Kelling and Wilson (1982) proposed the broken window theory from a psychological and criminology point of view. The theory proposes that if a building has one window that is broken and then ignored and left in that state for a significant amount of time, the remaining windows in that building will soon follow suit and be broken. According to social psychologists and law enforcers, the theory holds regardless of the neighborhood, whether affluent or otherwise. Such a fun activity according to Kelling and Wilson, is bound to attract people to performing it if they realize that the action does not concern anybody and therefore, the building will be further abused
The broken window is used as a representative of trigger actions like littering, destruction of street lights and graffiti art among others. Such actions are a break from the norm and as a result they create disorder by establishing a nucleus for such inappropriate acts from which other undesired activities like prostitution and drug peddling may also arise. Ultimately, due to such escalation, crime may set in or people living in the area may feel that crime has escalated (which may not be the case). The main point of the theory is that order in the community when preserved and adhered to ultimately has an effect on the crime levels. As the theory suggests, when the social norms are ignored and it appears that no one cares about them, people are likely to continue in the same vein. These areas may see undesirable characters gathering there and acts like vandalism, mugging and rape may eventually follow.
While such disorder does not always lead to actual crime, it leads to people avoiding such areas and an increased sense of insecurity that negatively impacts the community and its inhabitants. The theory in effect demonstrates that humans will readily follow a set example started off by someone and therefore, deterrents in the form nipping in the bud trigger effects like broken windows and things like graffiti would go a long way in prevention of crime.
Support for the theory
The theory to some effect has been proved correct through demonstration and also via application in the prevention and reduction of crime in various communities. Johnson (2009) showcases such a manifestation of the relevance of the theory. A case study in Lowell involved the cleaning up of about half of the crime and misdemeanor hotspots while leaving the other half of the remaining hotspots as they were. The results were quite impressive since the cleaned up hotspots recorded significant drops in the levels of crime and misdemeanor while the unclean areas did not see such an improvement.
Claidière (2008) also documents the success of application of the theory in the New York subway in progressively eradicating graffiti in the subway by constantly cleaning up graffiti that had been put up. The police department also adopted the practice with a zero tolerance that extended toward petty crime and misdemeanor acts through strict observance of the law. Keizer, Lindenberg and Steg, (2008) through various field experiments, also serve to show that the theory has an element of truth in it. They opted to use a conspicuously placed envelope containing cash in mailboxes in various environments that were either clean or in a state of disorder. The results showed that more instances of stealing the money occurred in the mailboxes in the disorder environments than in the clean environments.
Criticism for the theory
The theory has also come under criticism with some skeptics questioning whether disorder on its own alone is a contributing factor towards crime or the perception of such. Morin (2005) explains that other factors are the main indicators of how a neighborhood is perceived. The two main factors according to him are race and class. He draws the conclusion from a series of experiments and data collection carried out with the aim of finding out what really influences how people perceive the state of the community and area that they live.
Skeptics also widely question the intervention methods that would be used and on what actually constitutes breaching of the law in terms of causing disorder in the public. The fear is that the authorities would themselves abuse such a directive to curb disorder and infringe on peoples freedoms and cause terror.
The critics have diluted the theory with claims that the effect of disorder on crime is random in terms of where the theory is used, and on which crimes it has an effect. This sort of inconsistency with the theory waters down its relevance and its purported effect on crime since a clear line can not be drawn on how it actually leads to more serious crime (Lott 2000).
Those who question the effect of disorder in the community also point primarily to the fact that there appears to be other factors that may lead to arriving at the conclusion that disorder could lead to crime. This is because it is not clear if such disorder is utilized by a certain group of people with the same characteristics but in different communities, or it applies to all people regardless of social standing, gender or race.
The theory is widely acknowledged as one that greatly divides opinion, primarily because it links a minor event, through a long chain reaction, to a much larger eventual effect of resulting in major crime. Such an audacious undertaking is therefore bound to split opinion. The theory does hold some water because such an act opens up the mind to the possibility of doing something similar or in a different way especially for creative people. The mind is therefore prone to explore possibilities in terms of doing something consciously or unconsciously.
Understanding that the theory is somehow true requires some empathy with regard to people living in areas with disorder hotspots. Consider how you would feel around a dark area or where some young youth with not so model characters hang out. The argument that the disorder creates a perception of possible insecurity is true and as the advancers of the theory also rightly point out, escalation into violence from such disorder is not what always happens.
Critics are unfair to the theory by their nullifying opinions on the theory and its application to curb crime. The theory presents a novel idea that entails the possible changing of culture and as with any culture results may differ in terms of effect or the timeline of results. For such an approach to be fully realized results should be looked at in the long run and not immediately after deploying tactics to change the disorder. This short term assessment and the not so ideal real life application of the theory mean that it will continue to have doubts while the specific experiments remain true to the theory.
Kelling, G. L. and Wilson, J. Q. (1982). Broken Windows. The Atlantic. Web.
Johnson, C. Y. (2009). Breakthrough on ‘broken windows’. Web.
Claidière, N. (2008). Experimental Evidence for the Broken Window Theory. Web.
Keizer, K., Lindenberg, S. and Steg, L. (2008). The Spreading of Disorder. Science Enquiry. Web.
Morin, R. (2005). A Crack in the Broken-Windows Theory. The Washington Post. Web.
Lott, J. (2000). More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws. (2nd Edition) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.