“Disorder and Crime.” In Brandon C. Welsh and David P. Farrington (eds.), The
Oxford Handbook of Crime Prevention. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, 173-
This essay summarizes research on the impact of disorder and its relationship with forms of
conventional crime. It begans by reviewing the variety of ways in which disorder has been
defined. Section I discusses approaches to the measurement of disorder. The methods that
are employed to study disorder are more diverse than those used in many other branches of
criminology, and their various advantages and disadvantages reveal something of the
complexities involved in understanding the magnitude and distribution of disorder. Section II
summarizes what we know about the role of disorder as an engine of neighborhood
destabilization and decline, and section III offers a few concluding comments. Several
observations and conclusions emerge:
• Studying disorder is challenging because the concept includes a wide range of activities and
conditions. Researchers have used surveys, police records, and field observations to measure
the extent of disorder. While each approach has advantages, each has disadvantages as well.
• Disorder is heavily concentrated in disadvantaged communities. The various approaches that
have been used to measure disorder are in broad agreement as to where disorder is
concentrated. While some critics contend that disorder merely reflects middle-class
conventionalism, it tends to be high in the same generally poor places, whether it is assessed
by outside observers or by the people who live in the community.
• Disorder is closely associated with many forms of common crime. Because research has not
identified many high-disorder but low-crime neighborhoods, it is difficult to tease out why they
are so closely related. It could be because both are dependent upon poverty, racial exclusion,
and disinvestment; because disorder undermines the social processes that help constrain
neighborhood crime; or because disorder actually attracts and generates other forms of crime.
• Disorder, independently but in tandem with other conventional crime, plays a role in
undermining the stability of urban neighborhoods, undercutting natural processes of informal
social control, discouraging investment, and stimulating fear of crime. Understanding that
disorder could play an important role in the dynamics of neighborhood stability and change is
what led researchers to expand the range of the concept to include many conditions and
events that lie at, or beyond, the boundaries of criminal law, an idea that has gained traction in
many fields of social science. This justifies the attention that policymakers around the world
have given to disorder reduction.
Disorder and Crime