Urban ecology and crime

Urban ecology and crime

A common theme in sociological writing about crime, has been the corrupting effect of city life. It is currently the case that inner cities have reputations as major locations for, and causes of, criminal activity.

In Europe, during the 19th century, writers such as Durkheim and Tonnies had stressed the breakdown of community under the pressures of urbanisation and industrialisation. People, it was argued, felt less bonded to others and were more likely to become selfish. This selfishness is linked not just to urban living, but to the rise of individualism.

In this approach, the explanation for deviance was first sought, not within the individual, but outside the person, in society as a whole. The causes of deviance can thus be found in society. Such an idea was put forward by George Simmel (1969), whose essay, 'The Metropolis and Mental Life' explored some of the psychological and social consequences of city living.

City living

In the USA, urbanisation occurred later than in Europe and also took a different form to European urbanisation, in that cities developed as a result of massive waves of immigration from Europe. Chicago, for example, grew from a population of 10,000 in 1860 to one of 2,000,000 by 1910. It is therefore not surprising that sociologists at the University of Chicago between 1914-1940 carried out the original urban studies. The most famous of these researchers are Robert Park and Ernest Burgess.

The focus of the work altered over the years and two distinct stages can be identified:

  • The biological analogy.
  • Social disorganisation.

Initially, sociologists such as Park were strongly influenced by ideas of natural selection, and the struggle for space - concepts that were biologically based and drawing on versions of the Darwinian theory of evolution. Park argued that cities were characterised by a biotic balance and that this was disturbed by new waves of immigrants, and conflicts occurred. The struggle for space was a part of this. Individuals compete for the best habitats and those that lose out remain in the area of minimum choice - slums (inner cities). Park extended this work to offer an explanation of the different types of behaviour found in urban areas, he suggested the existence of moral regions within a city.

Behaviour was not, however, just examined from outside. The influence of Symbolic interactionism led to studies examining social phenomena from the perspective of those involved. So, Chicago sociology was characterised by two quite distinct elements: the biological - that stressed the natural and innate, and the sociological - that stressed the generation of meaning through interaction.

Park's work gave rise to the writings of Shaw and McKay and was an extension of the work of Burgess who claimed that Chicago (and other large cities) was divided into distinctive zones.

  • Zone 1: The central business district with very few occupants but the hub of banking and business during the day.
  • Zone 2: The zone of transition. Once an area of considerable affluence, but now decayed and characterised by multi-occupation. The cheapest zone for housing and thus the first one settled by new immigrants.
  • Zone 3: The respectable working class district.
  • Zone 4: Suburbia. The pleasanter middle class districts further out of the city.
  • Zone 5: The outer fringe of the city where the wealthy live.

Wealthy home owners

Shaw and McKay suggested that as each successive wave of immigrants arrived in the city, they were forced into the cheapest zone. As they settled and some were successful, they moved outward. Their places were taken by new arrivals.

Examining the official crime rates for the city, Shaw and McKay noted that there were quite distinct patterns. Zone 2 had far higher crime rates and this relative crime rate remained similar over a long period of time, even though the immigrant groups characterising Zone 2 had changed.

Shaw and McKay thought that the high population turn-over produced a state of social disorganisation defined by Thomas and Znaniecki as 'the decrease of the influence of the existing social rules of behaviour upon individual members of the group.'

This appears to mean that informal methods of social control, that usually restrain people from deviant activity were weak or absent, and this released people to commit criminal acts. Informal restraining mechanisms include such things as public opinion, gossip, and neighbourhood organisations.

The result of social disorganisation, was that such things as prostitution, alcoholism and crime flourished. Clearly, there are echoes of Durkheim's ideas here.

Other research at the University of Chicago during the inter-war period investigated juvenile crime, gambling, suicide and serious mental illness in inner-city areas, arguing that they could be explained by the social ecology of different neighbourhoods. An example of this type of investigation is that of Robert Faris and Warren Dunham (1939) into schizophrenia. They found that the highest rates for the disease in Chicago were found in hobohemia, another name for the zone of transition. They concluded that schizophrenia, like other forms of deviance, was the direct consequence of particular types of neighbourhood ecology.


1. If disorganisation results from high population turnover, then this seems appropriate only in the early years of settlement, but less appropriate in explaining patterns of crime that follow initial settlement.

2. Labelling theory would criticise the use of official statistics. Higher rates of crime in the zone of transition might not be a result of different behaviour patterns, but of different enforcement and reaction patterns.

3. The focus on working class crime diverts attention from the type of crime more likely to be found in suburbs. This approach cannot, indeed, does not seem to comprehend or explain white-collar crime.

4. The absence of conventional institutions of informal social control is not the same as disorganisation. Thrasher's study of Cornerville in Boston suggests a 'complex and well established organisation of its own'. That is, there was a subcultural form of social life, clearly differentiated from conventional society, but which produced stable social relationships.

Stephen Pfohl (1986) argued that Chicago school sociologists, being disproportionately white, male and middle class, were unable to look beyond the boundaries of their own cultural expectations, confusing differences in social organisation with social disorganisation.

5. Crime is seen as both a consequence of social disorganisation and as evidence of it.

6. Not all residents of areas of social disorganisation are deviant. However, Reckless (1956) suggested some people are insulated against corruption by strong ego strength. However, this is a concept difficult to operationalise and measure.

The next shift in the Chicago school approach came in the later writing of Shaw and McKay and was then taken up by Sutherland. The meaning of social disorganisation changed. In the early writing the stress was on disorganisation, resulting from a lack of coherent values, the later writing stressed a distinctive, but coherent, set of values providing alternative values to those of mainstream society. This new version became the starting point for sub-cultural theory.

Note: There are distinct echoes of the ecological approach in much more recent sociological accounts of urban crime. Both the Right Realists and Left Realists pay particular attention to ways in which urban crime can be prevented, and statistically there can be little doubt that particular urban areas in Britain do suffer from high rates of some types of crime, particularly those that seem to cause much public unease as offences against the person.