Criminology: Social Disorganization Theory Explained

In the 1942, two criminology researchers from the “Chicago School” of criminology, Clifford Shaw and Henry D. McKay developed social disorganization theory through their research.

The theory of social disorganization states a person’s physical and social environments are primarily responsible for the behavioral choices that a person makes. At the core of social disorganization theory, is that location matters when it comes to predicting illegal activity. Shaw and McKay noted that neighborhoods with the highest crime rates have at least three common problems, physical dilapidation, poverty, and higher level of ethnic and culture mixing. Shaw and McKay claimed that delinquency was not caused at the individual level, but is a normal response by normal individuals to abnormal conditions. Social disorganization theory is widely used as an important predictor of youth violence and crime.

Social Disorganization Theory and Delinquency

“Poverty is the mother of crime.”…Marcus Aurelius

Shaw and McKay discovered that there were four (4) specific assumption as an explanation of delinquency.

  1. The first assumption is the collapse of community based-based controls and people living in these disadvantaged neighborhoods are responding naturally to environmental conditions.
  2. The second is the rapid growth of immigration in urban disadvantage neighborhoods.
  3. The third is business located closely to the disadvantaged neighborhoods that are influenced by the “ecological approach” of competition and dominance.
  4. The fourth and last assumption is disadvantaged urban neighborhoods lead to the development of criminal values that replace normal society values.

Social disorganization theory suggest that a person’s residential location is more significant than the person’s characteristics when predicting criminal activity and the juveniles living in this areas acquire criminality by the cultures approval within the disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. Therefore, location matters when it comes to criminality according to social disorganization theory.

Social Disorganization Theory

The Future of the Theory

Social disorganization theory has received a lot of attention within criminology discipline since the theory was first introduced in 1942. Many studies in U.S. large cities have duplicated the findings of Shaw and McKay original study.

Social disorganization theory studies can help government and law enforcement policy-makers make informed decisions from the evidence to form strategies that help prevent criminal activity in disadvantaged communities to make it safer for all.

About the Author

Mark Bond

Mark Bond has worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms instructor for more than 33 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military, local, state and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a BS and MS in criminal justice, and M.Ed in educational leadership with Summa Cum Laude honors. As a lifelong learner, he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in education (EdD) with a concentration in college teaching and learning.  Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at a university and adjunct professor of administration of justice studies at a community college.