The Illusion of Broken Windows Theory: An Ethnographic Engagement with the Theory That Was Not There

Note from the Digital Editor: In order to highlight the high-level of research and scholarship from the authors who have published in the William & Mary Policy Review’s peer-reviewed print journal, we have reproduced the abstracts from Volume 9, Issue 1 along with a link to an electronic copy of the full form of the piece. 

This article critically engages with the debate over Broken Windows Theory by drawing on three years of findings from an ethnographic case study of an urban space in Jersey City, New Jersey, in which rates of serious crime were relatively low, yet levels of “disorder,” as typically conceived by advocates of Broken Windows Theory, were relatively high. At the very least, these findings demonstrate that there is no necessary connection between “disorder” and crime.

Such findings do not, however, serve to refute Broken Windows Theory even though it is commonly translated into the simple proposition “disorder causes crime”1 or into the much more ambitious notion that “crime is the inevitable result of disorder.”2 It is not clear that the findings even so much as count as evidence against the theory. Rather, as my efforts to engage with the theory revealed, it became increasingly unclear what evidence, if any, could ever count against it, much less disprove it.

Find the full version of this article in PDF form here.