Social disorganization theory first came to life in the Chicago school of thought with Robert Park. It was expanded on by Shaw and McKay, two of Park’s students. Social disorganization theory was founded on two key concepts: that this theory does not refer to all crime, and ecological factors foreshadow crime. In order to understand this theory on crime one must first understand ecology, which is a subset of biology that deals with studying how living things interact in their environment and live with one another.
Ecology is the study of ecosystems. The foundational concepts behind this theory lay the basis for understanding how ecology and crime mimic each other. In ecology, we can see that when humans build in areas that used to contain animals, a social disorganization for the animals occurs. Suddenly, their homes are gone, and they must either move somewhere else, die, or learn to adapt to their new living conditions. Many wild animals try to assimilate into their newly changed environment.
Raccoons, when placed in an urban environment turn to stealing out of garbage cans. Cougars will come down from mountains to prey on small pets. Deer eat the leaves off of trees in yards to adapt to their normal food sources being gone. This continues until most wildlife leaves the area or dies out.
Some important concepts to grasp are that location matters in reference to crime and can be just as important as age, gender, or race. This location usually has high levels of high school dropouts, unemployment, a deteriorating infrastructure, and an increased amount of single-parent homes.
These conditions allow for a neighborhood to become detached from surrounding areas, making it a “bad” part of town. Businesses will refrain from building in these areas, and crime is a common aspect of life those who live in areas that fit this profile deal with. As the area becomes more and more detached from surrounding places, it falls deeper into disorganization allowing for more crime. The other foundational concept is the idea of invasion and succession. Invasion refers to a different person or group coming into an area that already has social norms and changing those norms. After the old norms have been uprooted and new ones planted, those who were originally in that area tended to leave while more of the new people move in. This puts society in a disorganized state until the new societal standards have been accepted and put in place. As from the ecological standpoint I was discussing earlier, we can see how humans have invaded wildlife and disrupt nature’s societal norms. As humans build and take up more space for wildlife, the status quo for those animals is upset, and they must find a new normal in order to survive. This was seen to be the same amongst humans during the early days of America. A specific type of people would claim an area and would move in. After a while, a different type of people, be that racially or religiously, would start to move in and bring new customs and beliefs with them. This upset those who were living in the area first, and they would move out, causing the new status quo to take hold. This is why we have places like Chinatown, and it has such a strong resemblance to Chinese culture because any previous societal norms left as Chinese immigrants moved in.
According to the social disorganization theory crime can be prevented. This can be done through beautification projects and giving tax breaks to business that build in “troubled” areas. These ideas may help increase the physical and economical statuses to an area, but the best way to deter crime is through collective efficacy. This is the belief that a community itself must be responsible for those who reside in it. Collective efficacy requires trust and knowledge that everyone in a community will do their part to increase the standard of living and decrease crime rates. This is achieved when a community cares for those in it, when relationships are formed between members, and agreement of the status quo is made and upheld.
When first learning about this theory, exactly one thing came to mind. Over The Hedge is an animated movie that depicts the social disorganization theory in a fun, yet appropriate way. The first way the theory applies to the movie is from the ecological standpoint. The gang of critters wakes up from a nice hibernation only to find that their forest has been turned into suburbs teeming with families. With their usual food sources gone and only 274 days left to fill the log Verne, the cautious turtle who leads the pack is at a loss. His family must find some way to get enough food for them all to survive, so when RJ waltzes in claiming the humans have food to spare, and they can just steal some, the wildlife adapts. The start breaking into houses, scaring girl scouts, and robbing from barbecues. This becomes their only truly viable way to get food, and it wreaks havoc on the humans who moved in. This aspect of the movie is a dramatized but understandable representation of the social disorganization that animals go through when uprooted by humans. However, this is not the only aspect of the movie that falls under the social disorganization theory. The greater example is when RJ, a sly raccoon trying to get out of trouble, shows up and disrupts the social dominance held by Verne. Verne is the head of the pack until RJ showed up and his word was law. This changes once the outsider joined the group, and previous social norms were quickly upset. Instead of listening to Verne and his trouble sensing tail, those he protected started to side with RJ, going on dangerous missions, eating new foods, and rejecting their safe yet old way of life. Verne did not adapt as readily as his counterparts and started to fall of the important pyramid that had been previously determined, RJ replacing him at the top. RJ brought new ideas, like stealing, to the group. He introduced them to things like TV and video games. Elaborate plans became a normal aspect of life to complete their food gathering heists. As the movie continues we see how RJ has upended the old status quo, bring a new one with him. This is a depiction of the invasion and succession aspect of the social disorganization theory. When a new way of life was brought in, there was an upheaval of the old rules, causing Verne to almost leave the little woodland family due to him believing he was holding them back (which arguable he was but at least he finally adapted in the end.) As the leadership changed, crime committed by the forest creatures increased due to the state of disorganisation and a new status quo being applied. This all occurred because of a detachment from their conventional life, and new residents, both humans and RJ, invading and upsetting the status quo. Throughout the movie, the animals develop collective efficacy in their gang, accepting both Verne’s cautious way of living and RJ’s new creative ideas to survive. They all care for each other and protect one another at all costs to keep their newly found status quo.
It is also fun to mention that in the human world during this movie, the animals coming in disrupts the president of the Home Owners Association’s status quo, causing her to resort to illegal methods to catch the animals plaguing her neighbourhood. She eventually ends up in jail for using illegal methods of pest control, and the status quo of the human neighbourhood is upended due to them needing a new HOA president.