The ecological theory in criminology maintains that the physical environment where people are situated influences certain human behaviors. The theory has its scientific advantages and disadvantages when compared to the process of “beautification,” which is the process of visually improving a city or town specifically one that is situated in an urban area.
For the most part, the assertions of the ecological theory are not significantly dependent on the dominant ethnic group living in a particular area, thereby suggesting that the findings of the theory do not depend on subjective human relations but rather on the physical environment where they are located. It has a scientific advantage in the sense that it avoids the problems brought about by the relative circumstances of exactly who are living within the area. On the other hand, its disadvantage is that its findings—high crime rates with respect to social disorganization—can fluctuate between being a cause or an effect.
In a sense, high crime rates can result to social disorganization and, similarly, social disorganization can lead to high crime rates. Relying on the physical environment in interpreting human behaviors is also problematic because doing so does not explain why some people in such areas commit certain crimes while others in the same areas do not. Beautification, however, is a relatively more stable theory than the ecological theory because, for example, urban beautification schemes through evictions are meant to address high crime rates and not the other way around.
The ecological theory puts great emphasis on the fact of living within certain zones in an area as a primary reason for certain rates of crime. An earlier study conducted by Shaw and McKay (2006) in 1942 suggests that the Zone 2 of an area contain more crime rates than any of the other zones primarily because this zone does not have a settled community to begin with which, in effect, prevents the institutionalization of clear moral guidelines.
In effect, the study in particular and the theory in general indicate that, regardless of those who settled in any of these zones, the behavior of the settlers as well as the rate of crime will have to depend on the corresponding zones. This argument is particularly interesting because it leaves the interpretation of human behavior on the physical environment instead on the people under study. According to Lowman (1986), there is the tendency to make unjust selections in using “criminological theory in developing geographic perspectives on crime” (p.
81). If that is the case, ecological theory as applied to criminology faces the greatest disadvantage—the disadvantage of arriving at biased results. Worse, the distinction between the causes and the effects of criminal activities may become blurred due to the tendency to not become objective. High crime rate can become a flexible factor, becoming a cause on one hand with social disorganization as its effect and becoming an effect on one hand with social disorganization as its cause on another.
In fact, a separate study finds that there is no necessary connection between social class and crime and that more is yet to be understood in these two distinct concepts (Tittle, 1983). From the perspective of ecological theory, areas are divided into zones and these zones are occupied by more or less the same people in terms of social class, hence social stratification in the physical environment.
If there is no apparent connection between social class and the types of crimes committed by people in any of the prevailing social classes, there remains the difficulty of further asserting that there is an apparent link between the physical environment and the rate of crimes in the different zones. Thus, the main disadvantage of using ecological theory in interpreting human behavior within the confines of certain zones is that it uses a shaky foundation. More specifically, the theory does not address the inconsistencies between those who commit certain crimes within a specific zone from those who do not commit any crime at all.
The main question is: why do some people in Zone 2 commit theft, for instance, while some others do not? It appears that the physical environment does not hold a firm solution to the task of explaining human behavior. Nevertheless, another study reaffirms the assertion of the ecological theory. In a study conducted by Tita, Cohen and Engberg (2005), it was found out that small gangs operate within select areas especially in urban slum locations, suggesting that in some cases the ecological theory may hold true.
In order to address the problem, it may be argued that urban beautification be taken into consideration such as demolishing structures in slum areas and replacing them with visually pleasing structures. The advantage of adopting this measure is that it can literally remove the physical environment where these small gangs thrive. As a result, a portion of the area is altered and cleansed, in a manner of speaking, which is a faster solution than the possible solutions that can be taken from the ecological theory.
A disadvantage of applying the ecological theory in providing a solution to the problem of small gangs is that it requires sufficient time and firm policies. For instance, the ecological theory may suggest that the income in these slum areas should be raised through specialized government programs and the law enforcement be made more stringent. While the solutions taken from the ecological theory are certainly needed, they call for serious implementation and consistent follow-up on their development. On the other hand, the disadvantage of adopting the beautification solution through eviction is that it raises ethical concerns.
It is a quick fix that carries several moral consequences, chief of them humanitarian reasons. Both the ecological theory and the process of beautification have their corresponding advantages and disadvantages. The challenge is not to find which one is generally better than the other but to determine which one applies best to a particular instance. Certain objections may be raised against either approaches, but they nevertheless remain significant methods in understanding certain types of human behavior such as criminal activities.
Lowman, J. (1986). Conceptual Issues in the Geography of Crime: Toward a Geography of Social Control. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 76(1), 81-94. Shaw, C. R. , & McKay, H. D. (2006). Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas: A Study of Rates of Delinquents in Relation to Differential Characteristics of Local Communities in American Cities. Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis. Tita, G. E. , Cohen, J. , & Engberg, J. (2005). An Ecological Study of the Location of Gang “Set Space”. Social Problems, 52(2), 272-299. Tittle, C. R. (1983). Social Class and Criminal Behavior: A Critique of the Theoretical Foundation. Social Forces, 62(2), 334-358.
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