PIRE Publication - Linking Places to Problems: Geospatial Theories of Neighborhoods, Alcohol and Crime


This paper provides a critical review of two broad categories of social ecological theories of crime, social integration and place-based theories, and their relationships to spatial assessments of crime patterns. Social integration theories emphasize the role of neighborhood disorganization on crime, while place theories stress the social interactions within and between places as a source of crime. We provide an analysis of the extent to which these two types of theorizing describe processes and mechanisms that are truly ecologic (identify specific interactions between individuals and their environments) and truly spatial (identify specific movement and interaction patterns of individuals and groups) as they endeavor to explain crime outcomes. We suggest that social integration theories do not provide spatial signatures of sufficient specificity to justify the application of spatial statistical techniques as quantitative arbiters of the theory. On the other hand, place based theories go some way toward addressing these issues because the emphasis is placed on understanding the exact physical and social characteristics of place and the activities that occur around locations as sources of crime. Routine activities and crime potential theories attempt to explain clustering or "hot spots" of crime in ways that give clear spatial dimension by looking at micro-spatial interactions between offenders and targets of crime. These theories have strong ecological implications as well, since they contain specific statements about how people use the space around them and how these patterns of use are related to patterns of criminal activity. We conclude by identifying a set of requirements for successful empirical tests of geospatial theories, including the development of valid measures of key theoretical constructs and the formulation of critical empirical assessments of geospatial hypotheses derived from motivating theory.

Gorman, Dennis M.
Gruenewald, Paul J.
Waller, Lance A.