The Chicago School's Social Disorganization Theory

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  • 0:01 Criminology
  • 0:50 Chicago School
  • 2:03 Social Disorganization
  • 3:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Why do some neighborhoods have higher crime rates than others? What elements make a community vulnerable to crime? Watch this lesson to find out about the Chicago School of Criminology and the social disorganization theory of crime.


Judy grew up in a rough neighborhood. There was lots of crime, and poverty was very common. But now, she lives in a really nice neighborhood, with very little crime. Most people leave their doors open, and don't worry about the consequences.

Judy wonders what makes people turn to a life of crime. And, why is her old neighborhood more filled with crime than her new one?

Criminology is the study of crime and punishment. Criminologists try to answer the question, 'Why do people commit crimes?' Like Judy, criminologists are interested in why some people commit crimes and others don't. Let's look closer at one school of thought in criminology - the Chicago School - and one of its main theories, social disorganization theory.

Chicago School

Judy is curious about why some people become criminals and others obey the law, and she's not the only one interested in that question. A couple of centuries ago, it was common for people to believe that humans act rationally. They weigh the pros and cons of committing a crime, and then decide if the pros outweigh the cons.

While there are still some people that believe that, things changed somewhat in the first half of the 20th century, when some sociologists at the University of Chicago introduced the idea that society influences whether a person might become a criminal or not. The Chicago School of Criminology, named because it came from the University of Chicago, tried to identify aspects of crime that come from outside of a person. For example, when Judy looks at her old neighborhood, she notices that poverty and unemployment are very high there, and so is crime.

In her new neighborhood, though, most people have good jobs and plenty of money. Poverty and unemployment are low, and so is crime. The Chicago School would point out that poverty and unemployment might be social factors that contribute to criminal behavior.

Social Disorganization Theory

One major sociological foundation of the Chicago school of thought is that of social disorganization theory, which says that crime is largely the result of unfavorable conditions within a community. So when Judy notices that poverty and unemployment are linked with crime, she is thinking about the social disorganization theory.

Clifford Shaw and Henry D. McKay were both part of the Chicago school of thought in the 20th century. They scoured statistics and figured out that juvenile offenders were consistent over time. By looking at rates of delinquency over several decades, Shaw and McKay found that the highest rates occurred in the inner city neighborhoods, and that delinquency rates slowly diminished as you move outward from the inner city.

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