Urban Crime Research Paper

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Early twentieth century criminology might reasonably be considered the criminology of urban places. During the 1920s and 1930s much of the attention of criminologists focused on the ‘‘criminogenic city,’’ however, by the close of the century researchers had moved away from the notion that the city is itself criminogenic. Instead research on urban crime has become concerned mainly with explaining why urban crime rates vary, why some social, economic, and spatial characteristics are correlated with variations in urban crime rates, and how certain crime characteristics of urban places affect individual criminality.

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Concern that the city might have a crime-causing effect did not begin with American criminologists. Émile Durkheim (1897), Max Weber (1958), Ferdinand Toennies (1887), and other European sociologists wrote about the changes that occurred as a result of the transition of societies from agrarian and village-based forms to industrial and urban-based ones. They proposed that during rapid social change, growing and expanding cities would be hotbeds of crime (and experience a number of other problems). One can safely assume that most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophers and social scientists believed that even without rapid change, city life itself would be criminogenic. That is, they believed that in circumstances of slow change or even social stability that negative influences of cities themselves would lead to higher levels of crime than would occur in nonurban populations. This belief was not without reason. London and other major European cities were difficult places to live. To go out at night before the advent of gaslights meant moving about with a large group of men carrying weapons and torches. To do otherwise was to invite nearly certain mayhem and robbery (Stark).

American sociologists shared similar beliefs. Social Darwinists at the turn of the century saw pathology in urban life itself (Wirth; Davis). Early social workers, taking their intellectual justification from the Social Darwinists, created the juvenile court and other social service agencies (for example, Hull House founded by Jane Addams in Chicago) to try to control crime and delinquency among wayward urbanites, many of whom were thought to be negatively influenced by life in the city.

In the period between 1920 and World War II, sociologists associated with the University of Chicago began to construct explanations concerning why cities might have higher crime rates than the hinterland. But more importantly, they were interested in documenting and explaining variations in crime levels within cities (Park, Burgess, and McKenzie; Shaw and McKay). At the time, many believed that crime in the city, and especially in particular sections of the city, was caused by the influx of immigrants, and especially those from ‘‘crime prone’’ ethnic groups. However, researchers from the Chicago School observed in their studies that some sections of cities consistently had higher crime rates than others, regardless of who populated those areas. They argued and demonstrated with data that crime rates can be explained more accurately by focusing on the ecology of areas in the city, rather than on the ethnic composition of the population inhabiting those areas. They described a process whereby immigrants, upon arrival into the United States, typically moved into the poor, blighted neighborhoods because that is where they could afford to live. Crime in these areas was high and reflected poor living conditions, as these neighborhoods experienced great levels of poverty, racial heterogeneity, transience, and family disruption. However, as succeeding generations of these immigrant families improved their lot they moved to better neighborhoods, and as a result, their ethnic groups’ crime rate declined. Meanwhile, new immigrants from different ethnic groups repopulated the neighborhoods that the earlier arrivals had vacated. Despite the near complete change in population composition, crime levels in these transitory areas remained high. Chicago School criminologists thus concluded that it was not criminogenic characteristics of ethnic groups that led to elevated rates of crime, but the nature of the urban ecology in which they lived.

Nearly seven decades later, theories that address urban crime rely on the earlier findings from the Chicago School studies and continue to adopt an approach that emphasizes the importance of urban ecology. Thus, the roots of modern criminology’s examination of urban crime can be traced to the theories of the Chicago School and their contemporaries. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, while criminologists use new analytic techniques, new research tools, and modified explanations, even the casual reader of the current literature cannot help but be impressed by the debt that modern researchers owe to their predecessors in the effort to understand and explain crime in urban areas.

Are Crime Rates Higher in Urban Areas?

Before continuing, we should examine the latest evidence about urban crime. Although most often assumed to be the case, an important question is whether crime levels are higher in urban versus rural areas. According to crime statistics, community size does make a difference, as crime rates are higher in urban than in rural areas. Violent and property crime rates in our largest cities (Metropolitan Statistical Areas, or MSAs) are three to four times as high as the rates in rural communities (Barkan). These statistics hold for nearly all types of crime. For example, according to 1995 statistics from the Uniform Crime Reports, in U.S. metropolitan areas, homicide claims 11 victims per 100,000 inhabitants and more than 25 per 100,000 in some of the largest cities. In small cities and in rural counties, homicide claims only 5 victims per 100,000, and fewer than 2 per 100,000 in our most rural states (Federal Bureau of Investigation). This pattern also occurs for robbery and assault; they are much more common in large urban areas than elsewhere. Like violent crime, property crime is lowest in rural areas (Barkan). Further, this urban-rural difference has been found in Canada, England, Australia, and the Netherlands (Shover). These statistics present criminologists with the challenge of explaining why crime levels are much higher in urban than rural areas.

Explaining Urban Crime

The research literature on urban crime is generally of two types. There are studies that compare cities, seeking to understand why some have higher crime rates than others. And there are studies that focus on explaining variations in crime levels within cities. However, both types of studies use similar theories and focus on the same social forces to understand their observations. The primary theories used to study urban crime are social disorganization, subculture, and conflict theories.

Social disorganization theory (discussed earlier) is concerned with the way in which characteristics of cities and neighborhoods influence crime rates. The roots of this perspective can be traced back to the work of researchers at the University of Chicago around the 1930s. These researchers were concerned with neighborhood structure and its relationship to levels of crime. Classical Chicago School theorists, and Shaw and McKay in particular, were most concerned with the deleterious effects of racial and ethnic heterogeneity, residential mobility, and low socioeconomic status on an area’s ability to prevent crime. However, since the work of Shaw and McKay and others, researchers who adopt the macrosocial approach to the study of urban crime have identified a number of additional ‘‘disorganizing’’ factors including family disruption (Sampson and Groves), relative poverty (Messner, 1982), and racial segregation (Peterson and Krivo).

Researchers in this area believe that characteristics such as these are likely to lead to high levels of social disorganization, which in turn increases the likelihood of crime and criminal violence. In general terms, social disorganization refers to the inability of a community structure to mobilize the common values of its residents to maintain effective social controls (Kornhauser). Empirically, the intervening dimensions of community social organization can be measured in terms of the prevalence and interdependence of social networks in a community (both formal and informal) and in the span of collective supervision that the community directs toward local problems (Thomas and Znaniecki; Shaw and McKay; Kornhauser). Given this, neighborhoods characterized by high levels of poverty or economic deprivation, residential mobility, ethnic heterogeneity, family disruption, poor housing conditions, and low levels of education are most likely to be disorganized and have higher levels of crime and violence. Disorganization, a lack of solidarity and cohesion, and the absence of a shared sense of community and mutual commitment between residents allows crime to flourish because the community’s capacity for informal social control (that which does not depend on the less efficient formal criminal justice institutions) is inhibited. Social disorganization theory has been criticized for failing to appreciate the diversity of values that exist within urban areas (Matza), for not recognizing that communities in urban areas indeed may be organized, but around unconventional values, and for failing to define clearly its main concept, social disorganization, thereby making the identification and operationalization of variables difficult (Liska).

Subcultural theories to explain urban crime are of two types—subculture of violence and subculture of poverty. Common to both types is the belief that certain groups carry sets of norms and values that make them more likely to engage in crime. The subculture of violence thesis holds that high rates of violence result from a culture where criminality in general, and violence in particular, are more acceptable forms of behavior. Carriers of a subculture of violence are quicker to resort to violence than others. Situations that normally might simply anger others could provoke violence by those carrying subculture of violence values. In the formulation of these ideas, subcultural theorists claim that social institutions themselves contribute to the development and persistence of a subculture conducive to criminality and violence. For example, the disintegration of particular institutions (i.e., churches, families, and schools) denies certain populations (and in particular, minorities) the opportunity to learn conventional norms and values. The result of such processes is that certain groups are more likely to use violence in their day-to-day encounters, and violence is seen as an acceptable means to solving disputes. The classic statement on the subculture of violence is Wolfgang and Ferracuti’s The Subculture of Violence: Towards an Integrated Theory in Criminology (1967), although others have contributed as well (Elkins; Curtis, 1975). According to critics, the main drawbacks with this perspective are that it tends to overlook the interrelation of normative processes and institutional deterioration with more structural features of a given community, and that it is difficult to operationalize it in a testable fashion (how is the presence of subcultural values measured in individuals other than by the behavior that is being predicted?).

Subculture of poverty explanations have focused more on urban crime than have subculture of violence explanations. Subculture of violence explanations have been used to explain crime in urban and nonurban settings, but those who have written about the subculture of poverty have been concerned primarily with the criminal behavior in the ghettos and barrios of central cities (Banfield). The central thesis here is that values and norms that discourage work and investment of money or energies are likely to develop in poor communities. Because carriers of this subculture are disinclined to strive to achieve, have limited patience, and are less likely to defer gratification, they act impulsively. Too often these impulses lead to crime. Critics of this theory cite a biased, middle-class perspective that seems to neither understand the plight of the poor—the effects of social structures and institutions on their behavior—nor accurately describe their lives, options, or behavior.

The most notable expression of conflict theories as an explanation of urban crime has focused on income inequality (Blau and Blau). Here scholars have argued that frustration is a byproduct of income gaps that are viewed as unjust by those in subordinate positions. Social structural cleavages based on race have also been used to explain why poor urban blacks and Latinos have higher crime rates than the general population (Blau and Blau). Marxist scholars (Chambliss; Quinney; Lynch and Groves) describe how the contradictions inherent in advanced capitalism make crime—particularly where populations are concentrated, such as in the city—more likely. Most of their critics assert that conflict theorists are inaccurate (e.g., it is not income inequality that predicts crime, but absolute poverty), or too political.

Explaining Variation in Urban Crime

Although there is general consensus among criminologists that urban areas have higher rates of crime than rural areas, of less certainty is why certain urban settings have higher crime rates than other urban settings. That is, not all cities or neighborhoods experience similar levels of crime and violence; there is widespread variation in crime levels across urban spaces. Thus, the question of interest for criminologists is what is the source of this variation? What causes certain cities or neighborhoods to experience high levels of crime while other cities or neighborhoods enjoy relatively low levels of crime?

Criminologists address these questions by attempting to uncover the correlates of urban crime rates. In line with social disorganization theory mentioned earlier, most research of this type focuses on city or neighborhood characteristics associated with high crime levels in an area. Although the range of correlates studied is quite extensive, the most common characteristics include socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of the area, such as the poverty level, racial composition, residential mobility, labor force characteristics, age structure, and divorce rate. These correlates appear again and again in studies of urban crime rates. Here we will focus on three important correlates that have received continued attention among criminologists— poverty and other economic characteristics, racial composition, and labor force characteristics.

Poverty, Inequality, and Urban Crime

Within the extensive body of literature on the relationship between social class and crime exists a smaller but nonetheless important group of studies that examine the effects of poverty on crime. Interestingly enough, this smaller group of studies mirrors the larger body of literature from which it extends; essentially, there seems to be as much controversy and disagreement over whether poverty is related to crime.

The significance of urban socioeconomic conditions for the incidence of crime was early recognized in ecological studies at the University of Chicago. In the most famous of these, Shaw and McKay compared delinquency rates in various areas within twenty-one cities and concluded that three urban conditions promote high delinquency rates: poverty, racial heterogeneity, and mobility, with poverty surfacing as the most important factor.

Over the decades, numerous aggregate studies have empirically supported the poverty and crime relationship. Many of these studies have observed the highest crime rates within the poorest urban slums (Curtis, 1974). A linkage between crime and economic conditions has also been found at higher levels of aggregation, such as cities and states (Loftin and Hill; Smith and Parker). Many leading criminologists believe that the poverty-crime relationship is clear and direct.

This positive relationship between poverty and crime, for the most part, went uncontested until Blau and Blau put forth the hypothesis that racial economic inequality, more than poverty, spells the potential for violence. Socioeconomic inequalities associated with ascribed positions (i.e., being a minority), they argue, engender pervasive conflict in a democracy. While great economic inequalities generally foster conflict and violence, ascriptive inequalities do so particularly. Pronounced ascriptive inequalities transform the experience of poverty for many into the hereditary permanent state of being one of the poor. Blau and Blau also argue that ascriptive socioeconomic inequalities undermine the social integration of a community by creating social differences and conflict that widen the separations between ethnic groups and social classes. The Blaus tested these ideas using data collected on the 125 largest Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMSAs). Their findings show that once economic inequality is controlled, the positive relationship between poverty and criminal violence disappears. That is, poverty no longer plays a role in explaining crime. The authors conclude their study by pointing out that in a society founded on the principle that ‘‘all men are created equal,’’ economic inequalities rooted in ascribed positions violate the spirit of democracy and are likely to create alienation, despair, and conflict—all of which are associated with higher crime rates.

At the same time, a 1982 study by Messner examined the relationship between poverty, inequality, and violent crime for a sample of 204 SMSAs. Messner tested whether relative poverty (poor relative to those in one’s community) is more important than absolute poverty (poor with reference to a fixed set of human needs) for explaining crime. What Messner discovers is quite surprising. While his economic measure of family income inequality proves to be insignificant, his second economic measure, size of the poverty population, exhibits a significant negative correlation with the homicide rate. That is, the size of the impoverished population is inversely related to the homicide rate.

Together, the work of Messner and Blau and Blau challenged common conceptions concerning the relationship between poverty and crime and pointed out that areas with high populations of people in poverty do not necessarily have corresponding higher rates of violent crime, as previously theorized. More recent studies on the poverty-crime relationship continue to report conflicting results. Thus, many argue that it is too premature to make a confident conclusion about the role that poverty plays in the production of criminal violence. A promising line of inquiry focuses on underclass neighborhoods that are characterized by the isolation and concentration of people in poverty. It may be that in the context of these ‘‘concentration effects’’ urban poverty may be related to higher crime rates (Sampson and Wilson).

Racial Composition and Urban Crime

Unlike poverty, studies that analyze racial composition and crime clearly find that there is a strong positive relationship between criminal violence and an area’s racial composition. This has been shown to be true across all levels of aggregation, including states (Huff-Corzine et al.), SMSAs (Balkwell), cities (Sampson), and neighborhoods (Warner and Rountree), as well as for all types of crime, including both violent (Messner, 1982) and property (Kubrin). In many of these studies, racial composition is defined in terms of the percentage of the population that is black. More recently, however, there have been attempts to incorporate additional racial groups outside of blacks and whites into measures of racial composition. These measures more accurately represent racial heterogeneity or levels of racial diversity within an area. Interestingly, race effects have been documented in both studies that use percent black and white heterogeneity as their measure of racial composition. Given consistent findings, researchers interested in the race-crime relationship have moved away from the question of whether race effects exist to a more difficult question: Why do race effects exist?

To a great extent, the answer to this question is linked to the type of racial composition measure used in the study. For example, studies that use percent black as a proxy for racial composition, and find that it is a significant predictor of the crime rate, often propose subcultural explanations to explain the race effect (Messner, 1982, 1983). These researchers argue that if the subcultural explanations are correct, there should be an effect of racial composition on the crime rate that is independent of socioeconomic and demographic factors. When such an effect appears, it is frequently interpreted as support for the subculture of violence thesis. At the same time, studies that document race effects using a measure of racial heterogeneity have very different explanations for why race and crime are correlated at the city and neighborhood levels. These studies are usually more concerned with racial diversity and its relationship to crime, highlighting the ‘‘disorganizing’’ effects of racial heterogeneity on social control or interpersonal interactions at the neighborhood level (Warner and Rountree). Regardless of the measure, studies that examine the relationship between racial composition and crime find evidence of strong race effects.

Significant race effects have also been documented in criminological literature that focuses on changes in an area’s racial composition and its relation to changes in violent and property crime rates. One of the most important findings of the classic Shaw and McKay delinquency research is that the spatial distribution of delinquency in a city was the product of ‘‘larger economic and social processes characterizing the history and growth of the city and of the local communities which comprise it’’ (p. 14). Further, in a 1982 study by Bursik and Webb using neighborhoods in Chicago, the authors find that changes within the ecological structures of localities had an appreciable impact on changes in community delinquency levels during the 1950s and 1960s. They interpret these findings in terms of the disruptive influence that community reorganization (processes of invasion and succession) has on the maintenance of social institutions, social networks, and informal social controls. In light of their findings, Bursik and Webb remind researchers of the crucial differences between static and dynamic spatial approaches to crime and delinquency. Since their work, recent studies that examine the relationship between changes in racial composition and changes in urban crime levels continue to find a strong positive relationship between the two (Miethe, Hughes, and McDowall; Kubrin).

Labor Market Conditions and Crime

One possible line of inquiry that bridges debates about economics and crime and race and crime in the city is the research that focuses on how the labor market is related to crime. Historically criminologists have tried to sort out the relationship between unemployment and crime, but the literature is inconclusive. Some studies find that unemployment is positively associated with crime while others do not find a significant relationship. Examinations that go beyond the simple consideration of employed versus unemployed persons have found that areas with unstable unemployment circumstances for relatively large portions of adults have higher crime rates (Crutchfield; Crutchfield, Glusker, and Bridges). Labor market segmentation research seeks to explain how job allocation perpetuates systems of stratification, which regulate the poor and some minority populations to economic disadvantage across generations. The line of research may help to explain why underclass urban neighborhoods, composed heavily of African American and Latino residents, have higher crime rates.


What do we know about urban crime? We know that cities are generally more crime prone than the hinterland. We also know that crime rates vary within cities. We are not quite sure why this variation exists nor why variations in crime rates vary dramatically across cities. The major theoretical perspectives that are used to explain these observed variations include social disorganization theory, subculture theory, and conflict theories. We believe that the current evidence favors the two social structural alternatives— disorganization and conflict—but acknowledge that the social structure of the city affects urban culture, which, too, influences criminality. It appears that social inequality, in varied forms, is an important social force affecting many facets of urban life, including crime.


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