Geographic Criminology Research Paper

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After the turn of the century, the locus of geographic research on crime moved to the United States, and especially to the city of Chicago. A group of American sociologists, among them Robert Park, William Thomas, Louis Wirth, Ernest Burgess, Clifford Shaw, and Henry McKay, took a leadership role in the development of the criminology of place, in contrast to the statisticians, criminal lawyers, or psychiatrists who dominated criminology more generally in Europe. New theoretical concepts were introduced (notably social disorganization) and innovative methods and techniques to study empirically the distribution of crime in cities. In the 1950s, methodological critiques and developments in other areas of criminology diminished the research attention to geographic criminology. In the 1980s, young scholars reemerged the study of spatial issues studying the dynamics of neighborhoods, elaborating the concept of social disorganization. Recently, the focus is more laid on micro places like blocks, squares, and street segments, because empirical research revealed great variations in crime within neighborhoods.

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Chicago And The Study Of Dynamics In Cities: Variations In Crime And Offender Rates Between Neighborhoods

After the turn of the century, the locus of geographic research on crime moved to the United States, and especially to the city of Chicago. At the University of Chicago, a group of sociologists took the initiative to undertake new research on urban problems, which centered, in part, on crime (Beirne and Messerschmidt 1991; Bulmer 1984; Burgess and Bogue 1964b; Faris 1967; Harvey 1987). They also moved the action of crime and place research from broad comparisons across large geographic areas to more careful comparisons within cities. Interestingly, the Chicago School scholars were either not aware of or ignored till 1933 the work of nineteenth-century crime and place researchers in Europe (Elmer 1933; Levin and Lindesmith 1937).

American cities grew in the second part of the nineteenth century and first part of the twentieth century faster than ever before in history, with all the social problems associated with such growth. Chicago itself played an important role in the integration of large numbers of Italian, Irish, German, Chinese, Polish, Jewish, and Scandinavian immigrants. The city evolved from a very small settlement in 1840 (with 4,470 inhabitants) to a city with a half-million inhabitants in 1880. Ten years later, the population had increased to one million, and in 1930, to about 3.5 million. Crime was perceived as one of the most important urban problems:

“After World War I (1914–1918), Chicago sociologists turned their ecological attentions to a variety of social problems. Exacerbated by the severe hardships of the Great Depression, Prohibition, and by the well-publicized rise of gangland warfare and union racketeering, crime itself came to be seen as a major social problem in Chicago. Crime, therefore, was one of the chief topics studied by members of the ChicagoSchool.” (Beirne and Messerschmidt 1991, p. 362)

Now, a group of American sociologists, among them Robert Park, William Thomas, Louis Wirth, Ernest Burgess, Clifford Shaw, and Henry McKay, took a leadership role in the development of the criminology of place, in contrast to the statisticians, criminal lawyers, or psychiatrists who dominated criminology more generally in Europe (Vold et al. 2002).

William Thomas contributed to the criminology of place by introducing the important concept of social disorganization, referring to “a decrease of the influence of existing social rules of behavior upon individual members of the group” (Thomas 1966, p. 3). The concept naturally focused on neighborhoods or communities. Robert Park (1864–1944), who was recruited by Thomas, was the initiator of urban social research on crime places, shifting the unit of analyses from countries and large areas to cities and their neighborhoods (Park and Burgess 1967 [1925]). The city in his opinion was more than “.. .a congeries of individual men and of social conveniences – streets, buildings, electric lights, tramways, and telephones, etc; something more, also, than a mere constellation of institutions and administrative devices – courts, hospitals, schools, police and, civil functionaries of various sorts. The city is, rather, a state of mind, a body of costumes and traditions, and of the organized attitudes and sentiments that inhere in these costumes and are transmitted with this tradition. The city is not, in other words, merely a physical mechanism and an artificial construction. It is involved in the vital process of the people who compose it; it is a product of nature, and particularly of human nature” (Park and Burgess 1967 [1925], p. 1). Park argued that urban life must be studied in this context in terms of “its physical organization, its occupations, and its culture” and especially the changes therein (Park and Burgess 1967 [1925], p. 3). Neighborhoods in his view were the elementary form of cohesion in urban life.

His younger colleague, Ernest Burgess, drawing from an inventory of price changes in housing values and other real estate in Chicago by a real estate agent developed a concentric zone model of the distribution of social problems and crime for cities (especially for Chicago) (Burgess 1967 [1925]). Burgess suggested that Chicago included five concentric zones, each containing various neighborhoods, four of them situated around “The Loop” (the business center of the city): “the typical processes of the expansion of the city can best be illustrated, perhaps, by a series of concentric circles, which may be numbered to designate both the successive zones of urban extension and the types of areas differentiated in the process of expansion” (Burgess 1967 [1925], p. 50). Burgess’ unit of analyses was a series of neighborhoods within cities that share similar characteristics. He assumed that depending on the distances to the center and the special features of these zones, the levels of crime would vary.

Clifford Shaw was one of the first Chicago sociologists to carry out extensive empirical research on the geographical distribution of crime on the basis of Burgess’ zone model (Shaw et al. 1929). This study can be seen as a landmark in the history of geographic studies because of its detailed data collection, advanced methods, and innovative statistical tools. Based on the concentric zone model of Burgess, the authors studied the distribution of truancy of young people, juvenile delinquents, and adult offenders in Chicago. Assisted by young researchers like Henry McKay, Frederick Zorbaugh, and Leonard Cottrell, Shaw took natural areas as units of analyses (Abbott 1997) but in more detail than ever before in these kinds of studies. Shaw and his colleagues introduced new units of analyses. First, they introduced spot maps by plotting the home address of thousands of offenders on a map of Chicago. Second, he combined the offender address data with census data to created delinquency rate maps of square mile areas. And finally, he constructed radial maps and zone maps, which displayed delinquency rates at regular distances from the city center (Snodgrass 1976).

For further analyses on the distribution of crime across Chicago, Shaw et al. divided the city into 431 census tracts in 1910 and 499 in 1920 (Shaw et al. 1929). Each census tract included convenient age and sex groups of the population. Subsequently, these census tracts were combined into square mile areas with a minimum population of 500 residents. The technique was to allocate delinquents to their place of residence, and to divide the number of delinquents by the number of boys of juvenile court age, in order to compute rates for small areas. These rates were used by Shaw and his associates to make shaded maps or compute correlations.

In the same year, Shaw’s research assistant Harvey Zorbaugh published his PhD in which he compared a slum neighborhood (the Lower North Side) with a wealthy area (Gold Coast) in Chicago, both situated in close proximity (Zorbaugh 1929). In this more qualitative study, Zorbaugh presented only a few maps, all of them less detailed in information than Shaw’s study. However, his research demonstrated clearly that two areas in close physical proximity did not illustrate that physical and social distances coincide. As Park wrote in his foreword of Zorbaugh’s study: “a situation in which people who live side by side are not, and – because of the divergence of their interests and their heritages – cannot, even with the best good will, become neighbors” (1929, p. ix), pointing to the invalid assumption of policy makers (and criminologists) of the time that people living in the same locality shared the same backgrounds and interests. This conclusion is very important for the choice of the unit of analysis in criminological research. This PhD study made explicit that administrative and political areas and social spaces are not identical. Depending on the size of the area, a variety of social communities with different identities can exist. Importantly, he concluded that the smaller the unit of analysis, the greater the chance of a homogeneous community.

In 1942, Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay published their magnum opus Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas in which they presented their geographical and etiological analyses of crime rates not only in the city of Chicago but also those of other cities: Philadelphia, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Richmond. In principle, they used similar analytic tools as introduced in their study of 1929 (Shaw and McKay 1942). Again, they employed spot maps, rate maps, radial maps, and zone maps to illustrate concentrations of crime and offenders in the city of Chicago over a long period of time (up to 60 years). In all of the studied cities, they found similar patterns in the geographical distribution of crime. However, the units of analysis differed a good deal between the various cities. These differences were due to the lack of detailed official crime data in cities other than Chicago. The rapid changes in the city of Chicago over a long period of time enabled them also to study the effects of the dynamics of the city on crime and other phenomena. One of their findings was that: “The data on trends also demonstrate with equal sharpness the rapid rise in rates of delinquents in certain areas when a population with a different history and different institutions and values takes over areas in a very short period of time” (Shaw and McKay 1942, p. 382).

The Decline Of Geographic Criminology

The Chicago studies inspired other criminologists to carry out empirical crime and place research in other cities (e.g., see Burgess and Bogue 1964a) like the relatively unknown policy report of Edwin Sutherland (1883–1950) on the geographical distribution of juvenile delinquency of the city of Bloomington, Indiana (Sutherland 1937). Also inspired by the work of Shaw and McKay and using the zone model of Burgess, Cyrill Burt (1883–1971) revealed there, like in Chicago, certain delinquent neighborhoods with high numbers of adult and juvenile offenders. Like Shaw and McKay, he used the location of the home addresses of delinquent boys and girls in the years 1922 and 1923 in London. Following the Chicago School findings, he noted that the highest concentrations in crime were found in three neighborhoods situated closely to the city center of London at the time: Holborn, Finsbury, and Shoreditch (Burt 1944 [1924]). According to Burt, these oldest but not poorest neighborhoods of London were for offenders of strategic importance, because they were situated closely to attractive crime targets in the inner city and – if necessary – they could function as a place to hide from the police.

On the other hand, as the decades passed, empirical and methodological critics of the Chicago approach began to emerge (Lander 1954). First, it was argued that Shaw (1929) and Shaw and McKay (1942/1969) could not distinguish between the dwelling place of the offender and the location where he or she committed a crime, neglecting the variability in the mobility of offenders. Secondly, by relying on official crime figures, their research was seen as biased because offenders of the lower class had (and still have) a greater chance to be processed in the criminal justice system (for instance, Beirne and Messerschmidt 1991; Chilton 1964; Chilton and Dussich 1974; Gordon 1967). Thirdly, delinquency rates after 1945 in Chicago did not conform to the distribution patterns of Shaw and McKay’s early assumptions (Bursik 1984, 1986). European studies also showed contradicting results. Morris (1957) examined the offender rates of the county of Croydon (UK), but could not confirm the zone model of Burgess. Twenty years later, Morris’ findings were replicated in the city of Sheffield (Baldwin 1975; Baldwin and Bottoms 1976). In Europe, the direct and indirect consequences of the operation of housing markets confounded the results of the geographical distribution of crime in American cities.

Another criticism that is key to our concern with units of analysis for crime place studies is that brought by Robinson (1950) who discussed the use of ecological correlations in geographical studies like that of Shaw and McKay (1942/1969). According to Robinson, the object of an ecological correlation is a group of persons, not a person: “.. .the individual correlation depends on the internal frequencies of the within-areas individual correlations, while the ecological correlation depends upon the marginal frequencies of the within-areas individual correlations” (Robinson 1950, p. 354). He concluded that ecological correlations cannot validly be used as substitutes for individual correlations. Such an ecological fallacy leads to meaningless conclusions. Looking back, these empirical and methodological critics diminished the attention of criminologists in studies of crime and place for almost 20 years.

Reemerging Interest In Communities And The Emergence Of Study Of Micro Crime Places

In the 1980s, Albert J. Reiss Jr. was to encourage a group of younger criminologists to return to the interests of the Chicago School where he had received his PhD in 1949. Reiss (1986) saw the criminological tradition as including two major theoretical positions, one that focused on individuals and a second that focused on crimes. Communities and crime was a main focus of the latter tradition and he sought to rekindle criminological interest in understanding variability of crime within and across communities. Editing an early volume in the Crime and Justice series, Reiss and Michael Tonry sought to bring Communities and Crime (1986) to the forefront of criminological interests (Reiss and Tonry 1986).

Reiss did not see the new interest as simply mimicking the insights of the Chicago School criminologists. Rather, he sought to raise a new set of questions about crime at place that had been ignored in earlier decades: “Recent work on communities and crime has turned to the observation that Shaw and McKay neglected: not only do communities change their structures over time but so often do their crime rates (.. .), a recognition that communities as well as individuals have crime careers” (Reiss 1986, p. 19). Many of the contributors to the Reiss and Tonry volume would become leaders of a new generation of criminologists, once again suggesting the important and enduring role of crime and place in advancing the criminological enterprise more generally. Among the contributors were Wes Skogan, Robert Sampson, Douglas Smith, Robert Bursik, Ralph Taylor, Stephen Gottfredson, and Lawrence Sherman.

Other work developed in this period drew upon the identification of neighborhoods and communities to expand insights about the development of crime (Brantingham and Brantingham 1981, 1991; Bursik and Webb 1982; Clarke 1983; LeBeau 1987; Rengert 1980; Roncek and Bell 1981; Sampson 1985; Sampson and Groves 1989). Smith (1986), for example, identified neighborhood variation in the behavior of the police, suggesting the importance of place in understanding not only the etiology of crime but also the etiology of criminal justice. Skogan brought new insights not only to our understanding of the interaction of community characteristics and policing (Skogan 1987) but also more generally to the developmental processes that led to the emergence of crime and disorder in urban communities (Skogan 1990). More recently, scholars led by Robert Sampson have used a focus on the community to draw new insights into developmental crime patterns, arguing that social cohesion within communities and shared expectations of community members combine to affect both crime and social disorder (Raudenbush and Sampson 1999; Sampson 2010; Sampson et al. 1999; Sampson et al. 1997).

Consistent with Reiss’ call for investigation of the criminal careers of communities, Bursik (1986; Bursik and Webb 1982) revisited crime in Chicago neighborhoods over time and challenged earlier views of the stability of crime within neighborhoods and communities, arguing that stability in crime patterns was a result of long-term stability in the social characteristics of places, and that instability in such patterns would also lead to instability in crime rates. Similarly, Schuerman and Kobrin (1986) identified stability and variability in criminal careers of places, focusing on the residences of juvenile delinquents as had Shaw and McKay (1942). Using the number of residential addresses of officially known delinquents by census tracts in Los Angeles as an indicator of aggregate crime, they found three general patterns that led to high crime rates in 1970. The first pattern they termed “emerging” and referred to those clusters that were relatively crime-free in 1950 but had moderate to high crime in 1960 and 1970, respectively. The second pattern, “transitional,” refers to those clusters that had moderately high crime in 1950, a higher level in 1960, and an even higher level in 1970. The last pattern is referred to as “enduring” and refers to those clusters that had persistently high crime rates at all points in time. The vast majority of census tracts within the clusters were designated as having enduring crime rates over the time span, with fewer census tracts in the transitional and emerging categories.

Interestingly, though the approach of the Chicago School called for the identification of units of geography that would not be drawn from administrative data collection, but from the social units that defined neighborhoods or communities, this new generation of scholars concerned with communities and crime have generally used officially defined units for drawing their data and conclusions. In this case, the US Census definitions, most often census tracts or the smaller census block groups, have become the main source for defining the units of geography that are the focus of research in the USA, despite the fact that the goals of the census in creating physically contiguous geographic units are often inconsistent with the goals of community and crime researchers. Often, such studies will simply assume that census units such as census tracts reflect actual community boundaries (Hipp 2007), though some scholars in this area combine census units with the idea of creating boundaries of communities that are more consistent with the theoretical interests of researchers (e.g., see Sampson et al. 1997). Importantly, this new focus on communities and crime often led to study of much smaller geographic units of analysis than had drawn the interests of the early Chicago School scholars.

While a reemergence of interest in communities and crime had been one important source for renewed study of crime and place in recent decades, the 1980s produced a more radical reformulation of the unit of geography that should form the basis of crime place studies, continuing to push the unit of geographic analysis to a more micro level. Traditional criminological interest in place has focused on higher level geographic units such as regions, cities, communities, or neighborhoods. One reason for this focus on macro levels of geography is simply that data were often not available at geographic levels lower than the standard administrative or census divisions. But even when data were available, statistical and analytic tools were not readily available for linking crime easily with micro units of geography.

Certainly, the difficulty of mapping crimes to specific places and of analyzing geographic data were factors that prevented study of crime at micro units of geography, but another barrier was the lack of consistent theoretical interest in micro places as contrasted with research on individual criminality, or crime across macro geographic units (Weisburd et al. 2004; Weisburd and McEwen 1997). Such theoretical interest was not to emerge until the late 1970s and 1980s, about the time that computerized crime mapping and more sophisticated geographic statistical tools were to emerge (Weisburd and McEwen 1997). A new group of theorists challenged traditional criminological interests and began to focus more on the “processes operating at the moment of the crime’s occurrence” (Birkbeck and LaFree 1993, p. 114). One influential critique that was to have strong influence on the development of interest in micro units of geography was brought by Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson (1979). They argued that the emphasis placed on individual motivation in criminological theory failed to recognize the importance of other elements of the crime equation. They argued that crime rates could be affected by changing the nature of targets or of guardianship, irrespective of the nature of criminal motivations. The “routine activities” perspective they presented established the spatial and temporal context of criminal events as an important focus of study.

Canadian criminologists Patricia Brantingham and Paul Brantingham (1993) made the connection between routine activities and place even more directly in their development of “crime pattern theory.” Crime pattern theory focuses directly upon places by asking how targets come to the attention of offenders and how that influences the distribution of crime events over time and across places. Like Cohen and Felson, Brantingham and Brantingham routine human social and economic activities as a critical feature of the crime equation, but in this case, the place is made an explicit rather than implicit part of this equation, providing a “backcloth” for human behavior.

Drawing upon similar themes, British scholars led by Ronald Clarke began to explore the theoretical and practical possibilities of “situational crime prevention” in the 1980s (Clarke 1983, 1992; Cornish and Clarke 1986; Wikstrom et al. 1995). Their focus was on criminal contexts and the possibilities for reducing the opportunities for crime in very specific situations. Their approach turned traditional crime prevention theory on its head. At the center of their crime equation was opportunity. And they sought to change opportunity rather than reform offenders. In situational crime prevention, more often than not, “opportunity makes the thief” (Felson and Clarke 1998). This was in sharp contrast to the traditional view that the thief simply took advantage of a very large number of potential opportunities. Importantly, in a series of case studies, situational crime prevention advocates showed that reducing criminal opportunities in very specific contexts can lead to crime reduction and prevention (Clarke 1992; 1995).

One implication of these emerging perspectives is that micro crime places were an important focus of inquiry. Places in this “micro” context are specific locations within the larger social environments of communities and neighborhoods (Eck and Weisburd 1995). They are sometimes defined as buildings or addresses (e.g., see Green (Mazerolle) 1996; Sherman et al. 1989), sometimes as block faces, “hundred blocks,” or street segments (e.g., see Taylor 1997; Weisburd et al. 2004), sometimes as clusters of addresses, block faces, or street segments (e.g., see Block et al. 1995; Sherman and Weisburd 1995; Weisburd and Green Mazerolle 1995). Research in this area began with attempts to identify the relationship between specific aspects of urban design (Jeffery 1971) or urban architecture and crime (Newman 1972) but broadened to take into account a much larger set of characteristics of physical space and criminal opportunity. In 1989, Sherman and colleagues coined the term the “criminology of place,” to describe this new approach that drew its theoretical grounding from routine activities and situational crime prevention to emphasize the importance of micro crime places in the etiology of crime.

Recent studies point to the potential theoretical and practical benefits of focusing research on micro crime places. A number of studies, for example, suggest that there is a very significant clustering of crime at places, irrespective of the specific unit of analysis that is defined (Oberwittler and Wikstro¨ m 2009; Roncek 1981; Weisburd et al. 2009). The extent of the concentration of crime at place is dramatic. In one of the pioneering studies in this area, Sherman, Gartin, and Buerger (1989) found that only three and a half percent of the addresses in Minneapolis produced 50 % of all calls to the police. Fifteen years later in a study in Seattle, Washington, Weisburd et al. (2004) reported that between 4% and 5% of street segments in the city accounted for 50 % of crime incidents for each year over 14 years.

Geographic criminology not only resurrected in the USA but also in Europe. In England, studies have been carried out in Glasgow, Liverpool, London, and Poplar to the spatial distribution of crime (Baldwin 1975). In Sheffield, Antony Bottoms established a research line on the geographic distribution of crime and victimization (Baldwin and Bottoms 1976), later with Paul Wiles (Bottoms 2007; Bottoms and Wiles 1992, 2002). At the University College London (former Jill Dando Institute) in London, spatial criminology is one of the main fields of research, and Ken Pease at the Loughborough University (Farrell et al. 2007). In the Netherlands, some studies have been undertaken in the past (for an overview, see Bruinsma 2007), and at the NSCR, geographic criminology is one of the main research themes.

At Griffith University, Australia, a group of researchers study the spatial aspects of crime and guardianship. Leading centers in geography of crime are situated in Vancouver, Canada; George Mason University, Washington, USA; Temple University, Philadelphia, USA; University College of London (former Jill Dando), UK; the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NSCR), Amsterdam, the Netherlands; and at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. Many other universities and research institutes from all over the world are more or less active in the field of criminology that started almost 200 years ago in Belgium, France, and London.


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