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Crime Causation: Sociological Theories

Social Disorganization Theory

The leading sociological theories focus on the immediate social environment, like the family, peer group, and school. And they are most concerned with explaining why some individuals are more likely to engage in crime than others. Much recent theoretical work, however, has also focused on the larger social environment, especially the community and the total society. This work usually attempts to explain why some groups—like communities and societies—have higher crime rates than other groups. In doing so, however, this work draws heavily on the central ideas of control, social learning, and strain theories.

Social disorganization theory seeks to explain community differences in crime rates (see Robert Sampson and W. Bryon Groves; Robert Bursik and Harold Grasmick). The theory identifies the characteristics of communities with high crime rates and draws on social control theory to explain why these characteristics contribute to crime.

Crime is said to be more likely in communities that are economically deprived, large in size, high in multiunit housing like apartments, high in residential mobility (people frequently move into and out of the community), and high in family disruption (high rates of divorce, single-parent families). These factors are said to reduce the ability or willingness of community residents to exercise effective social control, that is, to exercise direct control, provide young people with a stake in conformity, and socialize young people so that they condemn delinquency and develop self-control.

The residents of high crime communities often lack the skills and resources to effectively assist others. They are poor and many are single parents struggling with family responsibilities. As such, they often face problems in socializing their children against crime and providing them with a stake in conformity, like the skills to do well in school or the connections to secure a good job. These residents are also less likely to have close ties to their neighbors and to care about their community. They typically do not own their own homes, which lowers their investment in the community. They may hope to move to a more desirable community as soon as they are able, which also lowers their investment in the community. And they often do not know their neighbors well, since people frequently move into and out of the community. As a consequence, they are less likely to intervene in neighborhood affairs—like monitoring the behavior of neighborhood residents and sanctioning crime. Finally, these residents are less likely to form or support community organizations, including educational, religious, and recreational organizations. This is partly a consequence of their limited resources and lower attachment to the community. This further reduces control, since these organizations help exercise direct control, provide people with a stake in conformity, and socialize people. Also, these organizations help secure resources from the larger society, like better schools and police protection. Recent data provide some support for these arguments.

Social disorganization theorists and other criminologists, such as John Hagan, point out that the number of communities with characteristics conducive to crime—particularly high concentrations of poor people—has increased since the 1960s. These communities exist primarily in inner city areas and they are populated largely by members of minority groups (due to the effects of discrimination). Such communities have increased for several reasons. First, there has been a dramatic decline in manufacturing jobs in central city areas, partly due to the relocation of factories to suburban areas and overseas. Also, the wages in manufacturing jobs have become less competitive, due to factors like foreign competition, the increase in the size of the work force, and the decline in unions. Second, the increase in very poor communities is due to the migration of many working- and middle-class African Americans to more affluent communities, leaving the poor behind. This migration was stimulated by a reduction in discriminatory housing and employment practices. Third, certain government policies—like the placement of public housing projects in inner-city communities and the reduction of certain social services—have contributed to the increased concentration of poverty.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCrime Causation: Sociological Theories - Strain Theory, Social Learning Theory, Control Theory, Labeling Theory, Social Disorganization Theory, Critical Theories