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Urban Crime

Are Crime Rates Higher In Urban Areas?, Explaining Urban Crime, Explaining Variation In Urban Crime

Early twentieth century criminology might reasonably be considered the criminology of urban places. During the 1920s and 1930s much of the attention of criminologists focused on the "criminogenic city," however, by the close of the century researchers had moved away from the notion that the city is itself criminogenic. Instead research on urban crime has become concerned mainly with explaining why urban crime rates vary, why some social, economic, and spatial characteristics are correlated with variations in urban crime rates, and how certain crime characteristics of urban places affect individual criminality.

Concern that the city might have a crime-causing effect did not begin with American criminologists. Émile Durkheim (1897), Max Weber (1958), Ferdinand Toennies (1887), and other European sociologists wrote about the changes that occurred as a result of the transition of societies from agrarian and village-based forms to industrial and urban-based ones. They proposed that during rapid social change, growing and expanding cities would be hotbeds of crime (and experience a number of other problems). One can safely assume that most eighteenth-and nineteenth-century philosophers and social scientists believed that even without rapid change, city life itself would be criminogenic. That is, they believed that in circumstances of slow change or even social stability that negative influences of cities themselves would lead to higher levels of crime than would occur in nonurban populations. This belief was not without reason. London and other major European cities were difficult places to live. To go out at night before the advent of gaslights meant moving about with a large group of men carrying weapons and torches. To do otherwise was to invite nearly certain mayhem and robbery (Stark).

American sociologists shared similar beliefs. Social Darwinists at the turn of the century saw pathology in urban life itself (Wirth; Davis). Early social workers, taking their intellectual justification from the Social Darwinists, created the juvenile court and other social service agencies (for example, Hull House founded by Jane Addams in Chicago) to try to control crime and delinquency among wayward urbanites, many of whom were thought to be negatively influenced by life in the city.

In the period between 1920 and World War II, sociologists associated with the University of Chicago began to construct explanations concerning why cities might have higher crime rates than the hinterland. But more importantly, they were interested in documenting and explaining variations in crime levels within cities (Park, Burgess, and McKenzie; Shaw and McKay). At the time, many believed that crime in the city, and especially in particular sections of the city, was caused by the influx of immigrants, and especially those from "crime prone" ethnic groups. However, researchers from the Chicago School observed in their studies that some sections of cities consistently had higher crime rates than others, regardless of who populated those areas. They argued and demonstrated with data that crime rates can be explained more accurately by focusing on the ecology of areas in the city, rather than on the ethnic composition of the population inhabiting those areas. They described a process whereby immigrants, upon arrival into the United States, typically moved into the poor, blighted neighborhoods because that is where they could afford to live. Crime in these areas was high and reflected poor living conditions, as these neighborhoods experienced great levels of poverty, racial heterogeneity, transience, and family disruption. However, as succeeding generations of these immigrant families improved their lot they moved to better neighborhoods, and as a result, their ethnic groups' crime rate declined. Meanwhile, new immigrants from different ethnic groups repopulated the neighborhoods that the earlier arrivals had vacated. Despite the near complete change in population composition, crime levels in these transitory areas remained high. Chicago School criminologists thus concluded that it was not criminogenic characteristics of ethnic groups that led to elevated rates of crime, but the nature of the urban ecology in which they lived.

Nearly seven decades later, theories that address urban crime rely on the earlier findings from the Chicago School studies and continue to adopt an approach that emphasizes the importance of urban ecology. Thus, the roots of modern criminology's examination of urban crime can be traced to the theories of the Chicago School and their contemporaries. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, while criminologists use new analytic techniques, new research tools, and modified explanations, even the casual reader of the current literature cannot help but be impressed by the debt that modern researchers owe to their predecessors in the effort to understand and explain crime in urban areas.



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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law