Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews

Volume 5, Chapter 4:

Social Disorganization Theory3

Social disorganization theory grew out of research conducted in Chicago by Shaw and McKay (see Shaw and McKay, 1942). Using spatial maps to examine the residential locations of juveniles referred to Chicago courts, Shaw and McKay discovered that rates of crime were not evenly dispersed across time and space in the city. Instead, crime tended to be concentrated in particular areas of the city, and importantly, remained relatively stable within different areas despite continual changes in the populations who lived in each area. In neighbourhoods with high crime rates, for example, the rates remained relatively high regardless of which racial or ethnic group happened to reside there at any particular time, and, as these previously “crime-prone groups” moved to lower-crime areas of the city, their rate of criminal activity decreased accordingly to correspond with the lower rates characteristic of that area. These observations led Shaw and McKay to the conclusion that crime was likely a function of neighbourhood dynamics, and not necessarily a function of the individuals within neighbourhoods. The question that remained was, what are the characteristics of various neighbourhoods which account for the stability of the crime rate?

In answering this question, Shaw and McKay focused on the urban areas experiencing rapid changes in their social and economic structure, or the “zones of transition.” In particular, they looked to neighbourhoods that were low in socio-economic status. It is important to clarify that, despite the economic deprivation of areas with higher than average crime rates, Shaw and McKay did not propose a simple direct relationship between economic deprivation and crime. They argued instead that areas characterized by economic deprivation had high rates of population turnover, since these were undesirable residential communities, which people left once it became feasible for them to do so. Socio-economically deprived areas also tended to be settled by newly arrived immigrants, which resulted in the ethnic and racial heterogeneity of these areas. As such, socio-economically deprived areas had high rates of residential mobility and racial heterogeneity. These neighbourhoods were viewed as “socially disorganized.” In such areas, conventional institutions of social control (e.g., family, schools, churches, voluntary community organizations) were weak and unable to regulate the behaviour of the neighbourhoods’ youths.

Shaw and McKay (1942) also noted that, aside from the lack of behavioural regulation, socially disorganized neighbourhoods tended to produce “criminal traditions” that could be passed to successive generations of youths. This system of pro-delinquency attitudes could be easily learned by youths through their daily contact with older juveniles. Thus, a neighbourhood characterized by social disorganization provides fertile soil for crime and delinquency in two ways: through a lack of behavioural control mechanisms and through the cultural transmission of delinquent values.

The social disorganization perspective remained both popular and influential throughout the 1950s and 1960s. As Bursik and Grasmick (1992) note, however, with the refinement of survey approaches to data collection and the increased interest in social-psychological theories of control, deterrence, social learning, and labelling, the focus of the discipline significantly began to shift from group dynamics to individual processes during the 1960s and 1970s. This trend away from macro-level criminological theory and research saw the social disorganization tradition fall into relative disfavour among criminologists, many of whom viewed it as irrelevant, or at best, marginal to modern criminology (e.g., Arnold and Brungardt, 1983; Davidson, 1981; cf. Byrne and Sampson, 1986).

Even so, social disorganization theory was “rediscovered” in the 1980s. Research by scholars such as Bursik (1986; 1988), Sampson and Groves (1989), and Wilson (1990; 1996) helped to revitalize, and partially reformulate and extend, the social disorganization tradition. In doing so, a number of criticisms levelled at the theory have been addressed (Bursik, 1988). For example, research has been conducted to test for the “reciprocal effects” of social disorganization (Bursik, 1986) and to test for the potential impact that levels of social disorganization of given communities may have on neighbouring communities (Heitgerd and Bursik, 1987).

In addition, the scope of the theory was adjusted and expanded to include constructs beyond the macro-level components originally specified by Shaw and McKay (i.e., low socio-economic status, residential mobility and racial heterogeneity). New concepts have been added that have enhanced its theoretical utility. In particular, recent research has explicitly tested for “intervening mechanisms” or mediating variables between the traditional social disorganization variables and crime rates. The intervening mechanisms noted by researchers include the effect of social disorganization on rates of family disruption and collective efficacy, which, in turn, directly influence crime rates (Sampson and Groves, 1989; Sampson, Raudenbush and Earls, 1997).

Recent research on social disorganization has taken two distinct but related directions. These have been referred to as the systemic model of social disorganization (Bursik and Grasmick, 1993; 1996) and the social capital/collective efficacy framework developed by Robert Sampson and his colleagues (Sampson, Morenoff and Earls, 1999; Sampson, Raudenbush and Earls, 1997).

The systemic variant of social disorganization focuses on the structural variation of three basic types of networks and the effects of these on crime. These networks relate to the private sphere (intimate friendship and kinship relations), parochial networks (less intimate and secondary group relationships), and the public sphere (groups and institutions outside the neighbourhood). This variant focuses on the effects of social disorganization on these three sources of behaviour regulation.

The social capital/collective efficacy framework of Sampson and his colleagues argues that social disorganization can reduce social capital and collective efficacy and thereby increase crime and violence rates. Social capital fosters trust and solidarity among residents, while collective efficacy relates to the belief that residents can effectively control the likelihood of undesirable behaviour within their neighbourhood. Especially important in this variant of social disorganization theory is the development of intergenerational networks, the mutual transferral of advice, material goods, and information about child rearing, and expectations for the joint informal control, support, and supervision of children within the neighbourhood (Sampson, Morenoff and Earls, 1999).

Processes Leading from Social Disorganization to Crime

Family Processes

Sampson (1986) indicates that social disorganization may have an effect on youth violence through its effects on family structures and stability. He suggested that traditional social disorganization variables may influence community crime rates when taking into account the effects of levels of family disruption. This may occur by (1)removing an important set of control structures over youths’ behaviour, and (2)creating greater opportunities for criminal victimization (i.e., through the lack of capable guardianship). Essentially, Sampson (1986) recognized the relationship of social disorganization theory to control theory and routine activities/lifestyle theory.

To test his assertions, Sampson (1986) used three measures of family structure. First, he included a measure of the per cent of residents in a neighbourhood who were ever married and who were either divorced or separated. The second measure of family structure was the per cent of female-headed families. Finally, he included a measure of the per cent of primary or single-headed households. His analyses revealed that, independent of the traditional social disorganization variables, the family structure variables each had a direct significant effect on community crime rates. Thus, Sampson’s work identified an important and additional source of social disorganization (implicit in the work of Shaw and McKay) that had been previously overlooked by empirical studies.

McNulty and Bellair (2003) also investigated the importance of family processes within the social disorganization tradition. This study integrates theory and research in criminology and urban sociology to specify a contextual model of differences in adolescent violence between whites and five racial-ethnic groups. The model presented views these differences as a function of variation in community contexts, family socioeconomic well-being, and the social capital available to adolescents and families. Data from the National Education Longitudinal Survey (1988 to 1992), which included information on 14,358 adolescents across 2,988 US locales, were matched with community-level data from the 1990 US census to test the resulting model. The white-black disparity in adolescents’ fighting is explained by higher levels of disadvantage in the communities in which black children often live. The disadvantage index accounted for the largest reduction in the black effect on fighting, reflecting the well-documented concentration of disadvantage in black communities. Importantly, and in agreement with the importance of family processes for social disorganization theory, the results indicate that the effect of concentrated disadvantage on fighting is mediated by more proximate processes that are linked to family well-being.

Tolan, Gorman-Smith and Henry (2003) employ data from a longitudinal study of 284 African-American and Latino adolescent boys and their caregivers, living in poor urban communities, to test a developmental-ecological model of violence. Six annual waves of data were applied to evaluate the relations between microsystem influences of parenting and peer deviance, macrosystem influences of community structural characteristics and neighbourhood social organization, and individual involvement in violence. Structural equation modelling analyses showed that community structural characteristics significantly predicted neighbourhood social processes. Importantly, it was found that parenting practices partially mediated the relation between neighbourhood social processes and gang membership.

Consistent with the above research that social disorganization may influence the level of youth violence through its effect on family processes, other researchers have found that family processes may be used to mitigate the deleterious effects of social disorganization. Burfeind (1984), for example, examined the role of the family, within a larger social context, as it relates to delinquency. This study focused on 1,588 non-black junior and senior high school students in the US. Burfeind analyzed the interactive effects of five family dimensions in relation to four other causal variables commonly associated with delinquency involvement: community social disorganization, delinquent friends, attachment to peers, and delinquent definitions. Analysis revealed that family factors influenced delinquency in different ways. The level of an adolescent’s attachment to the father was found to be independently related to delinquent activity after controlling for all other effects (independent and interactive). Paternal discipline had an interactive effect on delinquency, such that the type of paternal discipline influenced the effect that community social disorganization and the number of delinquent friends had on delinquency.

Sampson (1992) has attempted to consolidate the empirical findings that relate social disorganization to family processes and then to delinquency and youth violence. In so doing, he has developed a community-level theory of social disorganization, which places primary emphasis on family management practices and child health and development. He notes that the embeddedness of families and children in a community context is a central feature of the theory. Prenatal care, child abuse prevention, monitoring and supervision of youth, and other family management practices are intertwined with community networks of social organization. Social disorganization directly and indirectly influences the care of children and other family processes, and ultimately, rates of delinquency and crime.

Neighbourhood Processes

Neighbourhood processes have been implicated in the link between social disorganization and crime, with a number of authors arguing for the importance of different causal pathways. Sampson and Groves (1989) investigated how informal social controls are affected by social disorganization. Their study used aggregated data from the British Crime Survey. The intervening mechanisms between social disorganization variables and crime rates specified in their study include informal control mechanisms such as youths’ local friendship networks, the prevalence of unsupervised peer groups, and the level of organizational participation in the neighbourhood. Their general hypothesis is that social disorganization (i.e., low economic status, ethnic heterogeneity, residential mobility) affects informal control mechanisms in such a way that it increases crime and delinquency rates. The dependent measures employed in the study were total victimization, robbery, mugging, burglary, theft, and vandalism rates. The model was first tested by analyzing data for 238 localities in Great Britain, constructed from a 1982 national survey of 10,905 residents. The model was then replicated on an independent national sample of 11,030 residents of 300 British localities in 1984. Results from both surveys support the hypothesis and show that social disorganization significantly influenced the intervening variables, which in turn influenced all crime outcome measures.

Sun, Triplett and Gainey (2004), using American data, test an extended model of social disorganization that includes the theoretical paths proposed by Sampson and Groves (1989). Their model predicts that neighbourhoods with low socio-economic status, high residential mobility, racial heterogeneity, and family disruption should have sparse local friendship networks, low organizational participation, and unsupervised youth groups. These, in turn, are predicted to increase crime rates. To test this model, the authors used interview data from 8,155 residents of 36 neighbourhoods in seven US cities. The findings offered partial support for the Sampson and Groves model, since social disorganization variables were more effective in transmitting the effects of structural characteristics on assault compared with robbery.

Sampson, Raudenbush and Earls (1997) examined how social disorganization influences violence and crime, via its effects on collective efficacy. Their study argued that socially disorganized neighbourhoods are likely to be low on collective efficacy, which was defined as “the willingness of local residents to intervene for the common good” (Sampson et al., 1997: 919). The authors go on to state that community residents are “unlikely to intervene in a neighbourhood context in which the rules are unclear and people mistrust or fear one another. It follows that socially cohesive neighbourhoods will prove the most fertile contexts for the realization of social control.” (919). Using aggregated data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighbourhoods, they found that the traditional social disorganization variables explained 70 per cent of the variation in their collective efficacy measures, which, in turn, effectively mediated much of the direct effects of the social disorganization variables on violence and crime.

Cantillon et al. (2003) utilized an updated systemic model of social disorganization to investigate neighbourhood effects on both positive and negative youth outcomes. They argue that updated social disorganization models facilitate the assessment of truly important social processes and dynamics that result in cohesive and supportive neighbourhoods. These authors hypothesized that a sense of community was a more valid, comprehensive, and applicable measure for the mediating variables in social disorganization theory. Sense of community was defined as “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met by their commitment to be together” (324). Data for this study was gathered by interviews in 1999–2000. The sample consisted of 103 tenth-graders, one parent, and one neighbour of each tenth-grader. Mediation testing employed the principles outlined by Baron and Kenny (1986). Results supported the hypothesis that sense of community mediates the effect of neighbourhood disadvantage on youth outcomes.

Social Disorganization and Economic Deprivation

A number of studies have supported the idea that economic deprivation may be an important influence on social disorganization, which, in turn, as the previous research has indicated, is an important influence on youth violence. This proposes that economic deprivation could lead to social disorganization, which in turn leads to violence and crime. Other researchers, in contrast, have argued that poverty conditions the effects of social disorganization on youth violence. That is, social disorganization in conjunction with poverty results in higher rates of youth violence than either social disorganization or poverty alone do. No mediating processes are proposed in this second explanation. The research highlighted below offers partial support for both propositions, and indicates that researchers and practitioners who are interested in the effects of social disorganization on crime should also consider the importance of economic deprivation.

Shaw and McKay (1942) viewed the economic well-being of a community as a major determinant of variation in rates of delinquency. In particular, poor communities lack adequate resources to defend their interests collectively. Kornhauser (1978: 78−79) summarizes this position as follows:

In poor communities, institutions lack adequate money and knowledge. From the family to the community at large, money and skills for the effective performance of allotted functions are deficient or absent. Also, the intermediate structures created in communities with populations that are more affluent and knowledgeable fail to emerge in the less resourceful slum.... Without intermediate structures, community wide relations are weak or cannot become established.

Shaw and McKay consistently found strong negative associations between several different indicators of neighbourhood socio-economic status and delinquency rates. However, a number of studies in the 1950s and 1960s argued that, while crime rates are higher in lower socio economic areas, this relationship is spurious and disappears when other area characteristics are simultaneously considered (e.g., Bordua, 1958; Lander, 1954; Polk, 1957). Lander, for example, argued that delinquency rates reflected the level of anomie or integration in a given area and not the economic status of the area. Other researchers, in contrast, have argued that economic deprivation is a strong predictor of youth violence, independent of other influences (Baron, 2004; Bellair, Roscigno and Mcnulty, 2003; Eisler and Schissel, 2004). Social disorganization researchers, in contrast to both of the above views, argue that the relationship between economic deprivation and youth violence is more complex, and could be better understood if the concept of social disorganization is integrated with economic deprivation. Following is an examination of research in this tradition.

Blau and Blau (1982) argue that when economic inequalities are associated with ascribed characteristics such as race, this creates latent animosities and a situation characterized by social disorganization. This is because such ascriptions are perceived to be illegitimate, especially in societies that value egalitarianism. This situation is made more salient by the visible marker of race. The consequence is socially structured inequalities, which result in feelings of “resentment, frustration, hopelessness and alienation” (119). Blau and Blau suggest that these feelings lead to widespread social disorganization and violent crime. Blau and Blau test these assertions using 1970 US data for a sample of 125 Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas with populations of more than 250,000. The findings support their hypothesis.

Eamon (2001) conducted research that is consistent with the findings of Blau and Blau (1982). In doing so, he examined the influence of parenting practices, environmental influences and poverty on anti-social behaviour. Data from a sample of 10 to 12-year-old children (N = 963) from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (USA) are analyzed. Deviant peer pressure and neighbourhood problems partially mediate the relation between poverty and young adolescent anti-social behaviour. Both of the above studies are supportive of the idea that economic deprivation could lead to social disorganization, which in turn can lead to youth violence.

The research by Smith and Jarjoura (1988), Warner and Pierce (1993), and Warner and Roundtree (1997), in contrast to the above, all support the idea that poverty may moderate the relationship between social disorganization and crime. That is, social disorganization may lead to crime, but the effects are even more pronounced when social disorganization occurs within the context of high levels of poverty.

Smith and Jarjoura (1988) examine the relationship between neighbourhood characteristics and rates of violent crime and burglary. They argue that Shaw and McKay’s social disorganization theory provides a meaningful point of departure for examining the uneven distribution of criminal victimization across social units. Measures of three central theoretical elements in Shaw and McKay’s social disorganization perspective (poverty, residential mobility, and racial heterogeneity) and variables from the subculture of violence, social control, and opportunity perspectives are included in this research. The authors use data from 11,419 individuals in 57 US neighbourhoods from three Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas to test their hypotheses. The results indicate that core components of Shaw and McKay’s theory are important in explaining neighbourhood victimization rates, although their influence is more conditional than direct and varies by type of crime. Specifically, an interaction between percentage of low income households and residential mobility is a significant predictor of violent crime. That is, “the influence of residential mobility on violent crime rates varies with the poverty level of an area. Communities that are characterized by rapid population turnover and high levels of poverty have significantly higher violent crime rates than mobile areas that are more affluent, or poor areas that are characterized by more stable populations.” (42−43; italics in original). These results hold, regardless of level of urbanization, and are found in each of the three Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas for which the authors examined data. In the case of burglary, in contrast to violent crime, the interaction terms were not significant.

Warner and Pierce (1993) examine social disorganization theory using calls to the police as a measure of crime. Data were gathered from 60 Boston neighbourhoods in 1980. The authors argue that data based on complainant reports of crime, rather than official police reports, allow for the investigation of differences in findings based on victimization data and official crime data. The rates of assault, robbery, and burglary are regressed on poverty, residential mobility, racial heterogeneity, family disruption, and structural density. Interaction terms for poverty and heterogeneity, poverty, and mobility, and mobility and heterogeneity are also explored. The authors find that each of the social disorganization variables predicted crime rates, with poverty being the strongest and most consistent predictor. Interaction terms constructed between poverty and racial heterogeneity and poverty and residential mobility were also fairly stable predictors of crime. Similarly to Smith and Jarjoura (1988), the results indicate that poverty strengthens the effects of social disorganization on crime.

Warner and Roundtree (1997) employ a sample of 100 Seattle census tracts and investigate the influence of poverty, racial heterogeneity, residential stability, and interaction terms on assault and burglary. Consistent with the results of Smith and Jarjoura (1988) and Warner and Pierce (1993), they find that an interaction term between poverty and residential stability significantly predicts both dependent measures.

The studies cited in this section indicate that economic deprivation is an important factor to consider when examining the influence of social disorganization on crime. Two relationships between these constructs have been suggested by the existing research. Firstly, poverty may increase social disorganization, which in turn may lead to youth violence. Secondly, poverty may moderate or condition the relationship between social disorganization and youth violence. Specifically, the influence of social disorganization on crime may be more pronounced in poorer areas and attenuated in more affluent areas.

The relative importance of social disorganization as a predictor of youth violence compared with other theories of crime

In addition to examining the results of studies that use social disorganization as a predictor of youth violence, it is important to assess the relative importance of social disorganization when compared with other theories of crime. This may be done through an assessment of the findings of review studies, and by examining the findings of meta-analytical studies that have attempted to assess the relative importance of various theories of crime. One review study (Sampson, Morenoff and Gannon-Rowley, 2002) and one meta-analytical study (Pratt and Cullen, 2005) will be examined.

Sampson, Morenoff and Gannon-Rowley (2002) review and assess the cumulative research of “neighbourhood effects” literature that examines social processes related to problem behaviours and health-related outcomes. In doing so, they examine the range of studies that have used social disorganization as a predictor of crime to assess whether this variable has generally been found to be important. Over 40 studies published in peer-reviewed journals from the mid-1990s to 2001 are included. The analysis evaluates the salience of social-interactional and institutional mechanisms hypothesized to account for neighbourhood-level variations in a variety of phenomena (e.g., delinquency, violence, depression, high-risk behaviour), especially among adolescents. Neighbourhood ties, social control, mutual trust, institutional resources, disorder and routine activity patterns are highlighted. The review indicates that crime rates are related to neighbourhood ties and patterns of interaction, social cohesion, and informal social control, and are generally supportive of a social disorganization explanation.

Pratt and Cullen (2005) conduct a meta-analysis, which examines the relative effects of macro-level predictors of crime in relation to seven macro-level criminological perspectives. The analysis included 214 empirical studies, published between 1960 and 1999, that contained 509 statistical models that produced a total of 1,984 effect size estimates. Indicators of “concentrated disadvantage” (e.g., racial heterogeneity, poverty, and family disruption) are among the strongest and most stable predictors. Except for incarceration, variables indicating increased use of the criminal justice system (e.g., policing and get-tough policy effects) are among the weakest. Across all studies, the authors find that social disorganization and resource/economic deprivation theories receive strong empirical support; anomie/strain, social support/social altruism, and routine activity theories receive moderate support; and deterrence/rational choice and subcultural theories receive weak support.

Policy Implications

Pratt and Cullen (2005), in their meta-analysis of seven macro-level criminological perspectives, found that criminal justice system variables were consistently among the weakest predictors of crime, with the exception of incarceration, which was negatively related to crime rates. Over all, the most obvious implication of the findings is the likely futility of continued efforts to reduce crime by focusing exclusively on criminal justice system dynamics, with the possible exception of incarceration. The wisdom of expanded imprisonment must nonetheless be balanced against its financial costs and its questionable impact on the social vitality of inner cities. This implies that policy-makers must exercise caution when ignoring the root causes of crime and placing potentially excessive faith in criminal justice solutions to control crime. The research by Pratt and Cullen (2005) suggests that a focus on social disorganization and resource/economic deprivation theories, and the related policy implications for crime and youth violence reduction, warrant further consideration.

Social disorganization theory suggests that public spending and private investment must be concentrated in the most impoverished areas. This does not mean spending more human service dollars for the underclass by funding well-intentioned programs run by middle-class providers located on the periphery of the poorest neighbourhoods. Rather, this suggests that money be spent mainly on programs physically located in underclass neighbourhoods, run by people with ties to the neighbourhoods they intend to serve. This policy has the effect of targeting programs for the underclass while also strengthening minority agencies or creating new agencies within very poor neighbourhoods. These agencies not only provide services, but can also provide jobs for neighbourhood residents. As employment opportunities increase and better-funded local agencies become centres for social action, pressures on working- and middle-class residents to flee should decrease. Such an approach will also simultaneously strengthen residential ties and interconnections within neighbourhoods.

Social disorganization theory suggests that family preservation programs should be funded. This is because the family may be able to resist the deleterious effects of social disorganization on their children, and since strong families may also work together to reduce social disorganization in their communities. Family preservation programs are short-term, intensive, empowerment model programs, which focus not on an individual client but rather on the needs of the entire family. In dozens of states and cities in the US, these programs have been modelled after the successful “homebuilders” projects funded by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. Nelson, Landsman and Duetelman (1990) indicate that one of the most encouraging advances in social work in the past decade has been the development of family preservation programs.

Social disorganization theory implies that large public bureaucracies should become more neighbourhood-based and more open to input from clients and the neighbourhoods they serve. Reminiscent of the 1960s community control movement (Altshuler, 1970), current research suggests that social control is least effective when imposed by outside forces. Community controls are strengthened most when informal community-level networks are voluntarily tied to external bureaucracies and other resources (Figueira-McDonough, 1991). Diverse reform trends in policing, education and social services all stress more community involvement in public bureaucracies (Chubb and Moe, 1990; Comer, 1972; Goldstein, 1977; Kamerman and Kahn, 1989). These reforms, insofar as they increase client and neighbourhood control and break down existing bureaucratic barriers, merit support. Further ideas which relate to public policy implications are discussed in Elliott and Tolan (1998) and Wilson (1987).


The studies reviewed above indicate that social disorganization is an important predictor of youth violence and crime, and that social disorganization has its impact on youth violence and crime by affecting a number of mediating processes that facilitate youth violence. The findings also indicate that researchers and practitioners need to consider the linkages between economic deprivation and social disorganization when attempting to explain the genesis of youth violence. In attempting to attenuate youth violence, a number of policy implications are suggested by social disorganization theory.


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3This section was prepared with the assistance of Randy Seepersad, PhD candidate, Centre of Criminology, University of Toronto.


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews