Social Disorganization and Rural Communities

Social disorganization is defined as an inability of community members to achieve shared values or to solve jointly experienced problems (Bursik, 1988). In recent decades, the themes of social disorganization theory have been more clearly articulated and extended by Kornhauser (1978), Bursik and Grasmick (1993), and Sampson and Groves (1989). Shaw and McKay traced social disorganization to conditions endemic to the urban areas that were the only places the newly arriving poor could afford to live, in particular, a high rate of turnover in the population (residential instability) and mixes of people from different cultural backgrounds (ethnic diversity). Shaw and McKay's analyses relating delinquency rates to these structural characteristics established key facts about the community correlates of crime and delinquency, and their work remains useful today as a guide for efforts to address crime and delinquency at the community level.

Both theoretical development and empirical research in the study of community influences on crime and delinquency have focused on urban settings. For instance, studies of neighborhood differences in crime rates have been conducted in many of the largest cities in the United States (including Baltimore, MD; Boston, MA; Chicago, IL; New York, NY; and San Diego, CA), but only one such study has been conducted in a smaller city—Racine, WI. Nonmetropolitan areas have been included in some studies of communities and crime, but that research is of limited value for the purposes of this Bulletin. Some of those studies were based on national samples with both urban and rural respondents, but they did not separately examine patterns for nonmetropolitan communities (Sampson, 1985; Sampson and Groves, 1989). Other studies analyzed crime or delinquency in rural communities, but they were either very limited in scope (e.g., Arthur, 1991, was limited to 13 counties; Petee and Kowalski, 1993, is only 3 pages long) or concerned with different issues (Wilkinson, 1984).

Extending Social Disorganization Theory

Current versions of social disorganization theory assume that strong networks of social relationships prevent crime and delinquency (Kornhauser, 1978; Bursik and Grasmick, 1993; Sampson and Groves, 1989). When most community or neighborhood members are acquainted and on good terms with one another, a substantial portion of the adult population has the potential to influence each child. The larger the network of acquaintances, the greater the community's capacity for informal surveillance (because residents are easily distinguished from outsiders), for supervision (because acquaintances are willing to intervene when children and juveniles behave unacceptably), and for shaping children's values and interests. According to the current theory, community characteristics such as poverty and ethnic diversity lead to higher delinquency rates because they interfere with community members' abilities to work together (see citations above).

Just as in urban areas, systems of relationships are relevant to crime and delinquency in small towns and rural communities. The only aspect of the theory specific to urban areas is the explanation of why social disorganization arises in some geographic locations and not in others.

Rural sociologists concerned with the disruptive effects of rapid population growth provide some evidence that the processes of social disorganization apply in rural settings. Freudenberg (1986), for example, argued that the "boomtown" phenomenon brings high rates of crime and other unacceptable behaviors but does not produce alienation or mental health difficulties. Furthermore, he explained these negative effects by the same logic as social disorganization theory: rapid growth greatly diminishes the proportion of people who know one another, which in turn interferes with surveillance and socialization of the young (Freudenberg, 1986).

Community Correlates of Youth Violence Outside the City

Social disorganization theory specifies that several variables—residential instability, ethnic diversity, family disruption, economic status, population size or density, and proximity to urban areas—influence a community's capacity to develop and maintain strong systems of social relationships. To test the theory's applicability to nonmetropolitan settings, this Bulletin examines the relationships between these community variables and rates of offending because the same relationships provide the core empirical support for the theory in urban settings. This section discusses the relevance of each factor to delinquency rates in the social disorganization framework.

Residential instability. Based on research in urban settings, the authors expected that rates of juvenile violence in rural communities would increase as rates of residential instability increased. When the population of an area is constantly changing, the residents have fewer opportunities to develop strong, personal ties to one another and to participate in community organizations (Bursik, 1988). This assumption has been central to research on social disorganization since its inception. Massive population change is also the essential independent variable underlying the boomtown research on rural settings (Freudenberg, 1986).

Ethnic diversity. According to social disorganization theory, it could be expected that, as in urban areas, rates of juvenile violence would be higher in rural communities with greater ethnic diversity. According to Shaw and McKay (1942), ethnic diversity interferes with communication among adults. Effective communication is less likely in the face of ethnic diversity because differences in customs and a lack of shared experiences may breed fear and mistrust (Sampson and Groves, 1989). It is important to distinguish this theoretically driven hypothesis about heterogeneity from simple ethnic differences in offense rates. In other words, this hypothesis sees crime as arising from relations between ethnic groups, not from some groups being more crime-prone than others.

Family disruption. Research in urban areas has found that delinquency rates are higher in communities with greater levels of family disruption, and the authors expected that this also would be true in rural areas. Sampson (1985; Sampson and Groves, 1989) argued that unshared parenting strains parents' resources of time, money, and energy, which interferes with their ability to supervise their children and communicate with other adults in the neighborhood. Furthermore, the smaller the number of parents in a community relative to the number of children, the more limited the networks of adult supervision will be for all the children.

Economic status. Although rates of juvenile violence are higher in urban areas with lower economic status, it was not clear that this relationship should apply in rural settings. The role of economic status in social disorganization theory is based on patterns of growth in urban areas. In many major urban areas, growth leads to the physical, economic, and social decline of the residential areas closest to the central business district. These areas then become most readily available to the poor and to groups who migrate to the area. As a result, areas with the lowest average socioeconomic status will also have the greatest residential instability and ethnic diversity, which in turn will create social disorganization (Bursik and Grasmick, 1993). Accordingly, many studies have found that urban neighborhoods with high rates of poverty also have greater rates of delinquency (Warner and Pierce, 1993).

The processes that link poverty with population turnover are specific to urban settings. In nonmetropolitan settings, poor populations may be stable and ethnically homogeneous.

Population density. Population density is rather different from the other community factors for two reasons. First, evidence of a relationship between population density and urban crime and delinquency is inconsistent. Second, the meaning of density becomes quite different for nonurban communities, where, in the least dense areas, one must travel several miles to have significant contact with people outside of one's immediate family. The original reasoning for the urban context was that high population density creates problems by producing anonymity that interferes with accountability to neighbors. In the least dense rural areas, it may be social isolation, instead, that limits social support to monitor children and respond to problem behavior. On the other hand, Sampson (1983) suggested that density might be more important in terms of opportunities for offending than in terms of social disorganization. The relative isolation of living in a sparsely populated area may reduce opportunities for offending because of greater distance from targets and from potential companions in crime (Cohen and Felson, 1979; Osgood et al., 1996). This possibility is supported by Laubís (1983b:189) finding that victimization rates are lowest in communities with the smallest populations, but only for populations of 25,000 or less. In larger communities, the rates were essentially unrelated to population size.

Proximity to urban areas. This final community variable, which departs from the themes of current social disorganization theory, considers an issue specific to rural settings and to the linkages among communities. As Heitgerd and Bursik (1987) have argued, it is important to look beyond the internal dynamics of communities and consider ways in which rates of delinquency might be influenced by relationships between neighboring communities. Various rural and suburban communities have very different relationships with urban communities, and this is an important theme of research on rural settings. Heitgerd and Bursik suggested that "less delinquent groups of youths are being socialized into more sophisticated types of criminal behavior by youths in adjoining areas" (1987: 785). Because average crime rates are higher in communities with larger populations, this phenomenon would produce higher rates of delinquency in rural communities that are adjacent to metropolitan areas. Previous research has not addressed this topic, however, so it is not clear whether such diffusion actually occurs and, if it does, whether it is strong enough to produce higher rates of juvenile violence in counties adjacent to urban areas.

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Community Correlates of Rural Youth Violence OJJDP Bulletin May 2003