Broken Windows Theory: An Evaluation

The Broken Windows Theory posits that physical disorder like litter and vandalism can lead to higher crime rates, with informal social control methods seen as effective remedies. Evidence is mixed; a 2008 experiment found increased deviant behaviour in untidy environments, while a 2015 meta-analysis supported disorder-focused community interventions as crime reducers. However, a study on the “Moving to Opportunity” program found no correlation between disorderly environments and crime rates. Evaluating the theory is complex due to issues like defining and measuring disorder, and the possible influence of confounding variables.

Last Updated on November 30, 2023 by Karl Thompson

Broken Windows Theory suggests that high levels of physical disorder such as litter, graffiti, vandalism, or people engaged in Anti-Social Behaviour will result in higher crime rates. Broken Windows Theory is one aspect of the Right Realist approach to criminology.

Broken Windows Theory suggests that the most effective way to reduce crime is through informal social control methods. Policies which focus on urban renewal, and neighbourhood watch groups for example should help to reduce crime.

The evidence supporting Broken Windows Theory is somewhat mixed.

Broken Windows Theory: Supporting Evidence

This 2008 ‘£5 Note Theft and Social Disorder Experiment’ offers broad support for the theory…

In this (slightly bizarre sounding) experiment the researchers placed an envelope containing a £5 note poking out a letterbox, in such a way that the £5 note was easily visible.

The researchers did this first of all in a house with a tidy garden, and later on (at a similar time of day) with a house with litter in the garden.

  • 13% of people took the envelope from the house with the tidy garden.
  • 25% of people took the envelope from the house with the untidy garden.

This suggests that that signs of physical disorder such as littering encourage deviant behaviour.

broken windows theory

The experiment was actually a bit more complex – for the full details see the Keizer et al source below – this was also actually one of six experiments designed to test out Wilson and Kelling’s 1996 ‘broken windows theory’.

Meta Analysis supports Broken Windows Theory

A 2015 Meta-Analysis of 30 studies which had been designed to evaluated social disorder policing. The analysis found that community and problem-solving interventions focused on reducing levels of social disorder in specific locations had the strongest effect on reducing crime levels.

Evidence not supporting Broken Windows Theory

A second experiment, however, does not support broken windows theory…

Empirical results of the “Moving to Opportunity” program (reviewed in 2006) – a social experiment in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Boston did not support Broken Windows Theory.

As part of the program, some 4,600 low-income families living in high-crime public housing communities—characterised by high rates of social disorder—were randomly assigned housing vouchers to move to less disadvantaged and less disorderly communities. Using official arrests and self-report surveys, the crime rates among those who moved and those who did not remained the same.

This study suggests the root cause of crime lies with individuals, not the quality of the physical locations.

The problems with evaluating Broken Windows Theory

Wesley Skogan (see source below) identifies several reasons why Broken Windows theory is hard to evaluate – mainly focusing on how hard the theory is to operationalise:

  • There are several different ways of defining ‘social disorder’ (litter, vandalism, antisocial behaviour) – so which do you choose?
  • It difficult to measure levels of social disorder accurately. How do you actually measure how much disorder what type of littler represents? is one sofa in a garden worth 14 toffee wrappers, or what? And if you’re talking about anti-social behaviour, you can’t necessarily rely on public reports of it because sensitivity levels vary, and it’s just not practical to measure it using observational techniques.

Then there is the problem of other confounding variables. Many of the early experiments in the 1980s and 1990s which tested Broken Windows Theory were running at a time when broader social changes were occurring, which could have been the causes of the lowering crime rate.

For example in the late 1990s in New York, the crack-epidemic was decreasing, there were declining numbers of young males aged 16-24 and more people being put in jail, all of which could have reduced the crime rate. Any experiment set up to improve levels of social disorder in a New York neighbourhood thus may not have been the cause of a decrease in crime over the years, it could have just been down to these factors. The same logic can be applied to any long-term experiment.

For these reasons, the validity of broken windows theory is always likely to remain contested, and so it’s worth considering the possibility that it’s popularity could be more to do with ideological bias rather than being based any significant body of supporting evidence.

Signposting and Sources

This material is mainly relevant to the Crime and Deviance Module, usually taught as part of the second year A-level in sociology.

To return to the homepage –


Keizer et al – The Spreading of Disorder – Science Express Report.

More details on the Moving to Opportunity study.

This chapter by Wesley Skogan identifies a number of reasons why Broken Windows Theory is difficult to evaluate.

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