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The Broken Windows Theory and Crime Explained

 I wrote the following paper as part of my literature review, whilst studying Human Geography at Sheffield Hallam University (2004 – 2007). I have decided to share my work on HubPages as back when I wrote it I found that aside from actual literature deep within the Uni library I couldn’t find a great deal of online help without having to pay for it. Therefore whilst I'm happy for you to read through and reference my work if you like but I must remind you that many Universities use Meta-Lib - so don’t copy! I hope that you find this useful, please don’t hesitate to ask any questions, or let me know if you think I'm wrong with a comment.

The term ‘Broken Windows’ was first used by Wilson and Kelling (1982), they employed this term to highlight that where signs of physical and social disorder are not addressed this leads inevitably to more serious problems. To illustrate this they simply state “If a window in a building is broken and is left unprepared, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken . . . one unprepared windows is a sign no-one cares” (Wilson J. and Kelling G. 1982). They claim that unattended behaviour leads to a breakdown in community controls and it is this that gives way to further criminal acts and increasing fear. Wilson and Kelling also argue this occurs regardless of the type of area in which these do not exist.

To demonstrate this they quote an experiment by Zimbaro (1969) a professor of sociology at Sanford university, he parked a car in both the Bronx and Paulo Alto (California), he found that the car located in the Bronx was vandalised within minutes, however the car in Paulo Alto remained untouched for over one week, yet when Zimbaro smashed the windscreen, within a few hours the car had been stripped, overturned and completely destroyed (Zimbaro, 1969). This they argue demonstrates how once the ‘communal barriers’ are removed this gives off the signal that no-one cares, and inhibits criminal or ASB (Wilson J. and Kelling G. 1982).

Innes (2004) highlights when it comes to crime literature there are three key explanatory nodes, the third of which focuses upon the connections between levels of fear and perceptions of disorder and crime in the social environment and indicates the importance of Wilson and Kelling’s work stating “The most influential versions of this third group is the ‘Broken Windows’ thesis” (Innes M. 2004). He also claims the theory remains important as it addresses why people often asked about their fear of crime, frequently highlight what the Criminal Justice Agenda often define as trivial forms of social disorder (Innes M. 2004). Ferraro (1995) also supports this notion, stating that the key indicator of perceived risk is physical signs of incivilities such as vacant houses and un-kept lots (Ferraro, 1995; Innes M. 2004)).

Sloane-Hewitt (1997) support the theory also, finding that the quick removal of graffiti in the New York underground meant that there was a quick fall in the rate of re-emergence of graffiti (Sloane-Hewitt 1997).

Wesley Skogan (1990) another advocate of BW, as a result of and absence of empirical testing of the theory, this led Skogan to explore a statistical link between the level of crime and the level of disorder in neighbourhoods (Johnson R.R. 2005, Pg. 100). In order to achieve this he used two main surveys, residents in his sample location were asked if they thought disorder was a problem in their neighbourhoods. Then asked whether they had been a victim of robbery, assault, rape, or purse snatching. He came to the conclusion that robbery and disorder were ‘strongly linked’ (Johnson R.R. 2005, Pg. 100). And to conclude Skogan (1990) states unequivocally “Broken windows do need to be repaired quickly” (Skogan W. 1990, Pg.75).


There are however a number of critiques associated with the BW thesis, Harcourt’s (2001) book “Illusion of order, the false promise of Broken Windows” (Harcourt B.E. 2001) claims to be the first book to directly challenge the BW theory of crime.

Harcourt highlights that in 1994 NY Mayor Rudolph Gilliani initiated a policy which pro-actively and aggressively addressed quality of life offences such as graffiti and public drinking, it was entitled “The quality of life initiative” and was almost entirely founded by the BW theory (Harcourt B.E. 2001). Harcourt argues how this policy, that has led to the incarceration of tens of thousands of US citizens was allowed without any solid empirical support, the theory he argues is conceptually flawed. He questions how such policy has become one of the most prominent leading Criminal Justice theories around the world (Harcourt B.E. 2001). Harcourt bases his concerns over the fact that the theory has never been empirically verified, and that actually he notes existing data suggests the thesis is false. Plus upon further scrutinisation of empirical evidence of NY, Chicago and other cities he claims there is no evidence to support BW (Harcourt B.E. 2001). In light of the work of Skogan Harcourt states the following “Skogan patched together his data from five separate studies that were not entirely consistent . . . more troubling is the fact that Skogan failed to disclose that there is no real connection between disorder and crime” (Harcourt B.E. 2001).

Innes (2004) supports Harcourt’s findings that indicate Skogan only found a link between disorder and robbery, he states “It is rather different to claim a correlation between disorder and one type of crime such as robbery, than to claim a causal connection where levels of disorder are generative of crime” (Innes M. 2004). He also goes on to indicate how this link can be explained by existing criminological research, for example that groups likely to commit robbery are those most likely to leave physical detritus around them such as drug paraphernalia (Innes M. 2004). Morin (2005) writing for the Washington Post on the 30th of January 2005 also highlights the work of Sampson and Raudenbush (1999) who found that race and class may be more important than the levels of disorder in shaping how different ethnic groups view the ‘health’ of a neighbourhood (Morin R. 2005; Sampson R.J and Raudenbush S. 1999). They used a sound method upon which to base their findings, using a detailed statistical study, surveying 3,585 randomly selected residents asking them about their feelings and experiences, this survey did in fact show what they believed to be true; that race was a factor in how they perceived their neighbourhood. For example white residents were far more likely to report disorder than Black or Latino residents living in the same neighbourhood (Sampson R.J and Raudenbush S. 1999). This indicates that perhaps addressing the problem of crime and the fear it entails within communities is not as simple as just cleaning up physical evidence of criminal or ASB described by Wilson and Kelling, and that there are a range of other factors such as ethnicity or gender which may have a significant effect.


As previously stated the Broken Windows theory is one of the most prominent texts worldwide concerned with crime, antisocial behaviour, fear and the environment, being adopted by a number of criminal justice agendas. The theory however as stated has been subject to a number of criticisms since its conception from a number of key thinkers in this field (Harcourt B.E. 2001; Morin R. 2005; Sampson R.J and Raudenbush S. 1999; Innes M., 2004). For example the argument that it lacks empirical evidence and that it is conceptually flawed. However in relation to this research project, even in spite of these criticisms the work could prove useful. For example the theory does highlight the perceived link between levels of fear and perceptions of disorder in the social environment, which is a major focus of this project, and also as described by Innes (2004) and reflected in this work on 'Signal Crimes' the theory highlights how fear of crime can be disproportionate to the physical sign of disorder (Innes M. 2004). The BW theory could well provide assistance when attempting to analyze my research data when observing different environments and attempting to find why crime and ASB and the associated fear occurs in specific locations.  


Once again, I hope that you find this useful, please don’t hesitate to ask any questions, or let me know if you think I'm wrong with a comment. Please note that I also sell my final year Dissertation/Research Project (Grade: 1st) on Ebay, its titled:“An exploration of two dimensions of the relationship between anti-social behaviour and place:  what are the characteristics of areas suffering from high and low levels of ASB and what impact does this have on young people's feelings of safety?”"And can be purchased here

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