Broken Window Theory Criminology Explained


Imagine that you’re standing by yourself in a darkened neighborhood. There are two houses before you.

The first house is pristine. The siding is in excellent condition, the paint on the house looks good, and all the windows are intact.

The second house is rundown. The siding looks old and has a bit of mold growing on it. There are a couple shingles missing from the roof. One of the downstairs windows is broken.

If you had to choose one of these houses to spend the night, which one would it be?

Virtually everyone would choose the first house over the second. This is because an intact house offers a feeling of safety.

The broken window theory suggest that criminal behaviors are inspired by the presence of unmaintained structures. Small, petty crimes such as vandalism, public intoxication, jaywalking, and other similar actions are prevented when an atmosphere of order is maintained within the public view.

How Fear is a Foundation of the Broken Window Theory

Fear is what motivates people to take action. The fear of immigration causes people to vote for a candidate that promises to restrict immigrants. A fear of dying inspires people to seek out religion or an answer about death.

In criminology, fear is what creates public disorder.

People who are uncomfortable with others will avoid them. This discomfort is a result of fear. People will also avoid a home that appears to be unsafe, especially if there is another home that appears to be safer.

Even a brand-new home, if it has a broken window, is perceived to be less safe than an aging, dirty home that has an intact structure. This is because fear is a result of a personal perception of disorder.

That means bringing order to a neighborhood offers the opportunity to reduce petty crime. It is possible because the average person wishes to follow the social norms and signals that are present within any localized society.

What Factors Contribute to the State of a Specific Environment?

According to the broken window theory of criminology, there are 3 specific factors that may affect a person’s decision to pursue crime within a specific neighborhood.

1. Conformity through social norms. If you’re in a new neighborhood and there aren’t any people around, then it is impossible to know what the social norms or the monitoring in that neighborhood happen to be. Visual cues will be sought. If there are broken windows, an individual will feel like there is less risk of being caught should they decide to commit a crime.

2. Routine monitoring. Monitoring doesn’t have to be a law enforcement entity. Posting a “community watch’ sign in a neighborhood is a way to indicate to strangers that routine monitoring does take place. When this is communicated, it reduces the chances that a crime will take place.

3. Social signaling. If one home has a broken window, but there is routine monitoring and conformity expected, then this is seen as an oversight. If many homes have broken windows, then the social signaling that is offered from the neighborhood will have a greater influence than the other two factors.

There can be a disconnect between anonymous strangers in a neighborhood and those that call a neighborhood their home. To a resident, a broken window may not seem like a problem at all. Constant exposure to structural deterioration causes a modification of how a person behaves.

A stranger might look at an entire street of homes with broken windows and decide they want to be anywhere else but there. A resident might decide to avoid that street altogether so they aren’t confronted with the reality of an entire block of homes that is falling apart.

When social controls are avoided, other “unsavory” elements begin to creep into a neighborhood. Drunks may come out in public on a frequent basis. Prostitution may begin openly on street corners. Illicit drugs may be sold, which can evolve into addicts sitting on street corners.

This causes local residents to spend less time outside so they can avoid these elements of their neighborhood. It also means fewer people who have no desire to participate in a crime will come through the neighborhood. Over time, the lack of controls will only attract those who wish to break the law in some way.

The broken window theory of criminology isn’t just a downward spiral. By restoring social controls and fixing structures, a reduction of criminal activity can be achieved. If the improvements are maintained, it becomes possible to create a positive impression and this creates an upward spiral of success.