Chicago School | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminology

The Chicago School of Criminology is a sociological theory that emphasizes social and environmental factors as the root causes of crime.

The Chicago School of Criminology emerged from the University of Chicago in the early 20th century and has played a significant role in shaping the field of criminology. It focuses on the impact of social and environmental factors on crime, as opposed to individual traits or predispositions. This school of thought is rooted in various key concepts and ideas that have been influential in the study and understanding of crime.

Differential Association

One of the central ideas of the Chicago School is differential association, which posits that crime is learned through interactions with others, particularly in small groups. Developed by Edwin Sutherland, this theory suggests that individuals learn criminal behaviors and attitudes from those around them. The likelihood of a person engaging in criminal activity depends on the frequency, duration, and intensity of their exposure to others who commit crimes. This concept highlights the importance of examining the social context in which crime occurs, as well as the role that peer groups play in shaping an individual’s criminal behavior.


Another key idea associated with the Chicago School is anomie, a concept introduced by Emile Durkheim and later developed by Robert Merton. Anomie refers to a state of normlessness or a breakdown in social bonds that can lead to crime. According to this theory, when individuals feel disconnected from society or believe that they cannot achieve their goals through legitimate means, they may turn to crime as an alternative. Merton’s strain theory further elaborates on this concept, suggesting that society’s emphasis on material success and the unequal distribution of opportunities can create pressure to engage in criminal activities to achieve desired goals.

Social Disorganization

The Chicago School also emphasizes the role of social disorganization in contributing to crime. Developed by Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay, this theory posits that crime is more likely to occur in neighborhoods or communities that lack social control or are disorganized. Factors such as poverty, residential instability, and ethnic heterogeneity can weaken social bonds, leading to a breakdown of informal social controls and increased crime rates. Social disorganization theory underscores the importance of examining the structural and social conditions within communities to understand the causes and distribution of crime.

Ecological Theories

Another important contribution of the Chicago School is its focus on ecological theories, which examine the relationship between crime rates and the physical and social characteristics of neighborhoods or communities. The idea that crime is influenced by the environment in which it occurs has led to the development of various ecological theories, such as the concentric zone theory and the broken windows theory.

The concentric zone theory, developed by Ernest Burgess, suggests that cities are organized in a series of concentric zones, with the central business district at the core and various residential zones radiating outward. Crime rates tend to be higher in the inner zones, where social disorganization is more prevalent. The broken windows theory, proposed by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, posits that visible signs of disorder and neglect, such as broken windows and graffiti, can signal a lack of social control and lead to an increase in crime.

Impact and Legacy

The Chicago School has had a profound impact on criminological theory and research. Its emphasis on the role of social and environmental factors in shaping criminal behavior has led to numerous empirical studies examining the relationship between crime and various community characteristics. The concepts and ideas associated with the Chicago School have also informed crime prevention strategies and policies, such as community policing and neighborhood revitalization efforts.

Despite its contributions, the Chicago School has also faced criticism. Some argue that its theories overemphasize the role of social factors in crime, neglecting the importance of individual characteristics and motivations. Others have challenged the empirical validity of some of its central ideas, such as the relationship between social disorganization and crime rates.

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Last Modified: 05/07/2023

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