Social Disorganization Period

Page by Sarah Dye

The center of the Social Disorganization period was the university of Chicago from about 1920 to the early 1940’s. Two men, Robert E. Park, and Ernest W. Burgess were the main leaders of the social disorganization period at the University of Chicago. Here a strong foundation for the studying of deviance was laid.

The sociologists at this time split with the sociologists of the social pathology period in that they didn’t pursue sociology from from a strong moralistic motivation. However, in the end they still had a slightly moralistic approach in how they defined and categorized things. For example “good” was associated with a well organized community that were stable. Rural and unorganized slums were considered to be “bad”. This created a huge fault in their logic. A slum was bad because it was disorganized, it was disorganized because it had a lot of deviant behavior occurring with in it, and that behavior was occurring because it was disorganized.

The idea of organismic society which was accepted by social pathologist, was not taken
seriously by the sociologists of the social disorganization period. Robert E. Park
was one of the few at this time to adapt ideals and theories that were more biologically
based and apply them to his work in the urban communities. The goal of the department of Sociology at the Chicago University was to study sociological problems, and deivances in as scientific a manner as possible. Another difference is where the two groups focused, the social pathologists had been more interested in cities, and the current trend at this time was to focus on urban areas.

The difference of the location focus was brought around by W.I. Thomas, and Florian Znaniecki. They had conducted a study called “The Polish Peasent in Europe and America” in which one of the major goals of research by the Chicago school was stated to be an attempt to explain and record the nature and consequences of social disorganization in urban area. A negative effect of the use of the term social disorganization is that some sociologists at the time did not distinguish between the different levels of social disorganization. Issues that could be applied specifically to communities, and those that could be attributed on a more individualistic level were more often than not combined into one general category of social disorganization. They also defined social disorganization, in their study, as the process by which the authority and influence of an earlier culture and system of social control is undermined and eventually destroyed.

The process by which deviance was studied fell into two major categories, mirco-level case studies, and Marco-level case studies. Micro-level case studies focused on individuals who were deviant, and Macro-level ecological studies looked at the distribution of deviance compared to social problems through out the cities. These case studies became very methodological through their use in  the Chicago University. With in these two categories there is another sub-category.

  • Mirco-level case studies

Life histories
Urban Ethnography

  • Macro-level ecological studies

Life histories
Urban Ethnography

A good example of a life history is “The Polish Peasent”, previously mentioned. Life
histories do not require any in person interaction. Data is gathered from auto-biographies,
public records, and other readily available existing data.Urban ethnography relies
only on observations of individuals who we seen as being deviant themselves or living
in a deviant manner. This approach is later used specifically by labeling theorists.
Using these methods allowed for a lot of insight because of the amount of detail that was
afforded by them.

Ernest W. Burgess developed a concentric zone model of urban growth. He used Chicago as
his example city. He divided the city into five different areas-

He proposed this model as a general guide to use when approaching new city that is about
to be studied. Several other theories were applied to this model, that Burgess stated could
be proven by the conducting of enthographic studies with in these five areas. The area that
Burgess said was the most important to study was area two, the transition area with low
income housing.

This model influenced a great deal of research in regards to it  by students and faculty
alike at the Chicago University. Variables such as suicide rates, crime, mental disorders
and etc. were examined and then applied to the different areas with in Burgess concentric
model. The over all discovery through these studies was that the further from the center
(Area 1) you went the less deviance could be found. This is a very important piece in
the history of the field of deviance because it was very first hypotheses that was
empirically proven and that gave insight into the environmental distribution of deviance
with in cities.

This model soon became obsolete in 1942 in that is did not take into account that the deviance with in the areas might be caused by the spreading of ideals from one person to another in the respective areas as opposed to their location with in the cities themselves. Another fault was the initial question of what was the cause of deviant behavior with in a disorganized community. These things were pointed out by Shaw and McKay and beckoned in the next period in the sociological study of deviance, the normative (or functionalist) period.


Hawkes, R. K. (1973). Spatial Patterning of Urban Population Characteristics. The American Journal of Sociology , 1216-1235.

Orcutt, J. D. (2010, August 23). Unit 2:. Retrieved November 17, 2010, from Deviance and Social Control:

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