REF: Hardyns, W., Pauwels, L. (2017) The Chicago School and Criminology, pp 123-139. In:
Tripplett, R.A. The Wiley Handbook of the History and Philosophy of Criminology (ISBN:
Word count (including references and notes): 9856
The Chicago School and Criminology
In this chapter we examine the roots of the Chicago School and their studies into ecological
explanations for crime and delinquency. The chapter starts with a description of the early
developments towards an urban sociology. Secondly, the concept of social disorganization
and its popularity within the early Chicago School is discussed. Thirdly, we illustrate the
decline in the social ecological research tradition of the Chicago School by defining some
important theoretical and methodological shortcomings. At last, we explain the revival of the
social disorganization theory by the theoretical refinements and methodological developments
of the contemporary Chicago School.
Chicago School, social disorganization, urbanization, context, neighbourhood, ecological,
social processes, collective efficacy, social capital, social cohesion
In this chapter we examine the roots of the Chicago School and their studies into ecological
explanations for crime and delinquency. Although the scientific influences lead us back to the
classic structural-functionalism of E. Durkheim (1858-1917), with its focus on the
independent study of social facts or collective behaviors, it can be stated that the classic
Chicago School was the cradle from which contemporary urban criminology sprang by
contributing to the development of the theory of social disorganization. The pace with which
Chicago developed from the end of the 18th century from a small place at Lake Michigan into
a Metropolis was vital for the systematic study of urbanization and its consequences. The
ideas of one of the most prominent figures within this movement, former journalist and
sociology professor Robert Ezra Park (1864-1944), gave urban sociology/criminology an
important boost. Park considered geographical areas as urban mosaics, each with their own
spatial density. He was interested in the consequences of urbanization on collective behavior.
Alongside Park, William Isaac Thomas (1863-1947) also played an important role in the
development of a theoretical line of thought that later became known as ‘social
disorganization theory’. These early scholars were genuinely interested and socially
concerned with the consequences of what was happening in this historical time-frame. Rapid
changes brought about dramatic consequences, both for public health, crime, … This general
kind of social engagement can be said to be a major characteristic of the first generation of
Chicago School researchers, and looking back, we can say that a similar kind of social
concernedness also characterizes the scholars that were responsible for the major revival of
the social disorganization perspective in the eighties.
The chapter starts with a description of the early developments towards an urban sociology.
Secondly, the concept of social disorganization and its popularity within the early Chicago
School is discussed. Thirdly, we illustrate the decline in the social ecological research
tradition of the Chicago School by defining some important theoretical and methodological
shortcomings. At last, we explain the revival of the social disorganization theory by the
theoretical refinements and methodological developments of the contemporary Chicago
19th century European studies as pathfinders for early urban sociology
Some European studies concerning the effects of area characteristics on delinquent behavior
had already been carried out before the emergence of the Chicago School. In this period
Western Europe was rapidly transformed from a pre-industrial agrarian society to an
urbanized and industrialized one. These developments resulted in radical changes and
attracted the attention of scientists and policy makers on a significant scale. Guided by the
principles of positivism, researchers collected spatial data and tried to map it systematically.
Apart from a belief in the possibility of intervening in social processes, what motivated them
was to increase knowledge on the social causes and consequences of rapid change in urban
areas. One of the first visible negative consequences of rapid urban change was the social
phenomenon of criminality. It comes as no surprise that the social study of crime and
delinquency was a theme that was of primary interest to them. This intellectual tradition is
still referred to as the ‘Cartographic School’ (Pauwels, Hardyns, and Van de Velde 2010).
In Western Europe, Quételet (1796-1874) and Guerry (1802-1866) were the first to concern
themselves with a systematic study of convicts in French judicial districts. Their findings
were innovative: they showed that crime was not distributed equally across differing districts.
In industrialized and strongly urbanized areas mostly property offences were committed
whereas in the rural districts offences were especially characterized by their violent nature
(Morris 1957). These geographical differences in crime patterns provided the first fuel for a
discussion on the role of urban surroundings on the normative behavior of inhabitants.
Parallel work was also done in the United Kingdom. Noteworthy in this respect are the studies
of Mayhew (1812-1887) and Rawson (1812-1899) (Morris 1957). Through Mayhew, London
neighbourhoods became the subject of thorough analysis. Mayhew was interested in, among
other things, the specific characteristics of ‘criminal neighbourhoods’. His work concentrated
on impoverished inner city districts around the urban center. It is important to understand the
eye that Mayhew had for the social conditions in impoverished London neighbourhoods. In
this respect he was not purely a moral statistician, as some of his contemporaries were called,
but a social reformer avant-la-lettre, who was effectively worried about the social situation
and conditions in these districts, just as Clifford Shaw was several decades after him.
Rawson’s work was unique in the way he focused on different units of analysis, other than
political administrative units, to study the unequal distribution of crime.
The influence of Durkheim’s theory of anomie on the Chicago School
The structural functionalism of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) stands in
stark contrast to the a-theoretical elaborations of moral statisticians such as Quételet. Where
the moral statisticians derived patterns from descriptive analyses, Durkheim developed a
method whereby causal patterns could be tested by means of studying the consistency
between social facts as variables. Durkheim’s reputation is built upon his chapters concerning
the division of labour, suicide and anomie. The associated empirical analyses of time series of
social facts show that Durkheim can be regarded as a founder of modern sociology. The
Chicago School has further elaborated the ideas of Durkheim. Durkheim was the founding
father of the structuralist vision that structural relationships do not exist independently of each
other, but instead have a substantial impact on diverse aspects of collective living. The
method that Durkheim used, aggregated analysis, became in this way one of the most
important resources of urban sociology.
The urban sociology of Park in a nutshell
Robert Ezra Park was one of the most influential sociologists of the Chicago School. Park
(1864-1944) worked for some time (1887-1898) as a journalist for several newspapers in
Minnesota, Denver, Detroit, New York and Chicago and it was then he became fascinated by
the diversity of social living in urban neighbourhoods. He strongly focused on the poor living
conditions of immigrants in urban areas. Park considered an in-depth scientific study of social
problems in urban neighbourhoods as a requirement for bringing about social improvements
(Coser 1977). After his studies at the university of Michigan, he retained his links to the
sociological and ethnographic fabric of Chicago as a research assistant and teacher and put his
students to work in analyzing all facets of urban living. Park’s approach marks the
introduction of human ecology to the field of sociology. This human ecology can be
compared to the botanist and animal ecology that studies the relationship between plants or
animals and their natural surroundings or habitat. The natural habitat of people is the city.
Park saw social life in urban areas as the result of a range of Darwinian natural processes,
specifically competition, conflict, assimilation and integration. These processes were
hypothesized to be strongly influenced by the social structure of urban areas.
The influence of Wirth’s ‘pessimistic’ model of urbanization
The urbanization model was developed during the industrial revolution. Urbanization was
seen as detrimental to the preservation of social cohesion because of the perceived rigid
distinction between urban and rural areas with regard to crime and social exclusion. Scholars
like Louis Wirth were concerned by this development and were utterly pessimistic in their
views. The city was seen as vicious whereas the countryside was thought of as ideal. The
cause of this strong polarization between ‘gemeinschaft’ and ‘gesellschaft’ can be found in
the romantic views scholars had about the strong rural family life and rural local social life in
pre-industrial times (Tönnies 1887; Wirth, 1938). This pessimistic view on the negative
consequences of urbanization is also known as the ‘linear development model’, referring to
the fact that urbanization itself would inevitably lead to social disintegration. The model
presupposes a proportional increase in crime according to the level of urbanization.
From this point of view, it was assumed that the urban way of life was characterized by
competition, secondary contact, depersonalization of relationships, formal control and
passivity. The opposites of these characteristics (e.g. solidarity bonds, primary contact,
identity, informal control, and a sense of participation) can be seen as indicators of social
cohesion (Wirth 1938). In the urbanization model, social cohesion refers to the presence of
strong and local social ties. It was thought that these social ties are less strong in urban areas
(in contrast to the rural areas). This would inevitably lead to more crime and insecurity in
Focus on social processes and collective behavior
Inspired by Charles Darwin (1809-1882), Park saw the struggle for life as a constant in human
existence. The scarcity of space in urban areas would inevitably lead to mutual competition
for the best places, in the same way as it does in the world of animals and plants. Park wrote
about this himself:
The processes of competition, segregation, and accommodation brought out in the
description of the plant community are quite comparable with the same processes in
animal and human communities. A village, town, city or nation may be studied from the
standpoint of adaptation, struggle for existence and survival of its individual members in
the environment created by the community as a whole (Park 1929 ).
The consequences of Parks’ struggle for space became visible in area social structures,
particularly in the spatial distribution of unemployment, population density and residential
stability. Crucial for further theorizing on the relationship between spatial structures and the
consequences thereof on human behavior, was Park’s emphasis on the spatial density of moral
beliefs. Park considered accommodation and assimilation (integration) of value patterns as
basic ecological processes to establish the moral order of local communities. The attention
given to the relationship between area social structures and shared moral values meant that
less attention was paid to the subcultural dynamics that could also be playing a role in
development of crime and delinquency patterns in urban areas. The latter was given ‘second
class status’ in Park’s theorizing (Bursik and Grasmick 1993). The issue of cultural dynamics
would remain a weakness in Park’s early urban sociology.
Local neighbourhoods as the seed of integration
According to Park, local communities are a primary socialization mechanism which enables
the individual to integrate into society. These communities were distinguished from broader
society by their geographically defined character (Park 1929 ). In the analysis of the
geographical distribution of social phenomena and their covariates (the core of what
afterwards was referred to as ecological research), Park found empirical reflections of natural
processes that were continuously taking place in several urban local areas. Undoubtedly
motivated by the conviction that behind ecological covariates were hidden a variety of social
processes, these geographical studies were completed with abundant, qualitative descriptions
of urban phenomena. This complementary qualitative approach found response in several
studies by his students. There can be little doubt that social cohesion was an issue as a
mechanism by which the social structure of an area impacted on social problems and crime.
Park feared the destruction of conventional morals as a side-effect of rapid industrialization
and urbanization. According to Park, conventional values were especially passed on via
primary groups and relational networks. In large cities, where populations are unstable and
unemployment is high, intimate networks between primary groups were at risk of being
undermined, thereby weakening collective morality (Park 1929 ). The declining forces
of traditional institutions such as the family and school would eventually result in an increase
in crime. Park formulated this as follows:
It is probably the breaking down of local attachments and the weakening of the restraints
and inhibitions of the primary group, under the influence of the urban environment,
which are largely responsible for the increase of vice and crime in great cities (Park
1929 , own emphasis).
Park hypothesized that the weakening of local institutions and the disintegration of solidarity
between inhabitants of urban communities would mediate the relationship between
neighbourhood structure and crime (and other vices). The notion that such detrimental
influences could be countered by strengthening local links led to Park unequivocally
concluding ”that all social problems turn out to be problems of social control” (1929 ,
785). Social control hereby became synonymous to self-regulation (Kolb 1948), in a similar
manner to the classic macro-sociologist interpretation of another well-known sociologist of
the Chicago School, Edward Alsworth Ross (1866-1951). The concept of self-regulation must
be understood here in the Durkheimian sense: as collective conscience. Typical for Park were
his attempts to link the Durkheimian meaning of social control to his previously described
ecological processes of conflict and competition (Kurtz 1984).
The concept of social disorganization in the Chicago School
Park adopted the concept of social disorganization from his mentor William Isaac Thomas.
Social disorganization was his own interpretation of reduced self-regulation as developed by
Durkheim and Ross. The term disorganization was, however, used for the first time by
Thomas and Znaniecki (1996 ) in a study about Polish immigrants in European and
American cities. According to these authors, the concept refers in the first resort to social
disorganization at levels of institutional organization and only secondarily to the organization
of social relations between people. For them, it refers, to “group organization embodied in
socially systematized schemes or behavior” (Park, Burgess & McKenzie 1925, cited in Kurtz
Because the authors themselves gave a broad theoretical interpretation to the concept of
disorganization, it comes as no surprise that later studies were characterized by conceptual
confusion. This is why it is necessary to revert to the original statements in the early
theoretical writings. The core of the traditional argument is that social organization of a local
community will become conceptually disconnected from the individual organization of a
person. Social disorganization is in this way ultimately equated to poor self-regulation of a
community: a reduction in the influence of existing conventional rules of behavior rules on
the individual group members (Thomas & Znaniecki 1996 ). Social disorganization in
districts is studied as a collective property or social phenomenon (an aggregate). Weak self-
regulation in a local community is considered as the context within which the overriding of
prevailing rules becomes possible for the individual. Emulating Thomas, Park saw in social
disorganization the structural counterpart of individualization.
Towards an embryonic model of collective processes
The spatial analyses of the Chicago School revealed an additional systematic. Based on
analyses of demographic and socio-economic characteristics of urban neighbourhoods, Park,
Burgess and McKenzie (1967 ) were able to describe situations of environmental
disorganization localized in very specific areas of the city. These were the economically
deprived areas adjoining the financial heart of the city with a concentration of immigrants,
people on low incomes, and strikingly high levels of population mobility. For many
inhabitants, these neighbourhoods fulfilled a ‘transit function’ in their fight to acquire more
living space. The high mobility rate resulting from the ‘transit function’ of these
neighbourhoods was considered to impede the ability of self-regulation. These ideas are the
core of Burgess’ concentric area theory (Park et al. 1967 ). The model concentrated on
urban development and stressed outward processes, hence the ‘zonal development model’.
According the zonal development model, urban areas grow as a result of an expanding city
center. Expansion brings about social problems in areas that are spatially adjacent to the
expanding city centre. In these adjacent areas urban decline soon set in. Social disorganization
theory became in its early days more strongly connected to the zonal model of urban
development than to theories about the relationship between neighbourhood characteristics,
informal controls and crime. Burgess’s influence led to the fact that social disorganization
came to be seen as a process that was ultimately situated in the impoverished areas around
the urban center. Even today, contemporary social disorganization models are very strongly
associated with the concentric area model of Ernest Watson Burgess (1886-1966). The result
is that the theoretical complexity and richness of this research tradition were not fully
appreciated. This is clear from the way in which the theory is treated in some overview works
(Foster and Brooks-Gunn 2013; Kubrin and Weitzer 2003; Kubrin 2009; van Ham et al. 2012;
The intellectual inheritance of Park in criminological research
Park’s influence on urban sociology and the study into the spatial aspects of crime should not
be underestimated. As applied in the work of Clifford Shaw and Henry D. McKay, Parks
spatial research made a strong imprint on the criminological research of that time. The study
into the relationship between neighbourhood characteristics and crime deserve a definite place
in the history of criminology based on the traditional research of Shaw and McKay (1969
Attempts to make social control processes measurable comprised at that time little more than
an inventory of socialization channels and poorer urban areas. Inevitably this led to those
conducting spatial studies in the ‘roaring twenties’ to conclude that social disorganization in
urban neighbourhoods had a pronounced disreputable character (Kurtz 1984)
The lifework of Shaw and McKay
In the current era, characterized by strong mobility and in which neighbourhoods have lost
their influence as a means of socialization, the urban sociology of the Chicago School may be
seen by some as naive. This is, however, not the case when viewed in the context of the time
in which it was written. Urban sociology arose during a period in which thinking about crime
was dominated by individual biological and psychological positivism. In the light of the
dominant concept of that time, this theoretical approach must have been innovative and
revitalizing. The idea that crime and juvenile delinquency were characterized by a spatial
dimension was articulated clearly in the work of Shaw and McKay (1969 ). Clifford
Shaw (1895-1957) was defined by his biographer Snodgrass (1976) as a charismatic reformer,
born in a rural and Protestant family in Indiana. Shaw broke away from these ecclesiastical
influences and went to study sociology at the University of Chicago. In 1918, he obtained his
Bachelor of Arts Degree but he never finished his Doctoral studies. Shaw was active as a
parole officer (1921-1923) and as a probation assistant to the Cook County Juvenile Court
(1924-1926). In 1939, he was given an honorary doctorate because of his passionate activities
concerning the phenomenon of juvenile delinquency. He is further described as a man who
understood the art of collecting funds to support his research. From his experience as a
probation assistant, he was deeply affected by the difficult circumstances in which juvenile
delinquents lived. These provided the most important motivations through which his passion
was formed. Shaw’s position as a probation officer gave him access to a unique range of data
about the homes of minors for whom files had been opened by the youth court.
Henry D. McKay (1899-1971) was also born in a small Protestant village, Hand County, in
South Dakota. He was described as ‘the cool researcher’, the quiet statistician who plotted
places of residence on geographical maps and calculated rates of delinquency (Snodgrass
1976). As the grandson of a Scottish immigrant, he had a particular interest in the impact of
immigration on patterns of delinquent behavior. McKay would later become involved in the
study that would be definitively linked to his name and that of Shaw.
Shaw and his colleague were the first to empirically illustrate the zonal model developed by
Park and Burgess (1967 ) based on data that referred to the places where delinquents
lived. They worked with several large fact files in which the coding and analysis, in an era
before computers and statistical processing packages, was not at all straightforward. The
authors’ theoretical interpretation of the spatial patterns of where juvenile delinquents lived
was very rudimentary and tentative. Shaw, Zorbaugh, McKay and Cotrell (1929) consistently
claimed that the geographical concentration of delinquent young people decreased
proportionally the further one moved from the central business district and that this
concentration was highest in the deteriorated areas around the city center, the so-called
‘transition area’ from Burgess’s zonal model of metropolitan development, characterized by
strong residential mobility. Furthermore, the geographical concentration of the homes of
truants, juvenile and adult delinquents and recidivists appeared to very strongly coincide. The
most important observation was perhaps that this relationship was characterized by a
fascinating degree of stability during the years in which they conducted their research.
For the authors this observation provided empirical evidence for their assumption that
delinquency was linked to the social environment of the place of residence and was not to be
found within the offender’s genetic constitution, as Lombroso’s adherents claimed. This
observation was one of the most vital and controversial findings in a time when individual
psychological and biological positivism was in its heyday.
Structural neighbourhood characteristics and the spatial distribution of offenders
The strong empirical documentation of ecological correlations between neighbourhood
characteristics and the juvenile delinquency rate puzzled Shaw and McKay. Shaw and McKay
distinguished between three groups of neighbourhood characteristics. The first group falls
under the general heading of ‘economic deprivation’ or ‘disadvantage’. The proportion of low
rents, low incomes, unemployment levels, the number of households receiving government
support etc. all showed a strong and stable consistency with the juvenile delinquency rate. The
second group of neighbourhood characteristics refers to the geographical concentration of
‘minority groups’: the presence of different groups of immigrants. The third group of
characteristics referred to ‘population turn-over’ (or the absence of residential stability). Not
only were these correlations stable throughout the period of Shaw’s research, the findings
were also replicated in other cities, which led to enthusiasm regarding theoretical
generalization. From the 1960s, it would become clear that a large number of exceptions to
the patterns uncovered by Shaw and McKay existed. This would lead to the early abandoning
of the research tradition and a strong revival at the end of the 1970s.
Social disorganization as the key explanatory mechanism
Shaw and McKay’s theoretical model has undergone some development and refinement over
the years, which testifies to the efforts undertaken by the authors to develop and refine their
explanation for the observed patterns. Let us illustrate the first theoretical explanation,
tentatively formulated in 1929:
Under the pressure of the disintegrative forces which act when business and industry
invade a community, the community thus invaded ceases to function as a means of social
control. Traditional norms and standards of the conventional community weaken and
disappear. Resistance on the part of the community to delinquent and criminal behaviour
is low, and such behaviour is tolerated and may become accepted and approved.
Moreover, many of the people who come to the deteriorating section are European
immigrants or southern Negroes. All of them come from cultural backgrounds which
differ widely from the situations in the city. In the conflict of the old with the new, the
former cultural and social controls in these groups tend to break down. This, together
with the fact that there are few constructive forces at work to re-establish a conventional
order, makes for continued social disorganisation… In this state of social
disorganisation, community resistance is low. Delinquent and criminal patterns arise
and are transmitted socially just as any other cultural and social pattern is transmitted
(Shaw et al. 1929, own emphasis).
In these first tentative statements several hypotheses are formulated. On the one hand, it is
postulated that neighbourhoods characterized by social disorganization also have mechanisms
of self-regulation that function less efficiently. On the one hand we can see clear continuity
with the Durkheimian concept of self-regulation as a collective process. On the other hand, it
was postulated that patterns of delinquent behavior are liable to a process of ‘cultural
transmission’ over time. These ideas originated from discussions between Shaw and Edwin H.
Sutherland (1883-1950), the originator of differential association theory and differential
social organization theory. Social disorganization is a permanent state arising as a
consequence of the breakdown in self-regulation in a neighbourhood and reinforced by
cultural transmission in a temporary perspective. The concept of cultural transmission,
extended the concept of social disorganization. The concept of cultural transmission was less
developed as the concept of self-regulation in Shaw et al.’s early version of the theory
Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas (Shaw and McKay 1942) marks the refinement of the
previous attempts to develop a consistent theoretical model of juvenile delinqueny. This
edition was published too late because in the period between 1929 and 1942, Sutherland’s
differential association theory became increasingly important whilst symbolic interactionism
also gained in influence.
The increasing influence of other perspectives can be noticed in the
theoretical reflections of Shaw and McKay. Nevertheless, the theoretical explanation is
somewhat restricted because the authors conduct little efforts in making more explicit the
Other prominent characters from the traditional Chicago School, such as Charles Cooley (1864-1929) and
George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), laid the basis for the rudimentary development of symbolic interactionism.
These principles were later introduced in the field of criminology through figures such as Edwin M. Lemert
different relationships between structural neighbourhood characteristics and the mechanisms
of cultural transmission and informal control.
In the 1969 edition, a theoretical link is found between neighbourhood contextual
characteristics and the role of social control in the family as most important informal control
system. It is asserted that ”family organisation in high crime-rate areas are affected in
different ways by the divergent systems of values encountered” (Shaw and McKay 1969
, 183). In this edition, the theoretical formulations are more concise and precise than in
the previous edition. It is clearly stated that it is especially the family as an institution of
socialization that experiences more difficulty in maintaining conventional societal standards,
specifically when confronted by the powerful counter-narratives of delinquent belief systems
that are present in disorganized neighbourhoods.
Alongside this, the possibility for solving social problems is lacking in disorganized areas and
as a consequence, there is little common control over the behavior of other young people.
Interestingly, Shaw and McKay also point to the absence of services related to organized
leisure activities for young people (Shaw and McKay 1969 ). In their model, economic
deprivation and ethnic heterogeneity in neighbourhoods were at the beginning of a complex
causal chain that set the stage for an increasing tolerance of subcultural and delinquent belief
The merit of these cautiously formulated explanations are to be found in the identification of
indicators of the organizational (i.e. self-regulating) capacity of a community. These are
especially anchored in family structures. Shaw and McKay’s focus on the organization of
family life cannot be seen separately from the religious background of both sociologists.
The nostalgic community attachment model
In the early 1950s, Kasarda and Janowitz developed the community attachment model, also
known as the ‘systemic model’ of community organization. This model can be seen as the
structural counterpart of the pessimistic urbanization model (Kasarda and Janowitz 1974).
The systemic model pays attention to the whole local social spectrum and was especially
stimulating for community research because it questioned the structural conditions under
which urbanization would, or rather would not, lead to a breakdown in informal control. Thus,
the community attachment model strongly opposed a one-dimensional view of the glaring
contrasts between the urban areas and the countryside, with its strong family bonds and local
social life. The simplistic urban-rural debate had thus been abandoned. The community
attachment model was actually a theoretical model with almost exclusive application in the
field of general sociology. Nevertheless it is worthwhile mentioning this theoretical
framework, mainly because it is the precursor of social capital theories in the 1980s and
because it abandoned the focus on dense local ties. Granovetter in particular underlined the
value of weak social ties (Granovetter 1973; Wilson 1987). The theory especially underlines
the importance of residential stability in communities as a key structural condition under
which local social ties can be fostered.
The community attachment theory is also worth mentioning because it focused on social
cohesion as a characteristic of individuals (micro) and of communities (macro). The theory
made predictions about individual differences in network density by using both individual and
community characteristics. Micro-macro discussions would only later arise within the field of
criminological theory. In brief, the stress is no longer exclusively on the ‘strength’ of these
ties, but still on the ‘locality’. Scholars working in this tradition interpreted social cohesion as
network density. In this view urbanization only indirectly leads to low community levels of
network density. Residential stability is seen as a major structural intermediate condition that
preserves social cohesion. Other structural conditions, such as economic disadvantage
(deprivation) and ethnic heterogeneity, are less stressed in this theoretical model.
One point of critique on the community attachment model is that it assumes that residential
stability has exclusively positive effects on community levels of social cohesion. The model
has therefore also been critically referred to as the ‘Urban Village model’ because of its
continuing preoccupation with local social ties in stable urban areas.
Shortcomings in the ecological school of criminology
There are plenty of reasons why the ecological tradition has been declining in importance.
The rise and the success of other theoretical traditions are only partially responsible for the
temporary decline of social disorganization theory. Theoretical and methodological
shortcomings within the tradition itself played a larger role. These shortcomings have been
described in detail elsewhere (Bottoms and Wiles 1997; Bursik 1988; Morris 1957; Byrne abd
Sampson 1986). Nevertheless, it is important to summarize the criticisms to understand
The traditional Chicago School overemphasized urban development as a consequence of
natural processes (e.g. the struggle for space). The role of political decision-making in
creating unequal spatial patterns of deprivation was ignored. The possible role of the
historical, cultural and political context was thus overlooked (Morris 1957). Later, it became
apparent that this was a mistake because the impact of urban planning and housing on the
social ecology of crime (Bottoms and Wiles 1992; Wikström 1991), Further studies also
demonsrated the role of economic restructuring of the ghetto in shaping American big city
neighbourhoods (Wilson 1987; Sampson 2012).
The extent to which census tract boundaries coincided with local communities was hardly
explored. Studies on land use revealed that a person’s definition of neighbourhood varies
according to the background of the local resident (Weisburd, Bernasco, and Bruinsma 2008).
The increased levels of mobility that became apparent since the Second World War have
further undermined the idea that administrative areas could be seen as valid indicators of local
communities. Living, working and free time are less likely to be organized within the
geographical setting of the residential neighbourhood.
Early ecological studies were not sufficiently skeptical about using registered data. Thus,
while Shaw et al. (1929) made the observation that crime statistics of the police and judicial
agencies could not entirely account for delinquent behavior, he also noted that “there is no
evidence to show that children living in areas of low rates are involved in such serious
behaviour difficulties as larceny, burglary,…”. However, the hypothesis was formulated that
parents of young people in richer neighbourhoods could keep their children from the criminal
chain by using financial rewards. Especially in the 1960s and 70s, ecological correlations
between offender rates and neighbourhood characteristics was almost exclusively explained
by a bias in official recording systems that reflected social inequality in the criminal law
system (Byrne and Sampson 1986).
Shaw and McKay’s enquiry led to some important conceptual misunderstandings regarding
the dependent variable in ecological crime studies. This conceptual misunderstanding arose
partly from the imprudence of the authors, who themselves stated that ecological studies
should start with an analysis of the places where ‘delinquency occurs’. It is therefore not
surprising that in the first empirical tests of the findings of Shaw and McKay it seemed that
the concepts ‘place of residence’ and ‘place of commission’ were mutually interchangeable.
Whoever reads the studies of Shaw et al. closely, will rapidly gain the impression that the
authors saw the geographical concentration of offenders by their residential area as an
expression of the inhabitants’ propensity to offend. Therefore they were consequently
interested in an explanatory model for the geographical distribution of delinquent young
people’s homes and did not pay attention to the places where offences were committed. The
seeds for future confusion were irrevocably sown (Morris 1957). Delinquents places of
residence and the places where they committed their offences are not mutually
An additional and equally important substantial problem is that Shaw and McKay’s
explanation implicitly has a contextual character. It is hard to imagine that reading the original
manuscripts of the ecological theory could lead to another conclusion than the conclusion that
“neighbourhoods being hotbeds where delinquency slumbered as a consequence of social
disorganization.” This contextual interpretation is premature and cannot be assumed from
aggregated studies. This criticism is the consequence of the ecological fallacy, a problem that
was early recognized by Robinson (1950), that fascinated scholars for many years ever since
the publication of the ecological fallacy. Therefore ecological studies became very unpopular
in the 1950’s. Back then, many sociologists focusing on contextual questions were concerned
with these problems, but no-one had a satisfactory solution for the problem. Multilevel
modelling only became popular and more common since the 1990s.
Ecological fallacies occur when a relationship found at the aggregate level is assumed to exist
at an individual level. In his methodological contribution Robinson (1950), explicitly referred
to the working method of Shaw and McKay. Contextual fallacies occur when ecological
correlations are mistaken for contextual effects, for instance when the ecological correlation
between the offender rate and economic deprivation at the neighbourhood level is interpreted
as follows: deprivation in the neighbourhood influences the behavior of the young people who
Baldwin (1975), correctly questioned whether ecological research was the best method to
study contextual effects. Ecologists have been interested in the contextual influence of the
surroundings on human behavior. And it is precisely the latter question that could not be
answered by the early ecological studies. Therefore Baldwin suggested that scholars should
avoid the concept of ecological studies. He coined the term ‘area studies’.
Shaw and McKay’s findings were highly suggestive for the existence of ecological stability.
In their analyses of official data, the ‘high crime areas’ appeared to be relatively stable over a
long period. According to Morris (1957), this finding paved the way for ecological
determinist interpretations. Belina (2000) wrongfully accused ecological studies of spatial
fetishism in an article that has been heavily criticized. Processes of suburbanization that were
already going on during the 1950’s ultimately led to a more dynamic picture of the
geographical distribution of crime and delinquency (Bursik 1984; Bursik and Webb 1982;
Oberwittler, Rabold, and Baier 2013).
A major criticism is the fact that the traditional ecological studies failed to empirically
distinguish social disorganization from the structural characteristics that caused
disorganization (Bursik 1988). Looking back at the the empirical studies conducted by
scholars in the ecological research tradition, we can only confirm the criticism that social
disorganization was an unmeasured mechanism rather than a real variable in empirical
studies. For example, the best structural proxy for poor informal control that was available at
that time was population turnover. Nowadays it has become common to actually measure
neighbourhood social processes, but at that time such methods did not exist.
The ecological school was also criticized because of the pejorative overtone of the
disorganization concept. Sutherland (Cressey 1964) therefore argued that the concept of
disorganization should be modified to differential social organization: in the latter concept
the accent lays on differences in values between the social groups that share a geographically
delimited area. Hardly one year after the appearance of Juvenile Delinquency and Urban
Areas, Whyte (1969 ) showed that social organization was also present in
Finally, theoretical competition also played a role in understanding the temporary demise of
the ecological tradition. The anomie perspective, of which Robert Merton (1977 ) was
one of the most influential proponents, became a popular theory that competed with the
neighbourhood model. Instead of focusing on the impact of economic deprivation as an area-
based characteristic strain theorists emphasized the role of economic deprivation as a macro-
structural characteristic of groups in society. Strain theorists started to study differences
between socio-economic classes and individual or collective responses to structural strains in
society as opposed to social conditions in small urban communities. The subculture theories
of Cohen (1955) and Cloward and Ohlin (1961) are famous examples of classical strain
Towards a renewed interest in social disorganization
Several developments placed the social disorganization theory back to the research agenda
during the 1980s. We cannot escape the empirical observation that crime levels in the period
between 1950 and 1980 rose significantly in the industrialized world. This development was
of concern to both criminologists and policy-makers. The strong concentrations of crime,
victimization and fear of crime in large cities, particularly in inner city areas and adjacent
neighbourhoods, combined with a significant urban flight, redirected attention to urban
inequality and insecurity. Criminologists became more and more interested in ‘dangerous
places’, and these places were no longer defined as the areas where offenders lived but as
areas where crime occurs. Some cautious steps in that direction had already been taken by
Jacobs (1961), Jeffery (1971) and Newman (1972) with their writings on the role played by
the physical characteristics of buildings in improving social control in public places. For a lot
of ecologically oriented criminologists who started their scientific career in this period, social
disorganization theory became a frame within which informal control, opportunities and
geographical concentrations of criminal acts were studied.
The renewed interest in geographically-orientated criminological research forced scholars to
formulate a solution for the longstanding criticisms of the early ecological tradition that was
dominant at the time when Shaw and McKay (1969 ) conducted their landmark studies.
One could not simply ignore the methodological issues of the conditions under which
ecological research could be conducted in a meaningful way, and without making contextual
fallacies. Bearing in mind the ecological fallacy, a solution needed to be found. A key
question that rose at that time was the question whether ecological research could still be
meaningful in its own right? Sampson and Lauritsen (1994, 3) stated: ’The most definite way
to establish the nature of macro level relations is to conduct macro level research.” Ecological
research is thus only meaningful if one does not interpret the results at the individual level.
Thanks to an increase in the use of self-report studies and victim surveys, criminologists
started to obtain more detailed insights in social processes at different levels. In this period it
became increasingly clear that complementary sources were absolutely necessary in order to
offer a balanced answer to complex ecological (and later contextual) questions.
Sampson and Lauritsen (1994) highlighted five major differences between the area studies
conducted since the 1980s and the early studies. First of all, at the start of the 1980’s
ecological studies into the geographical distribution of delinquent young people’s residences
had become marginal within the broader research tradition that became known as
environmental criminology. After some initial attempts of Schmid (1960a; 1960b),
Brantingham & Brantingham (1981), Roncek (1981) and Crutchfield, Geerken & Gove
(1982) convincingly argued that ecological studies should focus on crime and victimization
rates instead of offender rates.
A second difference with the traditional ecological approach is that research is not restricted
to the study of neighbourhoods in cities but also extends to studies conducted at the
aggregation level of the city (or municipality) (Blau and Blau 1982; Messner 1982; Messner
and Tardiff 1986). In studies conducted at the city-level, the city itself became the unit of
analysis, rather than the neighbourhood. Nowadays the focus is on crime places (micro-
places) rather than cities.
Thirdly, social disorganization theory has undergone some influence of Cohen and Felson’s
routine activity approach (1979) and later the broken windows model as developed by Wesley
Skogan (1992). We do not have the space to discuss the relation between broken windows
models and collective efficacy models, scholars should read Sampson and Raudenbush (1999)
or Steenbeek and Hipp (2011) to learn about this discussion. The point made here is that the
attempt to integrate the disorganization perspective of the Chicago School with other
perspectives has been the start of an intriguing area of research. Studies started to look at the
relative effects of opportunity characteristics independent of measures of the structural
antecedents of disorganization (Miethe and Meier 1994).
Fourth, studies are no longer restricted to the explanation of geographical differences in
crime. They also attempt to examine changes in crime concentrations and the development of
‘neighbourhood criminal careers’, analogous to the individual criminal careers (Kubrin and
Weitzer 2003; Kubrin 2009). Bob Bursik played a major role in the implementation of
longitudinal studies (Bursik 1984; Bursik and Grasmick 1993; Bursik and Webb 1982;
Schuerman and Kobrin 1986; Steenbeek and Hipp 2011). These longitudinal studies show
clearly that neighbourhoods are constantly changing and that unicausal theories and models
do not adequately capture the complex relationship between crime and structural
Fifth, social disorganization theory has evolved from an aggregate level theory to a theory that
accounts for the aggregate and contextual effects of area concentrations of disadvantage on a
variety of outcomes, ranging from offender and crime rates to a wide array of individual level
attitudinal and behavioral outcomes such as offending behavior, violent victimization, fear of
crime, legal cynicism and perceptions of neighbourhood problems. We must acknowledge
the role that methodological innovations have played in this theoretical evolution. The
introduction to the field of criminology of advanced statistical techniques, such as the
multilevel analysis of clustered data, has made this evolution possible (Oberwittler 2004;
Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls 1997; Wikström 2010). This evolution can now be seen in
an increasing number of studies (Pauwels, Hardyns, and Van de Velde 2010).
These methodological innovations made it possible that scholars retested the idea that always
was implicitly present in the early versions of social disorganization theory, namely the
breeding ground hypothesis: the idea that disadvantaged neighbourhoods spawn juvenile
delinquency. Results of studies of contextual effects vary widely and it is far too early to
draw conclusions. Support for contextual effect vary by dependent variable. Results clearly
differ depending on the number of individual factors that are controlled (Sampson, Morenoff,
and Gannon-Rawley 2002; Thorlindsson and Bernburg 2004; Oberwittler 2004). Few studies
demonstrate strong direct effects of neighbourhood characteristics on offending (Brännström
2006). However, it seems most plausible that neighbourhood conditions interact with
individual level predictors of offending (Loeber and Wikström 1993; Peeples and Loeber
1994; Wikström and Loeber 2000). Stronger effects are reported for contextual effects of
neighbourhood characteristics on fear of crime and within-area victimization.
Recent developments: introducing social capital and collective efficacy theory
Between 1980 and 2000, the literature on the social ecology of crime underwent significant
influence by the works of Bourdieu, Coleman and Putnam (Bourdieu 1986; Coleman 1988;
Putnam 2001). These scholars can be seen as pioneers of a ‘social capital theoretical
framework’, emphasizing the importance of different kinds of social ties as sources of human
capital for both individuals, and the communities that are made up of individuals. According
to this view, social capital is a community characteristic that is defined as a collective good
that fosters both informal (thin trust and reciprocal values) and more formal (civic
engagement) aspects. Therefore, social capital theory is also rooted in the Chicago School
tradition of social disorganization theory. Social capital at the macro-level refers to ‘shared
norms and values’ (and codetermine a community’s social climate) which are beneficial for a
community, while social capital at the micro level refers to ‘social relationships’ which are
beneficial for the individual.
Sampson’s theory of community collective efficacy has been of major influence on area study
of crime, fear, victimization and so many other outcomes (Sampson et al. 1997; Sampson,
Morenoff, and Earls 1999). Robert Sampson has been involved in neighbourhood studies of
crime and criminal victimization and its structural determinants ever since the early 1980s
(Sampson 1983; Byrne and Sampson 1986). He contributed much to the theorizing and
empirical literature on social capital, and empirically developed measures to tap components
of social cohesion such as trust, reciprocity and generational change and focused on selection
mechanisms (See Sampson 2012 for an overview). Collective efficacy theory stresses the
importance of a community being able to solve its commonly identified problems, such as
crime and safety.
While the founding fathers of the social disorganization theory were preoccupied with the
structural conditions under which processes of control and disorganization could foster, the
next generation of studies clearly has shifted attention towards the measurement of the actual
social processes at work (Sun, Triplett, and Gainey 2004; Triplett, Sun, and Gainey 2005).
One common criticism of both social capital theory and collective efficacy theory is that these
frameworks overemphasize the role of informal control processes and neglect the causal role
of subcultural processes. This is due to a one-sided interpretation of social disorganization
theory of Kornhauser. Her criticism on social learning approaches was devastating, and may
have prevented theoretical integration between control and learning approaches. We are
strongly convinced that this discussion has not been very fruitful in further developing
theoretical models. The one-sided interpretation needs to be framed. The separate
development of control and learning perspectives was a very common approach to theorizing
at that time. The attitude of critical testing of theories against each other is a remnant of
critical rationalism. While much of the principles of critical rationalism are still useful as a
guide to testing hypotheses, few scholars are willing to apply research paradigms in a literary
way. Empirical research often is able to document that a unicausal approach is not fruitful, but
it should be remembered how difficult it is to conduct ecological research over time and to
test for cross-lagged effects.
A final criticism remains applicable to ecological studies and that problems relates to the
conception of ecological settings: scholars have gradually found out that small areas are better
than larger areas and therefore better apt to study contextual effects of ecological settting
characteristics (Wikström et al. 2012). But the magnitude of the setting (and its boundaries) is
just half of the problem in ecological research: additionally it remains to be seen what kind of
settings that are most important. It is clear that the area where one lives is no longer the only
ecological setting. Depending on the research problem (offending, fear of crime, etc.) one will
have to look at different settings by which the individual may be affected. Different processes
may play a significant role in different ecological settings.
Social disorganization theory has undergone major developments since its early days of
conception. Scholars that are interested in ecological research and theories need to take notice
of the history of this theoretical framework to fully understand the problems that plagued the
theory, the solutions and new developments. Both theoretical and empirical innovations have
led to improved insights into social disorganization. In this chapter, we identified different
successive theoretical elaborations of social disorganization theory. Contemporary
criminologists have translated the classic concepts of ‘strong and local ties’ and ‘social
disorganization’ into social processes such as network density, social capital and collective
efficacy, thereby stressing dimensions of organization rather than disorganization.
The study of crime in local areas has benefited from the introduction of new methods, namely
the study of social processes that were hypothesized to play a role ever since the beginning of
the disorganization tradition of the Chicago School. Much progress has been made since the
first scholars of the Chicago School began to pay attention to the spatial context of crime. The
Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighbourhoods (Sampson 2012), and the
Peterborough Adolescent and Young Adult Development Study (PADS+), conducted at
Cambridge University (Wikström et al. 2012), are two examples of large-scale contemporary
research projects that have given rise to theoretical refinement in the study of ecological
Scholars who want to seriously engage in ecological research are strongly recommended to do
so after having studied the historical context in which this research tradition came into
existence. Contemporary discussions can only be meaningful if one truly understand the
historical development of the research tradition and the surrounding context in which the
tradition emerged. The historical view is not only necessary to understand the long view, but
also to understand why some time frames were more than other time frames characterized by
the study of area concentrations of offenders (the breeding ground hypothesis),
neighbourhoods and crime, and contextual effect studies. For most of the time, criminologists
working in the area of ecology and crime have been obliged to base their research on
secondary data, largely official statistics. While scholars nowadays can make use of a
multitude of data, use complex statistical analyses and test models that include feedback loops
and interactions (within and between levels), our contemporary studies still start from the idea
that context matters, and it took us a long way to empirically understand what elements of the
context mattered for whom, for what outcome and under what circumstances. We are still
learning by adding new elements to old theories and by reformulating and thereby adjusting
old theories to the context of the 21st century.
With this chapter we hope to have highlighted the ecological approach from the early Chicago
School and the evolution towards the contemporary studies of crime and analogous social
facts and their spatial differences. Although describing and appreciating this long tradition in
criminology was a daunting task, we hope to have given the reader an idea of how the social
(dis)organization concept developed over time and we hope that this contribution inspires a
new generation of scholars to participate in the study of crime and insecurity from a social
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Prof. dr. Wim Hardyns is Professor of Criminology at the Department of Criminology,
Criminal Law and Social Law at Ghent University and the Faculty of Law at University of
Antwerp. He is member of the Institute of International Research on Criminal Policy (IRCP).
During his academic career, Wim Hardyns has built up a broad expertise in theory-testing
research and studied the collective efficacy theory in Belgium (the Social Cohesion Indicators
for the Flemish Region (SCIF) study and the Social capital and Well-being In Neighborhoods
in Ghent (SWING) study).
Prof. dr. Lieven J.R. Pauwels is Professor of Criminology at the Department of Criminology,
Criminal Law and Social Law at Ghent University. He is director of the Institute of
International Research on Criminal Policy (IRCP). His main research interest is the
interaction between individual and ecological explanations of adolescent offending and
problematic youth groups.