Broken Windows Theory: Definition & Example

Broken Windows Theory: Definition & Example
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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 0:56 Logic Behind the Theory
  • 1:49 Implementation
  • 2:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joseph Jones
In this lesson, the broken window theory will be defined and examples given. Its implementation will also be discussed. There is a quiz at the end of the lesson.


Say that you're on vacation with your family and are driving in an area that you are unfamiliar with. When you look around, you see that windows on the buildings have been broken and there's graffiti on the walls and abandoned cars on the streets. The first thing that goes through your mind is that this must be an unsafe neighborhood and that you should probably leave. Without knowing the area, you concluded that, based on its general appearance alone, it was unsafe. The assessment that you made was due to what is considered the broken window theory.

The broken window theory stems from an article written in 1982 by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. Their theory states that signs of disorder will lead to more disorder. A building with a broken window that has been left unrepaired will give the appearance that no one cares and no one is in charge. This will lead to vandals breaking the rest of the windows and adding graffiti, because in their minds nobody cares.

Logic Behind the Theory

The logic behind this theory is simple. In every neighborhood, there are informal social controls. Usually people police their own neighborhoods until they feel it is unsafe to do so. When the neighborhood becomes unsafe in their opinion, they either move away if they can or remain inside of their houses to stay safe. This reduces the effectiveness of the informal social control, which can lead to increased criminal activity.

The one flaw with this logic, as stated by Wilson and Kelling, is that window breaking may not actually occur on a large scale. This is due to the fact that some residents in some communities are not scared off as easily and attempt to keep whatever social control they can. So when the windows begin to get broken, they call the city, the police, and the landlords to get the damage repaired. These residents are determined to keep their neighborhood looking like it has in the years past.

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