Social Disorganization: Theory, Forms and Examples

The theory of social disorganization is a sociological concept that raises the influence of the neighborhood in which a person is raised in the probability that this commits crimes. It was developed by the Chicago School and is considered one of the most important ecological theories of sociology.

According to this theory, people who commit crimes are influenced by the environment that surrounds them, even more than they are affected by their individual characteristics. That is, the place where they live is more important than their personality to determine how prone a person is to committing a crime.

The theory infers that there are various ecological factors present in certain communities that negatively affect individuals. Among these factors are the large number of students who do not finish high school, unemployment, deterioration of housing and the abandonment of parents.


  • 1 Theory of social disorganization
    • 1.1 origins
    • 1.2 Development
    • 1.3 Advances in theory
  • 2 Forms of social disorganization
    • 2.1 The collapse of community controls
    • 2.2 Uncontrolled immigration
    • 2.3 Social factors
    • 2.4 Disadvantaged neighborhood
  • 3 Examples
  • 4 References

Theory of social disorganization


Thomas and Znaniecki were the first authors to introduce principles of the theory in their investigations between 1918 and 1920. They studied how the thought process of a person is determined by the interaction of their behavior and their situation.

In 1925 Park and Burgess developed a second theory more linked to ecological concepts, in which urban societies were defined as environments that interacted with each other in the same way that occurs in nature according to Darwin's theory of evolution.

From this idea, society is defined as an entity that operates as a single organism.

In 1934 Edwin Sutherland adapted the principles of disorganization theory to explain the growth of crime in the developing societies that belong to the proletariat. According to the author, this evolution brings with it a series of cultural changes that can increase the crime rate.


In 1942, two authors from the Chicago School of Criminology - called Henry McKay and Clifford Shaw - developed the definitive theory of social disorganization as a product of their research.

The theory of the two authors indicates that the physical and social environment in which an individual grows (or inhabits) is the main reason for all the behaviors that he executes based on his behavior.

This is a theory related mainly to the study of crimes, and is used to predict where a crime may occur according to the type of neighborhood.

According to both authors, the places where crimes are most commonly carried out in the United States tend to have three main factors: their inhabitants tend to be of different ethnicities, there is a high level of poverty and health conditions are precarious.

According to the results of their studies, Shaw and McKay affirmed that crime is not a reflection of individual actions, but of the collective state of individuals. According to this theory, crimes are acts committed in response to abnormal living conditions.

It is usually used as a tool to predict the location and prevention of juvenile violence, by locating environments that meet the given characteristics.

Advances in theory

Although Shaw and McKay were the authors who laid the foundations for the development of the theory of social disorganization, other later authors have worked based on their research to expand the concept.

In 1955 Robert Faris adopted the principles of the concept to take them further. Through the theory of social disorganization, he also explained the emergence of high rates of suicides, mental illness and gang violence. According to Faris, social disorganization weakens the relationships that make up a society.

Robert Bursik supported the theory of Shaw and McKay, stating that a neighborhood can continue to exhibit the same state of disorganization even if its inhabitants change. This concept had been introduced by the same McKay and Shaw, but had received several criticisms. Bursik's study reconfirmed this concept.

In 1993 Robert Sampson evaluated that the greater amount of crimes in communities of few economic resources usually are committed by groups that haunt the adolescence. It relates the emergence of these tendencies with the lack of social control to prevent young people from growing up in environments prone to violence.

Forms of social disorganization

The collapse of community controls

When a neighborhood begins to lose the natural control that must exist for everything to function normally, people begin to modify their behavior to adapt to the new conditions. This creates disorder in these reduced societies.

Uncontrolled immigration

Immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, often arrive in disadvantaged neighborhoods to settle initially. In turn, immigrants who arrive in these neighborhoods may be of low income and little education, which leads to local problems with residents.

Social factors

There are certain social factors that are identified with disorganization. Among these are divorces, the birth of illegitimate children and a disproportionate amount of male population in a neighborhood.

Disadvantaged neighborhood

Neighborhoods that have inhabitants with precarious living conditions often lead to the development of criminal values ​​within these sub-societies. A low economic condition usually means a high social disorder.


The emergence of local gangs in socially disorganized neighborhoods is one of the clearest examples to explain the theory. The precarious living conditions generate a cultural environment that lends itself to the formation of groups with members who support each other.

These members dedicate their time to commit crimes and to operate in a dangerous environment. In turn, the tradition of belonging to a gang can be inherited by other future inhabitants of the area, which also explains the stability in the crime rate although these areas are inhabited by different people.

Another example is widely presented in the low-income neighborhoods of the United States. Parents in these societies often abandon their very young children. This generates a cultural tendency to commit crimes to obtain the necessary funds that are needed to support the family.


  1. Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews, R. Seepersad, 2016. Taken from
  2. Social Disorganization: Meaning, Characteristics and Causes, Shelly Shah, (n.d.). Taken from
  3. Criminology: Social Disorganization Theory Explained, Mark Bond, March 1, 2015. Taken from
  4. Social Disorganization Theory, Wikipedia en Español, January 8, 2018. Taken from
  5. Social Disorganization, A. Rengifo, November 1, 2017. Taken from

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