Criminological Theory A Brief Introduction 4th Edition Miller – Test Bank


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Chapter 5

The Social Ecology of Crime


Chapter Overview:

This chapter explores an approach to criminological theorizing that considers how places or situations can influence levels of criminal activity.  The focus is on two leading theories: social disorganization theory and routine activities theory.  Shaw and McKay’s (1942) social disorganization theory is discussed as well as Sampson’s (1997) refinements which added the notions of collective efficacy and social capital.  The three sources of social disorganization are residential instability, racial/ethnic heterogeneity, and poverty.  Recent research exploring the contributions of factors such as the quantity and quality of informal relationship (interrelationship) networks among community residents, community supervision of youth, and participation in formal organizations is explored.  Policy implications are also discussed, contrasting social disorganization with differential social organization (Sutherland 1947).  Social disorganization theory supports policies such as youth athletic leagues, recreation programs, summer camps, along with urban planning and alternatives to incarceration as a crime control policy.  Routine activities theory is another example of a “kinds of place” theory.  The convergence of three elements is critical in order for a crime to take place, according to the theory: a motivated offender, a suitable target, and a lack of guardianship.  Since the motivated offender element is assumed to be ubiquitous, routine activities theory extends policies that increase the perception of guardianship.  These policies sometimes address issues relating to the architectural lay-out of an area or the behavior of the victim.  Overall, social disorganization theories and routine activities theory both neglect, by design, any focus on rehabilitating offenders.

Learning Objectives:


After reading this chapter, the student should be able to:

(1) Discuss the origins and the more recent developments relating to social disorganization theory

(2) Illustrate the various characteristics of the five concentric zones as outlined by Park and Burgess

(3) Explain how Shaw and McKay expanded upon the work of Park and Burgess and describe the main theoretical assumptions of social disorganization theory

(4) Outline Cohen and Felson’s routine activities theory and discuss the importance of social change

(5) Give examples of the policy implications that extend from both the social disorganization and routine activities perspectives


Key Terms:
Collective Efficacy
Commuter Zone
Effective Guardianship
Motivated Offender
Residential Zone
Social Capital
Social Disorganization
Suitable Target
Transitional Zone
VIVA (Value, Inertia, Visibility, Accessibility)
Working-Class Zone


Lecture Outline:


  1. Introduction
  2. Some researchers suggest that merely focusing on the individual or social group might fail to offer a complete picture on what is responsible for crime
  3. In the 1830s Guerry and Quetelet were some of the first scholars to use arrest statistics and show that crime varies by region (in this case in France)
  4. They also showed that crime rates were related to social factors such as poverty and education and these regional variations appeared to be stable over time and those arrested tended to be young, male, and poor
  5. Advanced the notion of characteristics of high crime areas
  6. Social Disorganization Theory
    1. Assumptions
  7. It is a macro-level theory meaning that it seeks to explain why some communities have higher crime rates than others rather than why some individuals commit more crime than others
  8. Social organization (schools, churches, business, police, informal communal ties, and government) when functioning normally enables a community to deal with problems collectively
  9. Crime in an area results when social institutions fail and not primarily due to “defective” people
  10. High crime rates are linked to the inability of the community to effectively organize in order to act collectively
    1. Origins
      1. The social disorganization school of thought began with researchers at the University of Chicago in the early-to-mid 1900s who were concerned with the huge shift in the population from rural to urban areas in the city of Chicago
      2. The rapid change in the population resulting from the growing industry and immigration was believed to be the cause of the increasing amount of disorder in the community
      3. Park and Burgess believed that people struggled for survival in a community of mutual dependence and that the pattern of invasion, dominance, and succession among “new” immigrant groups fostered disorder
      4. Crime rates and other social problems were expected to be concentrated in the areas where the newest and poorest residents lived (very close to the city’s core)
    2. The Location of Crime
      1. During the 1930s and 1940s, following Park and Burgess, Shaw and McKay used “mapping” techniques to identify the locations of crime incidents and the residential locations of the offenders. Their research revealed:
    3. Crime tended to be concentrated in the slum areas of the city which were located at the core of the city
    4. Crimes decreased the further you moved from the city’s core
  • The crime pattern appeared to persist over time no matter which ethnic group lived there
    1. Once they realized location mattered, Shaw and McKay further examined these crime rates based on Park and Burgess’s “concentric zone model” which broke down Chicago into five distinct zones radiating outward from the city’s core
  1. Zone 1 (inner city/central business district)
    1. Contained many railroads, slaughterhouses, large factories, and stockyards for hogs and cattle
    2. Very few people lived here and it was almost exclusively industrial
  2. Zone 2 (transitional zone)
  3. Homes in this areas tended to be old and in poor condition
  4. Landowners intended to sell their homes to businesses as business began to extend out from the city’s core
  5. Landlords did not bother maintaining/repairing apartment complexes either
  6. Unpleasant living conditions because the residents lived neared the noise of the railroads, the smell of the slaughterhouses, etc.
  7. Residents were predominantly poor immigrants (particularly “new” immigrant groups)
  8. Residents would move out as soon as possible and thus had little incentive to care about their community
  9. The crime rates were the highest in this area
  • Zone 3 (working class zone)
  1. Where second-generation immigrants live as well as members of the working class
  2. Residents are more likely to live in area for extended periods of time
  3. Infrastructure appears to be in working order (property maintained, schools in reasonable shape, people take part in civic functions)
  4. Zone 4 (residential zone)
  5. Predominantly middle-class families
  6. Good community infrastructure and little to no signs of disorder
  7. Zone 5 (suburbs/commuter zone)
  8. Outskirts of the city
  9. Predominantly affluent families
  10. Urban blight, noise, and traffic are minimal
  11. Best living conditions of all 5 zones
    1. Social Disorganization and Its Causes
      1. Conditions of Zone 2 (transitional zone)
        1. Chronic signs of disorder
        2. Abandoned cars
  • Unsupervised youth residing in vacant lots
  1. Vacant lots overgrown with weeds and filled with trash
  2. Old and decayed buildings
  3. Social Disorganization
    1. Community is unable to function as residents would desire (i.e., would like to have clean streets, attractive housing, less disease, etc.)
    2. Residents fail to work together and organize because the conditions in Zone II are such that residents generally believe that it is more to their advantage not to cooperate with others
  4. Three factors leading to social disorganization (Shaw and McKay, 1942). These three features create conditions where there are not enough residents to see any advantage to working with others. Once crime becomes embedded in a disorganized community, criminal traditions and values appear and compete with conventional ones. Elijah Anderson describes this emergence in Code of the Street.
    1. Residential instability
      1. Communities that have a lot of population turnover tend to have higher crime rates (difficult to form informal and formal networks if no one has a stake in the community)
    2. Racial/ethnic heterogeneity
      1. Communities where lots of different cultures and races live in close proximity tend to have higher crime rates (ethnic/racial groups isolate themselves and avoid others) – perhaps due to a language barrier
  • Poverty
    1. Communities with high poverty tend to lack resources for effective community organization and have higher crime rates
  1. The development of social disorganization theory
    1. William Whyte suggested that the poor were just “differently organized” – thus subcultural theories will apply. After Shaw & McKay, social disorganization fell out of favor for this reason (and the data was not available to back up social disorganization)
    2. Revitalization happened beginning in the 1970s. By 1989, Sampson and Groves brought the perspective back into the limelight and found that the presence of informal networks, community supervision of youth, and participation in formal organizations predict crime in the community
  • Sampson et al. (1997) proposed the idea of collective efficacy or the process whereby residents complain to community leaders about the problems in an area, organize neighborhood watch programs and form homeowners associations
    1. This research found that communities with high income and higher levels of homeownership also had higher levels of collective efficacy
    2. In order for their to be collective efficacy there must be social capital which consists of many informal networks
      • Residents might organize trash cleanup days or plant flowers along the road
      • Neighborhood groups might mobilize to influence politicians to get resources
      • Residents may work together to attract jobs
      • The more social capital (a lot of effective networks for mobilizing community support and resources) there will be less crime
    3. An organized community makes supervision and detection of crime/deviance more effective
      1. The families supervise their own children as well as other neighborhood children
      2. Neighbors talk with one another and look over each other’s homes/apartments/property
      3. Most recently (Stewart et al., 2007) found that street code attitudes such as those proposed in Elijah Anderson’s work actually made persons more likely to be victimized
    4. The role of immigrants and immigration may be far more complex; Latino communities appear to have lower crime rates and health problems than the general population, even in poor communities. There can be resistance to disorganization.
  1. Policy Implications
    1. Promote effective community organization as well as informal mechanisms of social control by getting people to attend church and homeowner’s meetings, clean up the streets, and supervise the neighborhood youth
    2. Shaw and McKay’s Chicago Area Project (as well as other similar projects such as the Mobilization for Youth) had the intention of fostering informal community relationships among neighborhood residents and their findings revealed mixed results
      1. Some neighborhoods reported less crime, some reported more crime
      2. These programs require consistent care and effort
      3. Once financial support waned, so did the organizations and the residents’ interest
      4. Many other social disorganization-oriented programs have failed because of mobility because talented dynamic community leaders are always looking to leave
  • Heavy use of incarceration essentially churns the community and promotes residential instability (thus, enhances social disorganization in the area)
  • Routine Activities Theory
    1. Routine activities theory focuses less on networks, informal social control, and community organizations and more on crime-inviting situations and how long-term change can affect criminal opportunities
    2. Assumptions
      1. Treats opportunity as problematic
      2. Treats the offender as given
      3. Believes large-scale social change can be either more or less conducive to crime
    3. The Necessary Requirement for Crime
      1. Cohen and Felson (1979) argued that for a crime to occur three conditions must converge in time and space:
        1. Motivated offenders
          1. All people are assumed to weigh the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action and then do what brings them the most benefit
          2. Assumes every individual is motivated to commit crime but Felson describes the “typical” motivated offender as a “young male with a big mouth who gets into many accidents and makes a mess of everything else”
        2. Suitable targets
          1. Felson elaborated on what makes a target suitable using the acronym VIVA (for value, inertia, visibility, and accessibility)
            • A target’s value varies from person to person and does not solely depend on an object’s monetary worth
            • Inertia refers to the size and bulk of a target and all else being equal, lighter and less bulky goods are the most suitable targets
            • Visibility refers to whether the offender is aware that a target is in the area, which may be either intentionally or inadvertently on display
            • As far as accessibility, the offender has to be able to get to the target and easily get away and the assumption is that people naturally gravitate toward convenient targets
  • Effective guardianship
    1. The target must be poorly guarded in order for crime to occur, thus effective guardianship refers to the presence of anyone or anything in the area capable of making crime more risky
      • In general, offenders prefer to be alone with their target
      • Effective guardians can include virtually anyone who can serve as a witness to the crime
      • Whether or not the guardians are armed or not does not seem to matter, just because they are watching is a deterrent
      • Felson (1986) argued that everyday social ties between individuals facilitates guardianship
    2. In sum, there has to be a convergence in time and space of these three necessary conditions (motivated offender, suitable target, and lack of effective guardianship) in order for a crime to occur and it is the assumption that criminal opportunities occur during an individual’s routines of daily life
  1. The Role of Social Changes
    1. Social change can particularly affect the guardianship and suitability of goods
      1. Decades ago women were in the home and the children’s help was enlisted to assist with the available household occupations/chores of their mothers (dishwashing, sewing, farming, etc.) (effective guardianship)
      2. Today with changing job structures and available appliances women are now increasingly involved in the work force and the children now have a lot of free time to spend outside the home (lack of guardianship)
  • Cohen and Felson (1979) found that during the 1950s-1970s the change in the economy resulted in an increased availability of durable and portable goods that could be quickly fenced (radios, TVs, etc.)
  1. Policy Implications
    1. Prevent the combination of motivated offenders and suitable targets during moments of ineffective guardianship
    2. Clarke argues that it is pointless to try and change people
    3. Make the criminal opportunities too inconvenient
      1. Schools could reduce the disturbances by cutting back landscaping
      2. Bars could start serving drinks in plastic versus glass cups
  • Design buildings/homes/apartments with tougher doors, alarms, security guards
  1. Convenience stores can display signs such as “teller has less than $50 cash”
  1. Empirical Research and Criticisms
    1. Research
      1. Cohen and Felson (1979) (as mentioned previously) linked the increase in radios, TVs, and other electronics to increased crime rates
      2. Neuman and Berger (1988) showed that modernization in different countries was related to increased theft but not homicide
  • Pratt (2001) conducted a meta-analysis and found support for routine activities theory (particularly lack of guardianship)
  1. Osgood et al. (1996) found that the amount of time juveniles spent with their peers while engaged in unstructured leisure activities away from adults predicted their delinquency even controlling for prior delinquency
  2. Schreck et al. (2004) found that teenagers who are central and popular among dense peer networks were generally safer from victimization but popular teenagers in more deviant peer networks were more susceptible to victimization
  1. Criticisms
    1. Some have argued that routine activities is a victim-blaming theory (Karmen, 2003) because it suggests that victims can facilitate and/or provoke their own victimization
    2. Meier and Meithe (1993) have shown that victims are often agents in their own victimization through their behaviors and actions. Offenders have much greater odds of also being victims
  2. Conclusions
    1. Social disorganization theory claims that disorganization undermines social institutions thus making it impossible for residents in a community to effectively mobilize and deal with problems in the area
    2. Routine activities theory argues that crimes will occur when a motivated offender becomes aware of a suitable target in a situation where there is ineffective or ideally no guardianship
    3. Neither of these theories promote individual offender rehabilitation as a crime prevention strategy but rather suggest the greatest crime reduction benefits might be realized from changing community contexts and situations


Discussion Questions

  1. Which kinds of theories do you believe are most important for understanding and solving crime: theories about places or theories about people?

Possible answer: This question depends on your perspective. If you were in charge of a police force, the most important type of theory for understanding and solving crime is more likely a theory about places. In this case, ‘criminals’ are omnipresent, and knowing the content of when they are likely to offend will offer law enforcement an advantage in solving crime. If you were in charge of social programs to reduce crime, then perhaps theories about people will readily enhance your attempts to successfully reduce crime problems for a population living within problematic areas (or not!). Thus, the answer is: it depends.


  1. Can disorganization theory be extended to rural areas?

Possible answer: Many of the fundamental premises of disorganization theory are based on urban areas. Thus, adapting this perspective to rural areas may prove difficult, but not impossible. Many rural areas have racial or ethnic heterogeneity and poverty, yet it may not exhibit residential instability. The main thrust of disorganization theory is that residents are not able to mobilize a defense against crime as a cohesive unit due to a lack of collective efficacy. This can happen in rural areas, which suggests that it may be appropriate to apply disorganization theory in areas other than urban centers.


  1. According to routine activities theory, is it possible for crime to increase even when the number of would-be criminals remains constant? Explain why.

Possible answer: Yes, it is possible for crime to increase even when the number of potential criminals remains constant given the other two realms of crime generation: suitable guardians and opportunity. If the amount of suitable guardians were reduced and/or the amount of opportunity for crime increased, the risk of crime events will increase. For example, think of what would happen if there was a strike for airport security personnel and air transportation were allowed to continue? What kinds of crimes would flourish during that period? What about if an encryption key were released, allowing anyone with advanced computer knowledge to access a major bank’s user accounts?


  1. In recent years, traffic cameras have proliferated in an effort to more effectively catch speeders. Describe speeding from the point of view of routine activities theory and how cameras might or might not influence driving at unsafe speeds. And then propose theoretically relevant (but cheaper) alternatives that might accomplish the same outcome.

Possible answer: According to routine activities theory, adding a capable guardian in the form of a traffic camera will reduce the amount of traffic violations in that area by ensuring that the law is enforced. If one wants to speed and knows that an area enforces speed by traffic camera, they may choose to speed in areas not monitored or face fines. One possible alternative would be to park an unmanned police vehicle in an area you wish to enforce, perhaps with a dummy to make people believe it is a manned vehicle. This may reduce speeding given the same premise – that people do not want to get caught. By making the police vehicle visible, you may have the same impact (at least until people catch on).




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