The research on urban crime is generally of two types. There are studies that compare cities, seeking to understand why some have higher crime rates than others. And there are studies that focus on explaining variations in crime levels within cities. However, both types of studies use similar theories and focus on the same social forces to understand their observations. The primary theories used to study urban crime are social disorganization, subculture, and conflict theories.
Social disorganization theory is concerned with the way in which characteristics of cities and neighborhoods influence crime rates. The roots of this perspective can be traced back to the work of researchers at the University of Chicago around the 1930s. These researchers were concerned with neighborhood structure and its relationship to levels of crime. Classical Chicago School theorists, and Shaw and McKay in particular, were most concerned with the deleterious effects of racial and ethnic heterogeneity, residential mobility, and low socioeconomic status on an area’s ability to prevent crime. However, since the work of Shaw and McKay and others, researchers who adopt the macrosocial approach to the study of urban crime have identified a number of additional “disorganizing” factors including family disruption (Sampson and Groves), relative poverty (Messner, 1982), and racial segregation (Peterson and Krivo).
Researchers believe that characteristics such as these are likely to lead to high levels of social disorganization, which in turn increases the likelihood of crime and criminal violence. In general terms, social disorganization refers to the inability of a community structure to mobilize the common values of its residents to maintain effective social controls (Kornhauser). Neighborhoods characterized by high levels of poverty or economic deprivation, residential mobility, ethnic heterogeneity, family disruption, poor housing conditions, and low levels of education are most likely to be disorganized and have higher levels of crime and violence. Disorganization, a lack of solidarity and cohesion, and the absence of a shared sense of community and mutual commitment between residents allows crime to flourish because the community’s capacity for informal social control (that which does not depend on the less efficient formal criminal justice institutions) is inhibited. Social disorganization theory has been criticized for failing to appreciate the diversity of values that exist within urban areas (Matza), for not recognizing that communities in urban areas indeed may be organized, but around unconventional values, and for failing to define clearly its main concept, social disorganization, thereby making the identification and operationalization of variables difficult (Liska).
Subcultural theories to explain urban crime are of two types—subculture of violence and subculture of poverty. Common to both types is the belief that certain groups carry sets of norms and values that make them more likely to engage in crime. The subculture of violence thesis holds that high rates of violence result from a culture where criminality in general, and violence in particular, are more acceptable forms of behavior. Carriers of a subculture of violence are quicker to resort to violence than others. Situations that normally might simply anger others could provoke violence by those carrying subculture of violence values. In the formulation of these ideas, subcultural theorists claim that social institutions themselves contribute to the development and persistence of a subculture conducive to criminality and violence. For example, the disintegration of particular institutions (i.e., churches, families, and schools) denies certain populations (and in particular, minorities) the opportunity to learn conventional norms and values. The result of such processes is that certain groups are more likely to use violence in their day-to-day encounters, and violence is seen as an acceptable means to solving disputes. The classic statement on the subculture of violence is Wolfgang and Ferracuti’s The Subculture of Violence: Towards an Integrated Theory in Criminology (1967), although others have contributed as well (Elkins; Curtis, 1975).
Subculture of poverty explanations have focused more on urban crime than have subculture of violence explanations. Subculture of violence explanations have been used to explain crime in urban and nonurban settings, but those who have written about the subculture of poverty have been concerned primarily with the criminal behavior in the ghettos and barrios of central cities (Banfield). The central thesis here is that values and norms that discourage work and investment of money or energies are likely to develop in poor communities. Because carriers of this subculture are disinclined to strive to achieve, have limited patience, and are less likely to defer gratification, they act impulsively. Too often these impulses lead to crime. Critics of this theory cite a biased, middle-class perspective that seems to neither understand the plight of the poor—the effects of social structures and institutions on their behavior—nor accurately describe their lives, options, or behavior. The most notable expression of conflict theories as an explanation of urban crime has focused on income inequality (Blau and Blau). Here scholars have argued that frustration is a byproduct of income gaps that are viewed as unjust by those in subordinate positions. Social structural cleavages based on race have also been used to explain why poor urban blacks and Latinos have higher crime rates than the general population (Blau and Blau).