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Prevention: Environmental and Technological Strategies

Environmental Determinism And Crime

Associations produced by post-factum analyses of rates of crime and delinquency and various aspects of the built environment, whether cities, neighborhoods, or types of dwelling, can almost always be explained by a selection argument. However, it is also possible that the physical environment causes those who inhabit it to feel and behave differently. Environmental sociologists and psychologists such as John Calhoun report a causal link between population density and social pathology, including sexual assault and extreme violence, among rats in laboratory experiments. Many social psychologists take the same position when they describe the impact of the urban environment on people, arguing that high population density can overload nervous systems, producing aggression or withdrawal (fight or flight) as a response. Debate on the extent to which population density affects criminal or other behavior continues (see Gove), but there is little doubt that density can affect humans. The real question is how high density has to go to produce specific results, especially criminal violence.

A more cognitive version of environmental determinism can be found in the argument that the physical setting provides "cues" to which actors will respond with either conforming or deviant behavior (see, for example, Brantingham and Brantingham, 1981). Graffiti, broken windows, and other signs of low surveillance in urban areas may elicit criminal behavior and stimulate out-migration of law-abiding residents as well. Philip Zimbardo's classic experiment, where a team of researchers timed how long it took for an unguarded automobile to be stripped on a New York City street, exemplifies this perspective. The study concluded that the car represents an opportunity as well as an indicator of social disorganization, motivating even normally conforming passers-by to engage in criminal behavior.

Earlier in the twentieth century, urban ecologists at the University of Chicago suggested that it is indeed social disorganization that links the urban environment to crime and delinquency. Louis Wirth, for example, argued that the size, density, and social heterogeneity of urban populations makes the city infertile ground for community, social organization, or control. This erodes traditional norms, and the freedom, anonymity, and hyperstimulation promote individual withdrawal as a defensive reaction, with bystander apathy as a consequence. (This urban indifference not only allows offenders to get away with pleasurable but illegal activities, but may even inspire individuals to engage in flamboyant nonconforming behavior in an effort to assert their individualism and be noticed.)

The Chicago School is not without its critics, and in other times and places urbanization is a negative not a positive correlate of crime (Gillis, 1989). However, recent cross-sectional research in North America shows that contemporary urban areas are indeed higher in rates of most types of crime than are rural regions. Further, urbanites are also more tolerant of differences and nonconformity, draw a sharper distinction between friends and strangers, and treat the latter with greater indifference than do their rural counterparts (see Gillis, 1995). Whether these variables actually intervene between the physical environment and crime is uncertain. Disorganization theory has been reformulated in terms of network analysis, and supported empirically with data from Great Britain (Sampson and Groves). However, this research does not support the optimism of the early 1960s that clearing slums and improving the physical environment will actually combat crime as well as urban blight. This cannot happen when criminogenic demographic, economic, and cultural conditions continue (see Wilson).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPrevention: Environmental and Technological Strategies - Environmental Determinism And Crime, Selection, Opportunities, Constraints, And Defensible Space, Social Reaction And Offensible Space