Defining Disorder Research Paper

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There’s a lot of order in disorder and a lot of disorder in order. The problem, it seems, is in the definition – in defining disorder, or order, that is. Prominent scholars have remarked that disorder is a “slippery” concept (Skogan 1990), and a few quick observations confirm that. Red-light districts – areas that have traditionally been associated with the notion of disorder – are often more orderly than expected (Skogan 1990, pp. 61–63). Neighborhoods that are governed by organized crime or other tight social networks often turn out to be some of the safer neighborhoods in an urban setting (Suttles 1972). Conventional indices of neighborhood disorder, for instance, people loitering at the corner, often turn out to be forms of social control that ensure safety in the community (Patillo 1998). And perceptions of disorder, it seems, are often the product of the racial composition of the neighborhood, not the level of danger: individuals often perceive Black and Hispanic neighborhoods as far more disorderly than any objective measurement would establish (Sampson and Raudenbush 2004).

This makes it extremely difficult to define disorder – in fact, it may make it impossible. Disorder, it turns out, is in the eye of the beholder. It is a normative rather than purely descriptive category. It functions, most often, as a statement of preference. A good example is New York City under mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former police commissioner William Bratton: during the first 3 years of broken windows policing, from 1994 to 1996, the rate of robbery victimization fell about 60 %, and many observers claimed victory for order, but during the same period, allegations of police misconduct rose by about 60 % (Harcourt 2001, pp. 167–170). Whether to describe that period as orderly or disorderly tells us more about, say, our preferences and normative values, than it does about the scientific measure of disorder. But perhaps the most telling illustration of the difficulty of defining disorder is the multiplicity of definitions employed by scholars: even though there has been extensive work trying to define both disorder and order (see, e.g., Ross and Mirowsky 1999), as Kurbin (2008) notes “variability in how disorder is understood and conceptualized across studies is the rule rather than the exception” (p. 205). Indeed, researchers generally do not even agree on whether to call the phenomenon “disorder” or “incivilities” (Kubrin 2008). In this research paper, we catalogue some of the main issues surrounding the definition of disorder.

Important Controversies

Creating Disorderly Subjects

Generally, disorder is thought of as containing two dimensions: physical and social disorder. Physical disorder pertains to the decaying urban environment – for example, abandoned buildings, rundown sidewalks, decaying storefronts, or broken windows; social disorder embodies any public behavior of individuals that can be seen as threatening (Sampson and Raudenbush 1999; Harcourt and Ludwig 2006). Cues in the neighborhood environment that are viewed as social disorder tend to result in the categorization of individuals as orderly or disorderly. Orderly or law-abiding people are generally understood to be those residents who, when confronted with disorder, retreat into their homes to avoid criminals and victimization. Disorderly people, on the other hand, are those who see disorder as an opportunity to commit crime (see Harcourt 2001 for a discussion on how broken windows theory creates these categories). Unfortunately, the line between the orderly and disorderly is often hard to define, and these categories become especially troubling when we consider that residents may tend to see disorder through the lens of race and ethnicity.

This point is illustrated well through example. In Off the Books, Sudhir Venkatesh (2000) shows how residents of a disadvantaged community in Chicago earn an income through illicit activities. Illicit income may come from activities such as drug selling, repairing cars in alleyways, or selling stolen goods from a van near a neighborhood park. Clearly, these activities are illegal and would draw police attention. But do the residents of the neighborhood see it that way? These individuals offer goods; some of those goods can be seen as necessities, like socks or beauty supplies, at prices that enable the residents to buy them where they otherwise could not. Are the residents seeing disorder? Most likely not. Are the police seeing disorder? Most definitely, it is these kinds of activities that broken windows policing explicitly targets, with the expectation that taking disorderly people off the streets will prevent serious crime from happening (Wilson and Kelling 1982). But in this case, the individuals selling stolen goods, while clearly engaged in illegal activities, are merely making money; additionally, they are providing low-cost goods to residents. Thus, rather than being disorderly, they are viewed as a positive economic force in the neighborhood. Again, the line between disorderly and orderly blurs.

One of the unique aspects of the broken windows theory is its temporal structure – disorder breeds serious crime. Apply this to individuals (i.e., social disorder), and the theory would suggest that disorderly individuals will either themselves will commit serious crime or attract other criminals. Policing disorderly individuals, in theory, effectively removes serious criminals from the street. In the process, disorder becomes a degree of crime: breaking a window, littering, and jumping a turnstile become grades along a spectrum that leads to homicide. And since disorder theory and its implementation defines who is orderly and who is disorderly, this, combined with its temporal aspects, has a deleterious, long-standing stigmatizing effect on individuals (Harcourt 2001, p. 150).

This is especially problematic in communities were disorder does not represent “criminal activity” the way the police or nonresidents would think of it, specifically in communities where illegal activities (i.e., drug selling, prostitution, or panhandling) are a means to an end for daily subsistence (St. Jean 2007; Venkatesh 2006) or when neighborhood social networks are interwoven with individuals who are criminally active (Patillo 1998; Pattilo-McCoy 1999). The policing of disorder removes breadwinners and the protective agents of the community – furthering the dire economic conditions in the community and making the illegal economic activities that spurn policing more steadfast in the neighborhood (Rose and Clear 1998). Here, policing disorder and not acknowledging what disorder means to community residents redefine residents in the eyes of law enforcement and even mainstream society. Residents in these communities, therefore, are looked upon as hard-core criminals in the making, in need of policing and punishment. Regardless of individual variation in perceptions, policing disorder redefines individuals in disorder communities as disorderly individuals, rather than residents. Creating disorderly subjects, coupled with variation in individuals’ perceptions of disorder, becomes even more nefarious because policing disorder in these communities does not reduce disorder; rather, it reinforces the need for policing.

Seeing Disorder

One of the primary reasons why theories of disorder have gained so much traction is their simplicity; generally, the presence of disorder in neighborhood signals criminal opportunities and a lack of social control (Wilson and Kelling 1982). The common sense appeal of disorder theories is evident. We have all been in “bad” neighborhoods, looked at our surroundings, and felt certain of the potential for crime and scared for our safety. It is this simple association between the presence of disorder and subsequent knowledge of neighborhood conditions in the minds of individuals that keeps disorder theory at the forefront of criminology and urban sociology. As a result, disorder theories are able to use “disorder” as a proxy for informal social control, neighborhood withdrawal, or other neighborhood characteristics related to crime or disorganization.

Yet, an important ingredient in the association between disorder, neighborhood outcomes, and crime is often assumed: residents must perceive, interpret, and act on disorder similarly in order to affect the neighborhood-level outcomes disorder is associated with. This assumption is made not by individuals but by academics. Disorder is at the core of neighborhood social dynamics because it represents deviance from prescribed norms about neighborhood like. Burisk and Grasmick (1993) suggest that all that is needed for neighborhood social control is the shared notion of a life that is free of personal harm. Disorder, it is assumed via its definition, is the visual reminder within a neighborhood that safety is not present. But does disorder uniformly represent this to individuals?

The broken windows theory will be used as an example of this, though it is certainly not the only disorder theory that assumes this process. The broken windows theory suggests that disorder leads to crime in a neighborhood because of resident withdrawal (Wilson and Kelling 1982). That withdrawal is based in residents perceiving their community as unsafe or that no one cares about what happens in the neighborhood and, perhaps most importantly, no one cares about what happens to them in the neighborhood. Because of what disorder signals, residents are afraid of potential victimization and left uncertain of help in a crisis; therefore, they restrict their activities in a neighborhood (Wilson and Kelling 1982). Once withdrawal happens, informal social control in a neighborhood is diminished; it is this process that the broken windows theory suggests lead to crime.

Rested in the above process are three components related to individuals, though which are rarely discussed and often assumed: (1) perceptions of disorder cues, (2) how individuals interpret disorder cues, and (3) how people act on their interpretation of disorder cues. Each of these steps is crucial to the link between disorder and crime, though, to date, they have been left relatively unaccounted for by disorder theory. Additionally, each of these steps builds upon each other; therefore, we begin with perceptions.

For residents to ultimately restrict their involvement within a neighborhood, they first need to “see” the disorder around them. In much disorder research, there is an assumption that people see only the disorder that is present; more specifically, people only perceive the objective levels of disorder in their environment (Ross and Mirowsky 1999). Most researchers report that there is little within-neighborhood variation of disorder perceptions; in other words, people in the same neighborhood see disorder similarly (Skogan 1990). Yet, given the results of some recent studies, this is clearly not the case (Hipp 2010; Sampson and Raudenbush 1999, 2004; Wallace, in press). Sampson and Raudenbush (1999) report a 0.6 (approximately) correlation between subjective and objective measures of disorder; in another study, their results show within-neighborhood variation in disorder perceptions (Sampson and Raudenbush 2004). Even when constraining the ecological unit to about the size of a city block, effectively controlling for exposure to difference sections of a neighborhood, Hipp (2010) also found variations in disorder perceptions. In essence, research has clearly demonstrated that disorder perceptions vary. Researchers, with few exceptions (Taylor 2001), have yet to fully theorize why variation in disorder perceptions is so problematic for disorder theory: when people see disorder differently, it suggests that disorder is interpreted differently.

Just as with perceptions, for disorder to negatively affect residents’ behavior within their neighborhood, to be in accordance with the broken windows theory, they first must see disorder and then interpret it as threatening. A great deal of research suggests that the presence of disorder in a neighborhood makes residents feel uneasy and at risk for victimization (Kelling and Coles 1996; Skogan 1990; Wilson and Kelling 1982). Hunter (1978) suggests that individuals interpret disorder to mean that both citizen groups and public agencies within and outside of the neighborhood cannot maintain satisfactory conditions within the neighborhood and subsequently residents feel vulnerable. When disorder is employed in sociopsychological studies, most studies suggest that individuals interpret disorder as the potential for crime and victimization, which generates fear and stress thereby causing negative personal outcomes, such as reduced health and well-being or increased depression and mistrust (Ross 1993; Ross and Jang 2000; Ross and Mirowsky 2001). While the link between disorder and fear of crime is established, it is unclear if individuals’ interpretations is what generates fear, especially given that fact that individuals often are unable to distinguish disorder and crime (Gau and Pratt 2008) and researchers often conflate the two in disorder measurements (Harcourt 2001). As research shows that perceptions of disorder are not universal, it is unreasonable to assume that interpretations of disorder are universal as well.

Finally, we reach the third step in the process where perceptions and interpretations of disorder combine to impact individuals’ behavior. If individuals perceive disorder and interpret it in a threatening way, the broken windows theory, as well as other theories, suggest they begin to withdraw from neighborhood life and restrict their territoriality (Skogan 1990; Wilson and Kelling 1982). Of course, this is predicated on an interpretation of disorder that will elicit such behavior. Should disorder be perceived and interpreted by individuals in any other light, their assumed behavioral reaction does not emerge. Indeed, there are several urban ethnographies that show that people do not necessarily withdraw from disorder. For example, in Black Picket Fences, Mary Patillo shows that neighborhood residents interact and work with local gang members selling drugs to arrange places and times in the neighborhood were drugs can be sold that do not effect neighborhood life, such as basketball games or use of a playground. In Off the Books, residents often use services that in other neighborhoods would be considered disorderly, such as fixing cars in alleys or panhandling, because the services are economical and a means to help other residents get by (Venkatesh 2006). In sum, once variation in perceptions or interpretations of disorder does not cause individuals to withdraw from their neighborhood or be fearful, the link between disorder and neighborhood outcomes, such as crime or informal social control, is broken.

From the delineation of the above steps, it is easy to see how any kink in the three steps is a serious threat to validity for the various theories of disorder. There have been calls for research to address the above points (Taylor 2001), but only recently has scholarship begun to study them. To date, current research has established that there are variations in disorder perceptions, though has had little success in explaining why they occur. At best, we know that variations in perceptions of disorder are not primarily a result of neighborhood exposure or use (i.e., one’s routine activities) but perhaps partially due to how individuals employ racial stereotypes that are attached to place (Sampson and Raudenbush 2004). Unfortunately, this explanation does not cover all the variation we see; for example, women, those highly educated, and married perceive more disorder, while older adults and non-Whites perceive less (Hipp 2010; Sampson and Raudenbush 2004; Wallace, in press). What we are left with is variation in perceptions without explanations. In essence, until we know how people see disorder, we are left uncertain of the effects disorder has on individuals and neighborhoods.

Race And Disorder

As noted in the previous section, research has shown that disorder perceptions are imbued with race (Sampson and Raudenbush 2004). The stereotype of Black Americans as violent and criminal is both well established and common (Eberhardt et al. 2004), and it should be no surprise that this stereotype has bled into the perception of place (Wacquant 1993) given segregation and slavery (Loury 2002). As a result, individuals’ perceptions of disorder are filtered through “stigmatized groups and disreputable areas” (Sampson and Raudenbush 2004).

There is both direct and indirect evidence of this. First, when testing whether neighborhood racial characteristics influence disorder perceptions, Sampson and Raudenbush (2004) show that even when taking objective levels of neighborhood disorder into account, there is a positive association between disorder perceptions and percent of Black in a neighborhood. In essence, the more Black faces people see in their community, the more problematic they perceive disorder. As a result, they suggest that “residents supplement their knowledge (of disorder) with prior beliefs informed by the racial stigmatization of modern urban ghettos” (p. 336). As a consequence, Sampson and Raudenbush (2004) express concern about using the broken windows theory to inform disorder reduction strategies: if disorder perceptions and fear are racially motivated, reducing disorder will not reduce fear given that fear is being produced by another visual cue – race.

We also see evidence that race is involved in disorder perceptions via policing literature. The broken windows theory has motivated a type of policing strategy called order-maintenance policing that targets disorder cues, particularly social disorder cues, as a way to reduce serious crime in the neighborhood. The reasoning will not be repeated here as it is part of early sections, but there is an inherent problem with policing disorder, namely, the act of subject creation. When policing disorder, we run the risk of moving away from thinking that the act of loitering, for example, is a crime and toward thinking that the loiter is criminal. Harcourt (2001) expands on this as such: “Rather than judging the act of loitering, we may attribute to the person who is loitering certain propensities – certain tastes, attitudes, and values” (p. 163). Couple the issue of subject creation with the evidence of the racialization of disorder perceptions and making policing disorder in a race neutral way becomes difficult, if not impossible. The broken windows policing creates racial animus: “The prominence of race in the decision to stop citizens may not rise to the threshold of racial profiling, but it does seem to create a racial classification of ‘suspicion’” (Fagan and Davies 2001). Bringing about order to a “disorderly” neighborhood becomes impossible when the neighborhood has a minority racial composition; in effect, removing disorder will not remove the association of disorder with race. So long as black and brown faces remain, the neighborhood will be seen as disorderly regardless of the amount of disorder present.

The Paradox Of Disorder

One aspect of disorder that has been continuously demonstrated by urban ethnographers and systematically ignored by disorder theorists is when residents see disorder as a positive force, or rather, as order. As discussed above, in disadvantaged neighborhoods, disorder has become an adaptation while still remaining disorder in the eyes of authority. Making order from disorder is a process aligned with the durability of social isolation and segregation. Generations of residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods are exposed to deleterious neighborhood conditions (Wilson 1987, 1996). It is this exposure that enables disorder to be viewed in a different light – rather than being a neighborhood problem, it is a form of daily survival (Anderson 1999) or a means of making money (St. Jean 2007; Venkatesh 2006).

A ripe example of this process is how some components of disorder were normalized in the Robert Taylor Homes housing project in Chicago (Venkatesh 2000). In American Project, Sudhir Venkatesh details life in a housing project in Chicago. Venkatesh shows how the identity of the housing project shifted over the course of 40 years. At the beginning, residents of housing projects saw their living environment as a move away from the decay of the surrounding areas. Where they once were sharing kitchens, now, residents had their own, self-contained apartments. Residents worked toward betterment of the community and the project by forming formal and informal groups that dealt with issues of safety, quality of life, and amenities in the projects. Yet, as time passed, the city and the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) slowed the resources available to the projects. The efficacy residents once had in dealing with institutional forces faded – any solution to their housing problems had to come from their hands. With less social power, the solutions residents offered would not pull them out of poverty or their environment but only offer to make that environment safer or more negotiable. For instance, a group of powerful women in the Robert Taylor Homes created a law enforcement body of men who were staying with other residents and were not listed on the lease. (As a condition of their lease, residents were not allowed to have any individuals stay with them that were not listed on the lease.) In order not to be reported to the CHA, these women would often call upon the men to deal with problems, like domestic violence or snitching to the police (Venkatesh 2000). Soon, even this efficacy faded. Hustling – or making money through illicit means – became prominent and soon dominated public space. And as soon as hustling gained a foothold, residents stopped seeing disorder, like loitering or panhandling, and started to see hustling. This process was a direct result of opportunities and resources being pulled from the housing projects, leaving residents to cope with their situation in any way they can.

In disadvantaged communities, the economic situation so depressed and isolated that illicit economies provide one of the few reliable sources of income (Anderson 1999; Venkatesh 2000, 2006; Wilson 1996). Often conducted in public space, illicit economies often take the outward shape of social disorder. When occurring in public, illicit economies are not simply a panhandler or a drug dealer; they are richer and include more than the simple notions of what the classic definition of disorder leads us to imagine. Venkatesh (2006) paints an in-depth picture of an illicit economy working in a neighborhood park on the south side of Chicago:

Pimps brought their sex workers to an abandoned building near the park. Carliss, a car mechanic, moved his outdoor ‘Oil and Tire Change’ operation to the alley next to the park’s basketball court. Two gun brokers come to a nearby abandoned building once a week to see handguns and pistols. A few men sold stolen car stereos, guns, and other electronic equipment from the back of two beat-up beige vans that were always stationed at the park entrance. Mo-Town, the local hot dog vendor, and Charlie, who sold stolen cigarettes and beauty products, set up their respective carts at the edge of the park. And now the drug sales, as Big Cat had promised, round the clock. All of this was secured by placement of Big Cat’s rank and file around the area: all were armed, they physically searched and harassed passersby, and they drank and smoked marijuana until the early morning hours with loud music blaring from their stereos. They also charged a fee to each entrepreneur based in and around the park. (Venkatesh 2006, p. 71)

Here we see economic opportunities come in many forms, forms often associated with disorder. In disadvantaged neighborhoods, the illicit economy is pervasive and often condoned by residents, regardless of whether they are in or out of the licit economy (Venkatesh 2006). Condoning does not mean acceptance of the illicit economy for many residents, though they understand the necessity of it. When working on public and accessible public space in the neighborhood, residents understand attacking the illicit economy means undoing someone’s income: “residents may weigh delinquent activity that has an economic dimension differently than, say, crimes of passion like domestic violence and assault. This does not mean that all underground activity is tolerated. But of the activity generates income, any ethical dilemmas it creates must also be judged in terms of how the activity supports a household and ever the wider community” (Venkatesh 2006, p. 74). People turn a blind eye to the drug trade in inner-city communities: “people residing in the drug-infested, depressed inner-city community may understand the economic need for the drug trade” (Anderson 1999, p. 132). People only become concerned with the drug trade when it results in violence – then their intolerance comes to the surface. Now, illicit economic endeavors that are, to an outsider, disorderly are not seen in that light for neighborhood residents. Even when these activities are not welcomed, they are seen more as a means to an end than as disorder. The outward publicness of illicit economy shifts the disorderly aspects of its workings to a more complex problem of economic survival of individuals and communities. Hence, disorder is not linked to fear of crime, neighborhood decay, or crime; rather, it is rather the opposite: livelihood.

The handful of concerns about defining disorder that we have been able to address in this limited space – and there are many more – should make scholars wary of using the concept of disorder in its current form. Disorder is long overdue for reconceptualization, and careful scholarly work should aim to do just that.


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