Social Disorganization Theory

Subject: Law
Pages: 7
Words: 1678
Reading time:
6 min
Study level: College


Social disorganization theory is one of the theories that belong to the ecological class of theories. It was developed by the Chicago school to explain the occurrence of crime in the neighborhoods. The theory posits that crime rates would be below based on the culture of the neighborhood meaning that ecological features of the neighborhood determine the rate of crime in society. If a subculture supports a certain behavior, which is considered deviant, children from such neighborhoods would tend to approve such behavior, even though it is considered a crime (Shaw, 1952). Several individuals will acquire such culture through the process of interaction and socialization, which will automatically make them criminals. The theory suggests that the place in which an individual is brought up matters so much when it comes to determining the occurrence of crime. The residence is, therefore, an important variable when explaining the behavior of individuals about crime. Moreover, demographic variables such as gender, age, and race are of great importance as far as explaining the behavior of individuals is concerned. These variables shape the behavior of people about criminal activities.

It should be understood that crime is largely an artifact of hostile conditions in certain groups of people. The theory suggests that some ecological variables influence the crime rates in communities. These factors are related to school dropout, joblessness, poor infrastructure, and defective social institution. The theory does not explain all forms of crimes because it restrains itself from the explanation of street crime in the neighborhood. In this regard, the theory cannot be invoked in explaining other forms of crime such as organized crime, white-collar crime, and other crimes that are related to deviant behavior. This paper looks at the major propositions of the theory, its strengths, and its weaknesses. The paper goes a notch higher to give a position on whether the theory can explain crime in a broader sense. Under this section, it is suggested that some adjustments are to be made to strengthen the theory.

Major Postulations

Shaw and McKay extensively developed the theory by observing that it could be used to explain crime in society. They conducted a comparative study between the crime rates and the census records in the city. Their study proved that there was a significant correlation between the rates of crime and the forms of interactions in society. They set out to find the causes of crime because the city was under the control of social institutions, such as the school, the church, the polity, and the family yet the rates of crime were very high. The major variable that they tested was criminal behavior, which was calculated using the number of arrests made by the police, court procedures, and court adjudications. The independent variable included the level of economic capability, ethnicity, and population turnover. The variables were determined based on the residence of the delinquent before attaining the age of sixteen. Through their study, they came up with at least four assumptions as regards the social disorganization theory. It was noted that the theory could explain delinquency in the city, which was a sign of crime.

Crime in the city was caused by the ineffective primary social institutions, which had lost their positions to other agents of socialization. The surrounding or the environment was to blame for the high rates of crime in the city. Those caught engaging in crime were not to blame since the activities perceived as a crime were normal behavior in the city. Their actions were simply responding naturally to the conditions of society. The societal members were simply following what the society was doing. It was noted that the family had lost its primary role of ensuring that the child is brought up by the provisions of the law. The school had also failed on its part since it could no longer mold children to be responsible members of society. Indeed, the number of school dropouts was ever-increasing meaning that the schooling system had failed. The polity was also to blame because it could not formulate laws that would govern the behavior of individuals right away from childhood. The polity was reluctant to come into terms with the idea that the community was adopting a certain behavior that would contradict the provisions of the law. This shows that social disorganization theory explains crime is based on the failure of the society (Shaw, & McKay, 1969). When the society fails to bring up its members by the laws and regulations of the wider society, the occurrence of crime is inevitable.

The second provision of the theory is that the failure of societal institutions is caused by rapid industrialization, which brings about changes that are so challenging to the community. Industrialization brings about urbanization, which is the root cause of all social evils is including prostitution, drug trafficking, carjacking, robbery, assault, arson, aggravated assault, and kidnapping. When industrialization occurs, migration is inevitable meaning that people are forced to live with people from various cultures. People are frustrated because they can no longer access their basic needs owing to competition and population pressure. Others cannot access jobs since their skills could be under par. They resort to other means of obtaining their basic needs, including robbery, kidnapping, and even carjacking. Some become bitter with society to an extent of unleashing terror on innocent people. They may resort to rape as a defense mechanism, which causes more problems in the community. Therefore, the community should always be ready to embrace change if it is to avoid social crimes and deterioration of security. In this regard, social disorganization theory cannot be applied in explaining any form of crime without considering the changes that the community goes through.

The third assumption is that competition and dominance affect the environmental principles, which would further determine the effectiveness of the social institutions. In a case competition is stiff in society, dominance would not be high while if competition turns out to be low, dominance would be very high. Those with power will always make policies aiming at safeguarding their properties while the poor would exist at the mercy of the rich. These policies would affect the interactions in the environment because a minority in society, who happen to be the rich, makes them. The poor will be unwilling to follow the principles since they were not consulted in the process of drafting them. The rich will keep off from the residential areas inhabited by the poor in fear of crime. This affects the socialization of the poor since they will do something to prove their brand names. They are often branded as thieves, smugglers, drug traffickers, kidnappers, carjackers, and rapists. This leads to social disorganization since some section of society is accused falsely of committing the crime. The third assumption correlates the ecological approach with social disorganization.

The fourth assumption suggests that the areas that lack social order tend to develop criminal values and traditions, which replace societal morals in the end. People tend to go against the established values and rules after realizing that nothing can happen to them even if they break the law. This culture is developed over years and is passed from one generation to the other. Children are brought up knowing that drug trafficking is not a big issue since an individual will be jailed for a certain period and everything will be back to normal after completion of the jail term. The findings of the study conducted in Chicago revealed that crime rates went high in the inner center, but they declined as the distance from the city widens (Siegel, 2013).

Strengths of the Theory

The theory is strong because it explains the occurrence of crime at the community level. It posits that crime occurs in society because of a lack of social organization. This is the reality because the breakdown of various societal units would lead to increased crime rates. The theory is helpful to policymakers because it suggests some of the ways that would help in preventing the occurrence of a crime. In this regard, the school, the family, and the polity have the role to play in ensuring that crime rates are checked regularly. The theory does not give crime records based on ethnicity meaning that it does not label certain ethnic groups. Crime occurs uniformly in society meaning that anyone can commit a crime, irrespective of ethnic background. Other theories suggest that crime is biological meaning that people are born with genes that force them to commit a crime. Social disorganization theory explains precisely that crime is a result of ecological factors, more specifically the failure of social institutions. It also gives the reasons why social institutions may fail to protect their members. One of the reasons is that when cultures interact, a certain form of culture would emerge, which would influence all members to follow it. For instance, the culture of poverty emerges in low-earning areas in towns, which influences people to engage in crime (Shoemaker, 1996).

Weaknesses of the Theory

Several scholars have conducted extensive studies to disapprove the theory. The theory is accused of downplaying the issue of ethnicity and culture when explaining the occurrence of crime. In this sense, the theory does not appreciate cultural diversity because some cultures may accept certain behaviors, even though they are illegal while some cultures would not tolerate such behaviors. It is understood that some behaviors might be considered morally wrong yet they are officially permitted under the legal framework. Some are morally correct yet they are illegitimate under the law. The scholars supporting the theory note that crime rates decrease in response to the distance from the city. However, other studies conducted in different countries could not approve of this idea. The distance from the city does not matter, but what matters is the level of economic development of a community. This idea invalidates the theory since crime does not occur because the place is densely populated (Short, 1976). Some densely populated areas have high levels of economic development meaning that crime does not occur.


Shaw, C. (1952). Brothers in Crime. Philadelphia: Albert Saifer.

Shaw, C., & McKay, D. (1969). Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Shoemaker, D. (1996). Theories of Delinquency. New York: Oxford University Press.

Short, J. (1976). Delinquency, Crime, and Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,

Siegel, L. J. (2013). Criminology: Theories, patterns, and typologies. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.