (Kornhauser, 1978).

While the debate over the relationship between SES and delinquency and crime took center stage throughout most of the 1940s and stretching into the 1960s, a small literature began to measure social disorganization directly and assess its relationship to delinquency and crime. Perhaps the first research to measure social disorganization directly was carried out by Maccoby, Johnson, and Church (1958) in a survey of two low-income neighborhoods in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One neighborhood had a high rate of delinquency and the other a low rate. Maccoby et al.’s (1958) findings indicated that the higher delinquency neighborhood was less cohesive than the low-crime neighborhood. That is, residents were less likely to know their neighbors by name, like their neighborhood, or have compatible interests with neighbors. In addition, there were no differences in attitudes toward delinquency between the areas, but the residents of the low-delinquency area were more likely to take some action if a child was observed committing a delinquent act. Two additional studies supporting the social disorganization approach were also published in this time frame. Warren (1969) found that neighborhoods with lower levels of neighboring and value consensus and higher levels of alienation had higher rates of riot activity. Kapsis (1976, 1978) surveyed local residents in three Oakland area communities and found that stronger social networks and heightened organizational activity have lower rates of delinquency.

Contemporary Social Disorganization Theory

For a period during the late 1960s and most of the 1970s, criminologists, in general, questioned the theoretical assumptions that form the foundation of the social disorganization approach (Bursik, 1988). As mentioned earlier, the rapid growth of urban areas, fueled by the manufacturing-based economy and the great migration, waned and began to shift gears. If rapid urban growth had ceased, why approbate an approach tethered to those processes? In the years immediately following, Wilson’s (1987) The Truly Disadvantaged reoriented urban poverty and crime research in a fundamental way and created a new foundation focused on the dynamics of urban decline. Beginning in the 1960s, deindustrialization had devastating effects on inner-city communities long dependent on manufacturing employment. Increasing violent crime during the 1970s and 1980s fueled “white flight” from central cities (Liska & Bellair, 1995). Improvement in civil rights among African Americans, particularly pertaining to housing discrimination, increased the movement of middle-class families out of inner-city neighborhoods. As a result of those and other complex changes in the structure of the economy and their social sequelae, a new image of the “high-crime” neighborhood took hold.

In Shaw and McKay’s model (1969), high delinquency and crime were viewed as an unfortunate, and to some extent temporary, consequence of rapid social change. As resources were accumulated through factory work, a family could expect to assimilate by moving outward from the “zone in transition” into more desirable neighborhoods with fewer problems. The high-crime neighborhood depicted in Wilson’s (1987) research was characterized by extreme, concentrated disadvantages. Residents who could afford to move did so, leaving behind a largely African American population isolated from the economic and social mainstream of society, with much less hope of neighborhood mobility than had been true earlier in the 20th century.

In part, the decline of interest in social disorganization was also attributable to the ascendance of individual-level delinquency models (e.g., Hirschi, 1969), as well as increased interest in the study of deviance as a social definition (e.g., Lemert, 1951; Becker, 1963). Moreover, social disorganization scholars had not addressed important criticisms of the theory, particularly with respect to its human ecological foundations (Bursik, 1988). The social disorganization perspective reemerged in the late 1970s and 1980s on the heels of a string of scholarly contributions, a few of which are highlighted here. Kornhauser’s (1978) Social Sources of Delinquency: An Appraisal of Analytic Models is a critical piece of scholarship. She laid bare the logic of sociological theories of crime and concluded that Shaw and McKay’s social disorganization theory had substantial merit but had never been accurately tested. Reiss and Tonry’s (1986) Communities and Crime, as well as a string of articles and monographs published by Bursik (1988; Bursik and Grasmick, 1993) and Sampson (2012; Byrne & Sampson, 1986; Sampson & Groves, 1989) also paved the way for a new era of research. Importantly, that literature clarifies the definition of social disorganization and clearly distinguishes social disorganization from its causes and consequences.

The updated conception of social disorganization derives from a basic tenet of the systemic approach, which defines the social organization of a community “as a complex system of friendship and kinship networks rooted in family life and ongoing socialization processes” (Kasarda & Janowitz, 1974, p. 329). Community organization increases the capacity for informal social control, which reflects the capacity of neighborhood residents to regulate themselves through formal and informal processes (Bursik, 1988, p. 527; Kornhauser, 1978). As Freudenburg (1986, p. 11) notes, “people who know one another often work out interpersonal agreements for achieving desired goals … They are made possible by the fact that the people involved are personally acquainted … Persons who remain strangers will be systematically less likely to be willing or able to participate in such mutual agreements.” Examples of informal control that result from the presence of friendship, organizational, or other network ties include residents’ supervision of social activity within the neighborhood as well as the institutional socialization of children toward conventional values.

The supervisory component of neighborhood organization refers to the ability of neighborhood residents to maintain informal surveillance of spaces, to develop movement governing rules, and to engage in direct intervention when problems are encountered (Bursik, 1988, p. 527). Informal surveillance refers to residents who actively observe activities occurring on neighborhood streets. Movement governing rules refer to the avoidance of particular blocks in the neighborhood that are known to put residents at higher risk of victimization. Direct intervention refers to, for example, residents questioning residents and strangers about any unusual activity and admonishing children for unacceptable behavior (Greenberg, Rohe, & Williams, 1982). The socializing component of community organization refers to the ability of local, conventional institutions to foster attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief (Hirschi, 1969). Families and schools are often viewed as the primary medium for the socialization of children. However, in some communities, the absence or weakness of intermediary organizations, such as churches, civic and parent teacher associations, and recreational programs, which connect families with activities in the larger community, impedes the ability of families and schools to effectively reinforce one another to more completely accomplish the process of socialization.

Community Networks and Crime

The systemic model rests on the expectation of an indirect relationship between social networks and crime that operates through informal control (Bellair & Browning, 2010). A direct relationship between network indicators and crime is revealed in many studies. The size of local family and friendship networks (Kapsis, 1976, 1978; Sampson & Groves, 1989; Simcha-Fagan & Schwartz, 1986; Lowencamp et al., 2003), organizational participation (Kapsis, 1976, 1978; Sampson & Groves, 1989; Simcha-Fagan & Schwartz, 1986; Taylor et al., 1984), unsupervised friendship networks (Sampson & Groves, 1989; Lowencamp et al., 2003) and frequency of interaction among neighbors (Bellair, 1997) are most consistently associated with lower crime. Importantly, research indicates that extralocal networks and relationships between local residents and public and private actors, what Hunter (1985) refers to as “public social control,” are associated with crime. Drawing from urban political economy (Heitgerd & Bursik, 1987; Logan & Molotch, 1987; Peterson & Krivo, 2010; Squires & Kubrin, 2006), “public social control points to the importance of brokering relationships with private and governmental entities that benefit neighborhood social organization by helping to secure lucrative resources and/or facilitate concrete actions to control crime” (Velez et al., 2012, p. 1026). Velez et al.’s (2012) research reports a direct effect of home mortgage lending on violent crime and calls into question well-known lending practices in the home mortgage industry that disadvantage communities of color (also see Ramey & Shrider, 2014; Velez, 2001).

The systemic approach is drawn into question, however, by research documenting higher crime in neighborhoods with relatively dense networks and strong attachments (Bursik & Grasmick, 1993; Horowitz, 1983; Suttles, 1968; Whyte, 1937). Research examining the relationship between neighborhood social networks and crime sometimes reveals a positive relationship (Clinard & Abbott, 1976; Greenberg, Rohe, & Williams, 1982; Maccoby, Johnson, & Church, 1958; Merry, 1981; Rountree & Warner, 1999) or no relationship (Mazerolle et al., 2010), and networks do not always mediate much of the effects of structural characteristics on crime (Rountree & Warner, 1999). Social networks, then, are associated with informal control and crime in complex ways; continuing research is needed to specify the processes.

Two prominent views have been developed to account for the positive effects of social networks on crime. First, as discussed earlier, is Wilson’s (1996) hypothesis that macroeconomic shifts combined with historic discrimination and segregation consolidated disadvantages in inner-city neighborhoods. Following a period of economic decline and population loss, these neighborhoods are composed of relatively stable populations with tenuous connections to the conventional labor market, limited interaction with mainstream sources of influence, and restricted economic and residential mobility. Affected communities, according to Wilson, exhibit social integration but suffer from institutional weakness and diminished informal social control. Strong network ties, then, may not produce the kinds of outcomes expected by the systemic approach. The most vulnerable neighborhoods, he argues, are those in which “not only are children at risk because of the lack of informal social controls, they are also disadvantaged because the social interaction among neighbors tends to be confined to those whose skills, styles, orientations, and habits are not as conducive to promoting positive social outcomes” (Wilson, 1996, p. 63). Wilson’s theory underscores a weakness in the traditional systemic model because socialization within networks is not entirely pro-social. Relatedly, Browning and his colleagues (2004; also see Pattillo-McCoy, 1999) describe a “negotiated coexistence” model based on the premise that social interaction and exchange embeds neighborhood residents in networks of mutual obligation (Rose & Clear, 1998), with implications for willingness to engage in conventional, informal social control. For instance, residents who participate in crime are often linked with conventional residents in complex ways through social networks (also see Portes, 1998, p. 15). Browning et al.’s (2004) analysis indicates that neighboring is positively associated with violent victimization when collective efficacy is controlled.

Informal Control and Crime

With some exceptions, the systemic model is supported by research focused on informal control in relation to crime, but, relative to studies focused on networks, there are far fewer studies in this category. As already mentioned, perhaps the first study to document support is Maccoby et al.’s (1958) finding that respondents in a low-delinquency neighborhood are more likely to “do something” in hypothetical situations if neighborhood children were observed fighting or drinking. Residents in the low-delinquency neighborhood were also more likely to take action in actual incidents of delinquency. Hackler et al. (1974) examined the willingness to intervene after witnessing youths slashing the tires of an automobile in relation to official and perceived crime across 12 tracts in Edmonton (Alberta). Crime rates were lower when a larger proportion of respondents stated they would talk to the boys involved or notify their parents. However, Greenberg et al. (1982) examined informal control (informal surveillance, movement governing rules, and hypothetical or direct intervention) in three high-crime and three low-crime Atlanta neighborhoods and found few significant differences. Surprisingly, when differences were identified, high-crime neighborhoods had higher levels of informal control, suggesting that some forms of informal control may be a response to crime. Bursik and Grasmick (1993) note the possibility that the null effects observed are a consequence of the unique sampling strategy. That is, each of the three high-crime neighborhoods was matched with a low-crime neighborhood on the basis of social class and a host of other ecological characteristics, which may have “designed out” the influence of potentially important systemic processes. More recently, Bellair and Browning (2010) find that informal surveillance, a dimension of informal control that is rarely examined, is inversely associated with street crime.

Collective Efficacy

Sampson et al.’s (1997) research has redefined and reinvigorated social disorganization research by utilizing a comprehensive data collection and new methodology (Raudenbush & Sampson, 1999) to pioneer an original measure. Collective efficacy is reflected in two subscales: “social cohesion among neighbors [i.e., trust and cooperation] combined with their willingness to intervene on behalf of the common good” (Sampson et al., 1997, p. 918), and reflects “the process of activating or converting social ties among neighborhood residents in order to achieve collective goals, such as public order or the control of crime” (Sampson, 2010, p. 802). A central premise is that expectations for informal control in urban neighborhoods may exist irrespective of the presence of dense family ties, provided that the neighborhood is cohesive (i.e., residents trust one another and have similar values). Their models, utilizing survey data collected in 343 Chicago neighborhoods, indicate that collective efficacy is inversely associated with neighborhood violence, and that it mediates a significant amount of the relationship between concentrated disadvantage and residential stability on violence.

What is perhaps most impressive about the collective efficacy literature is the degree to which research conducted internationally conforms to Sampson et al.’s (1997) formulation. For instance, despite lower rates of violence and important contextual differences, the association between collective efficacy and violence appears to be as tight in Stockholm, Sweden, as it is in Chicago, Illinois (Sampson, 2012). And as Sampson (2012, p. 166) notes in his recent review of collective efficacy research, “Replications and extensions of the Chicago Project are now under way in Los Angeles, Brisbane (Australia), England, Hungary, Moshi (Tanzania), Tianjin (China), Bogota (Columbia[sic]), and other cities around the world.”

Further support, based on reanalysis of Chicago neighborhoods, was reported by Morenoff et al. (2001; also see Burchfield & Silver, 2013). They established a relationship between friendship/kin ties and collective efficacy and replicated the link between collective efficacy and violence, but, consistent with the discussion of network effects, found no direct association between friendship and kin ties and violence. Consistent with the conception of collective efficacy, a small body of aforementioned systemic research reveals that perceived cohesion (Kapsis, 1978; Maccoby et al., 1958; Markowitz et al., 2001; Warren, 1969), one of the essential ingredients of collective efficacy, is inversely associated with crime. Further, Matsueda and Drakulich (2015) have replicated essential elements of Sampson et al.’s (1997) model and report that collective efficacy is inversely associated with violence across Seattle, Washington, neighborhoods. However, as might be expected, not every study reports supportive findings. Bruinsma et al. (2013), for instance, report that the social disorganization model, including measures of collective efficacy, did a poor job of explaining neighborhood crime in The Hague, Netherlands. Nevertheless, taking stock of the growing collective efficacy literature, a recent meta-analysis of macrolevel crime research (Pratt & Cullen, 2005) reports robust support for the collective efficacy approach. The average effect size described places collective efficacy among the strongest macrolevel predictors of crime. As such, the collective efficacy approach has and continues to attract a great deal of scholarly interest, and will likely, if it hasn’t already, eclipse the systemic model (Bursik & Grasmick, 1993) in future research.

Reciprocal Effects

The direction of causality between social disorganization or collective efficacy and crime has become an important issue. Bellair (2000), drawing from Bursik and Grasmick (1993), was the first published study to formally estimate reciprocal effects. Using simultaneous equations, he found that informal control is associated with reduced crime but that crime also reduces informal control because it increases perceptions of crime risk. Further evidence of a negative feedback loop is reported by Markowitz et al. (2001). They report that cohesion is associated with disorder and burglary in theoretically expected ways, and that disorder and crime reduce cohesion. Both studies are thus consistent with disorganization and neighborhood decline approaches. Most recently, Steenbeek and Hipp (2011) address the issue of reciprocal effects and call into question the causal order among cohesion, informal control (potential and actual), and disorder. Their longitudinal analysis of 74 neighborhoods in the Netherlands reveals (see Table 5, p. 859) that cohesion increases informal control, but, contradicting the predictions of the systemic model, neither is associated with disorder. Consistent with the neighborhood decline approach, disorder reduces the potential for social control and increases actual informal control.


Although there is abundant evidence that the perspective is on solid footing, there are many inconsistent findings in need of reconciliation and many puzzles to be unraveled. Existing studies have been carried out in a wide variety of contexts with distinct histories, differing sampling strategies, and utilizing a wide variety of social network and informal control measures. One of the most pressing issues regarding development of the social disorganization approach is the need to resolve inconsistency of measurement across studies. Simply put, researchers need to move toward a common set of measures of local networks and informal control, going beyond indicators judged to be less useful. Achieving consensus on that issue will clearly require careful conceptualization and focused research.

For example, Bellair (1997) examined the frequency with which neighbors get together in one another’s homes. The measure that had the strongest and most consistent negative effect on crime included interaction ranging from frequent (weekly) to relatively infrequent (once a year or more). That measure mediated the effect of racial and ethnic heterogeneity on burglary and the effect of SES status on motor vehicle theft and robbery. Warner and Rountree (1997) report that neighbor ties are associated with reduced assault but result in greater numbers of burglaries. Neighbor networks are defined as the prevalence of helping and sharing among neighbors. Although there is, unquestionably, commonality among those measures, the network indicators utilized in Warner and Rountree’s (1997) study reflect differing behaviors relative to those used by Bellair (1997).

Morenoff et al. (2001) reported that neighbor ties were unrelated to crime, but in that study networks reflected the number of friends and relatives living in the neighborhood. In Browning et al.’s (2004) analysis, neighboring was measured as a four-item scale reflecting the frequency with which neighbors get together for neighborhood gatherings, visit in homes or on the street, and do favors and give advice. It appears that neighboring items reflecting the prevalence of helping and sharing networks (i.e., strong ties) are most likely to be positively associated with crime, whereas combining strong and weak ties into a frequency of interaction measure yields a negative association (Bellair, 1997; Warren, 1969). More research is needed to better understand the commonalities and differences among community organization measures. In the absence of a more refined yardstick, it will be very difficult to advance the perspective. The differences may seem trivial, but variation in the measurement of social networks may help account for substantively disparate findings, reflecting the complex nature and consequences of neighbor networks.

Measures of informal control used by researchers also vary widely. Sampson et al. (1997) utilize multiple measures reflecting whether neighbors could be counted on to intervene in specific situations regarding child delinquency, truancy, misbehavior, and neighborhood service cuts (also see Matsueda & Drakulich, 2015). Steenbeek and Hipp (2011) measure the potential for informal control with a single, more general question that inquires whether respondents feel responsibility for livability and safety in the neighborhood. The latter measure, arguably, does not narrow the circumstances under which residents might feel compelled to action. Actual informal control is measured with a question regarding whether respondents had been active to improve the neighborhood. Very few studies include a direct measure of concrete attempts at informal control that have been made by local residents in real-life situations.

Yet, relative to other indicators that have appeared in the literature, the measure utilized by Steenbeek and Hipp (2011) could reasonably be conceptualized as a measure of organizational participation. Organizational participation measures are, in general, less robust predictors of community crime. More scrutiny of differences in the measurement of informal control, a building block of collective efficacy, may help clarify anomalies reported across studies and perhaps narrow the list of acceptable indicators. Data collection that includes a common set of network and informal control indicators is needed so that the measurement structure of the items can be assessed. Achieving consensus on that issue will clearly require careful conceptualization and focused research. Matsueda and Drakulich (2015) present a rigorous strategy for assessing the reliability of informal control measures and provide an affirmative move in that direction.

A major stumbling block for unraveling inconsistencies, however, is the well-known shortage of rigorous data collection at the community level (Bursik, 1988; Sampson & Groves, 1989). The Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN), though, provides an important blueprint for the collection of community-level data that should serve as a model for future collections. Indeed, it has already inspired community-level data collection in cities around the world, and those efforts will inform research that will lead to further theoretical refinements. It is important that the next generation of surveys be designed to measure a broad spectrum of community processes. Adding to the stockpile of available community-level data is a necessary, but hopefully not prohibitive, challenge facing researchers. Overall, the future of social disorganization and collective efficacy theory looks very bright.

Further Reading

  • Bursik, R. J., Jr., & Grasmick, H. G. (1993). Neighborhoods and crime. New York: Lexington Books.
  • Hunter, A. (1985). Private, parochial and public social orders: The problem of crime and incivility in urban communities. In G. Suttles & M. Zald (Eds.), The challenge of social control. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
  • Kornhauser, R. (1978). Social sources of delinquency: An appraisal of analytic models. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Kubrin, C. E., & Weitzer, R. (2003). New directions in social disorganization theory. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 40(4), 374–402.
  • Sampson, R. J. (2012). Great American city: Chicago and the enduring neighborhood effect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Sampson, R. J., Raudenbush, S. W., & Earls, F. (1997). Neighborhoods and violent crime: A multilevel study of collective efficacy. Science, 277, 918–924.
  • Shaw, C. R., & McKay, H. D. (1969). Juvenile delinquency and urban areas (rev. ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Wilson, W. J. (1987). The truly disadvantaged. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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