Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Social disorganization theory - pt. 3

Social disorganization theory is one of the oldest and most enduring theories of crime. In contrast to theories that seek to explain individual behavior using psychological measures, social disorganization theory argues that individual behavior is the result of the structure of the community or neighborhood the individual lives in. Community structure has traditionally meant two different things in this line of research, and not surprisingly, two distinct research tracts have developed from these definitions. The work of Burgess (1925) and Thomas and Znaniecki (1927) can be credited as creating the foundation of social disorganization theory. Burgess (1925) argued that the physical structure of cities were such that criminal activities would be the most prevalent in what he termed the "zone of transition". This is the part of any city where expanding industry meets residential areas; because of the inevitable encroachment of industry, housing in these areas is often inexpensive and poorly maintained, which in turn causes a high rate of residential instability. This instability makes it impossible to develop or enforce prosocial norms and allow criminal behavior to go unpunished. While Burgess' work does speak to the development and enforcement of norms within the community, his primary concern is with the physical structure of the city itself, and his research should be viewed in that regard. Burgess' concentric circles hypothesis was tested by Shaw and McKay (1947), who found support for this idea. Shaw and McKay found that neighborhoods with high crime rates were most often characterized by their economic disadvantage, high rates of residential turnover, and ethnic heterogeneity. These authors also argued that a decided lack of prosocial institutions in these neighborhoods helped perpetuate their anti-social climate. These hypotheses and conclusions were again tested by Sampson and Groves (1994). These authors found support for their hypothesis that friendship networks, unsupervised teen groups, and family disruption mediated the relationship between economic disadvantage, ethnic heterogeneity, and residential instability on crime, though they did caution that their measurements were not perfect. This research suggests that the physical structure of the community creates, in part, its social structure, and that the social structure is what creates crime in the community.

This idea of the social structure of the community being responsible for the amount of crime that community experiences can be traced to the classic work of Thomas and Znaniecki (1927) in their study of the Polish peasantry. These authors studied the importance of generational transmission of values, and found that two forms of social disorganization result when there is generational dissonance or disagreement on what the communities social norms should entail -- this dissonance leads to an increase in crime and deviance because there is no longer a consensus on what is and is not acceptable behavior, and there is a breakdown of social solidarity among members of the older generation and those who wish to adhere to the traditional norms because situations inevitably arise which those norms were not intended to address. In essence, Thomas and Znaniecki demonstrate how broad cultural shifts can create a widespread breakdown in social structure which, in turn, can result in an increase in crime and deviance. Though they never use the phrase "collective efficacy", I believe this is what these authors are referring to; disagreement on social norms and a lack of social solidarity must reduce collective efficacy, which decreases a communities ability to combat crime. This is the theme of the work of Sampson, Raudenbush and Earls (1997) and Sampson and Raudenbush (1999). In each of these articles, the authors find that low levels of collective efficacy are associated with high levels of crime after controlling for all possible structural variables; Sampson and Raudenbush (1999) take this a step further by dispelling the broken windows hypothesis; here, they show that the relationship between public disorder and crime is spurious with the possible exception of robbery.

Social disorganization theory has faced a lot of criticism over the years, much of which is reflected in modern adaptations of the theory. For example, Bursik (1988) argues that social disorganization theory is flawed because it assumes that the social networks of people living in any given community are restricted to other members of the same community, and that by studying communities using cross-sectional data assumes that the physical and social structure of the community will remain stable over time. Furthermore, Kubrin and Weitzer (2003) argue that social disorganization theory acts as if every community exists in a bubble and suggest that future research that draws upon this theory include, somehow, measures of the larger cultural context and the urban political economy, both of which clearly impact community structure. These criticisms are reflected in the work of Griffiths and Chavez (2004), in their study of spatial and temporal changes in neighborhood violence, and by Mears and Bhati (2006), in their study of the impact of neighborhood violence on spatially and socially proximate communities.

The work done by Griffiths and Chavez (2004) is similar to classic research in social disorganization theory because it speaks directly to physical structure, but where Burgess (1925) was focused on his concentric circles hypothesis and Shaw and McKay (1942) studied the characteristics of individual communities in these zones of transition, Griffiths and Chavez (2004) take the entire city of Chicago into consideration. This study of spatial and temporal changes in neighborhood violence expands on traditional concepts of social disorganization theory by not focusing solely on high-crime neighborhoods, but recognizing that there are also communities characterized by mid-range levels of violence that act as buffers between communities with high and low levels of violence. These authors find that levels of violence are not as stable over time as previous research has suggested, though much of the variation involved communities characterized by low and mid-range levels of violence. These authors also identified what they termed "weapon substitution" and "defense diffusion" effects, whereby rates of violence changed throughout the city with the rise of gun violence, including in communities with low levels of violence, where the authors hypothesize residents bought guns as a means of defending themselves from people living in more violent areas.

Another study that reflects the criticisms of Bursik (1988) and Kubrin and Weitzer (2003) is the work done by Mears and Bhati (2006) on the impact community violence has on spatially and socially proximate communities. Here, the authors recognize that social networks are not bound to the communities that people live in, citing other research on social networks which suggests that networks typically comprise people similar to the individual. Therefore, spatially proximate communities are those that are physically adjacent to the community in question, while socially proximate communities are those that have similar characteristics to the community in question. The authors' hypotheses that neighborhood violence will increase violence in each type of community is supported, and, as predicted, it has a greater effect in socially proximate communities than for spatially proximate communities.

Another criticism of social disorganization theory unlike those of Bursik (1988) and Kubrin and Weitzer (2003) was levied by Stark (1987). In his work, Stark revisited many of the core propositions of social disorganization theory and suggested that future work utilize this theory as a means of explaining group differences in violence. This suggestion is apparent in the work of Morenoff and Sampson (1997), who studied black and white differences in population movement in response to violence. Morenoff and Sampson found that the presence of violence is associated with longterm decreases in both black and white population, but that changes in this rate are associated with a decrease in white population and an increase in black population. The authors conclude that this surprising finding speaks to the problem of urban ghettos and the inability of blacks to escape spatially proximate violence.

Social disorganization theory has developed substantially since first conceptualized by Burgess (1925) and Thomas and Znaniecki (1927). Recent research has demonstrated how the physical structure influences the social structure of a community (Sampson and Groves, 1994), how this social structure influences collective efficacy and its impact on crime (Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls, 1997; Sampson and Raudenbush, 1999), while redefining the importance of the physical properties of a community by looking at its placement in the broader context rather than at its own makeup (Griffiths and Chavez, 2004; Mears and Bhati, 2006). Furthermore, social disorganization theory can account for group differences in response to crime (Stark, 1987; Morenoff and Sampson, 1997). Taken together, this recent body of research shows that while this theory has developed substantially over the past 80-plus years, there are still many ways in which it can inform future criminological research.

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