Race and Ethnicity in Social Disorganization Theory Research Paper

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Race and ethnicity were central to the early formulations of Social Disorganization Theory, and consideration of these social categories remains significant in contemporary criminological research. In what came to be known as the Chicago School, scholars took Durkheimian conceptions of social solidarity and social disruption and created what today is known as Disorganization Theory to explain changes that were happening in the city around them. Many transitions were occurring in Chicago, as well as other Midwestern and Northeastern cities, but one of the most important of those was dramatic demographic shifts in the population as a result of migration. While earlier streams of immigrants to the United States came predominantly from Western and Northern Europe with physical features, cultural practices, and patterns of behavior that were not too dissimilar from the native population, the latter part of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries saw an increasing number of migrants coming from Eastern and Southern Europe. Large groups of immigrants began to populate Chicago and other American cities from countries like Italy, Greece, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. They were predominately Catholic, with languages and cultural traditions that differed dramatically from the previous immigrant waves from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, and Scandinavian countries.

During this same period, as a result of what has come to be known as the Great Migration, African-Americans moved out of the rural South to escape the oppression of Jim Crow laws and to find a better economic future into the cities of the North and West. Cities like Chicago, which needed industrial workers, were prime places for these movers to settle. Similarly, rural whites, also seeking a better economic future, moved into these cities looking for jobs.

For those early American sociologists, the changing city became their urban laboratory. They wanted to know how the changes they observed impacted social life, and a central concern was how these social forces affected crime and delinquency. Social Disorganization Theory became a critical tool for exploring and explaining the patterns that they observed. Because racial and ethnic differences were central to the dynamics of this shifting urban landscape, early scholars used the important concepts of ethnic heterogeneity and ethnic succession to develop the theory used today. Both concepts will be described below, but essentially those scholars believed that when too many different groups lived in close proximity, resulting in racial and ethnic heterogeneity, the social solidarity required for an organized society could not be developed and maintained. Also, they came to believe that crime, delinquency, and other social problems were not properties of the ethnic groups that inhabited these disorganized neighborhoods, but were instead characteristics of the place. As different groups moved into that space, they would take on the levels of problems that went with the space. As the ethnic composition of neighborhoods changed, the crime rates would remain roughly the same, and there would be ethnic succession in the neighborhoods and in criminal activity.

Historical Context

Race And Ethnicity In Early Chicago School Human Ecology

Chicago School sociologists Park and Burgess ([1925]1967) provided the concentric zone hypothesis as a model of how American cities grow and adapt to change. Borrowing from the literature on plant and animal ecology, Park and Burgess’s work in urban ecology was aimed at understanding both spatial relationships of social and psychological experiences and how the spatial structure of relationships within the city shaped behavior among city inhabitants. As such, this model was one of an ideal process of change rather than a static state of what cities look like (Stengel 1964).

The concentric zone hypothesis of urban growth suggested that American urban cities grew due to ecological factors, radially by concentric zones. Zone one comprises the central business district, where land is the most expensive and the most desirable particularly for commercial real estate. Zone two is the zone of transition, housing both older factories as well as cheap housing. This zone, the most undesirable area of the city, is the first point of entry for the city’s newest immigrants and typically has the highest crime and poverty rates. Recent immigrants typically moved first into these areas of the city due to the availability inexpensive housing and proximity to co-ethnics and industrial employment. However, once they improved their social and economic status, immigrants, oftentimes in subsequent generations, were able to move out of this zone into more desirable areas of the city. Zones three, four, and five contained homes of blue-collar workers, middle-class residences, and upper middle-class single-family homes, respectively.

Park and Burgess ([1925]1967) argue that cities are constantly changing, growing in concentric patterns due to a process of invasion, where one population seeks to take over from another, and succession, where one population finally takes the place of another. The most striking example of this process of change is the invasion and succession of different ethnic groups into and out of city neighborhoods. Critical to the Park and Burgess model of invasion and succession of the population in urban areas was the idea that competition between inhabitants acted as the mechanism for neighborhoods to achieve equilibrium after social change, particularly the invasion of a new group into the community. Park argued that similar to the process that leads to biotic changes, cultural changes within a community occur by the same mechanism of competition. In the natural communal order of an urban area, competition for land use and economic resources determines the location of residential areas as well as the distribution of the population throughout the city. Less successful population groups will naturally inhabit the least desirable areas of the city. As new groups move in, such as new immigrant populations, competition for resources allows older immigrant groups who have become more economically stable over time to move out to more desirable areas allowing newer inhabitants to take their place.

In their classic study, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, sociologists Thomas and Znaniecki document the transition of Polish peasants into American life, noting the struggles immigrants have in assimilating into American culture and the resulting social disorganization of the immigrant group ([1918]1996). Polish immigrants, newly arriving in American cities, brought with them the norms and morals of the old country and immersed themselves in smaller Polish communities that were unable to provide cultural and normative structures that would offer support in the face of marital conflict, disagreements between neighbors, mental health issues, and unemployment in their new country. The disorganization of the Polish peasant immigrant community is highlighted in the transition to the American way of life. New Polish immigrants struggled with economic dependency and conflict resolution with neighbors and strangers. The American economic system does not offer jobs like those the peasants were accustomed to in their home country, and therefore, immigrants found it easy to move from one job to another, unafraid of job loss, because they had developed little attachment to the positions they were able to obtain. Though the Polish community may still be intact in numbers, it now exists within the wider American community that does not recognize the function or influence of the familial or community group. Kin and kith bonds becomes broken as the church and community lose significance and power within American society, and therefore, are unable to provide support or social control when needed.

The incidence and nature of homicide illustrates the distinct nature of the social relations of Polish immigrants and the community in the American city. In the home country, stranger murders were rare since peasants had few social ties to those outside their economic and familial group, thus motives for violence rarely existed. Where social ties in American life have loosened for the Polish immigrants, contact with those outside the community is more frequent, defensive and hostile at times, and full of mistrust. The potential for a violent interaction with others can no longer be effectively subdued by kin who are now scattered, nor does the Polish community have the normative authority to intervene in the struggles of individuals.

African-Americans And Social Disorganization Theory

The African American experience in the American city, and with the process of invasion and succession, is distinct from those of other migrant groups such as the Poles discussed previously. African American migrants from Southern states inherited the most undesirable residential areas of the city. Unlike European immigrant groups, the African American experience is marked by formalized discrimination, which forced segregation of the group into the most undesirable areas of the city and restricted access to employment and education. Segregation policies and practices inhibited such essential transitions, limiting the ability of African Americans to amass savings, acquire stable jobs with good pay, and move into more desirable areas. As the “black belt” of Chicago expanded, the area became overcrowded due to the extreme density of housing from within, causing white residents and immigrants to flee to other parts of the city.

Sociologists documenting neighborhood conditions in Chicago show that African American residential areas suffered from a high rate of death and disease such as tuberculosis, mental health issues, and infant deaths (Drake and Clayton 1945). In addition, these areas were also highest in poverty and juvenile delinquency, indicative of social disorganization. Unlike African American residents, other immigrant groups who initially moved into distressed, disorganized inner-city areas were not constrained to the black belt of Chicago or other similarly disadvantaged sections of other cities.

However, these undesirable or “blighted” residential areas were invaded by warehouses and industry. The land was seen by city planners and real estate investors as more valuable for industrial establishment rather than residential areas due to its close proximity to the central business district. Therefore, investment in housing decreased because the land is more valuable for industrial establishment, while at the same time, the cost of rent was pushed up in areas already concentrated with disadvantage. Where housing investments were being made, gentrification of these areas pushes African American residents into suburban neighborhoods shared by industrial sites such as steel mills (Drake and Clayton 1945).

Ethnic Succession In Neighborhoods And Crime

Shaw and McKay’s (1942) seminal work documenting the spatial patterns of male juvenile delinquency across the city of Chicago is the hallmark of Social Disorganization Theory. Shaw and McKay found that Chicago neighborhoods where male juvenile delinquency was highest were characteristically higher in poverty, residential instability, and ethnic heterogeneity. They argued that these characteristics were indicative of social disorganization which leads to some neighborhoods having higher crime rates than others. Though their work did not test this, Shaw and McKay speculated that weak social ties were the mechanism that inhibited those living in disorganized neighborhoods from combatting neighborhoods problems such as crime and delinquency.

The neighborhoods in Chicago characterized by high rates of foreign-born residents, recent immigrants, and migrants from the rural South were those with high levels of ethnic heterogeneity. Language barriers, differences in cultural and social norms, and residential instability of immigrants moving away from neighborhoods of first residence are thought to inhibit the formation of close social ties to other residents, thus decreasing the capacity for neighborhood informal social control and increasing the potential for crime.

Where Park and Burgess ([1925]1967) noted the patterns of invasion and succession for land use and industry, Shaw and McKay (1942) highlighted the patterns of ethnic and racial invasion and succession in Chicago neighborhoods and the relationship to patterns of male juvenile delinquency. Though the zone of transition experienced invasion of new immigrants and succession of older more established immigrants to more desirable areas of the city, levels of crime and delinquency remained stable over time in the same neighborhoods. This finding suggested that delinquency was tied to place rather than people or groups. Shaw and McKay argue that neighborhood crime and delinquency rates remain stable over time due to a process of cultural transmission, whereby the patterns, norms, and values that support delinquency are transmitted down through successive generations.

Shaw and McKay point towards the conflicting presence of norms and values within communities that are characterized by ethnic heterogeneity as a partial explanation for high rates of juvenile delinquency in some Chicago neighborhoods. Diversity in the cultural background of residents in the zone of transition did not foster cooperation or agreement on how to solve community problems. In addition, the constant movement of Chicago residents out from the center to more desirable neighborhoods led newer immigrants to identify with areas of residence where they planned to move rather than where they were first living. Thus, the problems that plagued their neighborhood of first residence were unlikely to be troubling to those who planned to move elsewhere.

Shaw and McKay also documented that in the African American neighborhoods of Chicago, the characteristics of social disorganization were particularly exaggerated. Like Drake and Clayton, they compared the experience of white immigrants who were able to achieve more satisfactory conditions of living and working with African Americans unable to make similar achievements due to legal restrictions on procuring residence (enforced segregation), education, and employment. As a result, African American residents of Chicago were unable to move outwardly to more desirable areas of the city, and thus, conditions of living remained in a state of concentrated disadvantage, social disorganization, and increasing crime and delinquency.

Race And Ethnicity In Contemporary Social Disorganization Theory

A central feature of Social Disorganization Theory is the argument that there is stability of crime within geographical areas. In the tradition of social disorganization, race and ethnicity are not significant as markers of cultural or behavioral proclivities for criminal offending but rather serve as indicators of pervasive social disadvantages that are affiliated with racial status. The inequality that is endemic in the educational, occupational, residential, and criminal justice contexts for people of color erects structural barriers that prevent effective social organization. European immigrants to the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries faced similar restrictions, with continuing parallels to the contemporary experience of Latinos, African-Americans, and some Asian communities.

Contemporary versions of Social Disorganization Theory continue to emphasize basic principles of the theory, including informal social control and neighborhood solidarity, but scholars have added emphasis on economic disadvantage and social and cultural isolation. As was the case with their predecessors, racial and ethnic residential patterns are central to the discussion. Increased immigration and shifts in the economic and occupational market suggests that the mechanisms once understood to drive the social disorganization of neighborhoods need to consider economic and political changes and the influence on the urban environment and, consequently, the nature of neighborhood crime.

While consistent with Shaw and McKay’s original formulation, Sampson and Wilson (1995) offer unique theoretical mechanisms that explore modern determinants of geographically concentrated criminal activity, emphasizing the role of neighborhood disadvantage. This work builds on Wilson’s earlier research (1987) that recognizes the vital role of deindustrialization as a cause of economic disadvantage as well as pervasive residential segregation and social isolation, all causes of crime and delinquency. The decline of the urban manufacturing cities that characterized the industrial era resulted in a decline in the number of jobs available to workers with limited skills levels and low educational attainment, which disproportionately affected African-American men. The flight of middle-class whites and African-Americans from the urban core resulted in residential areas that were bereft of institutional and organizational markers of stability. Wilson suggests that these macro labor market changes contributed to the social isolation of many African-Americans who continued to live in poor urban neighborhoods, resulting in higher social disorganization and an increase in rates of violent and property crimes. Sampson and Wilson (1995) suggest that the breakdown of residential organization can be attributed to the concentrated level of economic disadvantage and the inability of residents left in the urban center to form protective relationships with neighbors. The social isolation fostered by limited residential mobility, family disruption, and high rates of poverty weakens the informal social control mechanisms that guard against the rising tide of violent and property crime.

Bursik (2000) highlights the transition from Shaw and McKay’s ecological model of social disorganization to the contributions of the systemic model, which underscores the role of interactional networks that regulate behavior within neighborhoods. These networks provide the foundation for informal social control measures to control criminal behavior in the community. The breakdown of social organization is indicative of the dissolution of institutional and organizational ties to the broader community. The loss of middle-class residents, businesses, and community organizations from the urban center left the central neighborhoods with limited opportunities for public engagement and financial mobility. The exodus of residents signaled the loss of viable community structures that would aid in sustaining neighborhood cohesion. Bursik (2006) emphasizes the role of political, economic, and social network links external to the neighborhood environment in the pursuit of regulating disorderly or unacceptable behavior. The activation of these ties and their accompanying resources is predicated on the social organization of a given neighborhood. In truly disadvantaged environments, the access to these external resources is hindered by the societally disadvantaged position of its residents (Wilson 1987). Therefore, the ability to organize collectively for broader control mechanisms to combat criminal activity is limited. Predominately African-American, inner-city neighborhoods are especially affected by this process because they are more frequently characterized by hyper-disadvantage (Wilson 1987), residential segregation (Massey and Denton 1993), and as a consequence, they experience high rates of both property and violent crime (Peterson and Krivo 2010). In socially disorganized communities, social capital formation is hindered, and in communities with increased proportions of immigrant populations, the ability to effectively build and sustain these network ties is constrained by language and cultural barriers (Peterson and Krivo 2010). But recent research indicates that, contrary to the logic of early Chicago School theorists, this is not the case for all immigrant groups. Such exceptions will be discussed below. Essentially, it can be said that the social isolation experienced by many communities of color and especially some inner-city African-American neighborhoods, in tandem with increased levels of economic disadvantage, weakens the connection between neighbors, which in turn inhibits social control, allowing more crime to occur.

Sampson and Wilson (1995) highlight the substantial differences between the economic deprivations experienced by African-Americans compared to their white counterparts. They contend that an accurate comparison is not feasible given that poor whites nearly always reside in areas with less concentrated disadvantage than African-Americans, a consequence of racial residential segregation. As a result, the conditions that tear at the fabric of social organization – poverty, residential instability, and family disruption – are more pervasive and concentrated in African-American communities, making studying and replicating such circumstances in white neighborhoods an impossibility. The extent to which racism and de jure and de facto discrimination have altered the trajectories of African-Americans in the urban centers creates levels of economic, educational, occupational, and political inequity that cannot be matched in even the poorest white neighborhoods. Economically disadvantaged whites are not as isolated from nonpoor people as are their African-American counterparts. Poor whites tend to live in closer spatial proximity to socially organized middle-class communities. Therefore, disadvantaged white residents are able to benefit from the social and community resources that are most often lacking in low-income neighborhoods. The access to grocery stores, schools, community centers, and other fixtures of vibrant neighborhoods is a stark departure from the conditions in low-income African-American neighborhoods. Furthermore, these conditions, and the subsequent high crime rates that follow, remain constant over time. The toxic mixture of isolation and disadvantage ensures that the social control mechanisms will be further weakened, inhibiting the ability of African-American communities to organize effectively against crime. Consistent with Shaw and McKay’s original conception, the crime conditions that exist are not racially or ethnically dependent but are rather a reflection of the structural conditions endemic to the geographical place.

New Directions

Spatial Proximity And Concentration

This social isolation is further compounded by the geographical and spatial divide between low-income communities. A major development of contemporary Social Disorganization Theory addresses the geographical concentration of disadvantage and isolation, with African-Americans often segregated in veritable islands of similarly disadvantaged others (Peterson and Krivo 2010; Sampson and Bean 2006; Sampson and Morenoff 2006). Peterson and Krivo (2010) analyze the spatial distribution of these neighborhoods, finding that low-income African-American communities are more likely to be located in a dense geographical network, bordering areas situated in similar economic straits. The spatial concentration of disadvantage heightens the levels of social isolation that residents experience, further segregating these populations from more prosocial and economically mobile segments of the population. Sampson and Morenoff (2006) suggest that this may represent a type of spatial vulnerability, where neighborhoods with low social control and collective efficacy detrimentally affect the conditions present in adjoining communities. In their analysis of Chicago neighborhoods, Sampson and Morenoff’s (2006) results indicate that there was a diffusion process that spread the concentrations of high poverty rates across a densely clustered region as the national occupational landscape evolved in the late 1970s and 1980s. This geographic isolation compounds the social segregation that pervades low-income African-American communities, inhibiting the creation of social capital and the ability to establish effective informal social control. The spatial proximity of a given community in a city-wide context is affected by the influence of surrounding communities, allowing neighborhoods with strong shared value sets and personal ties to be undermined by those who do not similarly value social control but nevertheless live in close geographic proximity. These residents may be able to form strong bonds with specific fellow neighbors; however, their ability to organize effectively against crime when surrounded by socially disorganized, high-crime communities is severely limited. The permeability of adjacent geographical boundaries facilitates the spread of the detrimental effects of poverty, heightening the levels of social disorganization. Sampson and Morenoff (2006) assert that the social isolation coupled with the concentration of disadvantage promotes a vicious cycle in low-income African-American communities due to the weakness of collective efficacy. While the research focus has traditionally centered on intra-neighborhood dynamics, the inter-neighborhood research suggests that cultural and economic disadvantages are not spatially contained (Peterson and Krivo 2010; Sampson and Morenoff 2006; Morenoff 2005). Because of this diffusion, the isolation of poor African-Americans is compounded by the structural and informal barriers of the broader society. While other racial and ethnic groups face similar disadvantages, their outcomes differ from the traditional dire predictions of Social Disorganization Theory.

Contemporary Immigration And Social Disorganization Theory

Sampson and Bean (2006) reconsider Social Disorganization Theory in light of changes in immigration and mobility patterns in recent decades. Despite the original focus of the theory on ethnic heterogeneity, recent empirical work has been dominated by analyses of African-American and white neighborhoods, eschewing discussion of other racial and ethnic groups. Continuing Latino immigration has fostered a renewed interest in the dynamics that underlie ethnically heterogeneous communities and the impact on the organizational structure of neighborhoods. Extending his earlier work with Wilson (Sampson and Wilson 1995), Sampson and Bean consider the paradox that has emerged in the literature, which finds that Mexican immigrants, living in extreme economic disadvantage, experience fewer incidents of violent crime than second-and third-generation Latinos (Martinez et al. 2006; Morenoff 2005). While impoverished and historically disadvantaged African-American communities share some similar conditions with the newly immigrated Latino population, crime outcomes diverge. A number of explanations for these differences have been hypothesized, ranging from the extent of residential segregation and isolation from middle-class white communities and divergent cultural values to the severity of systemic discrimination and differential employment patterns. While African-American and Latino communities are matched on conventional predictors of violent crime, economic disadvantage, and relative social isolation, their differences on key deprivation indicators suggest immigrant status can be a protective factor. Martinez and his colleagues (2006) find that concentrated immigrant populations are not predictors of homicide at the aggregate level, which is inconsistent with the traditional pattern for African-Americans. Sampson et al. (2005) suggest that the formation of densely populated immigrant communities and the lower incidents of family disruption in Latino immigrant communities account for their lower levels of violent crime rates. While Latino immigrants face constraints on employment, residential mobility, and educational attainment, their rate of offending does not subsequently increase. Instead, researchers posit that the protective influence of their strong family and kinship ties and integration into ethnic enclaves help to ameliorate the negative effects associated with these social limitations (Peterson and Krivo 2010). The formation of ethnically homogeneous immigrant communities could similarly foster social capital among residents, producing higher levels of collective efficacy and resulting in strengthened controls against criminal activity. The formation of collective efficacy in these communities may be predicated on the shared culture, values, and language among Latino immigrants and the ability of residents to interact in spite of economic and geographic deprivation. While the original conception of Social Disorganization Theory suggested that ethnic heterogeneity constructed barriers to the formation of social capital, the evolving empirical work points to a set of unique mechanisms and processes that explain the formation of capital and collective efficacy. While African-American communities remain largely homogenous due to residential segregation, Latinos have not experienced the same levels of isolation and, therefore, often reside in more integrated neighborhoods. The research on this particular topic within the Social Disorganization Theory tradition is at a nascent stage; the continued consideration of contemporary immigrant populations holds the promise of a more nuanced understanding of the complex dynamics that underlie neighborhood crime and safety.


Racial and ethnic divisions have been central to the development of Social Disorganization Theory, and they remain so today. The concepts of racial and ethnic heterogeneity and ethnic succession have retained their continued empirical significance for criminologists as contributing forces to the process of social disorganization. Focusing on the process of ethnic succession diverts the onus of social disorganization from specific racial and ethnic groups to the social and structural conditions of these communities. Heterogeneity though may be more complex than the early Chicago School theorists expected. This is not to suggest that they were wrong when they hypothesized that mixing different languages, cultures, traditions, and religions together within a residential setting would inhibit the formation of social organization, but recent research suggests that a more nuanced understanding is needed. African-American communities are racially homogenous, but those marked by considerable social and economic disadvantage are more disorganized. In contrast, neighborhoods with more recent Mexican immigrants exhibit similar levels of homogeneity and disadvantage, yet local crime rates are comparatively lower. As contemporary versions of Social Disorganization Theory move forward, one of the challenges for scholars will be to evaluate and develop critical analyses of these patterns.

As is obvious, much of the literature has focused on American cities, but not all of it. For example, Sampson and Wikstrom (2008) used data from Stockholm to study the comparative dynamics of collective efficacy in Sweden. Other countries, for example, Australia, Canada, or South Africa, have very different racial and ethnic dynamics than the United States. That said, it is very likely that in these countries and elsewhere, if the population is marked by racial and ethnic divisions or changing immigration patterns, the influences of social organization and disorganization will have accompanying consequences for crime and criminality in these communities.


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