Crime and Environment


Crime, and deviance from the norms of society may be as old as human society itself, but criminology, or the study of crime, remains relatively young. Among the groundbreaking work in criminology from the sociological perspective that was done in the early twentieth century is the social disorganization theory, which was propagated by sociologists such as W.I. Thomas, Florian Znaiecki, Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, among others (Schmalleger, p. 208).

Social disorganization theory credits a lack of, or diminishment of “the influence of existing social rules of behavior upon the individual member of the group” as a primary cause of criminal behavior and deviance (Keel, 2008). The early proponents of social disorganization theory, specifically Florian Znaiecki and W.I. Thomas, examined the effects of social upheaval and conflict upon crime, by studying the high crimes rates in communities of Polish immigrants in Chicago (Schmalleger, p. 208).

The main idea of the initial work in social disorganization theory was that these new immigrants, who found themselves displaced and occupying a new role in the social structure of their community, were unable to maintain their grasp on social norms (Schmalleger, p. 207). The effects of displacement into the new community, where most certainly immigrants who had perhaps been prominent or successful in their mother country, now found themselves at the bottom of the socio-economic structure, led them in some cases to commit crimes.

While the actual physical displacement of immigrants and the subsequent loss of norms that occurred featured prominently into the earliest forays into social disorganization theory, later work focused on criminal activity in relation to the environment, or community, which became known as social ecology (Schmalleger, p. 208). As this was being studied primarily out of the University of Chicago, the sociologists who studied crime in the rapidly changing city of Chicago became known as the Chicago School of Criminology (Schmalleger, p. 209).

Robert Park and Edward Burgess studied crime in the community by dividing the city into areas, divided up into concentric zones (Schmalleger, p. 208). These included residential zones, working class neighborhoods, business districts, and what they referred to as transition zones, which were often areas of low income, dilapidated housing, that often contained abandoned buildings, and where in a state of transition from residential to business uses (Schmalleger, p. 208). It was in these transition zones that crime rates were the highest. The ecological approach was further articulated by Henry McKay and Clifford Shaw, who developed the idea that crime becomes attached to specific geographic areas in a community (Schmalleger, p. 209).

When immigrants who populated the transition zones became economically successful they moved outwards towards residential districts or suburbs, and the vacancies they created were filled by immigrants who had just arrived (Schmalleger, p. 209). This new group experienced the same social displacement issues that served to create a continuation of criminal activity, and was referred to by Shaw and McKay as cultural transmission (Schmalleger, p. 209). This effectively demonstrated a relationship between criminal activity and geographical location in a community, regardless of the ethnicity of the groups resided there.

While much of the social disorganization theorists dealt in terms that seem ethnocentric, it is important to note that they were working in Chicago in the 1920’s and 1930’s, which was a city with a large immigrant population during a period of elevated immigration into the United States. These concepts, to my mind, can be applied to any city, and any ethnicity, as well. The social pressures that are prominent in social disorganization concepts, such as “Social change, social conflict, and the lack of social consensus,” can be found in virtually any ethnic group (Schmalleger, p. 207). Social pathology is another offshoot of social disorganization, as it generally defined behavior that was the antithesis to the “norms and values of the social group” (Schmalleger, p. 208).

The intellectual roots of social disorganization can be traced, in part, to sociologists such as Emil Durkheim, who saw crime as an inevitable part of human societies and communities, and in a sense, social disorganization concepts further extrapolate on the relationship between crime and society (Schmalleger, p. 207). The studies conducted by the sociologists of the Chicago School were convincing, as park and burgess were able to effectively identify high crime areas by dividing the city into concentric zones, and examining the purposes and socio-economic factors of the zones (Schmalleger, p. 208). Shaw and McKay successfully demonstrated their concept of cultural transmission by studying juvenile arrests over a thirty years span in Chicago, proving conclusively that crime remained constant in specific areas regardless of the ethnicity of the groups that populated it (Schmalleger, p. 209).

The contemporary offshoot of the ecological approach is known as environmental criminology, which studies both geographical location as well as architectural aspects of areas of continual high crime rates (Schmalleger, p. 209). This type of approach, as well as the targeting of specific high crime areas by law enforcement, is commonplace in the present day United States, which surely demonstrates the significant impact that social disorganization theory has had on policy.

Community outreach programs, and state, federal, and local government efforts to reduce juvenile delinquency and improve quality of life in low income or crime-ridden areas can be demonstrated in every major city in the United States. It is clear that the research done by the members of the Chicago School has had a direct impact on government policy, and even today, their work continues to influence both the study of criminal behavior, and the methods used to combat crime.


Keel, Robert O. “Social Disorganization and Control Theories.” 2008. University of Missouri at St. Louis. Retrieved from:

Schmalleger, Frank. Criminology Today: An Integrative Introduction. 2004. Pearson Education, Inc. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.