Academic journal article Western Criminology Review

Looking Inside Zone V: Testing Social Disorganization Theory in Suburban Areas*

Academic journal article Western Criminology Review

Looking Inside Zone V: Testing Social Disorganization Theory in Suburban Areas*

Article excerpt

Abstract. Rapid suburbanization since the 1970s diversified the socioeconomic picture in suburbs, leading to an increase in crime and other social problems. In this study, social disorganization theory, developed mostly from studies conducted in large cities, was tested in a suburban setting. Negative binominal regression models were used to analyze calls for service data gathered from four suburban cities in Texas. The findings partially supported social disorganization theory. While poverty and racial/ethnic heterogeneity were found to be positively related with crime, residential mobility was negatively related with crime. This study also found that social disorganization indicators could account for variance in disturbance and social service calls. Finally, implications of these findings are discussed.

Keywords: social disorganization theory; suburbs; ecological criminology; calls for service


The primary concern of ecological criminology research has centered on urban areas, especially big cities. Only a few studies have pursued regional variations. Emphasis on urban areas appeared reasonable given the tradition of ecological theories growing out of the Chicago School's urban studies (Park, 1952; Shaw and McKay, 1942). Furthermore, crime has been regarded as a city problem, mainly because of higher crime rates in cities than in suburbs or rural areas. However, the changes occurring in suburban areas over the last several decades demanded more attention to these areas. Early ecologists described suburbs as a "zone of commuters" predominately composed of the white middle-class (Burgess, 1925).

Suburban areas have grown quickly since the 1950s as poor immigrant workers moved to the inner city, and the old residents-mostly whites-moved to suburbs seeking better residential environments. In this early stage of suburbanization, a stark racial and economic segregation made it possible to maintain a domination of the white middle-class in suburbs, while inner cities were economically and racially diverse (Baldassare, 1992). However, since the 1970s, when central cities and suburbs were combined into metropolitan areas, the social characteristics of suburbs greatly changed. Manufacturers moved to the suburbs, hence, a number of non-white, low-income workers also moved to these areas seeking employment. The suburbs also witnessed a diversified family structure (e.g., female-headed households) and an increase in the proportion of home renters. In brief, the homogeneous structure of the suburbs, represented by white, middleclass, family-oriented nuclear, and home-owner families, became diverse in socioeconomic terms (Baldassare, 1986).

As the structural features changed, the suburbs, which were viewed as regions without various social problems such as crime, disorder, unemployment, and economic inequality, no longer remained immune from these problems. Some studies reported that suburbs-especially rapidly growing ones-suffered a decline in the quality of life and resident satisfaction due to structural changes since the 1970s (Baldassare, 1986; Cervero, 1986).

The purpose of the current study is to test social disorganization theory in a suburban setting. This study suspects that suburbs may be experiencing a similar ecological process to what occurred in the early 19th century city of Chicago. Consistent with the propositions of the social disorganization theory, it is hypothesized that social disorganization indicators, including poverty, racial/ethnic heterogeneity, residential mobility, and family disruption are positively related with crime rates.

Overview of Ecological Perspectives in Crime

Ernest Burgess (1925) displayed "problem areas" in Chicago using the "concentric zone model." He noticed that cities tended to expand from the center and to make five concentric zones, each with differing characteristics. It was in the transition zone (Zone II) that social change mostly occurred, caused by the invasion of the central business district. …

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