Within the sociology of crime and deviance there have been many theoretical strands and understandings of criminal and deviant behaviour. Unlike other areas of sociology, in which a particular theoretical perspective usually emerges as pre-eminent, theories into understanding crime have their own advantages and disadvantages. In this essay I aim to explore the contribution made to the sociology of crime by the Chicago School.
It is somewhat difficult to understand the significance of the Chicago Schools' contribution to the sociology of crime without referring to the city of Chicago itself. By the 1930s Chicago's population had risen to more than three million. This expansion no-less was particularly striking due to the fact that the city was now becoming home to a "panoply of ethnic groups, both African Americans escaping the rural poverty of the South and European immigrants" (Hayward and Morrison 2005; p71).The influential Robert Park in 1925 highlighted that fact that "human communities were closely akin to any natural environment in that their spatial organisation and expansion was not the product of chance, but instead was patterned and could be understood in terms analogous to the basic natural process that occur within any biotic organism." (Ibid). Hence, Park emphasised that the city of Chicago could in many ways be thought of as a super-organism; i.e; an amalgamation of a series of sub-populations, each unified at one level by race or income or business interests and so forth. (Ibid). In such a way, each group was natural in its existence and its actions, so far as to say that they were all prescribed under a collective unity. In addition, not only did each of these groups have a "natural area" so to speak but they had a wider function in terms of the city as a whole and in doing so each community or area was interrelated with one-another in a series of "symbiotic relationships." (Ibid). Park concluded, after his close observation of these relationships that just like in natural ecology, there was a sequence of "invasion-dominance-succession" in operation within the modern city.
Park's work on the modern city was developed further by his colleague Ernst Burgess who in the same year proposed his concentric zone theory. It was his argument that cities grew in a systematic way and that modern cities were now expanding rapidly from what he terms as an "inner-city core." Burgess outlined five concentric zones in the city of Chicago which could then be applied and generalised to all cities. At the centre of the five zones was the business district, an area encompassed with high property values and that had a relatively low population. This, nonetheless in comparison to the next circle i.e. the zone of transition, an area that was to be crucial in terms of providing a new insight into looking and thinking about crime. The "zone of transition" was indeed characterised by poor housing, high levels of immigration along with high rates of poverty and disease. What followed this circle were largely zones of working-class housing, middle-class housing and not withstanding the affluent suburbs (Ibid; p72).
It is at this point that the "zone of transition" becomes the area of importance and subject to a great deal of attention. They identified the zone of transition as the source of major concern. As businesses expanded through the central zone and as law change to accommodate such changes, the residents who could afford to move out this zone did so. Thus, the stable wage earners were know moving on, consequently resulting in poorer housing which leads to the eventuality of the zone becoming an undesirable place to live. Those who are left within the zone are mainly immigrants and hence have no economical or political power. They are mainly the poor, the unemployed and the disenfranchised. (Vito, Maahs & Holmes 2007; p147). In relation to Chicago during the 1990s the city was infact experiencing a great deal of new immigration. These immigrants were too poor to live anywhere else. Burgess and other fellow Chicago school sociologists argued that the nature of city growth and the way in which it functioned produced what they termed as "social disorganisation" in a way that resulted in the decline of the social ties that would usually bind a community together. Thus they argued it was this, i.e. social disorganisation that was the root cause of many social problems within society such as disease, death and importantly delinquency. It was the unstructured and fluid ethos of the zone of transition, characterised by its disturbed social equilibrium that accounted for high levels of crime. (Hayward and Morrison 2005; p72).
One of the most influential studied conducted within the Chicago School was that of Shaw and McKay (1931, 1942) in which they analysed whether in fact rates of delinquency would correspond with Burgess's idea of concentric zones. Shaw and McKay used court records in order to methodologically plot the addresses of delinquents onto a map of Chicago. They repeated their study and methods over a 30 year period. Their study did infact confirm the Burgess theory that delinquency was higher in the zone of transition and that the further out of the zone of transition one is placed the lower the rate of delinquency. (Vito, Maahs & Holmes 2007; p147).
More importantly than proving Burgess' ideas correct, Shaw and McKay findings provided the first prominent argument that focuses less on the specific characteristics of the people committing crime but rather on the geographical nature of the area. In fact, during the period of their study i.e. 1900-1930 the zone of transition in Chicago was occupied by many different immigrant populations including Germans, the Irish, Polish and African-Americans. The children of this group of people were proving to be delinquent, this in not regards applicable to a certain ethnic group compared to another, as is presented amongst literature on crime. It is somewhat not surprising that when the findings of the study were released and published they ran in opposition to the popular belief that it was the nature of particular ethnic groups to be criminal. Another important point that Shaw and McKay identified was the fact that crime was high in the zone of transition, the notion that the "city" in general was "criminogenic" could also be disapproved as it was only certain parts of the city that were prone to more delinquency and crime.
Having established such points, Shaw and McKay went on to argue that socially disorganised neighbourhoods perpetuate a situation in which delinquent behaviour pattern are culturally transmitted "down through successive generations of boys, in much the same way that language and other social form are transmitted" (1942; p166). This point, in particular was important in terms of later criminological theories that attempted to understand crime in terms of deviant subcultures.
An important and highly noteworthy feature of the Chicago School's contribution to the sociology of crime was their method. Aside from Shaw and McKay, who used official statistics, the majority of the Chicago School followed in the footsteps of Robert Park, who highly believed that the best and only way to study crime was through close observation of the social processes occurring within the city. The Chicago school relied heavily on first-level facts and data that underlined social reality. In such a way, the Chicago School provided a new insight into qualitative research methods, specifically participant observation and qualitative interview. It was these techniques that allowed the sociologists to "enter the world of the deviant" and in doing so could accustom together ethnographic data on various criminal minds, be it street-gang members to racketeers. (REFERENCE).
Furthermore, the work of Chicago school criminologists encouraged the use and experimentation of a variety of research methodologies. Several of the criminologists had previously been journalists and their instinct when conducting research was to simply go onto the streets and find out all that they could using various sources.
This can be seen through the Thrasher's study in 1927 entitled "The Gang" which used a combination of observation, interviews, life histories, casual discussions, newspaper reports, personal documents, census data and court records in order to draw a complete picture of youth gangs in Chicago. Although some of the claims of the research were questionable, the methodology had a huge impact on criminology. The Chicagoan tradition continued in that the school continued to produce high- quality empirical studies, some studies going beyond earlier endeavours. For example, some spent a prolonged period of time in the company of offenders, some choosing to use "participant observation." Such methods were later described under the "ethnographic" umbrella or as Matza (1964) has described "appreciative" research, which continues till this date to be an important aspect in sociological research. (King & Wincup 2008; p266-7).
However like many other theoretical frameworks, the Chicago School ands its work was not without critique. For example, in their work on the concentric zones, some argued that the Chicago school were guilty of relying on unconfirmed assumptions in relation to consensus values, while others have concentrated on their over-emphasis in relation to the effects that the environment had on crime, in such a way committing ecological fallacy. (Hayward and Morrison 2005; p72).
Nonetheless, while it can be appreciated that there may be a number of valid criticisms attached to the Chicago School and the number of individual research studies that have been conducted, what I feel is more important is a wider picture. I feel that the Chicago School paved a new wave for sociology in terms of methodology. With their ecological approach to society and thus crime, the Chicago school provided sociology with a framework to see criminal behaviour as "analogous to any other social behaviour" (Fitzgerald 1981; p300). The school developed and more importantly made academically respectable their own form of empirical data-collection by means of a unique blend of statistical and cartographic methods and ethnographic "appreciative" participant-observational studies of particular deviant worlds. (Ibid). I feel the Chicago schools' contribution not only to the sociology of crime but rather sociology in general is of great significance and should stand important when considering its contribution.