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The Legacy of Shaw and McKay

Most important among Shaw and McKay` s findings was that crime rates corresponded to neighborhood structure and that crime is a creature of the destructive ecological conditions in urban slums. Social disorganization concepts articulated be Shaw and McKay have remained prominent within criminology for more than 75 years. Their contention was that criminals are not, as some criminologist of the time believed, biologically inferior, intellectually impaired, or psychologically damaged.

Their research supported their belief that crime is a constant fixture in areas of poverty regardless of the racial or ethnic identity of its residents. Because the basis of their theory was that neighborhood disintegration and slum conditions are primary causes of criminal behavior. Shaw and McKay paved the way for the many community action and treatment programs developed in the last half-century. Shaw was the founder of one very influential community based treatment program, the Chicago Area Project was the forerunner of many neighborhood revitalization programs that have been at tempted since the 1960s.

The Social Ecology School

During the 1970`s, criminologists were influenced by several critical analysis of the social disorganization theory, which presented wellthought-out challenges to its validity. During this period, theories with a social-psychological orientation stressed offender socialization within the family, school, and peer group. These ideas dominated the criminological literature of that time. Despite its fall from grace, the social disorganization tradition was kept alive by area studies conducted by Bernard Lander in Baltimore, David Bordua in Detroit, and Roland Chilton in Indianapolis. These studies showed that such ecological conditions as substandard housing, low income, and unrelated people living together predicted a high incidence of delinquency.

These modern day social ecologist developed a purer form of structural theory that emphasizes the association of community deterioration and economic decline to criminality but places less emphasis on value conflict. Beginning in the 1980s, a group of criminologists began to study ecological conditions, reviving concern about the effects of social disorganization. In the following sections, some of the more recent social ecological research is discussed in detail.

Community deterioration

Crime rates have been associated with community deterioration: disorder, poverty, alienation, disassociation, and fear of crime. For example, neighborhoods with a high percentage of deserted houses and apartments experience high crime rates: abandoned buildings serve as a magnet of crime. Areas in which houses are in poor repair, boarded-up and burned out, and whose owners are best described as slumlords are also the location of the highest violence rates and gun crime. These are neighborhoods in which retail establishments often go bankrupt, are abandoned, and deteriorate physically.

Poverty concentration

Although poverty rates or unemployment may not be a direct cause of crime, areas that are the most deteriorated, even within the context of inner-city poverty, seem to have much higher crime rates than more stable lower-class environments. One aspect of community change may be the concentration of poverty in deteriorated neighborhoods. William Julius Wilson describes how working and middleclass families flee inner-city poverty areas, resulting in a concentration effect, in which elements of the most disadvantaged population are consolidated in urban ghettos.

Minority group members living in these areas also suffer race-based inequality such as income inequality and institutional racism. Businesses are disinclined to locate in poverty areas: banks become reluctant to lend money for new housing or businesses. As the working and middle classes move out, they take with them their financial and institutional resources and support. Areas marked by concentrated poverty become isolated and insulated from the social mainstream and more prone to criminal activity and violence.

Today, the areas that may be the most crime prone may be stable, homogenous areas whose residents are trapped in public housing and urban ghettos. Shaw and McKay` s assumption that crime rates increase in transidonal neighborhoods. The concentration effect contradicts, in some measure.

Employment opportunities

The relationship between unemployment and crime is still unsettled: aggregate crime rates and aggregate unemployment rates seem weakly related. In order words, crime rates sometimes rise during periods of economic prosperity and fall during periods of economic decline. Yet, as Shaw and McKay claimed, neighborhoods that are continually wracked by unemployment also experience social disorganization and crime. Even though short-term economic trends may have little effect on crime, it is possible that long-term unemployment rates will eventually produce higher levels of antisocial behaviors.

Unemployment destabilizes households, and unstable families are the ones most likely to produce children who put a premium on violence and aggression as a means of dealing with limited opportunity. This lack of opportunity perpetuates higher crime rates, especially when large groups or cohorts of people of the same age compete for relatively scant resources.

Sociologist Elijah Anderson` s analysis of Philadelphia neighborhood life found that old heads (respected neighborhood residents) who at one time played an important role in socializing youth have been displaced by younger street hustlers and drug dealers. While the old heads complain that these newcomers may not have earned or work for their fortune in the oldfashioned way, the old heads admire and envy these kids whose gold chains and luxury cars advertise their wealth amid poverty. Limited employment opportunities also reduce the stabilizing influence of parents and other adults, who may have once been able to counteract the allure of youth gangs. The old heads may admire the fruits of crime, but they disdain the violent manner in which it was acquired.

Community fear

Disorganized neighborhoods suffer social and physical incivilities---rowdy youth, trash and litter, graffiti, abandoned storefronts, burned-out buildings, littered lots, stangers, drunks, vagabonds, loiterers, prostitutes, noise, congestion, angry words, dirt, and stench. The presence of such incivilities, especially when accompanied by relatively high crime rates, convinces residents that their neighborhood is dangerous and that they face a considerable chance of becoming crime victims.

People tell others when they have been victimized, spreading the word that the neighborhood is getting dangerous and that the chances of future victimization is high. As a result, people dread leaving their homes at night and withdraw from community life. Fear can become contagious. Not surprisingly, people who have already been victimized are more fearful of the future than those who have escaped crime.

Race and Fear

Whites become particularly fearful when they sense that they are becoming a racial minority in their neighborhood ; African Americans seem less affected by racial change. Fear becomes most pronounced in areas undergoing rapid and unexpected racial and age-composition changes, especially when they are out of proportion to the rest of the city. Fear of crime is also bound up in anxiety over racial and ethnic conflicts. The fear experienced by whites maybe based on racial stereotypes, but it may also be caused by the premonition that they will become less well protected because police do not provide adequate services in predominantly African American neighborhoods.

Fear can be found among other racial and ethnic groups, especially when they believe they are in the minority and vulnerable to attack. Whites are not the only group to experience race based fear. For example, recent research conducted in Florida by Ted Chiricos and his associates found that whites are threatened by Hispanics and blacks, but only is South Florida where whites are outnumbered by those two groups, in contrast, Hispanics are threatened by African Americans, but only outside of South Florida where Hispanics are the minority.

Gangs and Fear

The fact that gangs are willing to openly engage in drug sales and other type of criminal activity shows their confidence that they have silenced or intimidated law-abiding persons in their midst. Brazen criminal activity undermines community solidarity because it signals that the police must be either corrupt or inept. Unlike and other crime, however, gang activity is frequently undertaken out in the open, on the public ways, and in full view of the rest of the community.

Gangs flourish in deteriorated neighborhoods with high levels of poverty, lack of investment, high unemployment rates, and population turnover. The police and the community alike become hopeless about their ability to restore community stability, producing greater levels of community fear.

Mistrust and Fear

Some residents become so suspicious of authority that they develop a siege mentality in which the outside world is considered the enemy out to destroy the neighborhood. People who report living in neighborhoods with high levels of crime and civil disorder become suspicious and mistrusting. They develop a sense of powerlessness, which amplifies the effect of neighborhood disorder and increases levels of mistrust. Elijah Anderson found that residents in the African American neighborhoods he studied believed in the existence of a secret plan to eradicate the population by such strategies as permanent unemployment, police brutality, imprisonment , drug distribution, and AIDS.

Community Change

In our postmodern society, urban areas undergoing rapid structural changes in racial and economic composition also seem to experience the greatest change in crime rates. Recent studies recognize that change, not stability, is the hallmark of inner-city areas. Some may become multi-racial, while others become racially homogeneous. A neighborhoods residents, wealth, density and purpose are constantly evolving. Even disorganized neighborhoods acquire new identifying features.

The cycles of community change

Urban areas seem to have life cycles, which begin with building residential dwellings and are followed by a period of decline, with marked decreases in socioeconomic status and increases in population density. Later stages in this life cycle include changing racial or ethnic makeup, population thinning, and finally, a renewal stage in which obsolete housing is replaced and upgraded (gentrification). During periods of population turnover, communities may undergo changes that undermine their infrastructure. Areas undergoing such change seem to experience an increase in their crime rates.