Key Issues in the Social Ecology of Crime

  • James M. Byrne
  • Robert J. Sampson
Part of the Research in Criminology book series (RESEARCH CRIM.)


In this opening chapter, we highlight six key issues that are of concern to both researchers and theorists interested in the community context of crime: (1) The data source controversy; (2) the question of theory integration; (3) the problem of contextual fallacies; (4) conceptualization and measurement issues in ecological research; (5) the use of crosssectional versus longitudinal designs; and (6) the applications of social ecology to public policy.1 In each of the following eight chapters, one or more of these issues is empirically addressed. However, before assessing these issues, we feel it will be helpful to briefly place the ecological study of crime in its historical perspective. The obvious centerpiece for such an inquiry is the work of Shaw and McKay and the recent expansions, reformulations, and “rediscoveries” of their basic propositions.


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  1. 1.
    These issues have been identified and discussed in recent reviews of ecological research. See for example Bursik (1984), Sampson (1983a), Dunn (1980), and Baldwin (1979) for reviews of neighborhood-level research; and Byrne (1983), Brantingham and Brantingham (1981), and Harries (1980) for reviews of city-level research on crime.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The history of the social ecology of crime can be traced back further than Shaw and McKay. Pioneering ecological efforts by the 19th century French sociologists Quetelet and Guerry constituted some of the first work in “scientific criminology” according to Vold (1958, p. 164). Other Europeans, such as Rawson and Mayhew, also figured prominently in development of the ecological perspective. For an interesting review of the origins and development of English ecology and its relationship to American criminology, see Morris (1957).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Excellent reviews of the Shaw and McKay tradition have been provided by Pfohl (1985), Bursik (1984), and Finestone (1976). The critique of early ecological research by Baldwin and Bottoms (1976) is also informative.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    A number of researchers have demonstrated a positive relationship between poverty and crime but yielded inconsistent patterns regarding partial effects or failed to perform multivariate analysis. See Harries (1980) or Baldwin (1979) for a complete review.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Harries (1980) includes a similar summary of the available evidence on cities and crime that also highlights a set of geographical factors not discussed here, including, for example, climate, seasonality, and phases of the moon.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    For example, see Polk’s studies of San Diego (1957) and Portland (1967), and Quinne’s study of Lexington (1964).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Although many investigators have focused on what Shevky and Bell (1955) termed “family status,” this dimension pertains mostly to life-cycle stages such as fertility, female-labor-force participation, and single-family housing (e.g., Quinney, 1964). Measures of family disruption, in contrast, would include percent divorced, percent separated, and percent female-headed households.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    For an excellent review of the available research on defensible space theory, see Charles Murray, “The Physical Environment and Community Control of Crime,” in Wilson (1983, pp.107–122) and Taylor and Gottfredson (1983).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    See Gibbs and Erickson (1976), Stafford and Gibbs (1980). The ecological position of a city can be examined by identifying its potential attraction (as reflected by the SMSA/city population size ratio) and its actual attraction (as reflected by its “dominance” of the corresponding SMSA; i.e., city/SMSA retail sales).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    For example: overcrowding, population (and structural) density, mobility, age composition, residential stability, neighborhood deterioration, and family disorganization.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    See Pfohl (1985, pp. 168–169) for a discussion of this issue. Other criticisms of the social-disorganization perspective are also discussed by Pfohl, including inadequate operationalization of the concept of disorganization confusion of disorganization and differential organization, and the neglect of organized “respectable” deviance.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    This clarification is offered by Finestone and Reiss in their articles in Short (1976) on the Shaw and McKay tradition.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    A complete discussion of this issue is found in Byrne (1983, p. 66–71). The potential use of opportunity-specific crime rates has been reviewed in Harries (1981), Sparks (1981), and Gibbs (1978).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    There are some notable exceptions, such as the criminal-opportunity perspective (Cohen, 1981; Cohen & Felson, 1979; Cohen, Kluegel, & Land, 1981). See also the observations of Harries (1981) on the development of opportunityspecific crime rates.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    A full discussion of the three theory-integration strategies (side-by-side, end-to-end, and up-and-down) critiqued by Hirschi (1979) is beyond the scope of this chapter. Parenthetically, Greenberg (chapter 3) seems to be using an end-to-end strategy, while the other researchers employ variations of the side-by-side strategy. See also Short (1979) for a discussion of the problem of theory integration at different levels of analysis.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Perhaps the most comprehensive review of this issue is provided by Blalock (1982); See also Langbein and Lichtman (1978). Strategies for addressing problems related to both conceptualization and measurement (e.g., triangulation, confirmatory factor analysis, etc.) are identified by these authorsGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    In the meantime, Blalock (1982) offers an approach to this measurement problem that bears consideration: “The only constructive stance that I can suggest is one that admits to the nature of the problem, distinguishes between those theoretically defined variables that have and have not been associated with operational measures, attempts to state explicitly the assumptions required to link the former theoretical constructs with their indicators, and then proceeds to specify just which propositions can and cannot be tested with the data at hand.” (p. 20) See Blalock (1982: Chapters 1 & 2) for a more detailed explanation. According to Blalock, “This stance basically admits that data collection constraints will mean that certain important variables cannot be measured, but it retains these variables in the model as unmeasured variables and thus permits the statement of a number of theoretical propositions that themselves cannot be tested with the data”(p. 20).Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Indeed, this is the starting point for many debates over the relative merits of apparently divergent perspectives on the causes of crime and delinquency. When “inconsistent” findings are reported, advocates of the challenged perspective often point to inadequate measurement of explanatory variables as the “cause” of the discrepancy. This point is underscored in the recent debate over the age/crime relationship highlighted in the American Journal of Sociology between Greenberg (1985) and Hirschi and Gottfredson (1985).Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    For a discussion of measurement problems related to each of these variables, see the following sources: on ethnicity (Chilton, 1985; Chilton & Sutton, 1986); on inequality (Blau & Blau, 1982; Rosenfeld, Chapter 7, this volume); on family composition/disruption (Cohen, 1981; Harries, 1980; Sampson, chapter 2, this volume); on opportunity (Cohen, 1981; Cohen & Felson, 1979; Byrne, chapter 5, this volume).Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    See the critique of this approach in ecological research by Bursik (1984). Byrne (1983) identifies the three basic advantages of the cross-sectional design: (1) a more refined unit of analysis is possible; (2) more units of observation can be examined; and (3) a wider range of predictor variables can be utilized. An interesting debate on the relative merits of longitudinal versus cross-sectional research is provided by Greenberg (1985) and Hirschi and Gottfredson (1985).Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    See the Chapters 2, 4, 5, and 7 in this volume by Sampson, Bursik, Byrne, and Rosenfeld respectively.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    See the original articles by Hirschi and Gottfredson (1983) and Greenberg (1979), as well as the subsequent commentary by Chilton (1985), Greenberg (1985), and Hirschi and Gottfredson (1985).Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    On the other hand, Robert Park, for example, has offered that, “It is probably not the business of the universities to agitate reforms nor to attempt directly to influence public opinion in regard to current issues. To do this is to relax its critical attitude, lessen its authority in matters of fact”(1967, xi, as quoted in Pfohl, 1985, p. 155). Nonetheless, Baldwin and Bottoms point out that “in the history of ‘urban criminology’ prescriptions for social action have not been lacking”(1976, p. 191).Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    This Observation is made by Pfohl (1985, p. 155). Schlossman and Sedlak (1983) provide an excellent examination of the early years of the Chicago Area Project (CAP). In addition, see the interviews with Solomon Kobrin and other colleagues of Shaw and McKay at CAP, including Anthony Sorrentino, Joseph Puntil, and Yale Levin in Laub (1983, pp. 87–405; 235–260). A somewhat different view is provided by Snodgrass (1976).Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    A variety of other police, court, and correctional decision-making applications for these data can be found in Byrne (1984).Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Walker (1985, pp. 149–164) provides a cogent summary of the relative merits of liberal and conservative gun-control policies, including a critical review of the research on guns and crime.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    See, for example, the approach advocated by Mark Moore (in Wilson, ed., 1983, chapter 8) or the discussion of the major situational correlates of violent behavior in Monahan. (1981, pp. 132–136)Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Indeed, Bursik (1984) points out that Schuerman and Kobrin (1983) present findings for Los Angeles that are not consistent with these results.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • James M. Byrne
  • Robert J. Sampson

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