Broken Windows Revisited | 2

Part 1 of this planned 3-part reassessment of Wilson and Kelling’s “Broken Windows” thesis outlined a selection of its general strengths and weaknesses and suggested we need to understand Broken Windows in the context of its origins in the ecological theories of crime initially developed in the early 20th century.

Broken Windows: The Original Article

Part 2 examines a key ecological strength of the thesis – that social disorder causes crime – through a re-examination of Zimbardo’s “Anonymity of Place” experiment. It then looks at the elephant in the room when talking about Broken Windows and crime: what causes social disorder?

While Broken Windows has some distinctive breaks with the general ecological tradition on which it broadly rests, it’s important to understand the thesis in this context because it’s only by understanding the theoretical origins of Broken Windows that we can begin to question some of its central claims: that ecological factors are a sufficient explanation of crime development in this Part and the claim that small forms of disorder invariably lead to larger disorders in Part 3).

Both conventional and contemporary forms of ecological theorising tend to argue that crime is multi-faceted in the sense that many factors converge and combine to create criminal areas: places where criminal behaviour is likely to flourish. These include, Olavarría-Gambi and Allende-González (2014) suggest:

  • individual factors: from biological / genetic predispositions towards criminality at one extreme to various socio-demographic factors (such as poverty and social deprivation) at the other.
  • relational factors that examine how closely integrated (or otherwise) individuals may be in terms of family, friends, peers, neighbours. Following something like Sutherland’s Differential Association theory (1947), for example, this involves understanding how strong and weak relational ties to different groups encourages different types of behaviour – from the over-criminal to the excessively law-abiding.
  • community factors that involve understanding the nature of communal relationships and the extent to which, in terms of something like Control Theory, these act to prevent or promote criminal behaviour. Anonymous, run-down, communities – places which see a rapid turnover of transient individuals and families for example – are more-likely to experience higher levels of crime.
  • societal factors cover things like the cultural norms that develop within communities. If such norms are favourable to criminal behaviour – people are willing, for example, to turn a blind-eye to crime, they act as willing receivers of stolen goods and so forth – it will flourish.
  • While Wilson, in particular, has argued some individual factors (such as a “criminogenic predisposition”) and some relational factors (such as dysfunctional family relationships creating a predisposition to crime) are important in understanding why some people commit crime, the focus of Broken Windows is on community factors and how they can propel an area into criminality. As they famously argue:

    At the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence…if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in run-down ones…an unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun)”.

    A crucial thing about this passage, for our current critical purpose, is the oft-overlooked claim

    This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in run-down ones”.

    The implication here, in other words, is that social background plays no part in the creation of crime and disorder; it doesn’t matter, for example, if a community is rich (“nice”) or poor (“run-down”), its members can be effectively compelled into criminality if the right ecological  conditions exist.

    This is crucial because it suggests crime, criminality and control have little or nothing to do with an individual’s social and sociological background: to put it bluntly, demographic factors such as poverty, unemployment, racial and sexual discrimination and the like are not seen as contributing factors to crime in the sense these variables do not explain why people commit crimes – a claim that locates Broken Windows quite squarely in the Right Realist camp.

    Crime is, therefore, not a consequence of economic, political and social inequality and controlling crime can’t be achieved through measures designed to eliminate such inequalities.

    Thus, for Wilson and Kelling the key factor in the creation of crime was community – orderly communities are relatively crime-free, disorderly communities are crime-riddled – an argument they validated by describing an obscure, but not insignificant, social experiment:

    Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, reported in 1969 on some experiments testing the broken-window theory. He arranged to have an automobile without license plates parked with its hood up on a street in the Bronx [a “run-down” neighbourhood in New York] and a comparable automobile on a street in Palo Alto [an affluent area in] California. The car in the Bronx was attacked by “vandals” within ten minutes of its “abandonment.” The first to arrive were a family – father, mother, and young son – who removed the radiator and battery. Within twenty-four hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began – windows were smashed, parts torn off, upholstery ripped. Children began to use the car as a playground. Most of the adult “vandals” were well dressed, apparently clean-cut whites.

    Residents inspecting Zimbardo’s “abandoned car”

    The car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week.

    Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passers-by were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. Again, the ‘vandals” appeared to be primarily respectable whites.

    Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder, and even for people who ordinarily would not dream of doing such things and who probably consider themselves law-abiding.

    Because of the nature of community life in the Bronx – its anonymity, the frequency with which cars are abandoned and things are stolen or broken, the past experience of “no one caring” – vandalism begins much more quickly than it does in staid Palo Alto, where people have come to believe that private possessions are cared for, and that mischievous behavior is costly.

    But vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers – the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility – are lowered by actions that seem to signal that “no one cares”.

    As this section of Broken Windows makes clear, Zimbardo’s experiment supports two broad conclusions:

    1. Poverty, unemployment, inequality and the like are not part of any explanation of street crime.

    2. When you introduce disorder into a community – even a hitherto orderly one – crime will develop.

    The experiment, as described, lends support to Wilson and Kelling’s Broken Windows argument that criminality is a function of disorder (disorder creates crime) and that, consequently, it will create crime regardless of the social backgrounds of those involved.

    What this suggests, therefore, is that if you introduce disorder – in this instance an apparently abandoned car with a broken window – into an area (Palo Alto) that is apparently affluent, orderly and with little or no street crime then you run the risk of sowing the seeds of criminality.

    It is, in other words, the ecological environment that shapes peoples’ perception of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, regardless of whether they are rich or poor. And in case you might be wondering about Wilson and Kelling’s description of Zimbardo’s research, a number of contemporary commentators have reported it in much the same way, albeit with some minor variations. Petersen (2004), for example, noted:

    In 1969, Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment on human nature. He abandoned two similar cars in different neighborhoods – one in the heart of the Bronx, N.Y., the other in an affluent neighborhood in Palo Alto, Calif. He removed the license plates, left the hoods open, and chronicled what happened. In the Bronx, within 10 minutes of abandonment, people began stealing parts from the alluring car. It took approximately three days to strip the car of all valuable parts. Once stripped of economic value, the car then became a source of entertainment. People smashed windows, ripped upholstery, and chipped the paint – reducing the car to a pile of junk.

    In Palo Alto, something quite different happened – nothing. For more than a week, the car sat unmolested. There was no theft, vandalism, or even a scratch. Puzzled, Zimbardo, in plain view of everyone, took a sledgehammer and smashed part of the car. Soon passers-by were taking turns with the hammer, delivering blow after satisfying blow. Within a few hours, the vehicle was resting on its roof, demolished”.

    Hough (2015) also similarly noted:

    The psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, parked two cars with hoods up and no license plates in different neighborhoods – one in the Bronx in New York City and the other in Palo Alto, California. Within minutes of the Bronx car’s abandonment, it was attacked and stripped of its radiator and battery.

    24 hours later everything of value was gone. After that, the destruction of the car continued with the windows being broken, upholstery ripped up and parts torn off.

    The Palo Alto car was left untouched for over a week until Zimbardo smashed a small section of it with a sledgehammer. Within a few hours, others joined in the melee, completely destroying the car, leaving it upside down in the street.

    The experiment showed that once community barriers towards property or behavior are lowered, a “don’t care” attitude sets in and lawlessness begins to take over. A community filled with dilapidated buildings will see an increase in crime because as a whole, no one seems to care”.

    Although a single experiment is hardly conclusive, it does provide empirical substance to Wilson and Kelling’s basic argument: when Zimbardo literally “broke a window” of an abandoned car in the “nice neighbourhood” of Palo Alto he introduced an added element of social disorder that quickly spiralled into criminal behaviour.  We can draw two main conclusions from this:

    1. In disordered communities (such as the Bronx), crime is such an everyday feature of life that when a criminal opportunity – such as an unattended car – presents itself it is highly likely to be taken.

    2. Orderly communities (such as Palo Alto) can be tipped into criminality through the introduction of disorder – such as the symbolic (Zimbolic?) breaking of a window.

    Or can we?

    Zimbardo (2006) notes that Wilson and Kelling took their account of his “Anonymity of Place” experiment from a short article that appeared in Time magazine. Other, similar, accounts we’ve noted above , presumably took their cue from Wilson and Kelling’s account.

    Ansfield (2019), however, argues that all of these descriptions of Zimbardo’s experiment left-out important information that radically changes our perception. More importantly, it raises significant questions about the theoretical foundations of Broken Windows and the conclusions about crime, order and prevention that flow from them.

    Wilson and Kelling, like many others, state the Oldsmobile in the “nice neighborhood” remained untouched for days until Zimbardo “broke a window” to initiate the disorder that led the neighbourhood’s inhabitants to engage in criminal behaviour (they wrecked the car).

    Except, as Ansfield (2019) argues, only the first part of this claim was true:

    After a week-long, unremarkable stakeout, Zimbardo drove the car to the Stanford campus, where his research team aimed to “prime” vandalism by taking a sledgehammer to its windows. Upon discovering that this was “stimulating and pleasurable,” Zimbardo and his graduate students “got carried away.” As Zimbardo described it, “One student jumped on the roof and began stomping it in, two were pulling the door from its hinges, another hammered away at the hood and motor, while the last one broke all the glass he could find.”

    The passers-by the study had intended to observe had turned into spectators and only joined in after the car was already wrecked’.

    Ansfield’s conclusion –

    It wasn’t a broken window that enticed onlookers to join the fray; it was the spectacle of faculty and students destroying an Oldsmobile in the middle of Stanford’s campus

    – has serious implications for both Broken Windows and its Zero Tolerance Policing (ZTP) application because it undermines the argument that social disorder, in and of itself, creates crime.

    For Broken Windows to be valid the social disorder introduced into “nice” Palo Alto should have resulted in an increase in criminal behaviour. However, as Ansfield suggests, it clearly did not: an abandoned car was left untouched for 5 days and Zimbardo “breaking a window” did not result in the car being looted by random “passers-by”.

    The obvious conclusion to draw from this is that “social disorder” does not, in and of itself, invariably create crime: introducing disorder into an orderly neighbourhood did not see it devolve into further disorder.

    This, at the very least, suggests that crime – even at the relatively simple “street level” favoured by Wilson and Kelling that should be immensely-favourable to their general argument – has complex origins and that the social composition of different areas plays a much greater role in explaining how and why crime persists than Broken Windows (and, as we will see, ZTP in particular) allows. In other words, the factors that play a part in the creation of “run-down” neighbourhoods – such as widespread poverty, unemployment and so forth – that are largely absent from “nice” neighbourhoods are exactly the kinds of “disorderly factors” that create crime.

    In other words, it is a mistake to divorce crime and criminality from a range of social structural factors in favour of reconceptualising it purely as a “problem of order” focused on the behaviour of particular individuals and groups – something Zimbardo himself concluded when he argued his experiment showed that the:

    Conditions that create social inequality and put some people outside of the conventional reward structure of the society make them indifferent to its sanctions, laws, and implicit norms.

    The critical conclusion that can be drawn here, therefore, is that the social and psychological circumstances in which individuals find themselves – being born into the “wrong family” or the “wrong community” – are much more-likely to explain why some individuals and groups commit crime while others do not and why some communities devolve into apparent disorder while others do not.

    The critical takeaway here, therefore, is that social disorder has a range of underlying primers – poverty, how areas are policed, the type of inhabitants they support and many, many, more – and simply “imposing order” on an area (through something like ZTP) will not resolve the underlying causes of both social disorder and criminality.

    As Zimbardo’s experiment clearly showed.


    Depends who you believe, really.


    Olavarría-Gambi and Allende-González (2014) Crime in Neighborhoods: Evidence from Santiago, Chile  

    Zimbardo (1969) Anonymity of Place Stimulates Destructive Vandalism

    Petersen (2004) Broken Windows

    Hough (2015) Broken Windows, Vandalism and Company Culture

    Ansfield (2019) “How a 50-year-old study was misconstrued to create destructive broken-windows policing”

    Ansfield (2020) “The Broken Windows of the Bronx: Putting the Theory in Its Place

    Time Magazine (1969) Diary of a Vandalized Car

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